The Mis-Education of the Negro, A Review

In all, I found The Mis-Education of the Negro by Dr. Carter G. Woodson to be a struggle to read for a variety of reasons, namely 2019 eyes on a 1933 book. With that being said, I’m focusing my review or analysis or whatever I should call these types of posts on things that could have been written yesterday, 86 years later.

Firstly, his frustrations on what is (not) taught in school reminds me of my own frustrations. Woodson stated that “Every man has two educations, that which is given to him and that which he teaches himself.” In considering how absent from curriculum black people are, he claims that white educators do not include their histories and stories in the curriculum for “fear of the race question being brought too early.” Through such excuse-making, even African kingdoms are not covered, yet we learn of Mediterranean cultures, for example, but not how that culture was heavily influenced by various African nations. However, to change that or any number of educational malpractice, then “White supremacy would be lost in the negro school.”

This idea of mis-education extends even to adulthood.  When Woodson says, “It is not the Negroes fault; it is the fault of what they have been taught,” I thought of my own role and the frustrations I have with black educators who have problematic beliefs about black children. In thinking of what Woodson wrote, I realize that I really cannot and should not be more critical of black and brown educators than white educators on this front. We are all swimming in the same racist water, and to not drown in internalized racism is nearly impossible because the sunken place is a helluva drug.

In one section wherein he discussed the arguments on what to call black people (Negro or African or etc), he mentioned that the fear of being called a Negro came down to buying into the negative stereotypes that had been placed on black people. So, this discussion at the time, to him, was fueled by internalized racism. While reading, I oscillated between thinking Woodson believed in uplift-suasion (as Kendhi names it) and that he did not. But in places like this or when he discusses how black people want the “pleasure of the master class that will never tolerate him as equal,” I think maybe he knows that uplift-suasion is futile. Ultimately, then as in now, black doctors, lawyers, musicians, actors, and all manner of successful black folk have endured discrimination despite their uplift.

I will end on this most poignant question and thought of Woodson’s: “Can you expect teachers to revolutionize the social order for the good of the community? Indeed, we must expect this very thing. The educational system of a country is worthless unless it accomplishes this very task.”

 

Born a Crime is Worth the Time

I’ve been working on the idea of self-care this year. I think, as an activist or so-called activist, it’s easy to spiral down into a vortex of pessimism or wade into non-stop existential crises. One of things that I decided to do this year was to actually read fiction. I’m aiming for two books written by authors of color per month. I’m just trying to balance what I’m inputting into my brain because these anti-racists text are rough on my spirit, ya’ll.

I stumbled onto Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. Even though it wasn’t a fiction book, I went in anyway and found myself realizing that I just had to write about it. For one, I have so much in common with Noah and could really relate to many of his experiences especially that of deciding to become a chameleon. He says, “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color.” While I don’t necessarily think it truly works, I identified with the feeling the need to do so.

This book is a brilliant look at race and racism through a lens of someone who wasn’t raised in the United States, but was raised in a place that co-opted our system of segregation and racism and made it into a legal way of structuring a society.

I found myself learning so much about apartheid that I did not know and realized how insanely recently it ended. So much of what he states about how apartheid works was, to me, poignant explanations of the machinations of America’s systemic racism such as when he says, “The only way to make apartheid work, therefore, was to cripple the black mind.” The South African government, like ours, recognized that “a knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom” which brought me back to Carla Shalaby’s assertions on literacy as freedom and the power it could give students.

Additionally, when he discusses something his mother called “the black tax” which is where “the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.” This resonated with me in considering the wealth gap in the US and the direction in which black wealth flows.

Even in the concept of making the “status” of white a legal definition, I was reminded of the US. Under apartheid a white person was “one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person” which reminded me of the variety of legal ways in which the US came to be more explicitly bold and racist in defining who is white through court decisions like Thind Vs Us.

And finally, the way that he picks at the bootstraps myth through analyzing what’s wrong with the saying “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Noah asks us to consider how that’s even possible if you don’t give the man a fishing rod.

I could go on and on, but just believe me, this book is worth a read.

