Monthly Archives: January 2012

Tales of Xenia: HIgh school friendships, enemies and skullduggery!

Getting integrated in the 9th grade made my high school years ( even though technically the 9th grade in Xenia then was Jr. Hi) very interesting. After I figured out that white kids were very little different from black kids, except there were so many darn more of them, I could relax and begin to look at them not as alien creatures, but as contemporaries with melanin deficiencies. There were lots of things we had in common, quite a few things we had different—it was hilarious to me to hear them call the downtown area “uptown” even when they did not live in an area when it would have been up-anything to them. They were more divided along economic lines than we were. Our sorting took other avenues, particularly whether or not you were “cool.” Cool was not something we could define, we just knew it if we saw it. I was not cool. I wore glasses, I was studious, and believe it or not, relatively quiet, I was also not allowed to do a lot of things the cool kids do, like stay out late, go to the skating rink frequently ( my first trip to the skating rink resulted in a doctor’s visit to remove a four inch splinter from my hand—the floor was wood) and I absolutely could not “hang out.” I also was not the best dancer in the world shall we say. The slow dance was no problem, hanging on and swaying after all is not difficult, and I could do a mean cha-cha and Spider and even the Social, but fast dancing as we would call it, some called it hand dancing, was not my specialty.

I was saved from social ignominy by a couple of things. My boyfriend was cool, and he had a lot of parties and he had access to a car. As difficult as it is for youngsters now to understand most teenagers in my era did not own a car. Some of them had cars that belonged to the family that they could use often though and that was almost as good. Most teenagers in my era also did not have jobs by the way, not unless your parents owned a business. My friends Sally A., whose father owned the A &W drive in and Susan C whose father owned the dry cleaners pulled some shifts , but working to support a car was an anomaly in my time.

Not to mention that one of the sorters for what group you fit into, preppy, jock, hood or other was whether or not you participated in extra curricular activities. The hoods did not, period. Hoods did not even play sports although some of them were no doubt talented, they simply did not view school as a community, more like a detention center, but then that is basically how they were treated, like inmates. In those days the idea of equal treatment for all was an alien one at XHS. If you were one of the “good kids” and this was not based on the criterion of race or necessarily income, although poor kids somehow seemed to end up overrepresented in the “bad kid” category, there were different rules for you. For example, us good kids had, if you kept a certain grade point average, unsupervised “honor” study halls. That mean the most precious commodity that could be offered during the school day, fifty minutes with no adult supervision.

Needless to say the honors study hall was a breeding ground for mischief. Several notable examples come to mind. The first is when my classmates took one of my teachers’ VW bug apart and put it back together in the lobby of the school, they did not do that in one period, of course, but the idea was hatched during the honor’s study hall. The other, meaner, incident was when several of us ( yes us) convinced one of our male classmates to take one of our female classmates who was something that rhymed with witch, to the drive-in and neck with her and then get up in honor’s study hall and give a graphic description of how far he got with her.  Do not shake your head about bullying, she was a nasty individual who reveled in saying unpleasant things about other classmates, especially girls and especially disliked people from the wrong side of the tracks. She was not a nice person. Even so, I did feel a slight pang when she ran from the study hall in tears. Remembering some of the things I had heard her say with others as the object of her scorn, however, I did not let it bother me too long.This young lady was a cheerleader and fairly attractive and was pretty sure she owned the school. I suppose youthful lack of empathy and understanding led us to arranging the dastardly deed. We believed unequivocally in an eye for an eye.

Most of our attempts at our version of justice, however, were directed towards the principal and teachers, not each other. We kind of considered ourselves to be united as victims of their oppression. Another one of the honor’s study hall plots that was hatched revolved around my classmate Peggy‘s  ability to faint on demand. Peggy, who was a very pale, slender girl with reddish hair often looked rather like she was not quite there anyway. She was quiet and kind of tended to fade into the background. Peggy was not of good family as we said in those days and ergo was not actually in honors study hall, but we decided that we should recruit her in difficult situations like pop quizzes and therefore overtures of friendship were made that might not have otherwise been made. Eager to fit in and be popular, as we all were, she bought into the plot. Our biology teacher Mr. R. was an effeminate little man, very pale, rather chubby, already balding in his early thirties,  who shared with us ad nauseum that he really wanted to be a farrier, not a teacher. he had moved to Xenia because we had a farrier school in town and he took the teaching job so he could get money to pay for his tuition at the school and to live on.  He was afraid of bugs and snakes and frogs so we did not do much dissection, mainly we studied things in books. He was, however, fond of giving pop quizzes, a practice we absolutely hated.

So Peggy was put on notice. The next time Mr. R announced a pop quiz she was to faint. One Wednesday he announced we should get ready to take a pop quiz and on cue Peggy went limp, and in slow motion slithered out of our modern plastic molded chairs with attached writing surfaces. Mr. R looked stricken and amazed. I thought he might faint too. We all made much of the incident with exclamations of “Oooh she fainted!” just in case he was too thick to get why she was lying on the floor.

After a brief period of inertia he sprang into action and after several foiled attempts at scooping her up ( she really was out and limp) he finally managed to get her into a kind of fireman’s carry situation and dash out towards the school nurse‘s office. At least that is where we presumed he went. We frankly did not care. We had accomplished our goal. We were not going to have a quiz and we had obtained our version of Nirvana,  a class with no teacher for more than ten minutes or so.  We made use of Peggy’s unique talent on several occasions, she never seemed to be the worse for wear and we always enjoyed it enormously. It was win/win. She got to be lauded for her contribution to our need for control and we got to disrupt the day without personal risk, because good kids did not get into trouble!

