Yes, I’ve Got the Receipts: A Portrait of a Professor as a College Student Activist

FullSizeRender.jpg-1

The subject of my doctoral thesis, Unmasking the Boston Brahmin: Race and Liberalism in the Long Struggle for Reform at Harvard and Radcliffe, 1945-1990, was completely unknown to me when I arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1994. During my freshmen year, I wore a uniform of a multicolored Rasta cap, oversized dark denim vintage overalls, and Birkenstock sandals that I often combined with thick socks, which conveyed my personal aesthetic and politics at the time. I was, unironically, a neo-soul flower child and proud hippie from Oakland, California. The radical historical memory of the city’s connection to black power and the Black Panthers shaped my early ideological beliefs and student politics.

During my senior year in high school, I had begun to devour my parents’ personal library collection from Howard University: James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folks, and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks were among some of the titles I read but did not understand fully. Due to my interest in radical politics, I attended Harvard and studied with Cornell West, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Anthony Appiah. I was interested in the Henry Louis Gates and the dream team project of black studies. The department had a serious swagger to match its academic offerings, which fostered my college academic growth. As a government concentrator, Martin Kilson was my senior honors thesis advisor. This cadre of Harvard black professors would shape and sharpen my early thinking and work in the field.

Although I did not know the pre-Gates history of blacks at Harvard, I inherited a college academic and social life that was the result of long years of protests by black students and academics as well as their allies in the student and administration ranks. I joined the Black Students Association (BSA) my freshmen year, attended hip-hop or reggae parties, sat at the black dining table for most meals, and lived in the Radcliffe Quad where the highest concentration of black students resided. As director of the Academy Homes afterschool program in Roxbury for three years, I would recruit a sizeable number of volunteers from the crowd of people who were leaving the annual BSA back to school party each September.

By my senior year, I was the BSA historian. We published a quarterly BSA Newsletter that detailed the contemporary political debates, student artistic and cultural endeavors, and important happenings in the larger black community. The BSA led the campus protest of the 1994 controversial publication of The Bell Curve by two Harvard professors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The members of the BSA took to the steps of Widener Library in order to stage a daylong protest in the fall. Our concerns were ardent and presentist. We wanted to raise our voices in protest against a scholarly work that was an example of scientific racism because it purported to show the genetic basis for inferior levels of black intelligence. Along with my classmates, I was unaware of the long struggle, controversies, and upheaval that took place in that exact spot in the middle of campus.

My research into this history started with the 1960s and eventually expanded to an investigation of the “long movement” time period that looks seriously at the rewards and emotional costs of being black at the high-powered university. One of my first discoveries was the 1969 Harvard and Radcliffe Yearbook and the passage by Charles Hamilton who wrote poignantly about race:

Harvard is the world that supposedly gives to black students a new set of garments—a new and supposedly more important identity as a Harvard man. The garment—the Harvard identity—does not change the facts of color and race.[1]

To reconcile race and Harvard is one that most viscerally felt by young people during this heightened moment in their social and emotional development. During my time on campus, I often heard black administrators repeat the statement, “Harvard has ruined more good men than wine.” The saying is part of university lore, which alludes to a tragic consequence of a long-term employment at Harvard. I always found that it was is a curious saying to repeat because the speakers had respected and even spectacular careers.

I now understand it is a cautionary saying that relates their experience as privileged African American faculty or administrators in the Ivy League who had to contend with the benefits of race and downsides of racism in the academy. For most of the black student activists, however, their time at Harvard did not take the path toward utter ruination. Black students and adults avoided the potential pitfalls and found a way forward by fighting in the long struggle in order to change educational policy at Harvard for future generations. As a professor of education, it is a lesson that I hope to pass on to the current generation of students that I teach.

 

[1] Charles J. Hamilton, Jr., AAAAS of Harvard and Radcliffe, Records of the Association of African and Afro-American Students at Harvard and Radcliffe, HUD 3125.2000, Box 2, Articles Black Students in the Harvard Yearbook 1969, Harvard University Archives.

Skin in the Game: Cultivating a Culture of Success in Charter Schools

Public education is failing students of color. It is ripe for disruption. Enter charter schools. They are a private and public hybrid. I completely understand the critics who state that they are responsible for a type of brain drain where the most motivated and engaged students leave the public schools for ones that are chartered. This results in more isolated population of students who are left behind. There is, nevertheless, a role for charter schools to address the calcified state of public education. It is a partial response. The task of overhauling public schools remains for the one million school children in New York City.

I believe in improving public education writ large. When I joined the Collegiate Academy for Mathematics and Personal Awareness (CAMPA)  Board of Trustees in 2015, I wanted an opportunity to build a new school from the ground up.  I wanted to part of a solution that addresses the current state of public schools. The fact that crisis is an adjective often applied to schools in the urban centers is appropriate.  I have also come to realize that that charter schools like CAMPA are a necessity. It is located in East New York where zone schools routinely post below average scores on Regents exams. CAMPA will go beyond the drill-and-kill and has instituted a college preparatory curriculum for middle school students.

