State of Black America Part VI: Education

"If you want to hide something from a Black person, just but it in a book." How many times have you heard that phrase? How many times did you think it was true? The most offensive thing about that phrase is the truth. There are many people, Black and white who take pride in the fact that they don't read, or hate reading. Reading made me the person I am today. Inquisitive, argumentative, intriguing, wordy, you call it. You would be hard pressed to find me going anywhere without a book right through college. Not even riding to church was book-free.

I had my own ideas about reading and education. It probably helped I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood where I was never teased or berated for asking questions in class or preferring a book to playing outside. But who knows. I may have become the person I am no matter where I grew up. And yet there was still the underlying assumption athletes were way cooler than smart people. In elementary school I was in the Chess Club and the Computer club. In high school I was invited to the Honor Society, given the French I, II, and III awards for excellence, captain of the Debate Team, Vice President of the Physics Club, drum major in the band, Sophomore Board, and Junior Board. Nerd right? That's exactly what I said. I hated telling people younger than 25 my activities. I wanted people to think I was cool, too before they got to know me.

I should explain the Physics Club thing. I hated Physics. I had a horrible teacher who was "too smart" to teach anyone who couldn't grasp it through osmosis. That means me. She made the Vice Presidency like a bank. You know how banks have multiple VPs? You give $5 to charity, you could put Physics Club VP on your college application.

Remember the episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Will hid his books in a pizza box? It was never that serious, but who wants to be that nerd? They want to be celebrated like the athletes. In other countries parents and students alike risk life and limb to educate themselves and their offspring. And even in America, in other cultures, education is far more highly valued. And its not just the affluent who try to give their children that extra push. We need to be doing the same things.

Two of my friends teach in "inner city" schools. One at a middle school in Greensboro, NC, the other at a high school in Baltimore, Md. Both schools have problems with student and parent involvement, extracurricular activities, math, science, and reading. They're both english teachers. Both have children who can barely read. BARELY READ. 11th grade students can't read. In America. In 2006. I asked her if she failed anyone. She said yes. I said, "Well, they can't go to the next grade, can they?" She said, "Technically, no, but they always find a way around it." Hmm... so social promotion is still alive and well? Oh yeah says my other friend who talks about all the hoops you have to jump through to fail a child. This is after the study sessions, letters to the parent begging for conferences, phone calls home, notes about lack of school work, any other way you can think of to try to drive home the importance of the child's education.

And how one student who has been in the 6th grade three times will just be promoted because he's getting too old to be around children that young. And what will we do when he has to just drop out because he doesn't understand it. And he has to sell drugs to make any decent money because he has no desire to work at McDonald's for $6 an hour for the rest of his life. And no one's ever told him he needs his education to avoid that life. And that better things are possible no matter where you come from or who your parents are. What about all the juniors in that Baltimore high school who don't believe they can go to college? Even the smart ones who work hard? Or what about the fact that the honors class includes students who have a C average or better? Or the fact there are no Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs in these schools and may never be? How long can we continue to not fight for equal education.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education started in my home school system in 1971. Its purpose was to enforce busing as a method to integrate schools since separate but equal was anything but. It was passed, helping Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools become one of the best public school systems in the state for all children. But you will still see a marked difference between the predominately black schools and the predominately white ones if for no other reason than they have better teachers they can retain, parental involvement leading to matching corporate funds for activities. About 6 years ago, a white parent complained the Swann ruling discriminated against her child because the child was kept out of some school because she was white. So it was overturned or re-worked to revert back to neighborhood (see segregated) schools. The decline has begun.

History is cyclical. If you don't know your past, you are doomed to repeat it. There are people in positions of power who have never had a Black person in their homes, never been to a Black person's home, would discourage their children from Black friends or dating Black people, and most famously, have used the phrase, "Some of my best friends are Black." And in some cases, they don't even know what they're saying and how their actions speak louder than their diversity words. One visiting professional to Hampton talked to us about how she was often the only Black person and sometimes only woman in boardrooms. She looked at a magazine and saw no Black faces. She asked if they wanted Black people to read the magazine and buy the products? Of course they said yes. She then pointed out there was not a single Black face in the entire magazine. Because they were all white, and all male, they hadn't noticed. It doesn't directly impact their lives so its hard for them to see. That's why we're a necessity. Not only in boardrooms, but in every other decision making arm of our nation that shapes our future. Attorneys, law enforcement, journalists, publishers, accountants, politicians, executives, TEACHERS. Our future is too important to but into someone else's hands. It starts in the classroom.

