The State of African American History Month
By Mary Theroux • Wednesday February 29, 2012 4:43 PM PDT • 21 Comments
If it’s the case that we study history in order to learn from it, let’s pause to consider the story of 13-year old Jada Williams on this final day of African American History Month.
When she was recently assigned to read and write an essay on the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, the message of the burning injustice of education denied especially resonated with Jada. Douglass recalls in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave the moment of his enlightenment of education as “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” His master’s wife, Mrs. Auld, had been teaching him rudimentary reading:
Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
Jada, caught in a school system of classrooms filled with disruptive students their teachers do not control or teach, immediately saw parallels with these frustrating barriers to her learning, and concluded they must be the deliberate result of a desire of her “white teachers” to keep her and her peers illiterate and ignorant. Jada penned a powerful essay pleading for her teachers to end the modern-day slavery imposed by illiteracy, to take control of their classrooms, and bring their students out of the darkness. Jada calls for her teachers who “brag about their credentials and tenure” to “find a more productive way to teach the so-called ‘unteachable’” students around her:
What merit is there if you have all this knowledge and are not willing to share it because of the color of my skin?
At the same time, Jada issues a stirring call to her peers:
Blood, sweat and tears have been shed for us to obtain any goals which we may set for ourselves. Never be afraid to achieve and excel because our ancestors have been bound for so, so, so long. We are free to learn.
A grand price was paid in order for us to be where we are today; but in my mind we should be a lot further, so again I encourage the white teachers to instruct and I encourage my people to not just be a student, but become a learner.
One would think that Jada Williams would be every teacher’s dream. Given a book above her comprehension, she takes the initiative to use a dictionary to work her way through it, grasps the most salient point of the narrative, and produces an essay applying its lessons to today.
Jada has instead been hounded by her teachers and administrators out of the Rochester Public School system. Her teacher gave copies of Jada’s essay to the school’s other teachers and the principal. Jada, once a solid A and B student, started receiving failing grades, and her parents were called with reports about Jada’s “anger.” Teachers refused to show Jada’s parents the tests and assignments she had supposedly done so badly on, and branded her a “problem” student.
Successfully driven from that school, the family quickly found Jada shut out of any other than the district’s “warehouse” school for what used be known as “incorrigibles.”
Jada’s mother has now quit her job to home school her, and that may indeed be Jada’s best hope for receiving the liberating education she so desperately wants. Indeed, according to J. Michael Smith, president and co-founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, “the Black homeschool movement is growing at a faster rate than the general homeschool population,” with high-profile parents like Will and Jada Smith setting the example.
Meanwhile, President Obama recently used the occasion of African American History month to announce the launch of “African Americans for Obama:”
During his campaign and early in his presidency, Mr. Obama made inspiring promises to improve education, scrapping “No Child Left Behind” for “Race to the Top,” promising to make teachers accountable and make schools about teaching children, not protecting union workers. Unfortunately, results are as dismal as for all previous attempts to reform the dysfunctional government school system, with students being “processed” with no skills or prospects even if they do manage to graduate.
What better time for African American leaders to back Jada’s call to her peers to hold teachers accountable, and to now hold President Obama accountable for the miserable and downright fraudulent system of “public education” America’s children are being subjected to.
African American children will otherwise continue to face little hope of affecting change and making history, beyond their being part of historic new highs in the grim statistics of drop-outs and dependents in the welfare state.
Here is Jada reading her essay and being presented the first Spirit of Freedom award by the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York: