It would be a lie to say I was not disappointed when the kids were less than enthused with the Black Panther unit I gave them. They were used to getting subs for months and here I was as a substitute teacher giving work, no doubt adding to their already heavy load. Perhaps it was the failings of a new teacher. Still, it was disappointing all the same. I was a substitute teacher for 3 months for sophomores at the high school down the street from my house. The kids were irate at being assigned a 10 question essay journal. “How can they not be inspired by this? I don’t get it.” Oh but I knew deep down. It was the context, not the subject matter that was the problem. Schools are prisons for Black children and educators and school staff are the prison guards. Schools are pipelines to prison teaching students to “behave” and follow orders. Even as a Black educator interested in teaching our history and stories of resistance there are limitations to what can be done.
As Black secondary school teachers, we are coming up against years of racist mistreatment of Black children. The brilliant revolutionary thinker Huey P. Newton for example had to teach himself to read because of the white supremacy of the school system. In his pivotal work, Revolutionary Suicide, Newton had this to say about the “education” he received:
“During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience. Not one instructor ever awoke in me a desire to learn more or to question or to explore the worlds of literature, science, and history. All they did was try to rob me of the sense of my own uniqueness and worth, and in the process nearly killed my urge to inquire”.Huey P. Newton in his book Revolutionary Suicide
We are encountering students that have shut down due to the racism of teachers and the entire education system. There is a thick armor that is formed which we as educators can only penetrate through honesty and love for our people. I myself from a young age had to switch schools because I was being called a nigger by white students and the white teacher did nothing about it. I was sent to a diverse school that specialized in students like myself with behavioral problems. If it wasn’t for teachers that saw something in me and encouraged my talents my life would have taken a tragic turn. It is this reality that sticks with me as I enter the classroom as an educator.
My teaching about resistance can not put food on the table. My teaching about resistance can not bring back friends that are slain by police or horizontal violence. What are the concrete benefits schools give to struggling Black student lives? What does it materially offer students worried about surviving day by day? If schools were hubs for community resistance, schools would be a tool of resistance for Black students. I don’t think youth are meant to spend 8 hours a day inside the same walls. I do not think children are meant to spend the majority of their time sitting in chairs and looking at screens. Yet as an educator that is what I am obligated to enforce.
I was one of only a handful of Black teachers at the high school I was teaching at. This is the case in schools across the country. We need more Black teachers. We need more educators willing to teach our radical history and tradition. While I was dismayed by the lack of deep interest in the Black Panthers ( I am convinced this could be boiled down to me being a new substitute teacher), the kids were intrigued to learn about our current reality as Black people. Gentrification, the history of hip hop as a tool of resistance, environmental racism. These were all subjects youth were interested in learning. Content must be rooted in the present even as we delve into the past. I still think, who was I to assigned them homework, who was I to add on to the work they had to do on top of working and taking care of family? Who am I to impose these standards in a system hell bent on our destruction? As Black educators we have to do the best in the system that we are in. Yes the very expectations we impose are destructive. Still we must do our best to subvert the system while standing by our students in our communities against colonial violence.
It is an uphill battle as a Black educator that has to deal with often white administrations and the frustrations of students. We have to do it anyway. Our youth deserve more and we damn sure must do all that is in our power to give it to them through quality education of our Black radical tradition. We have a history of spreading knowledge in undercover ways, subverting the oppressive contexts we have been under by spreading knowledge in coded ways in the fields and in churches. Just as our ancestors did, we must do so in the education system we are working in. We must subvert a system meant for our destruction and use it as a tool for our liberation.