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Sankofa Talk | Thoughts on a ‘better way’

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In the late ’80s, I took my first job in the chemical dependency treatment field in Troy, Ohio. There I met a woman named Beverly, who would become a great friend and mentor, and who worked in the Drug Prevention Division of the organization we both worked for. She possessed master’s degrees in psychology and African American Studies. She invited me to join her in facilitating a group of African American high school students called Blacks Against Drugs (BAD). I was honored. We met regularly and got to know the students well. They were a group of energetic, intelligent, wonderful and curious young people.

As time went on and we became closer to the students, they eventually came to trust us. Then the stories began to flow. Troy is a predominantly white community. As a matter of fact, the Black population was quite sparse. The students told us that, in their classrooms, there were often no more than two Black students. They told us of being shamed by their teachers. There was practically no information or stories about Black people in their history books except for the subject of slavery. Whenever the topic was broached in class, all the white kids would turn and look at the Black kids. Snickers and jokes would follow, the kids said, uninterrupted by the teachers. Naturally, they came to feel alienated, to say the least.

There were two Black counselors at the school, but when the students went to them, the counselors urged them to tolerate the abuse, telling them that those who took every opportunity to demean them really meant no harm. One of the more painful things they told these precious Black children was, “You should try to be more like them” — the white kids. I literally had to restrain myself from shouting out loud, although every fiber in my body became twisted and taut.

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I calmed myself and asked them, “Wait a minute, really? They told you that?” They emphatically affirmed this. Even the quieter ones became boldly vocal. They went on to convince Beverly and me to invite the counselors to come to one of our groups to give a presentation on a drug prevention topic of her choice. The woman who accepted our invitation was tall, well-dressed and reserved. The topic she presented on was “How to Carry Yourself to have a Good Future” — I may be off a bit on the wording. I watched in utter disbelief as she laid out a point-by-point description of basically “how to get along with the white people.” The students looked at me and Beverly throughout the woman’s talk as if to say, “See, I told you!” I will never forget, she actually said to them: “You should work to be more like the other children.” I literally wanted to shout.

At that point I started to stand, but Beverly knew me well and grabbed my arm. She rose slowly and asked the counselor if she would like any feedback from the students, and she agreed. We had always encouraged the kids to speak their minds. One by one, they told her how painful it was for them that she never supported them in that harsh environment of the school. They told her that they were tired of her trying to coerce them into changing who they were, to give in and adapt to being abused, to write it off as a lesson learned. They gave her specific examples. Some of the students cried openly. The woman literally tried gaslighting the students right in front of us, pulling up just short of calling them all liars.

The students would not be deterred. We had given them permission to speak freely and respectfully. They did, and they did it with great skill and passion. We knew nothing would change in the school because no one in the community cared enough. They learned to tolerate it. The young people learned that was a place they would never return to once they left. My heart bled for them.

After that day, Beverly and I spent a lot of time teaching the students how to celebrate themselves. They did research and did Black history presentations in our groups. We took them to the museum in Wilberforce and other events in the area where they could not only escape the terror of the school, but also could feel a degree of comfort and experience people who accepted them for who they were. We saw them blossom before our eyes, despite the daily hell they were subjected to. They responded well to finally having their humanity confirmed.

There is so much more to say about my experience with those marvelous students, but I will end there. My point in sharing this story is that I feel our community is turning into one that has come to tolerate some of the situations I mentioned.

By now, everyone who read the school superintendent’s letter — entitled “Share ‘better way’ with schools” and published in the March 10 edition of the News — knows that I am the one who made the Facebook post she referred to. My post was, as she stated in her letter: “Why in the world would a teacher give students an assignment to write about the pros and cons of slavery, in Yellow Springs High School? Why would he think that is a good idea?”

The superintendent described my post as “a classic example of how misinformation reproduces exponentially on social media.” Misinformation is described in the dictionary as “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is intended to deceive.”

What I shared was neither false nor inaccurate. Neither was it intended to deceive. Knowing the group of people who have become most prominently associated with the term “misinformation” over the past five or 10 years, I find the use of the term in reference to my post bitterly offensive and demeaning.

In the second paragraph of her letter, the superintendent seems to imply that I created the story about the assignment. She alludes to the fact that the teacher was “unnamed” and the assignment was “unproduced,” once again virtually calling me a liar, and by extension, the students as well. We know who gave the assignments and the fact that no one seems to be able to find them says more about those who gave the assignment than it does anyone else.

