The Role of Teachers in Making N.W.A.
As a black person and an entrepreneur, I was so encouraged by Straight Outta Compton. Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the rest of N.W.A. were so committed to using their talents to bring about awareness and positive change for their communities. Through it all, they stayed true to their visions even when no one else believed they could do something great. I left the movie ready to change the world!
But as an educator, I thought, “who were their teachers and what did they do all day at school?”. As I watched fights escalate way too quickly, women be treated as fixtures and dreams be treated as silly, I saw moment after moment of where the school system had failed them. Did any teacher notice their talents and give them opportunities to be creative? Did anyone try to teach them how to resolve conflicts peacefully? Did they ever have a teacher who taught them to respect themselves, to respect women?
The movie doesn’t say much about what their schools were like beyond the interaction on the bus where “an OG Crypt got on the bus and gave a motivational speech”, but we can make some assumptions from the conditions of public schools in general and certainly from the conditions of public schools in poor communities.
As Ice Cube wrote lyrics on the bus, I was reminded of so many talented students I’ve had who, similarly, had to leave their creativity for art class or after school. There was no space for creativity or an injection of students’ personalities during “core classes” because there was so much content to cover, so much that we, as teachers, wanted them to know. In my own classes, I once considered posters an opportunity to draw and end of year reflections an opportunity to write creatively. Beyond that, students needed to learn what I thought was important and find space for their interests somewhere in there or wait until they got home.
But what if we let students tell us what they want to know about the world? What if N.W.A’s teachers had asked them what worried them or what they were curious about? Can you imagine how empowering it would’ve been to spend an entire class period (or even several class periods) talking about the way police treated them in their own neighborhood? And then, what if students had been able to create a campaign to rally their neighbors and present their ideas for change to the local police force or city council? Ice Cube probably would’ve rapped during the presentation and his classmates would’ve been able to showcase their own talents, whether public speaking, singing, leading, organizing, or something else. It would’ve been such an incredible experience for him and his classmates to see how their gifts can bring about real change in their communities. How much more impactful would N.W.A have been if their schools had first given them a platform to be creative, express themselves, and explore the things that mattered most to them?
Resolving conflicts peacefully
When the group split up, I was surprised by how many small misunderstandings became huge issues between Ice Cube and Eazy E. It made me think of the times when I worked in the boys dorm at a residential high school. One boy would steal another one’s juice drink, the owner would get upset and steal the other boy’s frozen meal, and on and on it would escalate until two guys who used to be really great friends couldn’t stand to be in the same room, even though the original issue could’ve been resolved by an apology and a conversation.
Then there were other days when I would ask a boy a question about his homework, simple stuff like “How’s your homework coming?”, and he’d yell at me and storm out of the room. When I first started teaching, I would’ve been blinded by the yelling and embarrassment of not seeming to have control over my students, but over time, I learned to see the difference between a student being purely disrespectful and being emotionally overwhelmed. Generally the issue was the latter and he needed space to calm down (well, we both did) before we could have a reasonable conversation about what was wrong and why yelling didn’t help make it better.
As a residential staff, we tried to find different ways to teach the boys to name their feelings so that when they got upset, they could self-regulate. If they needed a minute to step outside for some air or take a stretch break, they could say, “I’m feeling a little stressed, can I take a walk down the hall to calm down and come back?” instead of sitting there getting more frustrated and blowing up in somebody’s face unnecessarily.
Who could’ve taught N.W.A. to process their emotions? Or, like in this video, learn to “squash [disagreements] like gentlemen”? Who is this person in the lives of your students? Is it you or can it be?
Respecting themselves and women
I read this article today about how N.W.A. did amazing things for “giving voice to urban frustrations” but also had a long history of misogyny (e.g. this article on Dr. Dre). I had been bothered by the flippancy with which women were treated in the movie, but the article really pushed me to think more about it.
Why were there so many naked women in the movie? Why were there so many wild parties? While I enjoyed the “Bye Felicia” moment, I also wondered why Felicia was so quick to be a groupie. I get that groupies often come with fame, but how can young men who wanted so much more for their communities not also want so much more for these young women? Could they not see that them giving in to treating women as property/fixtures/extra/less-than was on par with how they felt society treated them? Had they not realized that they were as much affected by the negative, oppressive messages as anyone, and that in order to be bring about real change, they needed to look inwards as well as outwards?
In the book “Black Teachers on Teaching”, the profiled teachers talk about how segregated schools allowed them to have frank conversations with students about what it meant to be black in America. They could speak freely with students to ensure they could handle whatever the world might throw at them. In today’s integrated schools, this isn’t as easy to do, but some schools, like Fieldston Lower School in NYC, are finding clever ways to have these conversations using racial affinity group talks. For about an hour each week, students at Fieldston Lower get into groups based on the racial group with which they most identify — white, black, latino, asian, multi-racial, or not sure — and discuss a specific topic, like “How do you see other people? How do other people see you? What assumptions do you make based on appearances?” After the small group discussions, they come together as a large, mixed group to share key insights.
Sometimes it’s easy to see being colorblind as the best way to bring about equality and to encourage multi-racial friendships, but for students of color “a body of research has shown that ‘race is central to their identities, a source of psychological well-being, and a lens through which others perceive them.’ Ignoring race, then, may well have a negative impact on those for whom it’s most salient.” (source) Students need a space to talk about race, even if it’s uncomfortable.
What conversations did N.W.A. need to have about race and oppression that weren’t had when they were younger? What if someone had taken the time to show them they are “black gold” despite the world they see around them? Would they have expected more from their manager? Would they have have seen black women as sisters to protect and cherish? Would they have stayed together longer and had an even greater impact?
The members of N.W.A. went on to great success despite whatever limitations in their schooling, but what about their classmates, what about the kids growing up in Compton and neighborhoods like it now? Schools shouldn’t be held responsible for every social ill, but for the ones that we can address, what more can we do to nurture and train the Ice Cube’s and Dr. Dre’s of the world who are sitting in our classrooms today?
What more can we do to give all of our students a space to be curious and creative, to learn responsibility and respect, and to better manage their emotions?
What do you do in your classroom that others should know about?