One Black American Family Tells Its Story
Chapter 4 lets one family take the stage to give a holistic perspective on the question of how their family values and history, social networks, and the students constructed and resisted, confronted and negotiated with the Shaker school authorities to generate the high achievement of their three children. The Atchisons vividly reflect the commonalities shared by the 26 families as they acted on the racialized social and academic challenges in the process of gaining an excellent education.
Negotiating with the Schools: Achievements and Asymmetries
Chapter 5 asked how the students’ personal capabilities, family perspectives and actions, their social identity, values, and agency shapes the students’ engagement with academics—given the asymmetries in the schools that are endemic in greater America.
Our Black parents and students acknowledged the academic excellence of the Shaker schools, its excellent college preparation, wide-ranging curriculum, rich variety of specialist co-curricular activities, and student-run organizations. Our students were enrolled largely in advanced courses and participated in numerous after-school enrichment opportunities. Yet the schools ultimately offered an experience cast in twain, one Black, one White.
Parents and Kin
Our Black families held values regarding education commonly identified as middle-class, with aspirations for high educational outcomes in their children’s future. However, parents were clear that their Black identity would brand them as partial outsiders in Shaker Heights and the US, who would forever have to expend extra effort to obtain those goals. This is similar but an alternative summation of Ogbu’s (2003) observation that the students’ Black identity was salient to their achievement. The need for resistance and persistence despite obstacles and extra effort is where their experience of schooling fundamentally differentiated them from the White middle class. Bridgeland, Cilulio, Streeter, and Mason (2008), in a major national report on parental perspectives on American high schools, showed substantive American educational values were shared by Black parents, yet the latter showed greater intensity in their commitment to education. Black American parents (p. 4) deemed college essential to succeed in today’s society more than White parents. Though Black and White parents shared similar levels of involvement with good schools, Black parents in their study who were similar to ours appreciated schools with a challenging college preparatory curriculum that fostered confidence, maturity, personal skills, and special talents. Shaker Black parents, like Lareau and Horvat’s (1999) Black middle-class parents, honed their ability to “maneuver and customize” (Lareau, 1989) their children’s school experiences by being present in the school, skillfully presenting their concerns, and using their social capital accumulated by conferring with other Black middle-class parents on concerns and strategies.
The intensity of our Shaker Black families’ aspirations and expectations regarding education stems from their earlier intentional relocation from racially isolated Black areas of metropolitan Cleveland for the
Shaker schools. Their presence challenged the schools and teachers who were subject to the common American stereotype that conflated Black with poor (Davis, 2007 Grantham, 2002; Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif, 1998) and conflated lower academic achievement with Blackness. Our families’ and students’ contested status in the schools as Black Americans who showed their pride in belonging to the Black community also threw them into a within-community quandary. Our parents rather than the students showed palpable discomfort when talking about within-Black cultural conflict in the Shaker schools. Their high-achieving students were called out for “acting White,” “being uppity” for getting good grades by Black students with less academic engagement. Parents were not blind to kin and friends “trapped in the new racial undercaste” (Alexander, 2010, p. 247) but they were determined that their children would not be trapped similarly. Parents insisted with rigor that their students distance themselves from “those students” those who were not “into studying.” They acknowledged that the Shaker Black-White test-score gap was due to the poor performance on the part of a large proportion of Black students, but they contextualized it as the unjust educational consequence of the racially inequitable social arrangements in America, such as poverty and enforced racial isolation.
Our parents’ fully recognized racism as a permanent and inevitable aspect of schooling, one of the tenets of CRT, adopting the attitude of racial realism ((Foubert, 2019, abstract; Bell, 1992). The Atchison’s in their own story in Chapter 4 perhaps best exemplified the perspective. It kept them steely-eyed, forging ahead to realize their aspirations to acquire the best education possible in a culturally White school. Foremost among the values the parents’ acted on in guiding their students was the nurturance of Black community cultural wealth in order to ground their children’s school achievement in their human right, in resistance, persistence and resilience (Ward, 2000; Yosso, 2005).
