A Letter From An Invisible Jail

To My Black Community:

It is with a heavy heart and urgent fingers that I write this letter to you. For the past 48 hours I have had a burning question invade my thoughts, my heart, my walk, my tears and my conversations. The question that has followed me in the kitchen, shower, grocery store, beauty salon and gym has been: How far are you willing to go for a Black child in America? Upon learning of the recent suicide of 10 year old Izzy Tichenor I have not been able to escape the idea that the Black community is at yet another crossroads. 

Our love-hate relationship with the country we were born into, but did not ask to be a part of, has resurfaced yet again.  However this time, it is not a Black man, woman, non-binary or transgender adult who has experienced death at the hands of this racist country, but a child. It was not the knee of a police officer that killed a member of our community this time.  It was the invisible knee of a teacher, school leader, and school system that murdered a 10 year old member of our Black community.

She came into this world with more opportunities than her Black parents, grandparents and ancestors combined, yet she left this world feeling the same hopelessness, despair, and hatred. No matter how much love and joy she experienced at home or with loved ones, it was NOT ENOUGH. So again I ask: How far are you willing to go for a Black child in America? 

The hatred, harassment, and cruelty that she encountered on a daily basis is not only unacceptable, but also all too familiar. The taunting of her white classmates is no different than that of Ruby Bridges. The ignorance and educational malpractice of her teachers and school officials is no different than the 1970s.

I can imagine that the anxiety she felt every time she walked into her school was no different than that of the Little Rock Nine. So as we sit, walk and breathe in a “desegregated” 2021 America, why does it feel as though our black children are not protected, loved or cared for by the educational system that Brown v. Board set precedence for? The answer is simple. We, as the black community, have not required them to do so. 

We were naive to think that having facilities that were up to code in all zip codes were enough. We were naive to think that having computers and textbooks were enough to close the education gap between our kids and their white counterparts. We were naive to think that moving to the suburbs or paying an upwards of five figures for privatized education provided a security blanket for our black students’ futures. We were naive to think that educators are required to understand, let alone value, the cultural capital and community wealth we as a people possess. 

No matter how much advocacy or how many policies we implement in K-12 education in America, it will never be a safe space for our Black children. We have not demanded that the racially embedded and implicit bias mindsets, dispositions and behaviors of our educators, school and district leaders nor private and charter school institutions change the way they view and engage with Black students and families. 

We, as a community, have become complacent and turned a blind eye to what has been in plain sight all along. Education in America is still a civil/human rights issue, and until we start acknowledging and treating it as one, there will continue to be an invisible knee on the neck of our Black children in the invisible jail we call school.  Our children are the most vulnerable members of our community and we have failed them —and I say we intentionally. As individuals and as members of various social, community and philanthropic groups we may be doing our part to make the educational system a better one. A stronger one. A more inclusive one. However, as a whole, we have not. 

WE have never had a national civil rights march with education as the primary focus. WE as a nation have not inundated our congressional members’ offices, phone lines, inboxes and voter support with demands for a better educational system for our young, gifted and Black children. WE have not flooded the school board meetings on a consistent basis, whether we have a child currently attending the local K-12 schools or not, and hold them accountable for the decisions they are making that will impact our students.

WE have not brought together our money, resources and time to strategically plan for the liberation of our Black students as they sit in the invisible jails funded by our tax dollars. WE have not put the American educational system on trial for the injustices they have committed against our Black babies since 1951 (when Brown v. Board was brought before the US District court).

So again, I ask you: How far are you willing to go for a Black child in America? 

Yes, we have some great educators of all racial identities serving our students. Yes, we have some schools that on a daily basis are living out what it means to have an inclusive, racially equitable and safe environment for ALL students. Yes, we have some school districts, private schools, and charter networks committing to and holding their school leaders accountable for how they are engaging with Black students and families. However, some is not all. Some is not enough. It should not take the death of Izzy Tichenor to wake us up and to recognize that our Black children are in an invisible jail. Yet we, as the Black community, are at another crossroads in our complicated relationship with this country many of us call home, yet again.

We must make a decision.