As an educator who began my career at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, I was witness to a high functioning and high academic achieving public school. As a professor of education, I now see that Banneker Academy was an exceptional academic institution. Dr. Daryl Rock was the principal during the ten years I spent as a teacher and administrator. He is a model head of school who insisted on cultivating a staff and student body of culturally aware and ones who demanded excellence in education. Dr. Rock convinced George Leonard to come out of retirement and serve as the principal for CAMPA’s second year. Mr. Leonard is an award-winning educator who was instrumental in shaping my early career. In fact, he saved my bacon when he served as the Banneker dean during the always difficult first year teaching. I am forever indebted to Rock and Leonard as I found my voice as a master teacher.

With the combination of Leonard, Rock and Richmond, CAMPA is off to an auspicious new year. I cannot forget the entire squad: teachers who will do the hard work of training these young scholars, administrators in the front office and the board members who have put in hundreds of hours into executing the school mission. It has been truly a cooperative group effort. Like Banneker Academy, CAMPA has a very specific vision of education to instruct students in the pedagogy of race. The culture of the school is built on the idea that all students are educable and success is expected.

‘Til the Next Episode: A Black Nerd Manifesto

New Zealand

I am a nerdy black chick. Been that way since my childhood in California when I bought the trilogy of Lord of Rings for 10¢ each at the San Leandro Public Library book sale in 1986. I absolutely love J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece. I have bought the books, ebooks, DVDs, director’s cut DVDs, and the iTunes movie versions of the trilogy.  I have read and reread the books. I have also watched the movies and listened to the DVD cast commentary countless times.

I visited New Zealand in 2013 and unironically took the Lord of the Rings tour in Queenstown. The landscape vistas were stunning. I felt connected to the book and vision of the film. I did, however, draw the line when the tour guide suggested recreating the death scene of Ned Stark Boromir. I am, nevertheless, a super fan. Been one for thirty years.

I am also woke. It never occurred to me until reading the Jon Boyega’s GQ interview that Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones lack diversity. And it is an apt critique. The Star Wars world has a much better track record: from Billie Dee Williams as Lando to Boyega as Finn, those movies contain a healthy degree of diversity. Game of Thrones does include vaguely identifiably people of color: from the Dothraki to folks in Dorne. Lord of the Rings does not.

This leads to several unsettling questions: Am I suffering from false consciousness? How did I miss this fact after all these years? Is my woke card revoked?

It is Boyega who states quite eloquently in the interview, “I ain’t paying money to always see one type of person on-screen…you see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you’re a racist, you have to live with that. We can ruffle up some feathers.”

Good on him. And I totally agree. I can only hope for a future reimagining of a dynamic and diverse cinematic world even beyond the one that exists in Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films. I will pay to see that Lord of the Rings remake.

Lessons from Charlottesville: The Pedagogy of Race

IMG_1573

The events of Charlottesville, while deeply troubling, are part of a long history of race and injustice in America. The media cycle has played out predictably: righteous anger by people of conscience, strong and middling condemnations from liberal and conservative leaders, protests and counter-protests. And then there is President Trump. He has never been an example of a profile of courage. His true north is to stoke the flames of racial antagonism. His refusal to give a full throated condemnation of neo Nazis in particular and white supremacy in general is, well, SAD.

Leaving aside Trump’s moral equivocations for the moment, the question before us is this: how can we, educators, activists and people interested in social justice, proceed? This is a question of particular interest to me who is in business of training the next generation of teachers. August is the moment when summer is winding down for most people. My news feed is filled with those enjoying the last bit of summer break. For teachers, however, August is do-or-die time. Teachers are feverishly planning for the upcoming year right now. As educators are editing lessons plans, mastering national and state standards, and decorating classrooms, my exhortation is consider race in the classroom.

The lesson from Charlottesville is that racial injustice in America is an active and living entity. It has not been relegated to a historical matter. I believe that education, as first exemplified in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, has always an area for civil rights activism. Teachers who acknowledge fully that there is an education gap between the achievement between minority and white students can go about addressing it. They must craft a culture of inclusion that flattens privilege and truly believes in the success of all students. This is where the best practices enter the conversation. Those teachers during August must also craft a genuinely multicultural curriculum, which is based on the high standards of each discipline.

Yes, teachers are on the front lines and have an incredibly difficult job. Race is here. Those educators whose mission is to instruct young people in the highest tradition of a liberal arts curriculum cannot ignore race. Not in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

Book Review: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

FullSizeRender.jpg

“The Underground Railroad is bigger than its operators–it’s all of you too. The small spurs, the big trunk lines…It goes everywhere, to places we know and those we don’t,” pg. 267.

“Why do this,” she asked. “For all of us?” “Don’t you know? White man ain’t going to do it. We have to do it for ourselves,” pg. 278.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad reimagines the escape route as an actual line, which includes conductors and stops. In what amounts to nothing less than a brilliant cosmic convergence, Whitehead’s book provides intellectual cover for Porsha Williams’ iconic scene during her first season on the The Real Housewives of Atlanta. For those readers who do not watch Peak Reality TV, a short recap: her co-stars and viewing public loudly derided the then Mrs. Williams-Stuart for stating that the underground railroad was a real-world entity. (Ed note: It would be fun to know that Whitehead also watches this particular tv show. I imagine, however, the genesis of the book project predates the airing of the episode in 2012). The protagonist, Cora, must navigate the unpredictability of different stops on the underground railroad in an epic search for freedom.

