Here at the beginning of the school year (yes, here in the Deep South, school is back in session!), I revel in the annual excitement of the first days of school. Students and teachers alike are pumped and ready for this year to be different, better. However, I’m also experienced enough to know that in a very few days, that excitement is going to dissipate. For some, it will settle into a solid work ethic fueled by genuine desire to teach and learn. For others, it will crumble and corrode what could have been a great opportunity into an intolerable burden.
Particularly vexing to me: Why are so many Black students so indifferent or openly hostile toward their own education? (Warning: I’m going to repeat some things I’ve said before).
I once saw a photo in an old Life magazine (circa 1955) of black students in South Africa under apartheid who, having no supplies, were using their fingernails and some old pins to cut out pictures to use in a learning activity in elementary school. Others were using their fingers in the dirt to write their lessons.
I thought about that photo on a recent visit to my mother’s hometown, one of the only remaining settlements established by former slaves at the end of the Underground Railroad in Canada. In its prime, the school offered courses from Latin and Greek to vocational training. After the Civil War, some of its graduates returned to the U.S to help educate the newly freed slaves. So great was the reputation of the settlement school that it attracted blacks and whites from great distances.
Americans of African descent were the only group of people in the history of this country who were forbidden by law to read or write. It was punishable to be caught teaching Black people (slave or free) to read or even to give them a Bible. Yet the more it was denied them, the more Black people pursued education for ourselves and our children.
About five miles from where I now live is another town created by former slaves: Mound Bayou, Mississippi. With assistance from Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute, Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin Green led a group of former slaves to develop a thriving community in the heart of cotton country. At its peak, Mound Bayou’s 8,000 black citizens had a newspaper, bank, telephone system, railroad station, several businesses and industries, churches, and multiple schools. Like its Canadian counterpart, the quality of Mound Bayou’s schools was legendary, producing generations of leaders and productive citizens. At one point, over 95% of the town’s graduates went on to either college or the military.
A 1988 study of literacy here in the Mississippi Delta region focused on teachers and students at two traditionally Black high schools, one of which was in Mound Bayou. The author was curious about the remarkable success rate of these students on the then-new state mandated test (Functional Literacy Exam) as compared to other students (Black and white) around the state. By all statistical measures, the students in these two districts were “at-risk,” yet they consistently performed well on standardized tests and had high graduation and college attendance rates.
In an unexpected consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, more than 38,000 of the 82,000 Black teachers across the South lost their jobs, as did over 90% of the Black principals when white-controlled school districts refused to hire them to teach in the newly desegregated (albeit unwillingly) schools. This despite the fact that many of the Black educators were actually better trained than their white counterparts. The percentage of Black teachers in America has been on a steady decline ever since.
Although the segregated Black school suffered from lack of materials, space, and equipment, they relatively luxuriated in the control of their curriculum and teaching methods (relative, that is to many of today’s Black schools both inner city and rural). Within the bosom of the community, young African Americans learned not only language arts, including impeccable standard usage, but also the literature, stories, histories, ethics, songs, hopes, and expectations of our people as well as those of the nation at large. This is not to romanticize the degrading realities of segregation or to suggest that all the teachers and methods of the past were excellent. But learning itself had a mission and reason; and that reason was much larger than “You need to learn this so you can pass the state test” or even “You need to get an education so you can get a job and make a lot of money.”
What I remember most about my own childhood and throughout my school years was the unrelenting encouragement from all the adults around me to “make something of myself” so I could contribute to the overall community. Too few of our children hear that message today; some never hear it; some infrequently.
We should reclaim our children and their future by reviving our commitment to the value of their education.