The same cannot be said for our teachers. One of my English teachers, when I was a senior actually, had been a fat girl in college.  After she graduated her wealthy parents sent her to a fat farm and she slimmed down nicely. Except for still having legs that did not really have ankles she was fairly slender. Her pleased parents had sprung for an impressive wardrobe as a result. Twin sets, short sleeved or sleeveless sweaters with a cardigan of the same color over them were all the rage that year and costly. Miss B had them in all the colors of the rainbow. She also had a yen for cute high school boys and could be seen flirting with some of our hunks openly in class, even going so far as to ask the young men openly what was going on and what they were going to do over the weekend.  She would evidently show up sometimes to enjoy herself with the young men, although to what extent I never was privy to. All of us females were, of course, outraged at her obvious penchant for young flesh. She would, however, get her comeuppance shortly after we graduated. She and the football coach, Coach H were caught doing the horizontal hula in the teacher’s lounge after school by my French Teacher, Mrs. L! Miss B was fired, Coach H was not and I was the beneficiary of a delightful description of the event my Mrs. L years later when I went back to do my student teaching under her direction.  ” Melva”, she breathed in dramatic fashion( she always called me Melva) I opened the door and there there were, mostly naked,  flagrante delicto right on the teacher’s lounge couch. I was appalled, I backed out, but I simply could not forget what I had seen. I had to report it! ”  Mrs. L was a very proper lady and she was truly horrified at this crude lapse of couth. I can still hear her tone of outrage and disbelief.

Ah well enough tales of XHS back when the earth was cooling.

Those were different days! 🙂


Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Education, Uncategorized, Xenia


Economic Omerta: Keeping quiet about keeping the poor, poor

Rather by accident I have been confronted with several incidences in the past few days of the way things are stacked against the poor . During my visit to Richmond, Virginia for a job interview with a college, I was put up in a very pricy, very ornate, very Southern hotel. This hotel likes to evoke images of a time when I would not have been allowed to stay in it, the antebellum era. They are willing to come a little into the twentieth century by having some iconography and story telling about rich white people in the 20s and 30s who used the hotel as a stopping point between Florida and New York, but that is about as far as they come. The poster in the little museum down below the grand staircase has a poster of famous people who have stayed there. There is not one person of color listed even though the little museum claims to be memorializing events between 1895 and 1995. Most of the staff is, of course, black, livery and all.

On Monday  I decided to take a before dinner walk to get a feeling for the city, this being my first trip to Richmond. Within two blocks I realized I had better get my derriere back to the hotel. Lots of street people and rough looking characters, all of them of color, were hanging out on the sidewalks. They did not harass me, they spoke, and move aside to let me pass, but their glances told me they considered me an alien, if I too was of color. The contrast of the hotel guests, almost all white, and the street people, almost all of color, struck me hard. What exactly had the white people in the hotel done to give them the privilege of being waited on and cowtowed to while these people were obviously struggling. Spare me the talk of responsible decisions, drug usage ( I am pretty sure some of the white folks in the hotel used drugs too and not all of them made responsible decisions I am sure) no, there was something else at play here, the poor versus the non-poor. Even though my example was color connected I was not naive enough to believe that was the general case. Most poor people in America, like most rich people in America, are white, despite that the Republican candidates are trying to convince people otherwise.Most people who have babies out of wedlock, a primary cause of poverty, are white, most people on food stamps are white, most people on welfare are white, most people on disability are white, most people on SSI are white. And spare me the percentage crap. We do not pay people by percentages, we pay them by individuals.

But why are they poor? We need poor people, of course. Nobody grows up wanting to work at McDonald’s or to change sheets in a five star hotel, or even be a Starbucks barrista. We need them. So we make sure we have them. Let’s see if we can dissect the way people get poor. You are born into a poor family. This poor family, if it is of color, lives in a neighborhood of poor people . If you are white it is possible that your family can live at least on the fringes of a a middle class neighborhood, but let’s presume that of color or white you live in a poor neighborhood. If that neighborhood is poor then it is highly likely you are being sent to a poor school. Poor schools are , almost without exception, poor performing schools with mainly unprepared and in some cases uncaring teachers. This means you have several strikes by the time you are say, 9. Researchers and scholars have shown that children from middle class and upper class families hear 4 million more words before they get to kindergarten than poor kids. Your kindergarten teacher is likely to be white and less likely to be poor. That means she speaks standard English and has been exposed to lots more words than a poor person of the same age. This will be reflected in the way she talks. That means her speech may be alien to you. I am not even going to do more than mention that if English is not your first language you are in even  more trouble.

So, little TJ, the poor kid starts school behind. This is his story. Fewer words, familiar with different mores and customs, teacher is of a different race and culture and socioeconomic class. The school is most likely not even in my neighborhood. The materials used do not necessarily represent my culture. The illustrations in them do not look like my house, my family, my neighborhood or my mode of transportation. My clothes are not the best and some of the other students let me know that. I am different and behind.  When my parents ask me questions about school they are tentative or even a little nervous anticipating my answers letting me know there may be something bad about school.  Some of the kids in my class already know how to read. I do not even know the alphabet because nobody ever taught it to me. I am behind.  Some of the kids talk about having an ipod or even a laptop computer. i do not have those things, neither does my family, although my mom sometimes goes to the library to use a computer so I know what that is. I am behind.

TJ will probably be placed in a slow track. His instruction will be in the range of less information or remedial. It is unlikely he will ever be removed from that track and moved to a higher one. When my oldest son went to kindergarten in the 1970s there were 6 tracks in the class. Mike and three other students were in the highest track and were sent to the First Grade classroom for part of the day. Lest you think things have changed in 40 years, my grand daughter Ella, who is in Second grade is in a special group of four kids who get to go to enrichment classes on Friday. Only four when Mike was in kindergarten and now only four when Ella is in second grade. Some are chosen. Are they smart? Yep. Are they better prepared? Yep, Could they both read before they started school? Yep. Is that because we are better than other people? Nope. Lots of variables, opportunities and yes, some choices, contributed to their academic achievement.