Previous State of Black America Posts:
Part I: The Athlete
Part II: Katrina

Part III: Hair
Part IV: Rapists and Child Molesters
Part V: Names


Anonymous said...

I believe I am the nerd I am today because of my mother. She taught my even before I could read that reading is importajnt. My grandmother would try to have me read the tv guide when I was 2 years old. There were always tons of books around my house. Me and my mom would trade of books while I was in the 5th grade. So my mom always pushed me to read. I still carry that habit today. I am constantly reading.

I feel that Black people need to take a more proactive approach to our education. A llot of Blacks view education as something passive in which we are just given it and there is nothing we have to do. But in reality, education is an active endeavor. Parents need to push their children in order for the children to realize how important education really is. Parents sometimes dont realize that they must be involved in the school as well in order for their child to succeed. It is imperative.

The Very Reverend Ace Clemmons, Jr. said...

sort of on, sort of off topic:

i think one reason reading (among many other things) is on such a decline is because we now live in a society of instant gratification. Kids are so used to pusing a button and getting a result/answer/reward. Things that require patience, and worse yet the committment of *time* fall on deaf ears. Reading a book is something you have to dedicate time too. I wrote a long blog about why there is such a decline in younger genereations learning traditional, hell even contemporary musical instruments now because it take years of what appears to be meaninless tedium to just be able to get on your own two feet. I think there is a parallel to reading and appreciated literature....

the good reverend

Anonymous said...

We are reaping the Seeds sown by the first generation raised exclusively by video images.

Even radio encourages a certain imagination.

We exist through our imagination.

Reading fosters imagination

We will perish unless we address this.

CNEL said...

My personal education background includes a stint at a predominantly black public elementary school, which was once on the state of Maryland's and the city of Baltimore's worst performing list, a now 13 year old Catholic all boys middle school for boys of modest upbringings where I befriended Eps, and a competitive and elite private co-ed non sectarian private school, where I went to school with the children of millionaires. Now I attend a Jesuit institution of higher learning which was once ranked one of the most homogeneous schools in the nation. It has been an interesting journey thus far, and I'm not done yet.

I commend you for being one of those who always took your education seriously. It is never too early to take your education seriously. I have two little cousins one who will be 7 in a few weeks, and one who will be 5 in December, and I try to get them even now to understand how important a role education should play in their lives. The last time I was with the 5 year old I asked her to read the headlines on the front page of a daily paper, and that encouraged her friend to ask me to help her read the headlines. I think seeing me accomplish what I have academically will help them learn that education is as much, about what it helps you learn about yourself, as it is about what it says to other people about who you are.

I agree with much of what has been said by you and by others.
I think that the following things contribute most to the ability to learn and the quality of learning:
Where you learn- clean, orderly and welcoming environment
Who you learn from- qualified, capable, competent and committed staff members
What you learn- well-balanced enlightening and educational lessons, which encourage original thinking
Why you learn- because it is important for people to have the information which will allow them to make positive decisions in their personal life, achieve their dreams, and be productive contributors to society

We know how to fix our failing schools:
Give students clean, safe, and comfortable learning environments, where they would want to be
Give students exposure to committed educators who have the ability to connect with a diverse group of children
Give children exposure to diversity of thoughts and ideas
Give children a reason why education is an all the time thing

The educational process has to of course include a working partnership between the student working with their teachers to meet and surpass expectations, but the school and teachers should of course be aided by the community and the parents enabling students to succeed.

I am a product of Baltimore City Pubic Schools, and I can say it is a system in crisis, but that it is also a system which has only produced some dynamic individuals. That saying it's not where you've been, but where you're going says a lot.

If we as individuals work to demonstrate the power education has played and continues to play in our loves, if we serve as model, maybe we can inspire one child and one more child and one more child to take learning that much more seriously.

the joy said...

i been flirting with the idea of being a volunteer reader. i went to a good school in ct and we had parents who would read to us, and get us familiar with certain writers. i was suprise when my boyfriend said if didnt have this at his elementary school. now i live down the street from that school... i am one person who can reverse this for the future.

