My neck still gets hot when I think about it.
I read an article the other day that took me back there.
My memories went first, then my body went – back to that room with its polished white floors, and polished whiteboards and polished white children. I was there with them, in uniform – so we’d all look alike. That is the purpose of uniforms after all, to bring the body into compliance with the rules, to regulate physical expression and reduce the inconvenient inconsistencies that reveal the truth of difference and portend the illusion of democracy. Autocracy and sameness were the rule. My freedom there was limited to what conformed to the century-old narrative of that school. My job was to be as same as possible, though I was aggressively, bleedingly, different. I was Black.
Mama worked hard shining shoes. Mama was my manager, promoter and PR firm. Mama politicked me into a position where two elite schools that we could not afford were bidding on me. Mama said yes to the one that offered a full-scholarship.
Neither Mama nor I had any illusions about this school. It was wealthy and wonderful, with an oldness that made it magical. And that very oldness made it dangerous. It was founded when we were not free. I don’t know when it became officially desegregated but the first Black student would graduate just a few years before me. It looks now, more than it did then, like Hogwarts – complete with a haunting past that I knew better than to question. It sorted me into my place, and employed powerful magic to keep me there. Whiteness is a powerful magic. Wealth is its terrifying patronus.
If I let my memories run there, to that day in the classroom, the back of my neck still burns. My blood heated by rage and shame. My nerves fire, sending orders that my limbs and mouth and throat would not comply with then. And now it is too late. I cannot scream, overturn desks, and rage at the insult of the past. I can reflect and weaponize words I learned there against them. I can rage now for the future.
I wish I understood then, as I do today, and as children do today, that I was subject to Educational Violence. This is a jarring but accurate term. I awoke to this idea while reading Between The World and Me, though I don’t think Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it that outright. Instead he says:
“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions… No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction… The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best.”
I wish I were as strong in my youth as the children are today. I have no excuse, but I am old enough to be able to say , “it was almost 30 years ago. It was a different time” And it was a different time. Mama did well to protect me; she did well to disabuse me of the idea that everyone – or anyone- was my friend. Her aim, she reminded me, was to save me from being lost in a bigger system that had no room to see me as special, she saved me by putting me in a place where I would deliberately stand out – bleeding Blackness on polished white floors and being defiantly impoverished in the face of plenty. But what Mama did not teach me, because she could not see it, was that I had power in spite of my poverty. That my Blackness was its own magic. She’d have taught me the power of resistance if she could have, but she’d been fighting far too long. The magic had got her.
Today’s children are more defiant than I knew how to be. Bless them. Because today’s schools are not pernicious their indoctrination. They are vicious. My school eased me into recalibration with my uniform. Today, they aggressively rewire the mind. They posit untruths as forgone conclusions as demand you think critically about how they are true. It is a violence not far removed from lobotomy. Drilling into the skull to extract the tender, still-forming, grey matter and remove the troublesome Black and leave it polished and white.
But today’s children aint having that shit. They write outside the margins conscripted to them. Their bodies obey the firing of their nerves and when their necks get hot they breathe fire. Today’s children say ‘Fuck that.’
The article that took me back was about a fourth-grade boy at a private school in Wisconsin. He was given an assignment to “List 3 ‘good’ reasons for slavery” He said No. He’s Black. There are no “good reasons.”
That little Black boy showed more power in his childhood than I managed in my adolescence. He defied on paper the attempt to violently coerce his compliance and re-enslavement. And he showed his mother the spell they tried to cast. Mama made it newsworthy.
Around the time I first picked up Coates’s book, Houston-based educator, Roni Dean-Burren woke up much of our sleeping population to the persistence of Educational Violence. She called out book publisher McGraw-Hill for recasting the enslaved Africans who survived the horror of the Middle Passage as “immigrants” and “workers.” Her son, a 9th grader at the time, saw the text first and resisted. He shook her. She rang the alarm. More parents got woke.
Maybe the signs were always there, but the glamours cast over them have now fallen off. Black parent, teach your children that they are magic because we can see now that the schools are serious about their sorting. They have a place in mind for our children. They want to stake a place in the minds of our children.
In a 6th grade class in Scotsdale Arizona, children were given a list of examples and were asked to mark as Fact, Opinion or Commonplace Assertion. Examples ranged from the benign “Facebook is better than Twitter,” to the outrageous – “Black people eat chicken.” In South Carolina, fifth grade class was asked to rationalize and justify the motives of the Klan during Reconstruction.
The youngest babies face it too.
Second graders in Los Angeles were given math problems where they were asked to calculate the number of slaves needed in the cotton fields. The assignment was for Black History Month.
This time last year Scholastic finally halted the release of a children’s book intended for pre-schoolers and early elementary that painted bright pictures of a happy well treated slave who just loved to make cakes for George Washington.
But it’s not a U.S. problem. Its global. In the UK, 8th grade students were given an assignment with a budget to buy slaves. The school assures, it wasn’t meant that way.
Educational Violence brings with it the threat and reality of physical violence. Last week, school officials decided no punishment was necessary for the white teacher who told a Black student that if he didn’t change his ways and turn in his work “your friends will form an angry mob and lynch you.”
“Sometimes we mess up,” the school said.
– We meant well. We tried our best.
I still shudder, when I think of the 16 year old girl, flipped from her desk, dragged and thrown like a rag doll by a 300 lb. school deputy.
And my neck still gets hot when I go back to that white, white, classroom where I listen to that white boy with pink skin and blue tie answer a question about my Black history – as they saw it. The teacher had asked us to speculate on the reaction of Africans when white explorers first arrived on the coast. He spoke with great pride and conviction about how they were certainly viewed as gods. Here is what he said: “I mean, you’ve got these short, dark, round-faced people and they see these gleaming, tall, people with angular faces and long hair, golden hair, they probably looked like gods to them. Like, I’m sure they were curious at first…”
And then my neck got hot. And I sputtered; “That’s bull! Why would you assume they’d see them as gods? If every one around me were dark like me and I saw these pale white lanky people I’d assume they were sick or had a disease! What makes…” I felt the silence in the room. “Why would you think that?” And the teacher just said “Well, no, he’s probably right. And from the records we have that’s the most likely way it happened” And their spell was cast. Petrificus Totalus.
I went numb. Dumb. My mouth would not move to tell her, “History is written by the victors.” I froze. But my neck stayed hot. And my eyes stayed open. And I’ve finally learned my own magic. Now, I utter a curse and break their spell. “Fuck that.”