I have communicated with three young ladies last week, who I very much admire and respect (Jeanae, Chryssey and Sheila Kennedy). However, Jeanae’s post of last week on Facebook was the “tipping point” that sent my mind racing. An important idea/question emerged as a result of my communications with the three thoughtful ladies. The community of professional educators don’t in my view spend enough time on: What type of education should we offer to the Black and Latino child who is thriving and excelling academically, despite the many barriers the public school system has put in place to hinder and destroy that reality? If you want an example of “miracle”; just meet a Black or Latino student who against all obstacles is a top academic performer. I remember as a principal meeting a 9th grade student named Cambria Smith (now Nwosu); and knowing what I know about particular Brooklyn middle schools; my question was: “How in the heck did this girl become so smart?” The great unaddressed issue in public education: What to do with the Black and Latino student who is on or above grade level? Unfortunately, In many elementary and middle schools I have visited all over this nation, the solution (if there is even one offered) is to just give them more (and more) of the low expectation work, as opposed to more very different, rigorous, challenging and creative work. This failure on the part of education leadership will often lead to “acting out” behaviors; particularly on the part of the boys; and so begins the march to the ever hungry criminal justice system! All three of these ladies (in different ways) made me think about my own childhood and how much I loved reading and visiting (on my own): the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). I loved and was inspired by my 8th grade science teacher, Mr. Spence. I carried this inspiration home and very often into the tune of my mother’s: “Oh my goodness”, when I performed home science experiments. I love building things like scooters, “things”, and constructing kites that I flew in Prospect Park. As an adolescent (the yet, but not yet stage:-) I looked forward and very much enjoyed going to church every Sunday. I remained both in church and the boy scouts long after many of my teenage friends had abandoned those practices. I loved school and routinely scored a 100% attendance rating. When I learned of the infamous “hooky-parties” in middle school; I never participated. Why, I thought would anyone want to stay out of school, school is so much fun, and the best place to be!”(I later learned when I entered the field of education professionally, that for some students’ school was indeed a wonderful place that inspired, encouraged and awarded their ability to confidently participate in its challenging activities; for them, school indeed was an affirming and empowering experience. But for many others school was a “frightening” place, a place where they found their “self-hood” demeaned, dismissed and often destroyed (at 294 it was the “special” kids they kept in the basement, away from any meaningful academic work; and particularly away from the “smart and gifted” students in the SP/SPE classes.) I was always in some form of high achieving class or program; where there was always the expectation that we would receive, and master rigorous and challenging work. Teachers (I always tell students) are very human, and respond in a very human way. I remember “shocking” my 8th English teacher when he saw that I was reading: The Social Contract; by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He wanted to know how I ever came to read such a book on my own. I explained that the author and the “social contract” idea came up in my social studies class, and, what has become a lifelong habit, I wanted to go to the original source of the reference and read the author “unfiltered” comments.(after our conversation that teacher never stopped providing me with interesting books. Note to students: Teachers are human!). I also mentioned to the teacher that I had a “unique” status at the BPL, such that weekly I could check out 2-3 books above the allowable limit; and also, that I knew all of the librarians (both in the young adult and adult sections); and that they would go to great lengths to find books I thought I wanted to read; but to also find good books related to the topics that I did not know that I should read. Trust me; there is no grater love than the love of a Librarian who discovers a young person with a love of books, reading and research. When it was time for me to attend high school I along with many of my Black and Latino “SP/SPE” students were “bused“ out to a majority White high school. This high school very much mirrored my elementary-middle school experience, in that there was no school culture that discouraged or prevented academic and intellectual achievement. I was able to take the most interesting electives (i.e. Creative writing, poetry, sculpture) But I was so ever careful not to discuss my school with my “boys”; after(based on my describing something about my school) I was asked by a friend one day: “Do you go to a private school”. But back to Jeanae’s post-point of last week; in many ways I lived a life that would not make it onto the desk of any film producer who wanted to make the stereotypical: “Black boy in the hood” film. And so how do we fit when we don’t fit the manufactured stereotype? And now even as an adult I often feel that the ideas in my head represent the real movie of my life; and the people I interact with (who may in fact look like me) are co-actors with me in a not so real film that is running every day of my life. I often wonder if one source of Ralph Ellison’s “bitterness” was his coming to a realization that he was not only an Invisible Man to White folks, but to Black folks as well. I was once reading (here we go again) the philosopher: Theodor Adorno, because I read somewhere that he helped to influence (according to her) the thinking of Angela Davis. He was in no way an easy read; and I would even go as far to say, he is an extremely difficult read without a strong foundation in philosophy, history and political science. But at the end of that reading (Minima Moralia) my initial question was: “who in the heck did she discus this guy’s books and ideas with?” But I also understood why she was so impressed with this author; and how she could make the link to the movement for Black political empowerment here in the US. One of the most pleasant and wonderful experiences I had in my life was having a brief discussion with Cornell West. For once I didn’t feel crazy, as our conversation traveled through The Negro Spirituals, Bebop, Russian Literature, Karl Mark, Michel Foucault, W.E.B. Du Bois, the misinterpretation of Calvinism by the right-wing, the works of Jean Toomer, Aime Cesaire, Alvin Ailey, sacred architecture (I had just returned from touring cathedrals in Europe), the protest and spiritually affirming history of the AME church (We were in an AME church), and the struggle for academic excellence, not equity, but excellence for Black, Latino, and poor students of any color. I met a member of my “tribe” and I was happy! And so, I guess I am saying Jeanae, I want a movie that portrays the full depth and fullness of the “Black Experience” (I know I am dreaming, for in my Bobby Womack voice I am singing: “But, it’s not commercial, commercial, commercial……”) I want to see us being kind to each other, to just being basically nice to each other. The worst product of our brutal experience here in America; is the inability on the part of so many Black people to love themselves, to celebrate themselves; in the full complex spectrum of what is ourselves; in such a way that we could also love and celebrate those who may be different as we all are different, but who look like us.
if i must be a self,
i want to be myself,
and i believee that,
we all want so much to be ourselves,
not a white copy of ourselves,
not a defined by white standards self,
not an acting white self,
not a white interpretation of ourselves;
not a pretending to be white self;
our own black copy,
of our own black,
purposely thought out,
and beautifully created black self.