“Just like them teachers do fore they realize Mama like a stone on that spot and ain’t backin up”
-Gorilla, My Love— Toni Cade Bambara
“I am really an optimist; I am just trying to scare people in order to wake them up!”
-Karen Hunter Show Sirius XM; 5/31/16
“Black children don’t matter”
This is an issue that has haunted me for many of my years in public education. It is a persistent idea that has been ever-present, just above, below and inside of every situation I faced. And although I must admit, that even as many of the educators I deeply admire like: Ron Edmonds, Asa Hilliard, Barbara Sizemore and Adelaide Sanford (combined with and my own personal experiences), have been expressing some form of this concern for many years; it was only after my last public education assignment, that I have finally come to fully accept its “truism”. Now, this sounds strange even to my ears; and so I know it must sound strange to many of my friends and collogues, with whom I have discussed this problem so often, for so many years, such that people both in and outside of education often see me as a soldier in the battle against this debilitating concept. But I am starting to appreciate the major difference between knowing, and even saying, to fully understanding and effectively responding to the assault on the personhoods of children of color in this nation.
I am also embarrassed by the inspiration of the Gorilla lives matter movement (GLMM) in helping me to finally accept the reality of the result of Africans being forcible removed from their land; and then being systematically transformed out of their humanity, and transferred into a state of inhumanity, “things”. Thinkers and writers like: Victor Frankel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Michel Foucault and Primo Levi have all warned us that it is not normal to act normal, once one has been subjected to living in a prolonged and brutal dehumanizing state; it’s natural for even the most human of victims to begin to doubt their own humanity; and to doubt the humanity of those who look like them.
The public education system has been an efficient vehicle for that tragic transformation; being in fact the place and process, so eloquently stated (my summation) by Malcolm X: “Where we learned to love the people who hate us, and hate the people who love us!” I also feel ashamed of my late arrival to accepting the facts on the ground because as a first year principal in NYC, the supervising superintendent of high schools (approximately 500 high schools in the 1980’s-1990’s) stated once that I had the “best and fastest learning curve he had ever seen in a rookie principal!” Later a chancellor in the same school system, speaking to the press about my appointment to a very troubled school district stated that: “I was one of the gems of our school system!” And so why did that “learning curve gift and professional skill and knowledge” so fail me? Why could I not turn the corner and accept even the most painful and obvious truth?
And although all of the places I have worked have confirmed this terrible idea; and despite all of the written warnings of people like Paulo Freire, Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon and Carter G. Woodson. And after sitting in a CCNY classroom under the tutelage of John Henrik Clarke (history); and Kenneth Clark (social psychology); I would need to credit the GLMM with the culminating, bringing it home lesson. And that lesson is: That in both in and outside of public education, ultimately, in this nation, Black children don’t matter!
And just to be clear about this “not mattering” thing, it is not limited to a particular race; part of the painful side of my learning process, and perhaps the source of my resisting its horrible conclusion; is that do to the very psychological damage inflicted by public education; Black people are taught that effective efficacious education itself is the enemy. Smartness is whiteness, STEM is our mortal enemy, academic achievement is an act of race betrayal, and that books are laced with poison; and finally: “we don’t really deserve wonderful educational things!” When the people you choose to serve are their own chief societal haters; then naturally they will hate you, and seek to destroy anything you try to create of value for them; because in the final analysis, they don’t truly believe that they deserve anything that is good and valuable.
How did we get here, well that is an entire course titled: “The theory, process and practices of human dehumanization” (Since they are so excited about making slave films, how about making that one!). The syllabus of that course must have a central learning objective that says: “You must not fight for the education of your children”; this objective insures generational destruction and degradation; or the feeding of children to the ever hungry prison and social “fixing” industry; and as summed up by the poet Langston Hughes; to produce a generation of dreamers whose dreams are deferred, year after year, after year, after….
The GLMM nailed it for me. And even after having lived through the pre-civil rights era; I had to admit that I was shocked at the low intellectual quality of the conversation around this incident. As I followed this story in the news and on social media, I kept asking myself: “What am I missing here?” Why is the outpouring of sorrow for the dead gorilla bigger than all of the daily senseless killings of the young disenfranchised Black people in our nation? Where is the concern for the many forms of a living deaths that they face: Poor and inadequate education that removes them from any chance of being a meaningful citizen-participant in a future America. The children whose brains and bodies are cynically poisoned by the water they drink, poison in and around the walls where they live, in the neighborhood streets where they play. Young people who are permanently damaged by an official national policy of not more, but “less”: joblessness, opportunity-less, homelessness and hopelessness.
I once wrote, with an angry tongue lodged firmly in clinched cheek. That Black young folks needed to be placed on the US Endangered Species List. Mabey then they could have a chance at surviving and thriving. And who knows, perhaps stimulate a national policy and movement that affirmed that their lives mattered to the well-being of our nation and species.
But what if we don’t wait to be loved. To have someone love your children more then you love them. Or, maybe we could just fall in love with ourselves, with our own humanity, our own potential, and take our educational destinies into our own hands.