Awakening a Black Child’s Consciousness and Curiosity

Written on 29 January 2015, 08:32pm under Homegrown

As a writer on race, ethnicity and culture in education, my frank words and activism are influenced and informed by my experiences as a mother. I read the research. I listen to the scholars and experts. And all of that data and information is filtered through the prism of a Black mom with a Black son in public schools.The link between police in schools and overcriminalization of Black youth is about social justice. It’s also about whether my son could be next. Suspending Black boys at a disproportionate rate for non-violent infractions is the symptom of a racist and unjust system. It’s also a real thing that happens in public schools to students who look like my son. The importance of culturally relevant materials and diverse books is a prized educational value that moves from theoretical to concrete when my son is presented with a summer reading list with not one author of color.I spend a lot of time documenting and commenting on outrages, so with admiration and appreciation I can share that something special is happening in my son’s ninth-grade Honors English class. With the new semester comes a new teacher. And a refreshing teaching philosophy.

Unless I’m in that book, you’re not in it either. History is not a procession of illustrious people. It’s about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about. –James Baldwin
In the last three weeks my son was assigned a project on Emmitt Till (during which he learned for the first time that Till died on my son’s birthday!) Despite my prodding, he was lukewarm on seeing “Selma” until this English assignment. After seeing “Selma” he now wants to learn more about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the horrific act that opens Ava DuVernay’s powerful movie. And his English class just started “To Kill A Mockingbird,” opening the door to more spirited conversations on race relations.Interestingly, somewhere in his recent reading, he also settled on the belief that Coca-Cola and Pepsi are racist and decided to boycott both corporations. His historical take on these soft drink companies is accurate. His decision has made shopping for beverages and snacks a meticulous exercise requiring thorough assessment. As I do backflips inside, watching my child learn, grow and sharpen his social justice concerns.In real-time I am seeing how culturally relevant teaching helps students develop critical-thinking and analytical skills, as well as disrupt student perceptions – laying the groundwork for adults who confront and challenge assumptions and structural inequalities. Seeing our history and culture reflected in his classroom has awakened my son’s consciousness and curiosity.

Because he’s a teenager, I guard against showing too much exuberance. For fear that anything Mom likes is questionable. But just between us…

Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, asked, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Annie Lennox sang, “Hold your head up, keep your head up” about dreams. I wonder about the dreams of Black schoolchildren in St. Helena Parish School District in Louisiana whose schools were officially integrated on this day – January 8 – in 1989.It was the oldest integration lawsuit in the United States, filed in 1952 by the NAACP and John Hall, a Black construction worker and father of 14. When Black parents embarked on this legal pursuit, the most popular TV show was “I Love Lucy”, a new car cost $1,700 and Dwight Eisenhower had just won a landslide election to become the 34th U.S. President.

As decades passed, and the original plaintiff’s children and grandchildren passed through the school system, you have to wonder if even they could have foreseen the lengths to which white parents and rabid racists opposed to integration were willing to go to maintain their racial hierarchy.

In 1952, he asked the board for a new black school. Officials told him there wasn’t enough money, but they offered a deal: Build the school yourself and the parish will furnish it. The black community pitched in their meager assets and their elbow grease to build a new school, but then Hall was told there was no money for furnishings.

“I told him right then ‘I’m going to take my children up there to go to school with the white folks,’ ” he said. “He took him a good laugh. He and his crew had a big fun-making deal about it, I understand.”Hall didn’t laugh. He, his father, and two other blacks who still want to remain anonymous turned to A. P. Tureaud, an attorney for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

“They said ‘you’re going to have some mad white folks here,’ ” Hall said. “I said I was already mad.” After all, he said, the black residents faced “nothing more than talk. All kinds of threats and talk.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in 1954, Hall’s suit and scores of other desegregation cases floated in the courts for years.