Let’s get back to TJ. He has been in the lowest level of academic instruction now for five years, and is in fourth grade. The other kids know what being in his group means and tease him about being dumb. Even in classes where he is not tracked, like music and gym he may find himself an outsider, or he may excel in them, getting some validation and self-esteem in the process. We like what we are good at and we are good at what we like. The fact that TJs gym teacher may have a different view of him than his Language Arts teacher may mean he finds himself succeeding in gym. The message sent is clear. He is an athlete, not a scholar. So TJ does not practice his reading and math which remain challenging–his teachers are not pushing him in either subject, but he does practice his basketball and dodge ball.   His 5th and 6th grade years are better, he is a star on the elementary school basketball team.

Then he hits middle school, which for our purposes starts at 7th grade. There is kink in the works here. To play basketball, his best subject , if you will, you have to maintain a certain grade point average. TJ has hit a wall. But, the coach who is familiar with TJ sees a way out. If TJ can get put in Special Education classes the rules will be different. TJ’s parents are by now firmly convinced, after seeing 6 years of low grades on grade cards, that TJ is not too bright, agree that he loves basketball, should be able to play and therefore, they sign him into Special Ed. Classes are smaller, he will get more attention they are told and will stay eligible for sports. Problem solved.

So TJ stays in Special Ed and stars on the basketball court through his senior year. This could be seen as a blessing, after all, without basketball TJ might have dropped out of school, getting tired of failing at one thing after another. But now in his senior year TJ notices that colleges, at least most of them he would like to attend, are not interested in him. He is not that tall and although he starred in high school his skills are not sufficient for college play.  TJ is back to failure. Other students are getting scholarships, being recruited for their brains or their brawn, but not TJ.

He now finds out he does not have enough credits to graduate. It seems that he kind of let down after basketball season and his grades even in his Special Ed classes are not sufficient. He also had to be mainstreamed into some required courses, like government and he failed that.

TJ is now 18, no diploma, no direction, no nothing. What should he do? Why get a job New Gingrich would say, perhaps as a custodian? Easier said than done.

If TJ does get a low paying job, all that he is probably qualified for ( after multiple years in classes that presume you are not bright, you will not be bright anymore, even if you once were), he will struggle. He will probably live in his old neighborhood where food is more expensive, there is a food desert for decent food at any price, it is not safe, it is not clean, it is not a place to engender hope. TJ cannot take advantage of sales. If Walmart has toilet paper, buy one get one free for a certain large size he does not have the money to buy one, and even if he did he has no car to get to Walmart.  He cannot buy a house or an apartment, where would he get the down payment? And the bank would not give him a loan anyway. He might father a kid or two. He will not set out to be a deadbeat baby daddybut he barely makes enough food to keep himself going and he sees the disappointment and hears about the disappointment of the baby’s mom each time they are together, time to move on, his self-esteem cannot take anymore failure. Failed as a student, failed as a basketball player, failed as a mate, failed as a daddy.

We will leave TJ searching while we turn our lens to society. What choices could TJ have made differently to change his path? His fate was in some ways sealed by the age of 6. Should we hold 6 year olds accountable?

Why doesn’t society understand that we are designating some people as disposable, often based on nothing more than their color or lack of money, or both. I know why.

We need poor people.

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Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Social Justice


Black Colleges and Universities: Are they doomed or just low sick?

I am the product of an HBCU. I graduated with a BS in Education from Central State University in Wilberforce , Ohio in 1971. That was long ago enough that the professors who taught me were all true scholars. They did research, they published, the first year I taught high school I taught from a book co-authored by my professor and mentor Dr. Wilhemina Robinson. The landscape of HBCU scholarship in the forty-one years since I graduated has changed dramatically. In the 1960s and early 70s true integration of higher education was still in its infancy. Most black scholars, especially those who did not live in urban areas, had few choices of where to teach. My chemistry professor in undergrad, Dr. Shelbert Smith, had worked with Fermi and other internationally known scientists, but the color of his skin meant he was relegated to a black, less prestigious and less resourced institution. It was to our advantage as students that many of our professors simply could not find work at white institutions because those institutions did not hire black people, no matter what their accomplishment or resumes looked like.

But, by the time I graduated the tide was turning. White universities began for reasons we can only speculate to decide they would not mind having black students, and that meant having some black professors to prove it was a place not alien to black folks. We could engage in a month long discussion of whether this change of heart was because of changing cultural mores or because of economics, but we will surely never know for certain. For whatever reason the HBCUs began to experience a brain drain. The most accomplished black professors were siphoned off with promises of higher salaries, more resources to support their research, and in most cases, a system that provided tenure opportunities, something many HBCUs did not and do not offer.

The HBCUS have never recovered. There are 104 accredited HBCUs in America  almost equally split between public and private. Most of them are, not surprisingly, in the South. In the South where resistance to mingling with blacks was more entrenched ( ironic since white Southerners and blacks had been used to living in much closer physical  proximity to each other for most of their history than any white Northerners, but then you know the old saying, which still to some extent holds true: In the North they don’t care how big you get as long as you don’t get too close. In the South they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too big) the white population was more than willing to pay for black colleges and universities to keep black students out of their white institutions. As a matter of fact it is hilarious that some of the white  people who history has lauded as a hero of black education because of their support of black schools and universities were actually some of the biggest racists who did not want the students to have an excuse to press for admission to white schools.

In 1950 the court case of Sweatt vs Painter brought by a black student in Texas who wanted to attend law school, but could not do so because there were no black law schools in Texas ws decided in favor of the student .  This set off alarm bells all over the segregated halls of higher education and HBCUs began to be gifted with professional schools,not out of interest in providing opportunities for blacks, but to keep them from having a legal remedy to being discriminated against by insisting on citing Sweatt V Painter and being admitted to white professional schools.

