A Love Letter to Black Parents in American Schools

Shortly after I proposed to my wife, our parents threw us an engagement party. There were a few standout moments from that day; my wife in her beautiful yellow sundress, it was the hottest day of the year, and a conversation my wife and I had with a family friend, who happened to be a school business administrator.

When asked if we were purchasing a home or renting, I told him that owning a home was an option but renting was more likely. He said to us, “Well, when you’re in the market to purchase make sure that you look into how good the school district is. You will more than likely have children so you want to make sure wherever you move is a place with a good school district. That’s what matters.”

When we were in the market for a house, a good school district mattered a lot; we had one child and another on the way. At the time, I was a teacher and I was well aware of the fact that sadly, your zip code played a role in the education children received. Shopping for a home was as much about shopping for a school district.

When selecting our home, we overlooked one key factor in our calculus; our children are Black and that won’t change no matter where they go to school. 

Advocating for my children, in the suburbs, is a reminder that Black people cannot escape the perils of what American schooling has to offer them; few Black educators, whitewashed history, an abundance of Eurocentric resources and plenty of discipline.

Black students represent 14% of traditional public school students, 26% of public charter school students and 12% of private school students. However, Black teachers represent only 7% of public school teachers, 10% of charter school teachers and 3% or private school teachers. It’s common sense to hire more Black teachers. Not only do students of all colors prefer them, Black students are less likely to be suspended and perform better academically when taught by Black teachers.

Black children are taught from textbooks that violently whitewashes history. It is par for the course that our children do not see themselves or their lives and experiences reflected in the literature books they read. Instead, Black students are criminalized and are told that hard work (absent of any critical examination of our white supremacist social structure) is the key to raising one’s self up, to their detriment.  We understand the power of learning how to read, write and compute numbers. Contrary to the stereotypes, education continues to be a value of the highest priority within the Black community; dating back to the underground schools in the antebellum South where our ancestors taught themselves reading and writing – at the risk of losing limbs or life.

However, too often, schools are white institutional spaces, which do not have the best interest of our children in mind.   

There is a misnomer that for a Black child to get a “good” education, his or her parents should send them to a school in the suburbs or to a private school. We’re told to look at test scores, well-kept buildings upon their construction, and the abundance of resources as proof of a good school, rather than considering that  a Black child will encounter anti-Blackness whether they attend an underfunded school in a dilapidated building or in a newly built one in a well-funded district.

I don’t mean to discount the reality that some of our students may attend a school where you cannot drink from the water fountains, are without adequate heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, and have mold or asbestos issues. I am not insensitive to these issues. I recognize for example, the realities of the current Coronavirus pandemic, where Black children are disproportionately impacted by asthma due to these baked-in social inequities.

However, just as important is the physical well-being of Black children is their intellectual and emotional well-being. Black children need to be loved, affirmed, and empowered. Suburban schools and private schools aren’t always the answer; neither are schools in the city, whether the buildings are crumbling or pristine. So what is the answer?

You’re the answer. We are the answer.

Whether during enslavement or in the face of Jim Crow, we have always empowered ourselves through education no matter the challenges.

This school year, we face challenges as well; some old and some new.

We now are tasked with raising our children and supporting their education amid a worldwide pandemic. Some of us don’t have the luxury of keeping our children home because we cannot stay home with them. Some of us are essential workers who fear bringing the sickness home to our kids or other loved ones. We may fear our children bringing the sickness home.

On top of that, we know that racism will adapt itself to meet the moment. Expediency will give rise to teachers failing to research culturally responsive resources for teaching. Purchasing supplemental resources that are culturally responsive to counter what schools fail to provide isn’t the highest priority when facing economic hardships that extend even beyond COVID-19. To top it off, Black children are already being “suspended” from remote learning environments due to “discipline issues.”

Nevertheless, we will rise; what alternative is there?

Be empowered to use your autonomy to send your child to the school where you believe they have the best opportunity to succeed and will have the humanity valued. Hold that school and/or district accountable for educating your child; don’t let them off the hook. Organize with parents to leverage power in the face of it; so that rather than being punished because of the color of their skin, our children are empowered by it. Perhaps, Black people will use this as an opportunity to start our own schools again.

Be encouraged to take whatever time you can to teach your children to be conscious of our society, that he or she will begin to examine it to make their own decisions and ask their own questions. Provide them with whatever resources you can to help them draw their own conclusions. Ask them questions, challenge their thinking, and renew their minds with the knowledge withheld from them in schools; as you simultaneously fight alongside parents for the revealing of that knowledge in the classroom.

Lastly, be empathic with your children and with yourselves. On days when their frustrations have reached the point of fatigue, offer them grace. Afford yourself the same grace. We advocate for our children and yearn to instruct them because we desire that they see their humanity fully; we must see ours as well. This is an unprecedented time that requires perseverance and patience. We will do well applying a daily dose of both each day.

In his talk to teachers, James Baldwin said that Black children represented a tremendous potential and a tremendous energy that will help this nation find its way. Though schools historically have a record of anti-Blackness, we must do right by our children; which includes ensuring that schools do right by them as well.

We must continue to be a community that holds America accountable to be, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, true to what they said on paper. Our children, representing tremendous energy, deserve it.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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