Whitehead’s book achieves the transcendence of my favorite novel, Beloved by Toni Morrison, by humanizing and personalizing the experience of slavery. My one critique is that Cora’s interior life is not as deeply explored. That particular story, however, is not the project of this novel. Whitehead recounts her journey and its obstacles. Cora is an enslaved person who experiences the horrors of residing in Georgia: the casual cruelty of a physical and sexual nature. She achieves a very limited and deeply circumscribed level of autonomy initially by being labeled a crazy person and placed in an area of the plantation for those deemed insane.

One of the clear strengths of the book is that he personalizes the flat, terse descriptions contained in the runaway notices that begin each chapter. Cora embarks on her journey, is eventually caught for a time, but manages to escape again. One of the final places of refuge is an Indiana farm, where the slave catchers raid, kill or capture its inhabitants. The novel also includes short chapters about the white people who populated the southern antebellum milieu: a slave catcher, grave robber, abolitionist. He puts them in conversation with the clear narrative arc of Cora’s story.

In the course of reading fictional and nonfictional accounts  of slavery, I do not have the professional distance that the training dictates of a social scientist. As a child, I learned from the Richmond family oral tradition that my great grandparents were sharecroppers and their parents were slaves. I, therefore, identify with Cora. I know slavery was awful but the experience of reading thousands of pages recounting the gruesome details is shocking. To be an American historian is to be deeply acquainted with the chapters and verses of its horrors. It makes me feel some type of way when I emerge from my office and get on the train with the masses of humanity. Ultimately, Cora’s story is linked to my family and the story of America. It is a necessary one.

In the end, Cora receives some semblance of justice. Terrance Randall, the owner of the plantation, dies ignobly. He is unable to recapture her, despite increasing the award money and advertising for her return all over the south. She finally makes it to a stop where she can then travel to California. To be sure, slavery is a bad, brutal institution. Whitehead reminds us there is sacrifice and beauty as well in the search for freedom. The historical field has also established that there was agency in not only running away, but in the everyday acts of resistance that created living space for millions: breaking tools, feigning sickness, learning to read, and reshaping religion into a liberation theology. This is a good read.

Of Afros and Culture Wars

Screenshot 2017-07-18 12.55.36

Michael Vick has walked back his previous statement criticizing Colin Kaepernick’s afro. My sports intelligence is admittedly pretty low, but I do know that Kaepernick’s protest has raised the ire of many in the football community. His bravery and direct action has broken into my corner of sky. I like and whole-heartedly support him. He is my favorite #wokebae.

There is a long history of sports as a vehicle for expressing civil rights protest. There is a pretty straight line from Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball in 1947 to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Olympics to Kaepernick’s action of kneeling during the national anthem. The idea that somehow sports should be apolitical arena is a fallacy.

Another important historical note is that it has been a means of entrepreneurial advancement, from Madam C.J. Walker in the early 1900s to the present. Styling black hair has been a lucrative and on-going element of the black business world. The opening of barbershops and hair salons are a cornerstone of the community. It is a key element of African American achievement.

Vick’s initial statement about the afro invokes a long-simmering culture war over presentation of African American hair. The idea that somehow it is outside of a professional realm to wear an afro is somewhat baffling. It has been a long struggle to win the argument that natural hairstyles are acceptable in the business world. I suppose this is another flashpoint in the national conversation about what is and what is not acceptable.

The cool thing about hair, particularly for people of color, is that there is a diversity and dynamism of styles. I have, in no particular order, have worn the following hairstyles: bantu knots, cornrows, box braids, French braids, flat-ironed straight, and flat ironed and curled. I have also worn my hair in a big, beautiful afro.

I am team afro. Let those natural curls shine.

The Once and Future Queen

beyonce

Beyoncé has given us such a moment of pop culture transcendence with the release of the picture of her twins on Instagram early this morning. Her crown remains intact. She is the breaker-of-the-internet. She is our reigning pop queen. It is a visually stunning and quite sunny portrait of a mother and her two children, Rumi and Sir Carter. It is an unmitigated celebration of life. The birth of children is not only an essential rite of humanity, it is also a universal experience that connects us all.

By way of full disclosure, I am a full adherent of the Beyhive. It has been a long time in the making. I liked her as a member of Destiny’s Child and definitely bopped to Crazy in Love, which was her solo debut. I lost track of her career as I entered into my doctoral studies and did not pay attention to the next couple records that she released. Yet with Beyoncé and Lemonade, she seized my attention and converted me to a full-fledged fan. With those last two albums, she started to explore the thematic elements of society that I care deeply about: gender, race, and politics in a more mature and artistically creative manner. I will follow her career and it’s attendant personal updates as an enthusiastic supporter of all things Beyoncé.

Long live the Queen! May she ever reign.