learning is listening to “the space between the quotes.” an experiment in imagining just worlds in education.
“I know teaching is a survival technique. It is for me, and I think it is in general; and that’s the only way real teaching, real learning, happens. Because I myself was learning something I needed to continue living. And I was examining it and teaching it at the same time I was learning it. I was teaching it to myself aloud.”
For the 2016 NAIS PoCC (National Association of Independent Schools People of Color ) Conference, I was privileged to be selected to join with Sherri Spelic and Marcy Webb to present on online engagement and blogging within the independent school education community. I chose not to attend for various reasons: (1) is the NAIS serious about the cost of these things? (2) I know a cost-prohibitive conference like this ain’t really interested in justice work. If the poor can’t access it, its not revolutionary. (3) I left my independent school at the end of last school year, and while I’m sure they will say they care about racial justice, the evidence is suspect that they are interested in sacrificing institutions built on polite white supremacy to overwhelming structural change. Not to blame them personally, Derrick Bell says white folks simply can’t imagine it. Explains why they should hand over the keys to those of us people of color who dare to envision a world where whiteness’s only existence/relevance is encased in a museum somewhere to remind us of history we shall not repeat. Until then, Ella Baker said “We who believe in freedom cannot rest...” and Big Daddy Kane taught me “Ain’t no half steppin.”. I digress, back to the experiment.
To substitute for myself, I brought together several quotes that for me exposed what it was like working in independent schools while attempting to remain embedded in the larger fight for educational justice as a young cis Black hetero male who grew up in the working-class city of Chester, PA attending public schools facing the brunt of legacies of structural racism and organized capital abandonment. This is only the beginning of the whirlwind that helped to form me into the educator I’ve become. Let’s stick to the purpose…
The experiment is simple.
This suite of quotes is meant to be generative, meant to leave room for the reader to fill in for how taken together they can be applied to make an argument. Somewhere in between all of these quotes lies a philosophy of social change, a pedagogy, a response, a refusal, and a vision of a path forward. Please take from it from what you will, and what conversations move from, in response to, in refusal of, and beyond these small truths to me are all indicative of the work ahead for us. Thank you.
[A]s architects of discourse and as builders of a movement, what do we know about the bottom of the barrel? How is that place of knowledge, clarity, injustice and violence reflected in our work? What everyday choices would we make if we were accountable to that place? — Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by [Trumpism], but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible — and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people — must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen. -James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers
Education’s real promise is that it is one site among many others in the struggle to transform the social structures that create inequality. Rather than a path to opportunity, it is an opportunity to continue on the path towards a more equal economy and society. In this sense, we should think of education as a site for contributions to the larger project of fighting capitalism, not a compensatory panacea for capitalism’s shortcomings. -David I. Backer
But still, a common thread runs through both the more modest and more radical critics of [independent schools]. Both demand that [ind. schools] change in ways that we cannot expect them to change. The first group asks [ind. schools] to deliver on their promise to be post-racial havens, but that will not happen in a surrounding sea of white supremacy. The second sees [ind. schools] as the leading edge in a socially revolutionary fight. While I share the transformative aims of the latter, I think that [ind. schools] are not up the task. Certainly [ind. schools] can and will become more diverse and marginally more welcoming for black students, but as institutions they will never be engines of social transformation. Such a task is ultimately the work of political education and activism. By definition it takes place outside the [ind. school].-Robin Kelley, Black Study, Black Struggle.
What I understood this to be, and it helped me a lot, was: What about growing up and surviving childhood as a poor kid of color made me unprepared to deal with crazy white folks at ________? In other words, I got through my childhood. This shit is nursery school after I got through my childhood.
And so our childhood selves are sitting there when we’re in ______, saying, “Why am I not being brought into this conversation?” Because when you bring your childhood self into this conversation, your childhood self survived without power, without frames of intellective reference, without solidarities, without affinity groups, without even emotional regulation. And yet it survived the very nightmare that we’re trying to wrestle now. What, ______ is worse than fucking my neighborhood?
And [w]hen you realize that you’re built for this, that you could do this standing on your head, you’ve done been doing it, and that there is no end to this battle. If you dream there’s an end to the battle, that’s when you give up. That’s when you get demoralized.
Now, is it fair that other people don’t have to deal with the shit you have to deal with? Nope. It is not fair. Is it just? Of course not. But I comfort myself with the thought that at least I am in the best company in the world. The people who have nothing, and who are given nothing: We’re the majority. We’re the ones who constantly tutor our societies on what justice means. We’re in good company.-Junot Diaz.
…to keep winning, to keep our soul and sanity in this terror-filled coliseum, at some point we have to say f*** it. We have to say f*** them. And most importantly, we must say to people and communities that love us, “I love you. Will you please love me? I’m listening.”
We say that most profoundly with our work. We say that most profoundly with our lives. The question is, can we mean what we must say with our work and our lives and continue working at institutions like _________? — Kiese Laymon (with some personal edits)
“Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit you or bust wide open.”…”Learn it to the younguns,” he whispered fiercely; then he died. -Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.
“If I leave this earth today, at least you’ll know I care about others more than my damn self” -Michael Brown, Jr.
Now tell me, what do you hear?
-Chris Rogers, @justmaybechris