One morning during my junior year of high school, I remember my homeroom teacher saying to me in a dismissive tone that Malcolm X was a bad person. I am unsure how we got on the topic of figures in Black history, but I mentioned his name and that was the response.
That evening, I told my mom. After her phone conference with my grandmother, which was customary whenever something happened, she decided to call the school the next day. As per her rules, I called my mom when I got home from school the next day and I asked if she had spoken to my teacher. In her best Clair Huxtable cadence, she said that she did and that she promptly laid her out.
My mom then said, “It’s a shame that I had to do that. I thought that was a good school.”
The idea of a “good school” and/or a “good education” is subjective at best; such phrases are often ambiguous and open to interpretation.
I can’t help but think that a reason my father’s parents migrated from Attapulgus, Georgia to Camden, New Jersey was to find good schools and a good education for all of their children. Both my parents were products of the Georgia public school system, yet they chose to send me to parochial school because they believed that a Catholic school was a good school, that provided a good education.
Considering where I am in my life, they’d tell you that it was one of the better decisions they ever made on my behalf.
When it came to my wife and I deciding on where to send our children to school, including pre-school, we leaned on our experiences; I particularly leaned on my experiences as a teacher.
I taught Black and Latinx children whose parents, much like mine, chose an alternative to traditional public schools. As my parents believed about Catholic schools, the parents I served believed the charter school they chose for their child was a good school providing their child a good education.
It was stressed to us [teachers] that our work was critical for ensuring that our students were proficient in math and language arts, and thus enabling them to meet both the state’s academic standards and to prepare them for college and career.
It was quite familiar because for my parents, that was a good education and a school’s ability to deliver that good education is what made it a good school. The ability of the school to deliver on those two things – proficiency and college and career preparation is what made it a good school.
But unlike my parents, and grandparents before them, I was a social studies teacher who taught both world and United States history. I viewed my sole mission was to help students to unpack the legacy of white supremacy and anti-Blackness; its role as the foundation of the American experiment and its modern day progeny in the form of systemically racist policies and proliferated racist ideas.
I taught them that Black history didn’t begin with African enslavement. But, I couldn’t draw from my experiences as a student to teach that…I didn’t learn that in school. There were no Black teachers to teach me that. Other teachers chose not to.
My Kindergarten teacher was Black. I never saw another Black teacher until college.
My classmates and I read what white people deemed the classics. I was never taught to use math and science to inspect racial injustice. I wasn’t taught Africans navigated the waters of the globe before Europeans. My Blackness wasn’t affirmed; only an assimilated Americanness, with a splash of what made me “different”.
Those good schools and that good education failed to inform what I would eventually give to my students as well as what I want for my own children; affirmation of their identity and their humanity.
Let me be clear, I don’t begrudge my parents for their choices with regards to my education; forgive me if I sound ungrateful. Thankfully, there was a village; a village of elders, family, and friends that my parents surrounded me with – a village where I was nurtured, cared for, and affirmed. But I am equally thankful that my parents had the option to determine my education; the option to do what they believed was best for me.
I believe that Black parents have the right to self-determine their child’s education. White parents have unapologetically self-determined the education of their children forever.
After the Brown decision, white parents abandoned public schools to avoid their children attending school with Black children; some parents were even given public funds to set up private academies while elsewhere whole school districts closed. Those districts that remained open simply didn’t hire Black educators and as a result, tens of thousands of Black educators lost their jobs.
White families continue to fight desegregation efforts. While it’s true that white parents are in favor of schools racially and economically integrated, but that doesn’t mean that’s where they want to send their kids. According to a Harvard report, integrated schools are seen by white parents as educationally inferior, even as, paradoxically, they recognize their value in the abstract.
According to a North Carolina study, white students were more drawn to schools where white students made up most of the student body than Black students were drawn to schools where Black students were in the majority.
Some of us are fooled in believing that a good school with a good education is with white people because they have access to the resources and social capital that are systemically excluded from Black communities. We were told in the Brown opinion that Black people were harmed because they didn’t attend schools with white children and white teachers.
School rating websites will tell you that good schools are not likely to be found where Black people live. A school’s test scores are leveraged by politicians as the only indicator of a good school and as such, a Black school with low test scores isn’t a good school.
We’ve been told that preparation for college matters more than preparation for being Black in America.
Jamilah Lemieux wrote a thought-provoking piece for the Nation on her experience as both a Black student and a Black mother, and how that informs her educational decisions for her child; the decision to place her child in a good Black school.
Of course the academics mattered to Jamilah, but so did the affirmation that her child would receive as a young Black girl. Some schools focus on the former and others on the latter; “good schools” with good educators, who happen to be Black, do both.
For Lemieux, a good school wasn’t simply one only focused on reading, writing and arithmetic; those things alone didn’t make for a good education. Rather, a good school and a good education, according to Lemieux, was such that her daughter’s Blackness would be affirmed and integrated as she learned reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Because according to a 2020 study, Black students who receive positive messages in school about Black people get better grades. While the study’s authors acknowledge that the findings rely on self-reporting by students on the messages they receive, they argue that the statistically significant link with improved grades demonstrates the roles schools can play.
It matters that a Black child is comfortable in their Black skin. It matters that a Black child isn’t made to feel invalidated every time racism reared its ugly head.
These things are why my wife and I made the decisions we made concerning the education of our children.
It’s why we sent our children to Black owned and operated daycare centers; it’s why we struggle with their current school district and work to hold them accountable, because we believe that affirmation of their identity in school is equally as important as their learning to read and write.
Black children need to know how to think of themselves in contrast to what the world thinks of them. And, just what does the world think of them?
Black boys are seen as older and less innocent than whites. Likewise, Black girls are viewed as older and need less protection than other students. That may have something to do with Black children being more likely suspended, expelled, and taught by white teachers who expect less of them.
These things translate into violence; violence Black children and communities know all too well. They also translate into demeaning actions like being called the N-word at a basketball game for kneeling, being told to pick cotton as an assignment, or being forced to clean feces with your hands from a toilet.
Children learn race at an early age; there is no doubt that Black children understand what their Blackness means within our society. Maybe a good education for Black children can’t be found in most white institutional spaces.
Suppose a good Black school isn’t at the top of the school rating sites; how are schools that are challenging, nurturing, culturally, intellectually, spiritually, linguistically, and emotionally safe for Black children fit into the typical school rating systems?
The Brown opinion stated that it was detrimental for Black children to be in Black schools. But was it really? Many of the Black students who became the integrators of white schools testified that they came from poor and stellar Black schools – not inferior ones. The schools they left lacked resources, not great instruction and safety. Schools that affirm the racial identity of Black children aren’t the most touted. However, Black children who graduate from schools secure in their Blackness, in an anti-Black society, is a priceless experience; I venture to say that this type of school experience is priceless to all Black parents and communities.
Black people are the catalyst behind free public schooling in southern states for both Black and white children. Black people, by way of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, were responsible for children receiving free breakfast in schools. Any lack of perceived goodness about Black folks never stopped the United States and white citizens from taking Black people’s great ideas.
To be clear, no school is perfect; whether Black, white or otherwise. It is incumbent for all Black parents and caregivers to both support and supplement their children’s education. However, Black parents and caregivers shouldn’t have to deconstruct and reconstruct what their child learned any given day at school.
Maybe what we all need to do is to deconstruct and reconstruct our definition of a good school and a good education.