Fast forward to 2012. Only 27 of the 104  black universities offer professional degrees ( JDS, PHDS, Etc) or slightly over a quarter of the schools. Fifty-two of them or half have any graduate programs. If a black student wants to become a doctor or lawyer or college professor most of the time the black college is not going to be able to prepare him/her to do so. There are exceptions, of course. There are still jewels in the crown. Most people would recognize Howard , Spelman, Meharry, Moorehouse, Hampton and a few more as excellent schools, but I am comfortable in stating than fewer than 20% of the HBCUs have any substantial, sustainable claim to academic excellence. Why this is is too complex for me to try to tackle in less than a long book, which I am unwilling to write, so I will explore a few things only here.

First, they are anachronistic. We do not have many institutions that are devoted to a specific clientele anymore. Even historically women’s or men’s colleges have, in many cases been gender integrated. Second, many of them have lost their mission. Since black people can,at least in theory, go to any college or university, what does a black college offer that a white one cannot. My answer in the 1960s and 70s when I was in undergrad was that it offered a place where the scholarship was focused on black people. You did not have to concern yourself with the possibility that someone might be treating you badly or differently because you were black, which took a huge burden off your shoulders, you could concentrate on scholarship that was often Afro-centric in nature. The HBCUs of that day championed black people. black culture, the Pan-Africa movement, Black Power, black literature, black arts, etc. They took their dual responsibility to make the black student proud of the accomplishments of his race and to teach the rest of society about those accomplishments very seriously. They were hubs of black culture and knowledge and scholarship. I am afraid today that mission has been lost.

I have only taught at one HBCU which shall remain nameless. It is small school, fewer than 5,000 students. I was called upon to teach two classes in the School of Education because I knew the Dean and he needed someone to teach the classes. Since I was already full time at one university and part-time at another I demurred at first, but upon being begged and pleaded with and promised they would fit the classes into my schedule however I liked I reluctantly agreed.

I attended the first faculty meeting that fall and found out one of the problems of at least this HBCU. The faculty, almost to a man and woman,  had great disrespect for both the institution and their students. The faculty was made of older folks who could remember the glory days of the institution and had great disdain for what it had become and of younger people who were working there because they had been unable, at least for the moment , to get jobs at bigger or more prestigious institutions. They did not seem to understand that perhaps with their efforts the institution could be returned to its past glory. Being the newbie  many of them felt compelled to warn me that I would not like the students. They were lazy, would not come to class, disrespectful and generally no count, they said. I was counseled to save myself a lot of trouble and simply put in my time. The students, they declared, were beyond salvation, academic or otherwise.There were a few faculty members who did not caution me, neither did they disagree openly with the prevailing gloomy folks, but I got the impression they did not find the students as worthless as their peers did.

I was issued a nice, large office, bringing home to me the fact that the enrollment had dropped and so had the faculty, or such a nice space would not have been given to an adjunct. I brought in my supplies and decorations from home and attacked the design of my syllabus and first few lesson plans. As I was working in my office one day before classes started the Dean strolled in with some bad news. There had been some fiscal mismanagement at the book store the year before and as a result the book supplier would not be sending any books until the bill from last year was settled. This meant that the bill would not be settled until mid-October at the earliest, or about halfway through the semester. The University had to wait for tuition to be paid before they could settle the bill, and since virtually all of the students were on financial aid that meant waiting for monies to be transferred to the University coffers by various financial aid entities. I smiled and assured the Dean that I could teach from handouts for six weeks or so, no problem. He thanked me for being a trooper and left my office.

Now I was going to have to select book chapter excerpts and journal articles I could copy. I had 43 students in each class, huge classes for the institution because the classes had not been taught for three years and the students had piled up. But, I could make copies. I knew enough about black institutions to understand most of them of that size would not have clerical help for professors who would make their copies. So I searched out my materials over the next week and presented myself on a Saturday to make my copies. There was no paper. On Monday i went to the office to ask what happened and was told the supply of paper that had been bought had all been ” claimed.” This was a theme that was to continue in my tenure there for all supplies from paper clips to staples. The supplies came in and the veterans, anticipating a shortage, hoarded them. It did not seem to occur to them that if they did not hoard them there might not be a shortage. This is one of the problems at many HBCUs, this culture of poverty, real or imagined. Even thought the people themselves are rarely poor many of them  have the attitudes of people who are sure there is not enough to go around so I had better get mine now while it is here. Some of this is engrained behavior from a childhood of poverty (I used to have a boss, a black man at a white institution, who made six figures but always asked for a to-go box so he could take food home from receptions, luncheons and dinners) , but some of it is learned behavior. When you see people grabbing reams of paper and go to the supply closet the next week to get some and it is all gone, if you want to make copies you may become a hoarder as well.Betty Smith in her wonderful novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” said that poor people love having lots of anything. Evidently even people who are not poor but are afraid things are going to run out do too.

Okay, no paper, well paper is relatively cheap. I had been promised there would be a new supply in a month, so I could spot the institution a couple of reams. i bought my paper. I went over to make copies. The copier was broken. The money to fix it would not be available for another two to three weeks. Okay. I surrendered. I went to my VP and friend at my full-time white institution job and explained my dilemma. She kindly decided that since both schools were state institutions I could use the copy shop at her institution for my copies for the month. I was relieved and guilt ridden. I was making more work for our copy shop people and sparing myself considerable difficulty and using one college’s resources to support another. I assuaged my guilt with the presumption that the HBCU should be getting more resources and this was somehow a kind of social justice. I sent my articles to the copy shop, where they were copied, stapled and delivered to my campus mailbox at the majority serving institution. Yet another contrast. Not only did we have a full supply closet at all times at the white school, I had clerical help if I needed it and several other perks to make my job easier.

When school finally started and I got to begin teaching with my lovely handouts I discovered that my  students were not lazy, they did come to class, some of them had mechanical issues with grammar and sentence structure but they had good critical thinking skills, creativity and work ethics. I gave them respect and did my best and they returned the favor. The problem, at least with that HBCU, was not the students, but the financial management and the attitudes of the employees from cooks to custodians to professors to secretaries.

