Is school reform about replacing blackness?

Fifth-graders from Watkins Elementary School in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News)
Fifth-graders from D.C.’s  Watkins Elementary School  (By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News)

Here is an original look at the modern school reform movement. It was written by Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington-based writer, and author of “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City”. This appeared on The Root D.C., where she is a contributing editor. She can be reached at NHopkinson@hotmail.com.

By Natalie Hopkinson

I was among a group of writers, musicians and scholars of go-go music presenting at a seminar for D.C. social studies teachers last month when moderator Kenny Carroll asked me a provocative question.

He was sharing some reactions to the renewed attention being paid to go-go—D.C.’s unique brand of funk that has been popular among generations of working-class black Washingtonians.  Some of his black friends who once lived and breathed go-go culture, but have since comfortably escaped to the upscale Mitchellville suburb asked him: “Why are they focusing on go-go? It’s old news and much of it not good.”

They’d moved on up: Their kids don’t listen to one poet called “the blues, sped up.” No one in their circles knows where to find it. “They see it as both a class and aesthetic issue,” Carroll explained to me later. “What successful black person would want to be championing go-go anyway?”

It’s a great question—one that gets to the heart of the tensions over “urban” school reform. What will our schools look like once they “succeed?” Will black girls stop playing hand games? Will black boys lose the urge to tap West African rhythms on their desks? Will children graduate bearing no trace of the poverty, riches, triumph, failure, and culture that form the complex kaleidoscope of blackness in this country?

It’s really an old question, which W.E.B. Dubois famously described in his theory of a black double-consciousness more than a hundred years ago:

One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

 

DuBois’ simple theory should be nearing its expiration date. But the problem is when you consider education policy for the past six decades, there hasn’t been a war at all. From desegregation to today’s “school choice,” every single scheme has been designed to kill off the Negro soul—or at least provide an escape hatch from it.

Sarah Garland’s new book on school desegregation in Kentucky, “Divided We Fail”, illustrates this “escape” narrative well. The book tells the story of a group of black Kentucky students who successfully petitioned the Supreme Court when they were denied entry to the historically black Central High School’s magnet program due to racial quotas.

She writes:

Black students found themselves facing the incredible irony at the heart of the fight for racial equality in America. For blacks, fighting for a color-blind society meant trying to kill off a piece of one’s identity that was simultaneously a stigma and a symbol of pride, history and community.

 

Under the desegregation plan, schools could not be more than 42 percent black. The only black schools that survived were ones that convinced a critical mass of white people to enroll. When they couldn’t, schools closed. (When the white population dipped in 1994, 10 black Central High school students were kicked out in the middle of the school year).. When they couldn’t, the schools closed. “Blacks are still enslaved by whites in this plan,” one black Kentucky parent complained.

As Garland points out, that there has not been a single public policy that has led to more academic gains for black children than the infuriating and chaotic desegregation schemes that followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. White families fought it from the beginning, but ultimately, desegregation was doomed by the burdens it placed solely on black community.

After Brown, some 38,000 black teachers around the country were fired and millions of black students had to wake up at 5 a.m. to ride the bus to hostile communities. Black community institutions were destroyed. School assignments shuffled like a deck of cards. “They have made this system so complex, so ridiculously hard to navigate that you don’t know whether you are getting screwed or not,” one Kentucky mother noted.

Today’s D.C. parents battling neighborhood school closures, “innovative churn” at charters and struggling to navigate the new “choice” based system can feel her pain. But while the purpose of desegregation was to achieve equity, to “lift all boats,” school choice is “Darwinian competition that creates winners and losers,” Garland argues.

Once again, black families disproportionally fail to hold the cards. The Post’s Emma Brown profiled a woman with a thriving consulting business advising parents on how to get into the “right” public school: away from schools that serve poor children and where their kid won’t be the only white child.

This rare gust of candor reveals the racial and class currents that undergird every element of the “choice” movement: It’s all about an escape from poverty and an escape from blackness, too.  Middle class parents of all stripes are intent on avoiding what one of my black friends likes to call “The Element,” a disease that is apparently catching.

If you are trying to escape “The Element” you might see go-go culture as “baggage” that does not belong in the classroom. (I’m assuming that a lesson about Marian Anderson mastering opera would be acceptable to these parents.)

It may be true that “green follows white,” as one Kentucky integrationist put it. But that is not the best way to calculate value. DuBois might have called our flight from blackness and fixation with standardized tests “measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in an amused contempt and pity.”

In order to move beyond the black/white, negative/positive binary that dominated DuBois’ 20th century, we need to generate some new definitions. What does it mean to be educated? What is history? What is culture”and how can our public institutions value it? We need new definitions for success – hopefully ones that don’t deodorize the funk.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · March 5, 2013