The racial animosity – dare I say hatred? – from whites regarding the integration lawsuit still lingered enough 40 years later to make some Blacks want to remain anonymous. And note that Black parents built their own school and only after the school district reneged on its promise did they pursue integration. For this Black community, Black and white children under the same roof was not the goal – it was a means to an end. “I wanted my children to get an education…,” said Hall. Yes, well, as I was saying.Over the course of almost four decades – as their Black neighbors morphed from Negroes to Blacks to African Americans – these upstanding white citizens in St. Helena never wavered. Even as their school district struggled to maintain segregated schooling. So what brought an end to this absurdity? Not a racial epiphany, but an economic reality.

“Segregation ended because the district – one of Louisiana’s poorest – couldn’t afford to keep it.”

The first day of the New Year. Having surveyed the previous year, we set out to make a change, sincere in our commitment on January 1 that this time will be different. New Year’s resolutions bear a striking resemblance to school integration: a worthy goal that quickly fizzles without willpower and a plan of action.Too often lost in the gushing idealism of Brown v. Board of Education and the kumbaya of integrated schools are the many under-told histories and stories of racialized hardship – for Black teachers and Black students. Like the account of Dorothy Counts.In 1957, Dorothy Counts was the first Black student to integrate Harry Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. By now we know the drill. She was not a welcome transfer student.

Counts, only 15 at the time, encountered a mob on the sidewalk. White boys and girls, encouraged by their parents, jeered and spat on her. She endured the harassment stoically and marched proudly into a classroom, where other students hissed, mocked and threw garbage at her and where the teachers ignored her.
Dorothy Counts withstood this brutal racist treatment for a week before her parents, fearful for her safety, pulled her out of Charlotte schools and sent her to live with a relative to attend school in Pennsylvania. Like most of these integration tales, her story ends better than it began. Still I’m left to wonder: this brave teenager endured this barbarity for what?Almost 60 years later, segregation remains widespread in public schools and there is no political will to do a damn thing about it. A  landmark piece on public schools in Alabama exposed segregation that mirrors schools in the 1950s. But that’s the Deep South, we say. Until you discover the nation’s largest city – a diverse urban Northeast metropolis – has the most segregated schools in the country.The isolation of Black students continues unabated. White families trying to outrun integration — affectionately known as “white flight” – continues unabated. And the hyperventilating about segregated schools doesn’t seem to last any longer than the news headlines and PBS specials. There’s not an education policymaker or education reformer that puts school integration on the top of any education policy agenda.

As Dana Goldstein outlines in The Teacher Wars: “Since 1980 the federal government has done almost nothing to encourage local school districts to create racially and socioeconomically mixed schools, even as billions of dollars are sent to states and districts that agree to tie teacher pay and evaluation to student test scores and to open new charter schools, most of which are as racially and socioeconomically homogenous as the schools the civil rights crusaders fought to reform.”

In an interesting twist, Dorothy Counts hometown of Charlotte subsequently became a model case for desegregation. By the mid-1970s Charlotte was being hailed for its successful busing plan and the “impact of integration was visible almost immediately…When whites arrived, the facilities were upgraded. A gravel parking lot was paved, and the football stadium and the gymnasium were renovated.”

The emphasis on the former part of “separate but equal” was a tactical decision necessary at the time because “the only way to secure a fair distribution of resources was to literally sit the black children in the same classrooms as the white ones.” But now we have experience as our teacher.

Research shows that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools benefit Black students (“more likely to succeed, in areas like graduating…and attending college”) and white students (“more likely to understand issues of social injustice and exhibit lower levels of racial prejudice”). Public opinion surveys support “integrated schools”. And no one is willing to expend political or other capital to accomplish diverse, integrated schools, rendering it meaningless and worthless.

So can this be the year we make integration a policy priority or just give up the ghost. Put our singular focus on equitable school resources and improved conditions in Black schools and abandon the idyllic scene of Black and white children seated side-by-side.

Racially segregated schools remain the norm because school integration is the New Year’s resolution to lose 10 pounds: we want to do it, we know we should do it, but we’re not willing to do what’s necessary to actually accomplish the goal. No pain, no gain.