The problems of HBCUs in general  are: 1) Attitude about what is possible. In the olden days of my college years my professors would not shortchange me because they made less money than the people at Ohio State. They considered it their duty to provide me with a superior education to what I would have gotten if I had attended Ohio State by making me understand not only the material but what sacrifices had been made by my people to get me to a college and what my responsibilities were to be excellent to pay back, at least partially, those sacrifices 2) The professorate at many of  the schools is broken. No tenure, no money for research, no guidance or help to publish, no money to travel, no professional development of any kind.  Standards have to be elevated and maintained. This will cost both money and time. 3) Drift from mission. What sets black institutions apart should be their ability to empower and educate their students without the distractions of racism and provide them with resources and opportunities to not only achieve, but excel 4) Fiscal issues–either the schools are under-resourced or they are the victims of mismanagement or a combination of both. This must be fixed 5) Cronyism. This happens at white schools too, believe me, I have been the victim of it at least twice myself, but there is a difference in hiring someone less competent when you have 3,500 employees and hiring someone less competent because they are your friend when you have 200 employees. I have seen the dance of the lemons at HBCUs, where people fired for incompetence at one institution know someone at another and get hired at large salaries despite their backgrounds. 6) Turnover. It costs to replace people. HBCUs have to find ways to keep competent people, this is even more of an imperative than at white institutions because learning the variables that might erect barriers to the success of students at the black institutions takes time and patience and some degree of cultural competence.

HBCUs have a responsibility if they are to survive to fill a need. That need is not to produce a spectacular band half-time show. No, everyone can not be a Spelman or Howard, or Hampton, or Meharry, but you can be excellent, ethical  and accountable.  Change my friends, change or perish.

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Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Education, Race, Social Justice, Uncategorized


On the eve of a rather hollow holiday: Why MLK Day is sometimes a premature celebration of a victory yet to be won


What useful function do intellectuals serve in the life of the Black community? Clearly, “it is not our role to sweep by the poor in black limousines and to smile from behind cut glass, whether diamonds or Waterford.” Nor does the Black intellectual serve the people by groveling to Power, even if its name is Obama. “He has failed to live up to the promises that could have helped stop African Americans still being systematically disadvantaged, thrown out of their homes by malicious banks, disproportionately unemployed and languishing in poor achieving public schools.” The Black intellectual shows her worth by contributing to the “distribution of knowledge and skills” – and by telling the truth. ……Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968 when I was 20 years old. To say that he defined social justice in my formative years would be an understatement. And yet, as much as I admired his fiery and charismatic rhetoric and his brilliant mind, he was never the leader I wanted to follow. HIs personality and perhaps his religion were too different from mine, at least his public personna, we were not, obviously BFFs.

Non-violence is a great idea, conceived by and borrowed from the great Ghandi, and the message of the New Testament, to love everyone and forgive your enemies and conquer hate with love is a nice idea, but not what I have observed in my six plus decades of living. There are no doubt those who would say the reason love is having such a struggle against hate and peace is having such a struggle against violence and good is having such a struggle against evil is that not enough people believe in the messages of Dr. King.

Perhaps that is true, who knows? I just know that I have seen enough examples of evil triumphing over good and injustice triumphing over justice to have some doubts that the universe actually is in balance, that bad things and bad people eventually get their comeuppance. And, being prayerful and loving and quietly determined does not always get you where you want to go. I could name you lots of famous and no so famous examples.

Dr. King understood a lot about America, including the fact that convincing people to do something because it was right is not an easy thing. To begin with a lot of people have different ideas about what right is. I am firmly convinced that some of those Klansmen they used to interview on television in the 1960s were quite sure they were doing what was right by trying to keep blacks in their place. I am equally firmly convinced that the people who are working daily for that same goal today believe they are doing the right thing.

Oh, they are too savvy to join the Klan. They would not be seen with the identifiable bigots,  limited in many white folks’ mind to  seven or eight toothless inbreds from some back holler in Snake’s Navel Alabama, but they will work tirelessly to make certain that the status quo is protected. A status quo that has white supremacy as its guiding principal. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at any policy making group in America, the ones that make decisions about everything from how much we pay for a mortgage to who gets to attend what college and tell me what color the majority of them are?

Well, you say, of course they are mainly white, after all 76% of the people in America are white.  If we are going to use statistics then that means that 24% of Americans are not white. How many policy making bodies are 24% of color? And to expand the discussion a bit, how many of them are more than 50% female, which would be representative of gender demographics?

But, I cannot put all the fault at the feet of bigots or the ruthlessly powerful. No, a lot of people who are oppressed participate in their oppression. They live in some gray, fear-tinged area, hoping to be allowed to someday find a place at the table, but not daring to hope that it might be an equal place, or above the salt as the old saying goes. They do not join others from their groups who are battling for social justice, they duck their heads, collect their paychecks and metaphorically drive by in their limousines. I have had black people, colleagues, say to me when I tried to enlist them to struggle against some injustice, ” I am just keeping my mouth shut and collecting my paycheck.”  Back, once again to one of my favorite sayings by the great Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Dr. King knew all about the master’s tools, he had to confront them all the time, black people telling him to chill to shut up to quit making trouble for “the rest of us.” He also understood that a little threat was not a bad thing.The yin of Malcolm X to his yang of love and peace was a useful tool. A kind of ” see what you might get if you do not go along with what I am trying to do?”

The quote I opened this piece with says the job of the black intellectual is to tell the truth and not grovel to authority. The person who wrote it is either naive or a hopeless romantic. If the black intellectual would like to be unemployed and marginalized they might tell the truth, but I am afraid it will be reduced to a voice crying in the wilderness. Most institutions in America have limited interest in the truth shared through the lens of the black intellectual and failure to grovel to authority is lethal.And, we cannot forget, there are far too many people in America today ( for proof check the public and higher education system statistics) who believe the phrase black intellectual is an oxymoron.

