My Teacher Told Me Lies: An Essay on Why I Can’t With the Fourth of July

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Since I was very young, I’ve wondered a lot about this curious yet elusive concept: freedom. I wondered why my second grade teacher told me that the United States gained independence on July 4, 1776. I wondered why I believed her even though three of my older cousins, two uncles, and six neighbors from the block disappeared behind prison bars. As a Black man growing up unfree, incessantly in the face of unyielding trepidation, freedom has always felt like a cruel joke—one that mocks but ignores the irony that, in this lifetime, one in three Black men will find themselves lost at some stage in the tragic cycle of mass incarceration.

Fast forward years later: Although I’d forget my teacher’s name, I’d long remember her lesson. Fortunately, I’d also realize that the lesson she taught me was, in fact, a lie. I’d learn that her celebration of July 4th was also mockery but of more than just Black men. It mocks the tragic legacies of oppression that afflict unfree people like me, that still—to this day—afflict the many unfree peoples across this globe. I’d learn that her definition of “free,” as opposed to unfree, was based solely in a vocabulary to which I’ve never gained access, spoken in a language foreign even to the very people who first planted civilization in the fertile soil of this now morally barren land.

The freedom of which my teacher boasted wasn’t freedom at all, but a corruption of it borne of stripes scarred to the backs and bloodied to the swollen hands of slaves and other captives. It was purchased for cheap through unconscionable acts of evil—theft and genocide, rape and murder. The legacy of this freedom would debase bodies and break apart homes. It would invent divisions based on artificial borders (geographical parentheses that bracket arbitrary and unnecessary “national” fault lines). What my teacher experienced as freedom, I have grown wise to question and have, thus, come know precisely for what it is: a stubborn system of oppression that promotes national and global suffering.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass would allude to this system of suffering, this biased bill of bondage, when he famously asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” For Douglass, the observance of “national independence” seemed much like a farce, but a peculiar kind of prank, one that compelled him to ask: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Today, July 4, 2017, I firmly believe that the “us” to which Douglass refers must be extended:

What does the Fourth of July mean to a woman who could not vote or own property or even today earn a fair wage for a fair day’s work?

What does it mean to a citizen whose parents exist unfree because of immigration policies that outlaw their human right to travel, to migrate and search out a better life for themselves and their families?

What does it mean to citizens born free but who are made to live obsolete as vagabonds outside freedom’s protective shadows, under the heinous yet cruel veil of slavery—which is emblematic of the vile and inglorious confederate flag, acquittals of officers who kill vulnerable people, and the sufferings of people denied the right to live?

What does it mean to the irrepressible and striving remnants of First Nation’s societies, people whose liberties, languages, and lives remain at risk and at question, whose livelihoods and lands were stolen at the bequest of Europe’s unjustified greed and egregious campaigns of global theft and terror?

What does it mean when bodies are constantly groped by hidden cameras, where, as a populace, we are made rigidly to persist under the law of perpetual surveillance and the disciplining gaze of the State?

What does it mean to people who in schools and workplaces, hospitals and courtrooms feel marginalized for speaking and embodying Anzaldua’s mestiza, for possessing non-conforming hips and hair textures, for having hoodie-covered heads and burka-framed eyes that refuse to blink or bow in the face of corrupt authorities?

What does the Fourth of July mean for people who have just gained the right to marry the individuals they love, who have just been granted a chance to care for the ones their hearts, too, keep?

There are millions, perhaps even billions, of people enlisted in the assembly of Douglass’s “us.” We are the globally dispossess, history’s 99.9% for whom freedom has failed, for whom the annual celebration of national independence does not apply.

Don’t get me wrong: The Fourth of July is not just another day. It is a dark day that remains as important to me as it is to all of those who will pop firecrackers before this week is over. However, I will never observe the Fourth of July as a celebration, as a time to reflect on our national freedoms. (We ain’t free. Or as Jay-Z said, “Still nigga.”) Rather, I will use it as a timeless reminder of how far we’ve yet to travel, how long still we must press forward to reach freedom’s door.

How can I celebrate freedom or independence (or whatever one should call this peculiar thing) when across the globe this very nation endorses terror and denies the freedoms of so many? How can I celebrate a day dedicated to freedom’s decadence when the settler colonial state persists in places such Puerto Rico, and major U.S. cities, such as Detroit, strive lowly in their debts, when austerity becomes conscript to racist and classist impulses, and when the vitriol of providence beacons transformative sobriety.