4EverJennayNay said...

Education is something near and dear to my heart. Some of that comes from a sorority stand point, but the bulk of that comes from experience. I really believe my teachers in middle school and my high school principal saved/changed my life. Educators do NOT get enough credit!

I'm not a teacher, but I volunteer/tutor in schools all the time. 8 times out of 10 I'm being asked by teachers to go over things that they want & need for parents to do at home, like help with home work, go over reading assignments. Basic stuff. The problem is that with some of the kids I deal with, there in single parent homes with 4 other brothers and sisters, the father isn't there, and the mom works 2 jobs during the week, maybe a part time on the weekend.

There was one lil boy who literally broke my heart. He's going blind. He sat in the front of the classroom with a telescope like contraption so he could read the writing on the board. His mom had 5 other children, he was the oldest. Of course he was the closest to being able to fend for himself although he was in the 4th grade. We would always go over reading assignments together. He used a huge magnifying glass with a light on it, and still struggled. He would always get these really bad headaches. My guess is because he was straining so hard to see. His mom couldn't aford to get him the help he needed or to sit down and work with him. The situation was so sad.

Neither parents or teachers can do it alone. They have to work together. It really does take a village. That means you and me and everybody who reads this. If you have time, and the future of Black America matters to you, I encourage you to get involved.

Supa said...

Girl. I 'aint had breffast yet..I'll come back and read your damn disseration a lil' later!

JOB said...

Now here's where JOB weighs in.

Sadly, these kids are failing (and we are failing them) because of a vicious circle that just can't be stopped. Their parents are either helpless or don't care, and it's a sad fact, teachers in New York City get burned out FAST. And there's a legitimate reason for that. We are not just teaching these kids. We're raising them. For a good number of kids, we have to be everything their parents are not.

Another thing is segregation is alive and well thank you very much.

As my father says, "It's the Lambs vs. the Wolves."

In NYC there are probably five to seven or so “specialized” high schools. These schools are where you want to go when you DON'T WANT to go to my school. Bronx High School of Science is the “best” and most well known. Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant are two other schools.

Last summer I worked in a program to help kids prepare for the test to get them into these "specialized" schools. There were PLENTY of white faces. Also plenty of Black, Spanish and Asian faces as well. Will they ALL get into these schools? No. But the attitude, sadly, is when Johnny's parents find out he didn't get into Bronx Science, guess where he gets sent? Yep... Catholic school. That goes for the ALL the kids... White, Black, Spanish and Asian, they'll get sent to private school. Simply put, their parents do not want their "Lambs" going to school with the "wolves." The skin color doesn't matter... The color GREEN matters.

One of the best talks I had was with a fellow teacher, Ms. Gabby, who gave me the brutally honest words to use to my kids - words that I didn't want to hear myself, but I'm glad I head them. And I did tell them. And my class was never quieter.

She told me to tell them:

"White America does not care about you. Westchester, New Jersey, Connecticut, Upstate... they just do not care what happens to you. Although I can only help you so much, there is only one person who is going to help you claw your way out of here. And that is you. You can not rely on the help of others, because it will not be there."

I sat and listened to her and thought, can I really tell them this? It's so brutally honest. But I did. And I think my kids got it. They know I wouldn't be here if I didn't care about them. In a way I see myself in them... alot of them come from my old neighborhood. When I tell them where I grew up, they say, "Mister... that's THE HOOD." Welllllll...it was an all Italian neighborhood when I grew up, but I won't tell THEM that. "Hell's yes," I say. And we now have a connection.

PS, Ms. Jameil, you should pitch your series "The State of Black America" to your higher ups as a real show.

Veronica Marché said...

"In other countries parents and students alike risk life and limb to educate themselves and their offspring."

DAMN Jameil! Spill it, spill it, spill it! How much longer are we gonna encourage Jamal to spend more time dribbling a basketball than reading his schoolbooks? The gap leaving black children behind is at a critical mass and we canNOT blame it all on "the system." How I wish, oh how I wish, that our most visible athletes and celebrities would encourage reading. I promise you more kids would pick up a book if D4L sang, "Read dat Huckleberry... that Huckleberry FINN! Read that Huckleberry..." (A faaaaar stretch, I know, but damn.)