When MLK was assassinated more than forty years ago, was the state of black America worse than it is now? In some cases yes, far worse. Affirmative action ( which is now under daily attack) and the eventual dismantling of official Jim Crow laws and practices in public life ( mostly)  have led to a larger black middle class. But, minorities continue to make up too large a proportion of the poor, education of most minorities is almost universally understood to be failing or failed and bigotry and racism have gone underground, where they flourish mightily, from racist worksheet passed out to black children in Georgia in 2011 to a black man being run down in a parking lot in Texas because he was black.

The fact that neither of these incidents caused more than a minor blip in the national media makes me shudder to think what else is happening in this great country to minorities and white women that we do not even hear about.

MLK wanted a country where people were judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. While some folks have misconstrued that to mean he wanted people to be colorless and ignore color, what he meant was that being a minority should not truncate your opportunities. We have not gotten there yet. Look at the average white family’s assets and those of most minorities, look at the high school completion rate of males disaggregated according to race, look at who gets arrested, how they are sentenced and how long they serve. Look at who can still get a job coming out of prison and who cannot.

I am afraid the content of your character still takes a backseat to several things, your color, your gender, you economic status, you willingness to know your place and who you know.

I think it is wonderful that we have a day to celebrate MLK and his work and his contribution to America. I think it is a damn shame that we do not have more respect for what he was  actually trying to accomplish.

Let us use his day not to pat ourselves on the back for all he managed to do,  and how evolved as a society it makes us that we honor him with a day off from work, but dedicate ourselves to continuing that push and remember these words of his.

On some positions cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?”!

Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?”

Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?”

But conscience must ask the question, “Is it right?”

And there comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular.

But one must take it because it is right. ….MLK Jr.


The Abandonment of Black Males: The sad and sorry state of public education K-12 and higher Ed and the way America ignores it

I received an invitation to a meeting about the academic achievement, or lack thereof, of “undergraduate men of color”on a nearby Research 1 University campus. The invitation seems to have been sent out broadly to student affairs types. Not sure if it was sent to any faculty. The  problems with the “undergraduate men of color” and their lack of persistence and graduation ( at this institution 70.8% of white males graduate in four years, only 49.2% of black males graduate in four years. Only 13.9% of white males fail to graduate at all, compared to 34.1% black males. Now, anyone with a modicum of common sense would look at these statistics and at least suspect that race and racism have something to do with the disparity. That is unless they are one of the delusional individuals that believe that legions of black males are simply inferior and do not do well in school because they simply do not try, or that they are intellectually inferior.

I have been engaged, at some level, with educational research for more than 25 years. One of the common comments made when you cite statistics like those above is that there are things wrong with the black males themselves. They are ( choose one or more) a) not interested in eduction b) on drugs c) from one parent families ( I am not sure what that has to do with anything, has any research been done on orphans?) d) involved in the criminal justice system at an early age and ergo doomed e) just trifling.  Much of the research that has been done targeting black males has been along these lines, in other words, ” let’s find out what is wrong with them and fix them!”

Close your eyes ( read the entire sentence first, and tell me the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the phrase, “young, black man.”  Is it positive? Is it accurate? Okay, now close your eyes and tell me what is the first thing you think of when you think of the phrase “young white man?” Is it positive? Is it accurate? Teachers, almost all of whom in k-12 and higher ed are white, are people just like you. They have the same biases and prejudices that you have. Not all of them, but enough. Do not believe me? I presume you did not see the article recently about the faculty at the elementary school in Georgia that passed out a math worksheet that asked questions like ” if Frederick, a slave, picks four apples a day, who many does he have at the end of the week?” and ” if Frederick gets two beatings a week, how many beatings will he get in a month?” Note the gender and race of Frederick.

Now, tell me if you think those teachers will be likely to encourage or even enable their young black male students to do well? Most of the problem, of course, does not lie with egregious examples of racism like that. No it is more benign, but no less deadly. I had white teachers tell me when I was doing field research that they do not give the black students some tasks because they did not want to embarrass them or have them feel bad.  Teacher expectation has a lot to do with what the academic outcomes are, pre-k-Ph.D. If the picture of young black men that society holds dear is one of a violent brute who is good at athletics if he can stay out of jail guess how much effort will be put into developing his academic skill?  It is odd that we do not extend statistical information to other groups. Who murders people in the US? Of the 15, 760 murders recorded in 2009 all but about 2,00o were done by men. Does that mean that we treat all males as if they are potential murderers in our dealings with them? Or all males as potential rapists when we are dealing with them?

I do not think most of us do, but we do treat black males as both potentially dangerous and inherently brutish and non-scholarly. I could tell you horror stories about young black men who were academically excellent and the abuse they took for that from both their white teachers and classmates and in some cases their black classmates.

There is no reason to hold a summit about the plight of the poor male of color on college campuses. I can give you the reasons and the solutions, if you really want to know them. First,stop asking people who have never taught a class and know nothing about pedagogy or public education to come talk about it. They know nothing and therefore cannot offer any relevant information. Second, change the way society views black males, not by fixing the black male but by insisting on a more accurate picture of who and what he is. Third, require all teachers from pre-k-PhD to  take regular coursework in ethnicity, race, racism and the history of oppression in this country. They do not know who they are teaching and they do not know what created him.  Fourth, stop looking at the problem from the wrong end. The black male does not need fixing.  the system that arrests him for things white boys get a warning for, sentences him to jail for things white boys get probation or plea bargains for, suspends him from school at an egregiously high rate and treats him as a disposable person in the classroom is what needs fixing.

We cannot continue to discard the black male in such numbers. Now that we have social integration the difficulties he may encounter impact more than just the black community in myriad ways, including fathering children with white women that his lack of education makes him unable to support financially. This is not a black problem it is not a male problem, it is a societal problem. Ignore it at your peril.


