For Black Babies...
...who don't know themselves when teaching English isn't enough.
I teach at a high school in the middle of the hood. 100% of our students are black, and 100% live in or are subjected to poverty on a daily basis. They face traumas that seem unreal, grown folk problems at 14, and reading scores that make my job nearly impossible to do. But there is one thing that stands out to me as the most uphill battle.
My babies don’t know who they are.
They know they’re black, but they don’t really know, or honestly care to know, what that even means. This is an issue that constantly plagues me as an educator. I think back to my high school years, though, and I get it.
I did not become the militant, black-culture-loving, black-self-loving person I am when I was 14. When I was 14 all I was concerned with was making sure my ponytail was high enough and my baby hair was slick enough. I knew I was black, but my identity as a black woman did not begin to be shaped until college, and really after that.
In my opinion — and from my experience — black kids nowadays don’t have the luxury of growing into their blackness down the road. The odds that are stacked against them in this day and age easily put my experiences with racism as a teenager, overt and covert, to shame. What is also concerning is that I cannot say whether this generation understands that.
I plan the black history month events every year at my school. I do it because I enjoy event planning, but moreover, I do it because I have conversations like this more often than not:
Me: These books are yours to keep. Dr. Fuller will be using them in his presentation for Black History Month. I pass out copies of “Freedom’s Children” to a group of clearly unenthused children. They take them and slide them to the side.
Student: Why do I need to learn about my history? This stuff does not matter. The people in this book ain’t me.
We end up having a 30-minute discussion about the importance of knowing where you come from and why what they experience as “normal” is actually not.
Now, on the bright side, this kid said something. Without him speaking up, the kids would have just taken the books, probably lost them, and definitely never read them. Because he chose to speak up, we were able to talk about the truths and lies that have gotten black people, and especially black youth, to where they are today.
In order to have these conversations in a black space dominated by white authority figures, the purpose must be set. Because honestly, there are white adults who think the same way my black students do. On top of that, they are much further removed because they are not black. So, I set the purpose.
There once (and still is) this thing called slavery. It “ended” and black people needed somewhere to go, work, and succeed. When this happened, a community of people that was once very close-knit has now spread across an entire country. The experiences of black people change based on where they are, and this creates a divide. Values not only spread with these people, but change and disintegrate; black people have less of a connection to each other and their culture. When it comes to education, black people experience a separate and unequal schooling, and racism is both in the open and behind closed doors. Micro-aggressions flourish and become “normal.” To this day, being followed around in a store as a black boy is expected for my student.
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black one white — separate and unequal” (Kerner Report 1968)
The Kerner Report discusses the issues with segregation, Jim Crow, and racism in the United States. One important understanding is that whether in the same room or in different parts of the city, the experiences of black people in the United States is both separate and unequal. Beyond this, equity is never reached because equality still does not exist. It is impossible to teach equality and equity when they are far from the expectation and experience of those you wish to educate.
All of this has implications for what we face today. As an adult I see it and understand it, but as a black teenager in an age where dying by the hands of police or living in the hood is the norm, what do we do?
We face the implications. We teach the truth. We fight the lies.
So, this is what I tell my staff and my students they need to understand about the experiences — and in turn ideals — of black youth.
Culture: Students need to know who they are. I used this picture in my presentation to staff because this is who we want our kids to be. Each of these black young people are in college, and they made it there because they finished high school (duh) but they are making it there because they have a sense of self. Teaching black kids has to come with acknowledging that they are black.
False Hope: False hope is one of the most daunting things you can give a black kid. You cannot promise a child that they can be anything they want to be but give them no tools to reach it. False hope cannot be the strategy we use to “save” our kids; they do not need saving. They need a plan of action and a support system. Saying “you can do it” is not enough, never has been, and never will be.
Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. -Toni Morrison
Lack of Cultural Consciousness: When students say things like “I’m not black” or “black people do too much” they are inherently expressing a lack of cultural competence. When we as adults allow it, we express that we also lack consciousness and that we agree. This cultivates and continues the indignant disregard for who they are, which leads to an internalized hatred of themselves and others.
Misplaced Rage: When cultural incompetence is allowed, that anger that develops must go somewhere. Because it has nowhere to go, it festers and turns into a rage that has no escape. It is internalized, and becomes one of the biggest factors that prohibits black babies from being able to face the world and win that battle.
School to Prison Pipeline: Considered a myth in some circles, this is something that our kids face unknowingly. They see their brothers, sisters, and friends, moms and dads, not finish high school. They see these same people in and out of jail and the connection is hidden in plain sight. Because of this, making it out of high school is an anomaly. They don’t expect it, and are okay when it doesn’t happen. What they do expect, however, is to be personally affected by the jail system at some point in their lives.
Struggle to Acclimate: When students do make it, when they cross the stage, they more than likely end up in a college or work environment that does not look like what they are used to at all. Most of my students have never even seen a white person their age; they are more used to white authority figures than counterparts. This creates an intense culture shock that if not prepared for can be the beginning of the end for black youth. Standing out is good, when it is beneficial and when it can be handled.
Black and educated don’t go together: Then, we have to face the reality that our students don’t equate the concept of their blackness with education. A majority of my students will be first generation college students, and a lot of them will also be the first in their families to graduate from high school. Education is not a necessity, it is an option, but one that is not taken seriously and not seen as a way out.
So, what do we do?
We kill the “sewer narrative.” We have to first negate our own belief that black kids need saving, then help them negate the idea that they will be saved. Our kids do not come from places devoid of success or love just because it does not look like the success or love we want them to see, or think they should see. We have to celebrate what they see as their identities now, and help them add to what is already rich about them.
This is what I do every day. I give my soapbox speech about the importance of history and education and blackness to somebody somewhere. I love talking about it. I love talking. But I hate that I have to. I hate that the conversation still goes the way it goes.
But, I love my kids enough to keep having it, with whoever will listen. I am a change agent, and in order for there to be real change, I have to open my mouth. I have to put in the work.
Dear Black Girl, educate yourself on your passions and work your magic to find your solution.