I’ve heard from students that this assignment has been given on at least three separate occasions since 2018. A question I should have added to my post is, “Why is it that this is just now becoming known outside of the school system?” It is obvious that an atmosphere has been created in which students feel that it is needless to report these incidents, or that they are overwhelmed and believe that nothing will be done to rectify matters. So they have suffered in silence until now.

I have spoken with several students who have communicated other race-based incidents that they feel have been handled poorly, including racial slurs spoken by white students to Black students.

At least two Black students have chosen to leave the school system due to incidents and patterns of incidents that have been handled in a way that caused the students enough discomfort that they saw no other alternative. There is a laundry list of occurrences that has left several Black students pondering their futures at the high school. These are recent issues.

During my meeting with the superintendent and the principal, the main focus was that she thought that I should have called her directly rather than post my concern on Facebook. She made this point several times. My focus was on the fact that Black students are feeling dehumanized by a number of different incidents, including being stereotyped by certain teachers. Some of them have told me that they literally dread going to school.

In her letter, the superintendent shared 22 steps the school system has taken to address racism and racial inequity in our schools. Despite all of these, there are students who are asking, “So when is anything going to change? I’m not feeling it.” One would think that, with so many steps taken to address racism, Black students would be able to identify at least some iota of progress or change in the way these issues are handled. Maybe there are some hidden accomplishments out there somewhere. Given that students aren’t feeling any movement, other than in the wrong direction, it would’ve almost been better not to mention any of these steps at all, or maybe just a few. There is a clear disconnect here.

I am also concerned about the community at large. It was beyond disturbing to see that some responses to my post were people actually reaching for some distorted explanation that would somehow justify assigning students to debate the pros and cons of slavery. They could not even fathom the idea that such an assignment would lead to crushing a Black student’s spirit. One person suggested it be set up as a thought experiment. Sure, let’s set up a scenario asking a Black student to argue against the validity of his or her own humanity. Let’s have the Black student subjected to the shame and embarrassment of listening to arguments in favor, or even arguing in favor themselves, of a system that brutalized their ancestors in the most horrific ways possible: beatings, burnings dismemberment, rape, selling their children away from them. What a compelling intellectual exercise. This really speaks to the depth to which some white people are enmeshed with the automatic psychic dehumanization of Black people. Could you imagine a rape victim being placed in a position to argue in favor of the rape culture? It’s way beyond disturbing.

Maybe it’s the shrinking diversity of the town that has given people cover to slip into the mindset of white people in other predominantly white school systems. I can’t imagine any of my high school teachers in the early 1970s even remotely garnering the nerve to give such an assignment.

The difference is that there were so many more Black students and Black teachers then. There were also more courageous and aware white students and teachers who would not tolerate such a thing and would have been openly supportive to Black students. There would have been an immediate and resounding backlash. Surely it would not have gone unspoken, and no administrator would’ve had the gall to suggest that it didn’t happen.

In the final paragraph of her letter, the superintendent invites those who are committed to “a better way” — I guess because my way is not acceptable — to partner with them, but only by selected modes of communication. It seems the real issue here is who gets to control the narrative. I, for one, am not committed to the same old methods of dealing with racism, which have led us to the edge of losing voting rights and so much more.

As Audre Lorde once said very profoundly, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” No one gets to dictate to me how I choose to share information. After all, I have been dealing with this issue in the school system now, off and on, for 50 years, including the time period that my own children went through YS schools and experienced similar treatment.

A partnership involves listening to another’s point of view. Ask the students if they have experienced that. I might add that a partnership does not involve accusing anyone you claim to be wanting to partner with to be the purveyor of misinformation, especially when there is no evidence of that. There must be a better way than “a better way.” Try placing yourself in the shoes of these students, who are suffering from being heard but not listened to. Then we can seek remedies that not only validate the concerns of the students but affirm their humanity, which they feel is being stripped away.

If you care to get involved with supporting the students you can reach out to me any way you wish — including a social media post.


One Response to “Sankofa Talk | Thoughts on a ‘better way’”

  1. Beau says:

    That’s hard for me to comprehend that anyone actually suggested students debate the ‘pros and cons of slavery’! It’s bizarre. OK, let me say this now, I am basically White (according to DNA testing a percentage of heritage is Togo/Benin which was historically the slavery coast of Africa) That said, I’d speculate that the Black in my heritage is probably a blessing that keeps me a little further away from the “really stupid” end of the totally White thought processes continuum.

    By the way, my favorite teacher when I was a small child was Mrs. Suggs, a wonderful Black teacher who made me feel welcomed in her class regardless of my skin color. It was the early 60’s. She didn’t have to be as nice to me as she was, but Mrs. Suggs was just a wonderful person and a memorable teacher with love in her heart. I wish there were more teachers like her today.

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