The Mammy and the Jezebel: The images of black women in American Society

There is a new book out by a scholar named Melissa Harris-Perry called Sister Citizen in which she explores the stereotypes associated with black women. According a her interview on You Tube she identifies four stereotypes; the angry black woman, the strong black woman, the Mammy and the Jezebel. In my earlier days of ethnic studies we only discussed the last two, the Mammy and the Jezebel. These still seem to be the two with the most staying power and the most negativity associated with them. Strong black woman and angry black woman at least imply some level of control and power. The Mammy is the servant of white folks, and the Jezebel is the victim of her own sexual impulses and lack of moral character. I know that some of you are even now as you read this shaking your heads and trying to think of all of the images of black women that you see in the media and pop culture and assuring yourself that black women are portrayed in myriad other ways than the mammy or the Jezebel. Keep trying.

We have Viola Davis in “The Help” being praised to the skies for her brilliant and probably soon to be Oscar-nominated performance. But, psst, she is being nominated for playing a MAID, a mammy! The same role that Hattie McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar for in 1939. Let’s look at the list of other black women nominated for best actress :

Year Actress Film Won or Lost
1954 Dorothy Dandridge Carmen Jones Lost
1972 Diana Ross Lady Sings the Blues Lost
1972 Cicyly  Tyson Sounder Lost
1985 Whoopi Goldberg The Color Purple Lost
1993 Angela Bassett What’s Love got to do with it? Lost
2001 Halle Berry Monster’s Ball Won
2009 Gabourey Sidibe Precious Lost

I will let you do your own research about the plots for all of the movies the black women starred in that lost, but suffice it to say none of them  happened to be a passionate love story or a story about a brilliant scientist or naturalist or international beauty. The only one who won, Halle Berry,  played a woman who was a white man’s unwilling sex slave. Is that the image that America is the most comfortable with for black women? No one with any understanding of American History could watch that movie and look at Halle Berry and not think about the Antebellum Quadroon and Octoroon Balls of old New Orleans. Certainly the idea that black women are hyper-sexual is thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche, and no, you cannot blame it on BET rap videos, it far outdates those by more than a century. If black women were virtuous ( read obedient and docile) and nurturing and big breasted they were viewed as Mammies, if they were svelte and attractive and preferably light ( a quadroon brought a much larger price than a dark-skinned woman and an octoroon brought even more) she was a Jezebel. We have not wandered far from that time established script in America today.

I would suggest that Dr. Harris-Perry’s expanded stereotypes, those of the angry black woman and the strong black woman are not actually individual characteristics, but subsets of the Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes. Think about Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy. Mammy was always angry, but also also viewed as strong. She could make Miz Scarlet do things when nobody else could, at least according to the movie. She could not, evidently, make her intervene with her father to free Mammy but even strong, angry black women have limits to their power I suppose. One of the primary black women characters in pop culture these days is Tyler Perry’s Medea. A strong, angry, Mammy, his movies are popular, well attended by both black and white people. Again, we are comfortable with an obscene, irrational, violent, black woman. Unfortunately, that stereotype is present in classrooms, boardrooms and corporate offices. A black woman with a point of view who is willing to defend it is varying from the general two accepted stereotypical roles, those of Mammy or Jezebel. She is not comforting, she is not nurturing, she is not overtly sexual, what are people to think of her? What box does she fit into? In other words she is not what is expected and not what is approved of.One of the reasons Michelle Obama is so annoying to some people is that she does not fit the box. Although she seems to be a good, nurturing  mother and wife,that is obviously not how she defines herself. And, her appearance is too phenotypically black to be considered attractive by some.  So, she fails as Mammy and as Jezebel. That does not stop some critics, however. I saw an article in one of the grocery store check-out lines that accused her of having an affair with one of her husband’s cabinet members. Odd, I do not remember the tabloids accusing Hillary or Laura of doing the horizontal hula with a man other than her husband. Guess they were not Jezebel bait.

I must make a point here that not only black women are put into these roles, particularly that of Mammy. Wherever you work I do not imagine it is the males in the office who generally organize the parties and celebrations and buy the cards and call the caterer to order the food. I do not imagine that most of the plants that can be found in the office are on the desks of males, unless, that is, they are taken care of by females. And when someone gets married, or buried who organizes the institutional response most of the time? Women in general  no matter what color they are are often painted  with the Mammy brush. And one could stretch the social imperative  for women to be attractive to at least the same neighborhood as that inhabited by Jezebel.

Both stereotypes are, however, more egregiously applied to black women. American society has been struggling for at least three hundred years to decide what we are and what we should be.  Unfortunately, as shown by the 1939 reward for McDaniel and the looming 2012 reward for Davis Mammy seems to be at least part of the answer. I am going to borrow, and bastardize,  a line by Butterfly McQueen, ” I don’t know nothing about being no Mammy!” , and I am not about to learn. ( I am both too old and too thick to be a Jezebel!)


Posted by on January 11, 2012 in Race, Social Justice


Victorian Education in the 21st century: Why we need to burn down public education and start over

As I sat at home in Ohio over the Christmas season watching my 7 year old, 10 year old and four year old grandchildren play with their hand held devices, and answering texts from my 21 year old granddaughter and spending Face Time with my daughter-in-law,  it suddenly struck me how most of what the kids were all learning, whether in pre-school, elementary school or college, was superfluous in this age. Yes, they need to know their alphabet, sentence structure, and basic math formulas, but there is virtually nothing else that is currently taught that cannot be accessed on an iPhone. Although I find our teaching methods backward and stale and ineffective in many ways, perhaps what we need to do is hark back to an even earlier era for some improvement.

At one point education was dedicated to more than reading and writing and arithmetic. In many ways the expansion of eduction to the masses also dumbed it down. Rhetoric, logic, debate, all of which involve critical thinking, were taught to the male scions of the privileged class along with things that have gone extinct like deportment. These were not available to women, of course, their education tended to be along the lines of domestic arts like cooking and sewing, with perhaps some cultural instruction  like music and art. But the tutors and early educational institutions like Yale and Harvard knew that simply memorizing things was not actually being educated.