My parents KEPT books in the house, read to my siblings and I, and even had to force me to put down my novels at night because it was past my bedtime. And I know there are many of us self-proclaimed nerds who are black and proud out there, but we are being heavily overshadowed by the sexiness of being a music "producer" or NBA star.

There's no one segment of the community that can effectively change this. From the top down there has to be a collective effort to promote education to our children. The question is will we get the cooperation that's needed?

Toni "Turtle Dove" Phoenix said...

You know, I've never met you, but I know I like you. I have this discussion with people a lot, Jameil.
My mother told my I was reading before I entered Kindergarten. I love reading and am convinced that it was so important in shaping my current mental prowess.
I so feel you on the fact that some people take pride in not reading. They are so content in ignorance its a shame. The most painful apart is that black people fall in to that category a lot.
I discuss with Ms. Kotei that black americans are a world of difference than some us 1st generation blacks whose parents and ancestors are from another country. The edge I think we possess is that we come from countries where all those in power are typically black. We were not raised with or around an 'inferiority complex'. That creates a huge difference in upbringing and self-esteem.

Dreamlover said...

I totally agree with this post and I was also having this discussion just days ago.

It is a discussion I have often and worry about. The plight of our fellow African-American's in in our hands.

White America has shown us time and time again that they don't really give a shit.

So, who but us, can fight this system of inequality.

The system is getting worse. Just months ago, a district in Nebraska ruled to segregate their school system into 3 districts divided by race, white, black and hispanic.

Brown v. Board was passed in 54, Civil Rights Act 66 and Voting Rights Act 67. Have things really improved for the majority of us?


Can we blame white america for everything we continue to go through?


We have to take responsibility for our own lives and destinies now. We are propagating the stereotypes that people associate with us.

There is soo much for us to do!

I volunteer as a literacy tutor, and it is hard and sad. I was going to do Teach For America, to try and do my part in the community but I decided to go ahead with law school first.

But believe you me, my number one concern in life is to help better my society, and black america!!

Cece said...

Damn girl. You hit the nail right on the head. Its seems as if now a days it more talk less action. The generation before us is so disapointed that we have not picked up the torch. We know the adjectives used to describe our parents and grandparents ~ hardworking, strong, independent. Somehow I think the adjectives used to describe us will be more along the lines of lazy and unmotivated. And its sad.

Darren Sands said...

Reading Rainbow changed my life. My mom, like people here have said, had me reading early. Books were everywhere and sports, video games, TV all played second fiddle to Mark Twain and Richard Wright. That's just the way it was.

There's this white administrator at my school whose wife did not allow their kids to watch TV. Here's were the four kids went to college: Cornell, Princeton, Princeton, Stanford.

Clay said...

excellent post ... it is a complex issue that i havent gotten recently w/ someone who said "i was too smart" because i knew certain things that he wasnt aware ... it is sad when knowledge because a threat

The Sarccastik Variable Why said...

they always find a way around it...it blows my mind when a hard working teacher who's with the kid every day and know's the kid study habits, test taking habits and in class participation habits fail a kid (that deserves it) but somehow based on somekind of gov't program or something that same kid is moved to the next grade....that would be disheartening for me if i was the teacher...and frustrating, we are giving our youth's false education....good post

Ladynay said...

You are always on point with your State of BA posts Jamiel!

The only thing I want to add is a story my Ab Psyche teacher told us. She does contract teaching at two universities and she mentioned that a few times she was almost to the point of tears because she has had UNIVERSITY/COLLEGE students, darn near about to obtain a degree, that could not read or write a short essay.

It's sad! I don't read as a hobby, it's just not what I am into. I also am not one to say that all people who do read for fun are smart and vice versa.

But reading is very important mental stimulation that younger people now a days are just not getting. Someone already mentioned that we are a quick fix generation and if we can't get the answer with the press of a button, we don't want to deal with it!

Great post!

oronde ash said...

young folks talking about education. like it. i found myself in school. found black thought there, personal pride there. i've been trying to post the lessons on my site... guilty of not reading enough these days. can't even get through your whole post. too many words. sad state... the life of the mind is dying. you see it. whatchu doin' 'bout it?