In this sobriety, we must acknowledge that there are various and complex forms of slavery still alive and active in our world today: human trafficking and the global sex trade; the lost Nigerian girls (whom we must always remember) and young men like Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile (whom we must never forget). The very existence of continued suffering, further, marks the Fourth of July as a lie.

There is also the Snowden revelations, which have given us some insight into a global campaign of civil surveillance. With eyes surrounding us, and with technologies that merit to men the vision of gods, we must ask on this July 4th: Are we free? Are we truly independent? Will we ever be?

Are we free when random churches in states across the U.S. south fall victim to unknown flames and racist murderers worship alongside the people they would later execute?

Are we free when little girls and boys must hide behind the prison of locked school doors, or play dead under bloodied pews in fear of a madman’s gun and the zeal he finds to exercise against innocence his Second Amendment Right—the right to kill even babies and unarmed civilians.

Are we free when, on city streets, screams of gunshots replace the productive noise of work, when jobs whisk away from places where people have no escape?

Are we free when we care more about convenience stores than the convenience of life?

And so Douglass asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Perhaps, we might ask—in the spirit of Douglass: What to the so-called free person is the Fourth of July when other persons—women, men, and children—are enslaved, broken between borders, and subsumed by the enmities of never-ending conquests?

Paulo Freire wrote:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality.1

The Fourth of July must force us to address questions of Freire’s concept of humanization. It must compel us to finally tell the truth and, in so doing, recognize the various states of incompletion (i.e., dehumanization) in which we live. Incompletion is a corruption of independence, just as dehumanization is the consequence of dependence irrevocably made to feel like bondage. Here, as long as one is ensnared, we are all trapped. For if one is slave, then we are all enslaved.

In this light, we must know, and we must teach, that the Fourth of July cannot be a day of celebration as long as there is at least one left to lament the unscalable obstacles of oppression that distances so many from achieving a fuller, truer and more complete humanity.

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1. Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Penguin Books, p. 25.

David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Not Just Us? Using Classrooms to Get (White) People to Talk about Race

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If a Black body falls in the streets of Baltimore (or Ferguson or Cleveland or Columbia, SC) and no person of color hears it, will a White person (not named Rachel Dolezal) make a sound?

As the country mourns under the shadow of recent racial strife, many rights leaders and activists are, once again, calling for a series of “courageous conversations,” conversations about race that some researchers suggest White people don’t want to have and don’t know how to have.

For White Americans, race is more than just a touchy topic; its one that can often elicit an array of sentiments: shame and anger, guilt and grief, blame and confusion. However, the ongoing tensions surrounding race in this country, which have been amplified by the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, The Emanuel 9, and so many others, should inspire a more open conversation on race. But how do we have it?

Why White People Don’t Talk About Race

Don’t get me wrong: There are many conversations about race and the various forms of racism happening throughout the United States. Most of them, however, are not happening among White people.

Barnabas Piper, author of “Why White People Don’t Like to Talk about Race,” suggests that White silence on the topic is a privilege that stems from having grown up mostly “unaffected by” or “unaware of” the racial divide. For Piper, this privilege does not always redound to bigotry. Rather it reflects the extent to which White people are “unexposed to minority cultures (not just Black, but all non-White cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there.”

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University, adds that when White people talk about race, they “implode.” Much of this subsidence, DiAngelo explains, derives from Whites being socialized as privileged, which, in turn, renders them “racially illiterate.” Put another way, White people don’t resist conversations about race, per se; they hold the privilege to opt-out because issues of race and racism rarely hamper their qualities of life.

As such, critical race scholars such as Julie A. Helling, an associate professor and director of the Law and Diversity program at Western Washington University, believe that it is unlikely that courageous conversations about race will occur in White homes and White homogeneous settings without public pressure and public space. And though Helling maintains, “We need to talk about the effects of racism in this country, the rac-ing of people in general, and affirm the positive and plentiful contributions of all cultures to this country,” questions remain as to where these important conversations should take place?

Advancing Conversations of Race in Classrooms

In March 2015, Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz made national news when he offered his coffee chain as a site for initiating a critical dialogue on race in the U.S., and a firestorm ensued. Aptly called “The Race Together” campaign, Starbucks employees (baristas) were given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help start the dialogue. While some people appreciated the company’s effort, many others objected, arguing that Starbucks was the wrong venue to host race conversation and that its baristas were unqualified to lead the national discussion on race.