In today’s age of instant information at our fingertips we need to spend even less time memorizing things to repeat on tests. We do not need to drill our students on learning rote mathematics like multiplication tables –my cell phone has a scientific calculator, but in the uses of math and how to use it to solve problems. Instead of spending precious class time teaching the state capitals, information they can retrieve at the press of a button, we can use that time to explain why the capital of Ohio is Columbus and not Chillicothe, incorporating information about the population,society,  economics and politics of the time that the switch was made. Instead of spending time teaching spelling–anyone who does not realize that writing long-hand is doomed and all students will shortly be writing only on a keyboard with spell check is woefully out of touch–we should spend time teaching students how to express themselves with the written word.  In short, I think in elementary school we should teach reading and writing and basic math formulas ( addition, subtraction, multiplication and division)  in grades 1-3 and writing, logic, rhetoric and critical thinking in grades 4-6. In the middle grades the emphasis should be changed to science and problem solving and high school years should be devoted solely to research.

That research should not be confined to any discipline. If high school students want to examine why some people become alcoholics, or why some bumble bees can fly even though they are supposedly aerodynamically incapable, let them study it. Teach them to work in teams, evoke their sense of inquiry and let them out of the damn building to be like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and run find out. There are certainly enough mysteries left in the world for them to explore. I can give them several of my favorites; 1) Why do people cling to the idea that race and racism are not integral parts of American culture today as they always have been?  We have bought this myth so thoroughly that incidents of insensitivity and even overt racism are brushed off as episodic, individual rudeness rather than the symptoms of a lingering disease. 2) Why do women ( and yes I know it takes two to tango, but one of the two cannot get pregnant) who are living in poverty with one child go on to have two or three or more? Do they think one of the kids will come out of the womb clutching a winning lottery ticket? 3) Why do people care about what “famous” people, some of whom are only famous for being famous, do? What possible impact can who marries, cheats on, divorces, gets pregnant by, in the celebrity world have to do with your existence or your society for that matter? 4) Why can’t Republicans understand why black people do not vote for them in any numbers? Hint: Embracing people who produce white supremacy newsletters is not going to endear you to people of color. 5) Why is it possible to put a computer into a package slightly smaller than a pack of cigarettes, but not possible to figure out a to have efficient, convenient public transportation in most of America?

On college campuses today  one of the catch phrases of the day, along with globalization ( which I do not think most people can even define) is cross-disciplinary. Some of us have been cross-disciplinary all our lives. I have always understood that any discipline studied by people has layers of other influences as well.  You cannot study education or science or most anything without throwing in some sociology and some psychology and some philosophy and some ethnography. After all scientists, contrary to popular opinion, are people too, and so are their subjects in many cases.

Let’s teach kids the things they really need to know to be successful in life. How to get along with other people, how to balance life and work, how to be ethical, how to have a work ethic, how to enjoy learning, how to take seriously their responsibility to improve society, how to problem solve, how to handle money, how to protect their health, how to use logic, how to think critically, how to enjoy life and other human beings. Quit with the rote crap that can be done on a hand held device. Quit lecturing except to give instructions on how to inquire successfully, quit trying to tell them what to think and instead teach them how to think for themselves.

I had some great teachers, whether that was because of their knowledge or because of their own personalities meshing with mine is probably impossible to tell. I just know that the ones who influenced me and molded me were not ordinary thinkers. They always reached further than their grasp and ignited in their students a desire to find out, and understand, what was out there. One thing all of them had in common was that they wanted their students to out do them. In honor of that they were consistent with both praise when deserved and criticism when deserved. They did not gild the lily and give you credit for something you did not do. Likewise they were not stingy with accolades when you did something well. Nothing is as satisfying as being given a task, told it is difficult and then getting praise when you accomplish it.  Nothing is as meaningless as getting credit for something you did not do. Although others may sing your praises, you know that you do not deserve them and therefore the cheers ring hollow.

So, let’s stop teaching kids like our great-grandparents were taught. First, stop putting kids in grades according to age. Put them in classes according to ability. If you can read before you come to school, skip kindergarten. The idea that a ten year old will be traumatized by high school kids is valid, but can be avoided by proper rules and procedures. Second, no child should have one teacher for an entire year. If you get a good one, great, but if you get a bad one incomparable damage can be done. Also, no one person can be good at all subjects. It is preposterous to presume that an elementary teacher can teach science, math, and language skills equally well. Make specialization the rule in elementary school and high school. And, there should be no such major as education. Major in math, history, biology, anatomy, music, art and take classes in classroom management, or don’t. I never learned anything in education classes that was of use in the actual classroom. The more you know about your subject the easier it is to find topics to engage each student. The best way not to have discipline problems is to have engaged students, and by the way my classes were never quiet. There is not much value in quiet in inquiry unless you are meditating on a new methodology.I would rather have a spirited debate going on over an idea in my classes than bored students sitting quietly and doodling on their notebooks.

Of course, we are going to need new administrators for our schools. Visionaries, hands-on, courageous men and women who will do what is necessary to get rid of the far too numerous dreadful teachers we have and reward the many gems we have in the classroom.

My maiden name was Mann and I always accepted some of the responsibility of sharing my name with Horace Mann, widely acknowledged by some as the father of public education. It is time to go back to the drawing board and realize a kid who has a DS in their hands is not going to be engaged by Mrs. Crabapple standing in front of the room leading a recitation of the multiplication tables. Nope, it is time to retire the teacher and bring on the Guide of Inquiry.

The world is a wonderful place, full of wonderful things and wonderful people, our students deserve better than brain death at an early age. Get out the matches and hope that education can be like the phoenix and rise from the ashes newer and prettier and stronger.

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Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Education