On Stamped from the Beginning

On October 25, I attended Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s talk at Eckerd College. During this talk, he asserted that, “Consuming racist ideas have literally made us crazy” and that “The racial issue has always been a power issue.” While these two ideas were ones that I have come to believe in all my studies, he said something else that shook me. Dr. Kendi asked, “If education and persuasion can’t change racist power, then what can? What historically has worked is people putting pressure on people in positions of power.” While it was an interesting sentiment, it intrigued me and led to my reading of his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

In the book, Dr. Kendi reminds readers over and over again that there is nothing inherently wrong with any race. But wow has the US tried to prove otherwise.

I especially like the term “uplift suasion” that Kendi used throughout Stamped. It is the idea that if black people act as “model minorities” then prejudice about them will magically melt away, but Kendi proves this false. In fact, he claims, “As much as black firsts broke racial barriers, the publicity around black firsts sometimes, if not most times, reinforced racist ideas.” This was clear in the media coverage of Obama and even the rise in the popularity of white supremacist groups that came after his election. If Obama’s ascension into the presidency didn’t lead to uplift suasion, then what in the heck ever could? Even now, it is just as true in 2019 as it was in the 1800s.

Like most research related to anti-racism work, this book made me rethink so many things I thought I understood. Since finishing the book, I have a variety of things I need to go back and revisit. For example, is the film Crash as powerful as I thought it was when I watched it? (My guess is not at all. From what I remember about it, it’s a movie about race in America that doesn’t acknowledge systemic racism.) Was Kanye West’s assertion about George Bush after Katrina really so crazy? Is the “Southern strategy” only some historical strategy that Nixon used to win or is it actually a page in a playbook that is used for every election? (Based off the Governor’s race that just happened in my state, I’m going to go with a “yes” on it being a constant and current political strategy.) And isn’t “assassination” a more accurate term for what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin?

In the end, the book doesn’t have an uplifting message, so I have to hold onto something else Dr. Kendi said at the Eckerd talk, and that is “The first step of being an activist is believing in the fundamental possibility of change.”

So here’s to believing in that change.

A Lesson in Freedom for Me

Joe Truss tweeted “Let’s be clear: students of COLOR, immigrants, and poor folks are most left out of the literate society. LITERACY is LIBERATION. What are we going to do about it?” To which I responded, “Have you read @CarlaShalaby’s #Troublemakers? Great read for reflecting on the question.” To which, he asked me to tell him about it.

Thus, this blog post is my inspired response. I listened to the audiobook, so forgive any quotes that are not perfectly transcribed. All the quotes below are from Carla Shalaby’s beautifully written, life-changing Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School. Her book paints a portrait of a few elementary-aged students who are considered troublemakers as well as walking us through their interactions at school and at home.

I read Troublemakers as a part of Dr. Val Brown’s #Cleartheair book chat on Twitter. This book was simply breathtaking for me, literally. From the beginning, Shalaby acknowledges the reasons why enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read or write and discusses the power that exists from being literate and being able to organize. She caused me to ponder on my own time as an English teacher, and I so wished I had had my hands on Troublemakers before I started teaching. While I believe that I strived to inspire interest in social justice and that I gave students tools to question at least the media, I did not treat my subject as a life-or-death, freedom-or-oppression subject. To have done so would have been nothing short of revolutionary, especially considering the statistics Shalaby reminds you of related to the trajectory of a student’s life if they are not on-level reading by third grade.

In short, she considers school as a place for students “to practice freedom,” a place where children can “lift up their voices… to say what they need.” She sees students who are considered troublemakers as canaries in a coal mine who can point to poison in the air. However, considering the educational reality for many of us, “marginalization is the punishment for not conforming to the mainstream.” We are comfortable with “changing children instead of changing the classroom demands” and “incarcerating people from whom we could learn the most.” It makes me think about three of my former students who died in such violent ways; I wonder if I could have impacted their path had I shifted the goal of my subject so that it was not just reading and writing, but reading and writing to be free.

She calls us out for hypocrisy in many ways, but two things really stood out for me:

  1. How can we claim that education is the great equalizer when there are places in the country where school conditions are extremely filthy and underfunded and under(fill-in-the-blank)? She states that the fact that “these children are required by law to attend these schools is perhaps the clearest and most concrete evidence I can offer of our collective national commitment to throw away lives, particularly the lives of poor young people of color. A nation committed to the insistence that only some lives matter.”
  2. How can we claim that we love working with children when “It is increasingly routine and shockingly acceptable to drug the fragile developing brains and bodies of young children into compliance and docility[?]”