Some critics of “The Race Together” campaign suggested that classrooms, as opposed to Starbucks, were more appropriate (and safer) venues to discuss race. In a new book Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the classroom serves as a tool for educators who want to talk about race. To his credit, Milner offers comprehensive, evidence-based approaches and practical classroom tips for introducing race dialogues into classrooms, though he warns “such conversations require planning and administrative support.”

In spite of efforts such as Milner’s, there remain skeptics who affirm that classroom time should be devoted to learning core academic skills, such as learning how to read, write, and calculate. However, Mercer Hall and Gina Sipley point out, race is a construct of social status and identity, critical to the development of all American youth. They maintain that as scenes of racialized violence chase our eyes and whispers of hate propaganda haunt our ears, we can no longer pretend that young people are immune to the effects of race because racial stressors exist in the minds and daily experiences of students. Accordingly, they argue, we would be remiss to pretend that student learning is not affected by their social and emotional states. Therefore, teaching tolerance, as Helling has maintained, is perhaps more important than teaching traditional subjects, whereas conversations of “race need [sic] to exist more, not less in classrooms.”

Talking Race in Classrooms . . . We Do We Go From Here?

Talking race in classrooms is about more than issues of black and white. It is about developing and nurturing better human beings. And, while race dialogues in classrooms might give White people an important space to engage in deep deliberations about racial bias in the U.S., the discussion itself will give all people a chance to inhabit a greater humanity.

In her 1992 article published in the Harvard Educational Review, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about how all students can benefit from exploring race and that teachers should provide “a forum where this discussion can take place safely over . . . a time period that allows personal and group development to unfold.” In keeping with Tatum’s call, organizations such as Teaching Tolerance have created real models to help teachers advance conversations on race in their classrooms. One example they offer is a unit for teaching Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The unit begins by asking, what is needed to participate in an open and honest conversation about race. What ensues is pedagogical magic.

Of course, there are other resources available, such as Jane Bolgatz’s book Talking Race in the Classroom, which demonstrates ways in which “good conversations are not simply a matter of speaking and listening.” According to Bolgatz, “one must view racial issues through a critical lens that attends to current and institutional aspects of racism” in ways that help students understand that various forms of racism have developed historically and can be contested.

Researchers from the University of Michigan offer a dialogic model for engaging courageous conversations about race. Their Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) is “a social justice education program” that “blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students’ learning about social group identity, social inequity, and intergroup relations.” According to the group’s website, IGR offers youth dialogues on race and ethnicity as a way of fostering a more inclusive world.

While many models exist, there is no one single approach for discussing race. However, creating space in classrooms for such discussions do help. Regardless of race or ethnicity, we know, too, that discussing race and racism takes courage. “Courage,” as Winston Churchill said, “is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And there may be no better to place today in which to enact courage than classrooms.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Making Black Lives Matter in Classrooms: The Power of Teachers to Change the World

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On Saturday, May 16, 2015, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools held a conference titled, Race, Rights, and Responsibility: What Educators Can Do to Help Our Students Think Critically about Protest, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberty.

This conference was not for everyone. And while it was a conference for teachers presented by teachers, it was designed mainly for teachers who care deeply about racial justice and tenets of teaching for change. It was for those teachers struggling to find pragmatic classroom solutions that might interrupt dangerous patterns of policing that brutalize Black and Brown bodies and terrorize communities of color.

As we’ve come to realize in recent months, police overreach–even to the point of murder–is not an isolated incident. It is not coincidental. It happens daily in settings such as New York and Baltimore, where the students we teach are striving and struggling to make sense of the contradictions of democracy–the gross juxtaposition of ironies: freedom for some tied to the slavery of others, a light of hope set against the darkness of despair, a national dream that rests firmly upon a social nightmare. The questions are intrepid but real. Yet real solutions and spaces to engage in important thinking to overcome structural injustices in society are diffuse and lacking.

At one level we are witnessing what Cornell West calls “a democratic awakening,” the unique union of rights groups with poor and vulnerable people who are asking the right kinds of questions and demanding immediate answers. Still at another level, too many of us are still fast asleep, entranced (and sometimes deeply hypnotized) by the symbolism of the post-racial mythologies that typify the Age of Obama. It is my sincere belief that teachers will lead the democratic awakening because we can arouse to action the youthful but energetic masses lulled to complacency by the seductive and sedating rhetorics of post-racialism.