Among our Black American high-achieving students, the key driver of their achievement was their conscious agency to create and maximize their educational opportunities in Shaker Heights’ schools. Their educational achievement orientation was to them an essential and universal human value that was central to their Black self-concept. As parents and students made clear in Chapter 3, they were surrounded in their homes by a Black cultural orientation and pedagogies (Delgado, 2002), and did bring their community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) into the school. Carter-Andrews’ (2009) notion of a “historically rooted ideology of racial uplift and thriving against all odds as a member of one’s racial group” (p. 298) was embedded in their stories which highlighted the contribution of pride, generated by family, kin networks (Hill, 1972), and often the Black church. The family stories in Chapter 3 had shown that students’ academic engagement originated in the multigenerational struggle for racial uplift for the Black community, for justice and education and for aspirations for a better future.
As Boykin and Toms (1985), noted, in addition, our Black student did possess pragmatic and sophisticated adaptive styles and negotiating techniques, “embodying racial group pride as well as...a critical understanding of how race and racism operate to potentially constrain one’s success. It also means viewing achievement as a human, raceless trait that can be acquired by anyone” (Carter-Andrews, 2009, p. 297) and not owned exclusively by White students (Carter, 2008) in order to address the exigencies of systemic and personal racist oppression. Our Black students lived this social negotiational reality (Carter-Andrews, 2009) in their White culture-dominated school setting and neither took on a “raceless persona” (Fordham, 1988), nor conformed entirely to mainstream cultural patterns (Gibson, 1988).
Carter’s (2008) components of her critical race achievement ideology (CRAI) offer a similar set of characteristics: a pragmatic attitude regarding the instrumentality of an elite school, honing of multicultural competence skills, and the rejection of unhealthy, marginalizing resistance in self and others (p. 49), built on her own and others (Ward, 2000; Hemmings, 1996) research. Solorzano and Bernal (2001) shifted the focus from negotiational reality to transformational resistance.
The high-achieving Black students who had attended the Shaker schools from early school years onward had constructed a positive high-salience Black identity that was consistent with high achievement, which Cross, Strauss & Fhagen-Smith (1999) analyzed as having reached the highest internalization-commitment racial identity, one lacking tension between achievement and their identity of origin in the Black community (Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995).
The Black urban transplants into Shaker (see summary of Chapter 6, next), with a few exceptions, encountered a new culture that challenged their unexamined racial identity and demanded of them a passion for education. In their community of origin, their high-salience Black identity had not been disputed, but educational identity was of low salience, as was personal safety. Upon transferring into Shaker several of them felt isolated, others felt freed immediately to act on their passion for education. Both kinds of students realized quickly what had made their parents move them; they realized the practical impact of the chance at a good education that was unavailable to many of their former friends and relatives. The motivation to succeed academically increased their desire to acculturate over time to enact a balanced high-achieving, high salience Black identity (Padilla & Perez, 2003; Berry, 1997).
Both the long-term suburban and urban migrant students in Shaker evidenced what has long been known in research about strong, positive Black identity. Zirkel and Johnson (2016) brought to this literature a startling clarity,
The breadth, depth, and consistency of the research showing that a strong Black iodentity is linked to improved well-being, better health, higher educational ambitions and educational outcomes, and improved life outcomes is staggering (p. 305).
The stories our families told in chapters 3 through 7 support that research and add to it further insight into the mechanics of constructing and maintaining the strong, positive Black identity under varied, prevailing racist conditions. Our research enriches the scholarship by raising the vital role of the collective aspect of the origin and maintenance of Black American identity.
Throughout the stories of our Black students, they spoke of aspirations for a meaningful future where they could contribute to “something bigger,” repay their parents’ sacrifices, support their future families, as well as the collective Black community. In this, they expressed what Akbar, (2019) saw as “particular to their Blackness.” He found that Dorinda J. Carter’s (2008) critical race achievement ideology (CRAI) only partially explained Black male college students’ achievement orientation. The CRAI framework consists largely of individual traits and skills, whereas he found that aspirations to contribute to community betterment was an overarching quality supporting the achievement orientation of young Black male college students. He concluded that they subscribed to a critical race aspiration ethos (CRAE)1 that is a uniquely Black cultural future orientation based in a “historically rooted ideology of racial uplift and thriving against all odds as a member of one’s racial group,” as Carter-Andrews (2009) pointed out, which constitutes a consistent theme in the history of Black Americans’ pursuit of justice.