While these were two questions that bubbled up for me, there are a hundred other questions I could pose to acknowledge the hypocrisy of the American education system.

She challenges us to move away from the idea that “Good students sit still, and they listen. They follow directions. They conform. They take orders. They adhere to the standards of childhood as a marginal social position and to whiteness as the ideal.” And to acknowledge that exclusion has a “well-documented ineffectiveness to curb the behavior.” She does this through detailed observations of a few students in class and at home. As I walked through the stories with Shalaby, I could see myself as a student in the children, but I also pictured former students and wondered how I could have approached them differently if I had viewed their “behavior issues” as a canary in a coal mine, to determine what I needed to change.

While I cannot undo anything about my past teaching experience, I have been working to convince anyone I can to read Troublemakers because, for me, it was truly a lesson in freedom.

White Fragility: A Book Review

A part of evolving into an anti-racist that I had not anticipated was realizing how much I would have to do to unlearn the internalized racism my country socialized me to walk with. With that in mind, I want to write about a book by Robin DiAngelo titled, White Fragility, which I read as a part of Dr. Val Brown’s #Cleartheair book chat on Twitter, a book that I think could help educators unlearn some stuff, too. What follows is a Facebook post that I wrote extended here as a blog post. I also apologize in advance if I misquoted DiAngelo at all as these were the quotes I took down when I first listened to the audiobook.


Throughout White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes with a measured, matter-of-fact tone even when delivering gut-wrenching statements like this: “I believe that the white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of, that we are capable and guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harms, that our gains come from the subjugation of others.” The way it is written, she is speaking from the point of view of a white progressive woman who is speaking to other white progressive people. To them, she acknowledges that whiteness is a social construct, “a fiction…, an agreed upon myth that has empirical grit because of its effect, not its essence… it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius.”

She forces readers to think about the harmful effects of housing segregation on our inability to really know people across racial lines. This idea makes me think particularly about educators who assert the fact that they have worked mostly in majority-black schools means they are immune to exhibiting racism and prejudice.  I wonder if reading this book would help poke holes in that logic. The fact is that we were all “raised in a society that taught [us] there was no loss in the absence of people of color, that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained, while simultaneously denying that fact.” Thus, in the case of those afore-mentioned educators who work with black children, it is likely that is where their interaction with black people stops.

Beyond thinking about historical legacies of race relations in the US, DiAngelo helps us to think about their implications on our ability to have meaningful discussions about race. She says that we have to be brave in our conversations about race, that “niceness is not courageous” and that “telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override… socialization.” For white readers, she goes in depth with particular reactions to conversations about race that make dialogue impossible and “pushes [people of color] back into silence.” She looks at the reasons why it is so difficult to talk to white people about race, particularly that it comes down to misunderstanding what racism even is. She says, “For most whites, racism is like murder. The concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multi-layered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism, and in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicate them.” Throughout the book, she offers ways to move away from this incomplete understanding of racism.

I highly recommended White Fragility if:

  • you are white
  • you want to engage in conversations about race and racism with other adults or colleagues
  • you are a POC who has tried to confront white people or POCs about race or racism and was met with resistance or denial
  • you are a white person who, when confronted with conversations about race or racism, have countered with any variations of the following:
    • Italians or Irish weren’t always white.
    • Just treat people right.
    • Just love people.
    • Racism is taught at home.
    • I have a [insert relative or friend] who’s [insert non-White descriptor].
    • Racists are mean.
    • I grew up poor and had a hard life.
    • Share examples of a POC who accomplished the thing (I.e., Obama or Oprah or a rapper or Ben Carson or an athlete)
    • Well, there’s no White Entertainment Television or White History Month

In the end, DiAngelo states that “Racism hurts, even kills, people of color 24/7… so consider racism as a matter of life and death, as it is for people of color, and do your homework.” Therefore, educators should remember that “When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective.” So instead of walking in defensiveness, consider walking in awareness and reading White Fragility.

(And/or watch all things DiAngelo.)