We can go left and continue to breathe in the smog of this overt and covert racist air that seeps through the vents of our schools and into the lungs of our students everyday. However, if we go left, we must understand what that means. We will be consciously turning a blind ear, eye and hand to the invisible jail our students are subjected, by law, to be inmates of.

We will be trusting educators, school leaders and school systems with our most precious jewels, all while knowing that they are subjecting our students to unchecked racially motivated microaggressions, denying them the racial reality of what it means to be Black in America, or centering their own white-privileged comfort above that of our children’s’ best interest.

We will be giving an immense amount of control and trust to individuals who have not demonstrated their qualifications to serve, let alone teach, our Black children. We will be doing so, all while looking our Black babies in the face and saying, “Have a great day at school I love you.”  If we go left, our answer is clear to the question, “How far are you willing to go for a Black child in America?”

Our answer will be a resounding: “Not far enough.”

However, if we go right, our answer to the question will also be clear. Our answer will be as loud as the shouts in a Black Baptist church on Sunday morning. Our answer will be as loud as the cheers for Cassius Clay when he won the 1964 boxing match against Sonny Liston. Our answer will be as loud as the unseen and unheard cries of Izzy Tichenor. Our answer to the question, “How far are you willing to go for a Black child in America,” will be “As far as it takes.” 

If we open our eyes wide enough we will see the roadmap  our ancestors and civil rights leaders carved out for us as it pertains to going right when America presents us with crossroads. Our ancestors went right when presented with the crossroads of enslavement or freedom. Our community went right when presented with the crossroads of riding in the back of the bus or anywhere we damn well please. Our community went right when presented with the crossroads of remaining silent when a racist white police officer abused his authority and murdered George Floyd, by creating an uproar and demanding justice. Furthermore, unbeknownst to us, at each of these respective crossroads and so many others, the question, “How far are you willing to go” has always lingered in the air, and each time our people have consciously and/or unconsciously said, “As far as it takes.” 

So I leave you with this, my beautiful, resilient, intelligent and resourceful Black people.  History has shown us that although policy is  one way to create change on a large scale, we, as Black folks, have never waited for, nor depended on, those policies or laws to create change in our communities or for our children.  We have embodied an unspoken mentality of “in the meantime.”  While working on legislation to end segregation, we boycotted buses, department stores and the lunch counters, in the meantime. While working on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis to have safe working conditions and fair wages, we boycotted and protested in the meantime. While working to ensure that our students had access to the same facilities and resources as white students, we passed the collection plate to make sure our babies were provided for, all while protesting in the meantime. 

As I end this letter from the invisible jail [America’s schools]I ask two things of you. One, how far are you willing to go for a Black child in America? Two, as we advocate for legislation that mandates an equitable educational experience across this nation for our Black students, what are you doing in the meantime? Because rest assured cultivating, nourishing and encouraging our Black students’ joy, pride and assets will not be a priority for ALL educators until we make it one. We may be too late for Izzy, but we have the power to be right on time for our remaining and future Black children. 

Yours for the cause of As Far as it Takes,

Taylor Elon Howard

Taylor Howard attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she received her bachelor’s degree in public policy. After graduation, she joined Teach for America in San Antonio, Texas where she taught 6th, 7th and 8th grade social studies, and coached girls’ basketball. After teaching in the classroom for 3 years, Taylor transitioned to the nonprofit sector.

From 2015-2019 she worked at Teach for America, Baltimore in 3 different roles including: Manager of Teacher Leadership and Development, Manager of Classroom Culture and Climate, and Director of Corps Member Programming. During this time, she received her master’s degree in education policy and leadership from American University. 

In 2019 she transitioned from the nonprofit sector to working for the Baltimore City Public Schools District (BCPSS) where she supported over 40 principals as a Human Capital Partner, and later went on to serve as the Manager of Teacher Recruitment and Selection for BCPSS. She currently serves as the Director of Professional Learning for The Center for Black Educator Development.

One of the core principles that guide her both personally and professionally is: “if serving is below you, leadership is beyond you.” In her spare time she enjoys: playing basketball, traveling, cooking new dishes, spending time with loved ones, and continuing to grow as a stewart in her faith!

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