Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Black Teachers, White Students

Recently I visited an Advanced Placement English Literature class in a predominantly black high school in south Atlanta. The students were reading Ellie Wiesel’s Night. The facilitator of the discussion asked the students how they responded emotionally to the story as Wiesel told it. The teacher of the class piped in that they would have to be able to write their responses in order to pass the class. One of the students said that the gravity of it did not really hit him until earlier in the week when a group of Jewish students along with a Holocaust survivor visited their school and discussed the book and his experience of the Holocaust. It was clear from the student’s description that he had been emotionally moved by the combination of Wiesel’s and the survivor’s testimony. He concluded by saying that now he really appreciates Jewish history.

I asked if the visit was an exchange. Did the black students have older members of Atlanta’s black community share with the Jewish students their experiences of growing up in the segregated south? Were there any plans for the Jewish students to read James Mellon’s The Bullwhip Days, for example, and then host a group of black students and community elders to learn about black experiences? “No,” he said. Then another brother sitting next to me whispered, “they ain’ really interested in us.” This comment, whispered directly into my ear so that no one else could hear, hurt me deeply and indicated a grave imbalance in our education. Not only did it demonstrate a fractured sense of self, it highlighted the need for white students to have black teachers.

This need is not based on black teachers being necessary to teach black history and highlight the nuanced emotional struggle that our existence has been – although that would be nice. This need is based on the experience itself. White kids need the fundamental experience of being taught by black teachers. It is a component of their lives that is largely missing. They need the experience of sitting at the foot of a black person who serves as the conduit between themselves and some specific and valuable body of knowledge. The human experience of having someone guide your mind from a point of ignorance to understanding is tremendous. It evokes an extraordinary amount of humility, respect and admiration. For that very reason, the best teachers are iconic figures in the lives of so many people. Not only do these teachers command the utmost respect, they facilitate their students’ respect for themselves. That self-respect is based on their confidence in their ability to learn, to move from confusion to clarity. That is the missing experience for white kids. They do not experience what it is like to have a black person serving as a foundational component of their self-respect. The completeness of their identity and their confidence in their ability to learn and know has nothing to do with black people. Period. They have not been lead to some greater human understanding or cultural appreciation while holding a black hand and relying on a black mind.

The Jewish students’ visit highlighted this discrepancy. The black students came away from the experience feeling enlightened. They were left with a greater appreciation for Jewish history and more importantly, a deeper understanding of their own emotional capacity to contextualize human suffering and embrace it even if it is not their own. The Jewish students became a stone in the foundation of the black students’ growing awareness of their ability to learn and their self-respect. In contrast to that, the Jewish students left feeling good about themselves with a heightened sense of generosity that they had been able to share their history with others and help them understand their painful and inspirational past. The black students did not contribute to their sense of self-awareness or help them broaden their appreciation for the experiences of others. The Jewish kids were not forced by the story of the black students to engage in the humility required to contextualize Jewish history by considering someone else’s. The Jewish students missed the opportunity to learn from them and for the black students to become an element of their self-awareness.

The brother whispered, “they ain’ really interested in us.” I do not quite agree with that. I do think, that we are not really involved in them. We are not involved in the development of the emotional and intellectual mix that is their substance as human beings. In that respect white students are shortchanged. They generally lack the experience and value of having black people be components of their identity. Unfortunately, there is no test for them to pass that requires that experience.


1 comment:

luvlife0702 said...


i agree with you beyond what i can express in a comment section on your blog as my experience on this campus bears it out everyday. put black, woman, immigrant, queer, mentally ill into the mix and the whole thing gets quite complicated. and as i love to say, my job is simply to 'complicate their perspective' and i do that just by showing up everyday. i AM their conundrum. and without opening my mouth i challenge their assumptions about who i am, should be and what their own place is in the world. suddenly whiteness is no longer 'invisible' and their privilege is challenged by our positions.

i often recall my experience of arriving at predominantly white Seattle University and not understanding the class dynamics i was experiecingin, having come from overwhelmingly colored and far left San Francisco State. I consulted with a Nigerian brother Femi Taiwo who teaches philosophy (and if you want to get into how that interaction can go that's a whole other story), and he told me that i needed to simply confront with the class their experience of being taught a class on Race, class and gender in US society, not only by a black woman but by an immigrant black woman. it was quite the discussion as students talked about their feelings. that class gave me my highest evaluations ever. almost perfect. and i made some fans for life, one of whom is now a friend as i challenged his suppositions the most and he grew to respect and love me as a mentor; him having come from white privilege in Spokane, WA.

I have had black students tell me that i was the first black teacher they had in college and they were juniors! and the profound effect it had on them. for white students, me teaching statistics or social policy (where i push them into advocacy) or international social welfare (where i challenge their good intentions) challenges their notions of what i 'should' be teaching and my place of power in the world.

of course, my west indian compulsion for collecting wallpaper issued by esteemed institutions has some students overwhelmed.

furthermore, there are murmurings and loud ones (that made it into my annual performance review) that some students are 'scared' of me. I 'intimidate' them. me and my gorgeous, educated black self, tall, dark, with big afro and big voice, with strong opinions and evidence to support them.

all that said, some students have been moved enough by their experience of me to start a fan club for me on facebook. and all of them are 'white'. or at least ain't none of them are black. i dont know how much that has to do with my blackness since most of these students had complicated perspectives long before i got at them.

but i will say, who owns and transmits knowledge sends a message about who has access to power and privilege and who controls the key to academic success. and sometimes its great that the black people that have the keys to the ivory tower are not only sweeping the room but standing at the front of it.