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How Other Communities Educate For Liberation & Transformation

January 16 – January 29, 2020
elena featherston

Note: In November 2020, Port Of Harlem will celebrate 25 years of publication. As we countdown to our birthday, we will republish some of our most popular articles from our print issues. Thanks for subscribing and inviting others to join you in supporting our inclusive, diverse, pan-African publication - - now completely online. We originally published this article in the May 2001 – October 2001 print issue.
The education establishment would have us believe that Jamal and Marika, not to mention Juan and Maria, are not as bright as little Mary and Johnny. The popular analysis on many of our children’s lusterless achievement holds students and parents responsible. Their analysis often points to the students’ ethnic group’s cultural inadequacy.

Instead of slipping into this noose, the relationship between the education establishment and Black Americans, and other people of color, needs to be reevaluated. The reassessment must be from opposing, Afrocentric perspective that holds educators accountable.

Reinventing the wheel is unnecessary. Other marginalized communities offer examples on the way instructors help develop young achievers by teaching the students their cultural traditions, history, values, and codes of conduct both outside and inside the traditional school system.

Ethiopian teaches, for example, educated their children in a war zone using sticks to write lessons in the dirt. When some of those students arrived in the U.S., they consistently acquitted themselves in school better than Black students who are descendants of enslaved Americans.

It has been argued by the Ethiopian students that they learned because they were expected to learn and because their names, clans, history, and culture remained intact. Clearly, fancy school buildings and lots of cash had little to do with their success.

Consider Li Tan of San Francisco who sends her 14-year-old son David to a culturally relevant K-12 “Saturday school” for the same experiences that allowed the Ethiopians to succeed.

“Sometimes it is hard,” she explains, “he doesn’t want to go, but he must know who he is. He will not learn his history in American schools. I do not want him to believe what the children say when they tease him.” He goes for three hours every Saturday, David, along with Chinese children, immigrant and U.S. born, learn to speak, write, and read Cantonese. They are also taught Chinese history, get tutoring for “regular” school work, and take computer training classes.

Cost for the education is based on family income. Li Tan pays only $22 per month while other families may pay as much as $200. The instructors are professional teachers, college students, and community members, all supporting their young people.

Chinese parents seem to understand for their community something W.E.B. duBois wrote in a 1936 essay about ours. “An integrated school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion and no teaching concerning Black folks is bad.”

The Jewish community, in spite of universal persecution, has managed to continue to think for and sustain itself, holding both cultural and spiritual traditions intact. Again, education has been central to the process.

Take the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. It opened in 1965 with only seven children, in the basement of a synagogue. Today, it boasts a student body of fifteen hundred students from various Jewish backgrounds, and primary (lower) and secondary (upper) schools.

Vice Principal of the Upper School, Dr. Laura Jacobs, asserts that the strength of her school is much more than its academic program. “It is not just the formal school curriculum. It is the whole school setting. It’s the language. Every student must take Hebrew. Of course, they can take French or Spanish, but they must take Hebrew. Every student must take Jewish history and each student takes religion.”

The structure of the school day reinforces Jewish tradition in obvious and subtle ways, from the structure of the school, to stating each day with prayer and the kosher only lunch room. Even on field trips, continuity is maintained by arranging for kosher food or the taking of bag lunches.

Dr. Jacobs stresses that the small daily observances at school and in the home create memories that maintain the continuity of the Jewish experience. The observances also build bonds to Judaism and the Jewish community – the celebration of life cycle events, the observances of holidays, imparting the morals and values of the Jewish tradition, and the preparation of ceremonial foods.

On the other page, for students of color, secondary education is generally systematically inferior. White teachers, who believe in their student’s inferiority, which renders then ill-advised candidates, at best, to give Black students the necessary foundation for academic and personal success, teach in many urban schools.

As they enter middle school, African American children become targets of increased negative stereotyping. Their bodies change, their voices deepen, their sexuality burgeons, they get larger and begin to look increasingly like the menacing images broadcast nightly into American homes.
“It is not just the formal school curriculum. It is the whole school setting.

It’s the language . . . Of course, they can take French or Spanish, but they must take Hebrew.”  

This last chance to cow them, to teach acceptance of their predetermined place in the social order becomes a prevailing focus of education. Teenagers, with their hypercritical sense of justice and inequity, can smell the pungent aroma of racism, classism, adultism, sexism, colorism, and ethnocentrism embedded in the learning environment. The lack of accommodation for varied learning styles, lack of respect for home languages and home knowledge, and the content and structure of classroom materials are daily assaults on their spirit.

Our children are being “trained” to preserve the “status quo,” not educated. An authentic liberating education would include tools for understanding and appreciation of the impact of historical, social, political, economical, and psychological differences in the lives of U.S. citizens based on race, gender, class, age, place of origin, religion, sexual orientation, physical and mental ableness, first language and so on.

An education for liberation would involve the transmission of theoretical and practical strategies with which to reveal and challenge internalized oppression and to name external oppressive behaviors, institutions, policies, procedures, and eurocentric cultural assumptions. Education for liberation embraces home knowledge, or motherwit, and uses it to provide the means for children to speak back to power and transform their lives and the American cultural landscape.

“Parents should be in the classrooms asking questions. They need to organize, tap elders, like grandparents and older relatives, to join them,” says Tammy Harkins, an English teacher and cofounder of the Common Ground Program housed at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. She stresses learning real world solutions to real world problems in a racially, economically, and academically diverse setting. She goes on the urge parents to “have conversations with your kids about their attitudes toward school and how their experiences effect them and could be improved.”

For Sandra Mitchell, a working, single-mother, preschool teacher, and educational activist, political grounding is the key. She finds it is unthinkable that so many Black children reach high school without knowledge of the life and works of Martin R. Delany, Reverend C.T. Vivian, Ida B. Wells, Ossie Davis, Romare Beardon, Bill Gunn, Dorothy West, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, A.G. Gaston, William Strickland, Dick Gregory, Whitney M. Young, Toni Cade Bambara, Sojouner Truth, Haki R. Madhubuti, Dr. Howard Thurman, Mahalia Jackson, John Conyers, Jr., McCoy Tyner, John Henrik Clarke, or Gloria Naylor.

Mitchell is a driving force for change at her 13-year-old daughter’s public middle school, the San Francisco Community School. Her vision for culturally relevant education inspired one Black businessman to undertake the technical upgrade there. Mitchell, never idle, is on a curriculum design team for a new, alternative public high school, and she continues to fine-tune plans for her own Afrocentric weekend endeavour modelled after Chinese Saturday schools and the 1960s Freedom Schools. “Our children require a cultural context for education so dialogues about oppression and liberation have resonance. I want to hear them speak Yoruba, Wolof, or Swahili, see them build web pages and engaged in science and math clubs that commemorate our achievements in these areas.”

In our homes, businesses and churches we can provide what the Ethiopian children got with simple supplies, David gets from Saturday School, what Charles E. Smith provides of Jewish children, what Tammy Harkins provides through Common Ground, and the experiences Sandra Mitchell advocated and won for her daughter and others. Dr. Jacobs says it as allowing “children to feel a sense of belonging to their own heritage, letting them feel ... proud ... excited ... create memories.”

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