Am I supposed to be here? Do they even want me here? Beyond disciplinarians and curators of school cultures intended to break our Black and Brown babies down, what purpose do I, a Black man, serve as an educator?
If you are a Black male who has ever spent time in a classroom, you have probably considered one, if not all, of the aforementioned questions. Any pontification on these questions could either lead you to the classroom, hoping to make a difference, or push you out of education altogether. For most Black men, the answers we provide to these questions lead us out of the classroom or education altogether.
Throughout its history, America has been consistent in its inability to adequately recognize the ecology of schooling for Black men and boys. Leading scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings asserts that America’s education debt is deeply tied to historical, economic, sociopolitical and moral components that have yet to be addressed. Ladson-Billings argues that the notion of achievement gaps among students of color essentially distracts us from the overarching problem – the nation’s accumulated debt to Black people and our brothers and sisters of color. Unfortunately, America is unlikely to ever account for the education debt it owes Black boys and men. Let’s dig deeper.
There is great evidence confirming that the exclusion of Black people has been an intentional and historical project. After the American Revolution, white male political leaders committed themselves to creating a nation of disciplined citizens who would build a new democracy. These same leaders, with their exclusive understanding of civic democracy, denied Black men (many of whom fought in the war while enslaved) access to education as well as the spoils of citizenship that derived from education.
For this reason, Black men and women had to engage in discreet, creative and often life-threatening projects in order to learn. This dynamic has always existed for us. To navigate the realities of slavery and Jim Crow, Black people would have to pursue on our own to get our own. Our self-determination would actualize our destinies as we sought advancement and liberation. Secret reading circles, for example, were instrumental in our liberation as enslaved persons. Also, the creation of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) during Jim Crow allowed for Black men and women to attain credentials, skills and degrees when public and private white institutions denied us admission.
Nonetheless, when you consider the ecology of education for Black Americans, most notably for Black boys and men, a strong argument can be made that we have a long way to go and that in some ways we have been forced backward. Consider the school-to-prison pipeline which disproportionately affects Black boys and men. According to the Government Accountability Office’s review of the U.S. Department of Education’s national civil rights statistics for the school year 2013-14 (the most recent data) Black students, males and those with disabilities were disproportionately punished (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) in K-12 public schools.
Regardless of the sort of disciplinary action taken, the extent of school poverty, or the type of public school attended, these differences were both pervasive and continuous. For example, while Black pupils made up 15.5% of all public school students, they made up over 40% of those who were suspended from school. The majority of these students were boys. When you consider the reality that there were 2,272 Black male inmates per 100,000 Black men in 2018, you can see that the imprisonment of Black men is a unique project that begins with the mistreatment of Black boys in school.
The liberating empowerment we seek as a people will not come from the existing institutions of this nation because its sustenance is predicated upon our continued oppression. It will only come from us – Black people. America lacks the means or interest to extrapolate from its intricate racism and account for its historical, moral, political and economic indebtedness to Black people.
Black men, we have to step up to the forefront if we want Black boys to win. We are ordained to help young Black male youth coming up today. It is in our DNA. From the onset of our habitation on this stolen land, we have had to pursue unorthodox, discrete projects of learning that challenged this nation’s unsalvageable historical and educational debt. There are efforts like Urban Prep Academies in Chicago, which show that Black male-led projects can work in conjunction with modern-day realities to unapologetically and thoughtfully serve our needs as Black boys and men.
Let us envision a learning reality in which the curriculum, visions and policies are not set forth by white women or men but by us. Let us create opportunities in which we are able to be affirmed as Black men in education while affirming young Black boys in our classroom. Let us redesign what schools look like and what our roles are in them. Let us orient ourselves to a reality in which we are more than just the disciplinarians of white-informed school cultures when we are “let into” schools. Let us dare to dream and actualize a new reality in which we are the teachers, counselors, school leaders and mentors that our Black and brown boys need.
Kevin Beckford is a social impact leader residing in Washington, D.C. Dominick Sanders is the computer science state supervisor for South Carolina. Both are doctoral students of Education Policy and Leadership at Vanderbilt University and former teachers.