The declaration came emphatically, out of nowhere — dropped between sudsing his hair and rinsing out the shampoo with a plastic yellow duck full of water. “I’m not black,” my then 4-year-old son announced, while playing with his superhero figurines in the tub.
I assured him that not only was he black, because his daddy is black, but that he was also Chinese, like me. He wrinkled his nose and shook his head at this reality check. I was just as confused — where was all this coming from?
“If you’re not black and you’re not Chinese, what are you?” I asked, hoping he would not say “white.”
“I’m just Langston,” he answered.
Just Langston. My husband, Gerald, and I were inspired to name our son in honor of Langston Hughes while having lunch at Busboys and Poets immediately after learning we were having a boy. The restaurant’s name honors Hughes, who had worked as a busboy in a Washington hotel before he became a famous poet and leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
We wanted our child to have a strong appreciation of his cultural roots and a name that reflected his heritage and our hopes for him. To me, a reporter who now writes about race for The Washington Post, and Gerald, a former high school history teacher, the name Langston was perfect. That afternoon, we bought two anthologies of Langston Hughes’s poetry — one for adults, one for children — from the restaurant’s companion bookstore and grew giddy anticipating all we would teach him.
But after Langston questioned his identity, even innocently, in the bathtub last year, we began to wonder if we were fulfilling our duty as parents in guiding him to understand — and like — who he is. What did the world around him convey about what it means to be black? What messages was he receiving during the day at preschool?
As he entered kindergarten as a 5-year-old in August, I wondered what he would learn about the flag, about our country’s history, about the Founding Fathers. I doubted that the public schools, even in progressive D.C., would keep it real. As a former education reporter, I know that history often gets short shrift in schools under pressure to keep math and reading scores up. That not all parents want their children knowing the inconvenient truth about our country’s racist founding, for fear it pierces the mythology of America as a meritocracy. That widely used history textbooks are riddled with lies, like the South seceding from the Union over states’ rights — not slavery — during the Civil War.
Gerald and I want Langston to know where he comes from — so that he can take pride in his culture, his people, his identity. We want him to appreciate that the history of black people does not begin at slavery and end after the civil rights era. We want his Chinese American influences to be more than just a footnote to a largely white and black narrative, more than a mention of Lunar New Year every winter. Home-schooling, we thought, could be the answer to many of these concerns.
Many parents have similar worries. The number of home-schooled students in D.C. has doubled to roughly 400 since the Office of the State Superintendent of Education began tracking the data in 2008. D.C. does not break the numbers down by race, but, nationally, black home-schooling has been on the rise. The number of African American children who are home-schooled grew by roughly 10 percent, to more than 200,000, between 2012 and 2016, according to an estimate by the National Home Education Research Institute.
Gerald and I decided to visit the Sankofa Homeschool Community — housed in a row of storefronts at the Adinkra Cultural Arts Studio in Mount Rainier, Md., just over the D.C. border. The African-centered collective offers an array of classes — from South African storytelling and African drumming to psychology and Mandarin Chinese — to about 50 families every Friday.
Founded in 2004 by Monica Utsey and other home-schooling mothers, Sankofa emerged as a resource for families who want to give their children a solid grounding in African history and culture. The collective hires its own teachers, often college professors, and charges $75 per class per child for a semester.
Utsey told us she didn’t intend to home-school her children, either. In fact, until her eldest son, Zion, turned 6, she read to him only books that featured brown characters, such as African folk tales, because she expected to eventually send him to school, “where his reflection would be nonexistent.” She was hoping “to fill him up on everything good about Africa and about being black before he learned about how we were slaves,” she said. But she decided to home-school her two sons after visiting a slew of private and public schools that lacked diversity in either the student body or the curriculum. So Utsey started Sankofa. And Zion, now 17, is in his final year before he plans to head to college. An aspiring engineer, he is already taking college courses for credit at the University of the District of Columbia.
Zion says he’s benefited greatly from the flexibility home-schooling offers because he’s been able to hone his interests, whether it’s through a transportation engineering program at Howard University, performing in a West African drumming company, or playing on travel basketball and soccer teams. “A lot of people have stereotypes of home-schoolers as non-sociable, that they are in their homes all day just in their pajamas doing work,” Zion says. “I was always involved in other programs and around other kids, so I never felt I was missing anything.”
The teenager says the experience has also helped him develop a closer relationship with his mother, who served as his guide, if not instructor, throughout his education. And he says Sankofa makes him feel good about himself.
“Once you understand your history,” he notes, “you’re not able to be brainwashed.”
During our visit to a class about the life of abolitionist and onetime slave Frederick Douglass, teacher Bomani Armah engaged students in a discussion about why Douglass did not know his age — because slaves, considered property, were not told their birthdays. Then he paraphrased Douglass: “A man who can read is unfit to be a slave,” he said. “If you have an imagination, it’s going to be hard to keep you in your place.”
Armah, an audio engineer, musician and poet, is a self-described “arts integration specialist” who teaches English through hip-hop songwriting at area schools. He decided to home-school his twin boys after he popped in on their first-grade class to find the teacher sharing the peppy — and historically inaccurate — poem about Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492.
“I’m not afraid of my children being exposed to everyone else and hearing opposing ideas,” Armah says. “I’m not afraid of my children being okay in public schools. But my goal is for them to be more than okay.”
I identified with that sentiment.
I think about the meaning of Sankofa, a word from the Akan tribe in Ghana that means to understand one’s past in order to move forward. Ultimately, that is our goal for our son: to provide him with the tools to help him find himself, so he can move forward in the world with confidence. Then he can truly be just Langston.
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