While it celebrates its first Black president, our nation also continues its disregard for Black lives and Black life. The massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown bodies; the de facto legalization of murder against the Children of the Rainbow; chronic and mass un(der)employment; devastated, wasted, and occupied communities; heightened state surveillance; and the like are but a few of the looming examples of our current state of inequities. For Black lives to matter, for Black life to endure, these inequities must be dismantled. To dismantle them, we need a revolution as active and as committed as the systems that sustain human suffering and psychologies that maintain a deeply entrench yet murderous racial caste.

In this time of political slumber, we can’t afford to sleep. Indeed certain things in our world endure. Every 28 hours, a bird flies free of a lonely nest. A day, depending on the season, gets longer or shorter. Every 28 hours a mother kindles a novel wish for her vibrant, young child. Every 28 hours, a fresh day is beginning for some, but not for all. Every 28 hours, there is a new Freddie Gray . . .

. . . Michael Brown

. . . Renisha McBride

. . . Rakia Boyd

. . . Eric Garner

. . . Remarly Graham

. . . Amadou Diallo

. . . James Powell

. . . Edmund Perry

. . . Oscar Grant

. . . Sean Bell

. . . Yvette Smith

. . . Victor Steen

. . . Steven Rodriguez

. . . Aiyana Jones

. . . Carlos Alcis

. . . Christopher Kissane

. . . Deion Fludd

. . . Justin Slipp

. . . Duane Brown

. . . Akai Gurly

. . . Walter Scott

. . . Trayvon Martin

. . . Etc.

The use of deadly force has become so standard in the U.S. that every 28 hours an unarmed Black person is shot by a police officer or vigilante acting as a proxy for the State. So I list the names, understanding that this list could be much longer. But only this ceremony–the painful yet powerful procession of pronunciations–can move us to understand and finally act.

Some say this moment is about Black lives, but mostly it’s about Black death–not some medieval plague caused by filth and rats, but a composite of suffering and plight faced by darker-skinned human beings whose true “crime” is being born darker skinned. As a result, we are left to witness the folly of justice made more perverse by a tragic orgy of haunting and desperate scenes–an image we’ve come to know too well over recent years of Black men and boys dying. Our death is not always literal, but nonetheless it’s painful and tragic. Before the physical death there is the fatal violence that hinders our dreams, the brutal slayings of hope and inspiration that too characteristically typify our experiences in school.

For many Black males–myself included–classrooms bury potential, and good-intentioned teachers evict from the pliable imagination of young people a limitless real estate of fluid possibilities. It is in this reality that we define Black males as failing, and we use national statistics to scandalize this myth. We have failed them. To offer hope, human rights workers are now demanding changes in public policy–policing reform, as it were. However, this moment demands something greater than policy resolutions. By changing laws, we would find ourselves lucky to somehow change people’s behaviors. We need heart and mind solutions; we need to change how people think and feel. For that we turn to education. We turn to educators.

Teachers are human rights workers, and our classrooms are progressive vineyards thirsty for liberation’s laborers. Classrooms are never neutral sites. They are contested spaces, where the imbrications of competing interests wrestle daily for ethical real estate. Just as they can harm, classrooms can heal. In this light, classrooms matter. Healing and humanizing classrooms matter most. They have the power to move our assumptions away from the stale and negative deficit assumptions that strip away Black humanity and toward those complex narratives of people that build humanity and nurture sensitivities toward that humanity in ways that abolish pre-existing internal and external contracts of bigotry and violence. In such spaces, teaching takes on a new meaning. Here, teaching means teaching the mind as well as the heart. It means teaching for justice, which is always and only about teaching (to) love.

On May 16, 2015, close to 500 educators assembled as Justice’s (or, better put, Love’s) soldiers. This assembly of transformative intellectuals, activists, thought-leaders, human-rights workers, and passionate individuals came committed to addressing key issues at the heart of race, education, and policing. The conference was empowering, as it encouraged our assembly to teach our truth with more certainty and candor, a grander conviction and clarity, with greater credibility and courage.

About 500 hundred educators throughout New York City have gone back to their classrooms to teach change. One of those teachers emailed me today, saying: “I did a Black Lives Matter lesson with my students. They get it now.” In the end, isn’t that what it’s really about: Getting it! In a world were so many people continue to not get it, we would be remiss to ignore the power of classrooms and teachers to change the world.

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1. A version of this blog post appeared on The Huffington Post on May 28, 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-e-kirkland/making-black-lives-matter_b_7453122.html