Freeing Ourselves to Give Students More
Early in the morning, about 6:10am on April 8, 2019, I woke up with first day of school jitters. No, it wasn't my first day of school, but as the new superintendent of our network, it was the first day I'd be shadowing one of our middle schoolers— Delvin, a contemplative and discursive Black eighth-grader at the time, who had considered matters of race, justice, and equity far beyond his years. During our seven-plus hours together, which started in advisory and ended in Spanish, he illuminated— knowingly and unknowingly—how our schools have failed to connect with Black and brown kids for years. By failing to make connections between knowledge and reality, by neglecting to center the identities and lived experiences of those within the classroom, by assuming that formative and summative assessments are the core indicators of learning, and by failing to invite student voice to be the loudest voice, schooling has itself become a crisis that plagued the minds of our nation's hope—the kids. As we transitioned from history to English, I asked what he was most excited about for his first year in high school.
I want to be challenged. Take music for an example, Dr. Harvey. Instead of just learning music, I want to know the history of composers and writers, why they wrote the songs and what was happening in the world. I want to be forced to think. I want to learn more about the history of racism, and activism. Ya' know? I guess teachers don't want to talk about that stuff, because they think we're immature or too silly or can't handle it. But that's the kind of stuff I want to learn. Instead, they [teachers] are more concerned about our uniforms, and if we have the right shirt on.
It is Delvin and countless students like him who are the heartbeat of the need for an abolitionist approach to this work of teaching and learning. Lipman notes, "The overwhelming failure of schools to develop the talents and potentials of students of color is a national crisis."11 This national crisis is exaggerated by structural metrics and data points, notwithstanding that every metric and data point has been formed and informed by implicit and explicit biases against students of color. Schools failing students and systems failing schools compound the impact of traumas on the cognitive development of Black and brown students in our most neglected communities—a crisis that demands the insur-gence of school leaders as abolitionists demanding liberation for one of our nation's most vulnerable population: children. Clearly, then, as students like Delvin continue to experience crisis after crisis, their freedom and the abolition of our teaching and learning communities must be addressed with a sense of urgency like never before.
Black students in our schools and learning communities have been relegated to being pawns, a rued game of politicization. With smartphones and social media platforms shining the necessary spotlight on America's original sin—racism—Black students are experiencing what Bettina Love calls "spirit-murder"12 by the trauma and re-trauma of being seen, experienced, taught, and assessed as an embodiment of burdens to the teaching and learning fabric of our school communities, particularly when white teachers and leaders are doing the seeing, experiencing, teaching, and assessing. And when called to tasks, many of our nation's well-meaning educators continue to construct internally pacifying, but externally damaging defenses for why it is not their fault, their teaching, their classroom, their assessments, and their consciousness that is contributing to the traumatization of Black and brown bodies. As a result, well-meaning, responsibility-neglecting educators become a crisis unto themselves that demands school leaders as abolitionist to arise in a demand for the liberation of our nation's youngest citizens and democratic populaces: our students.
For the last twenty years, politicians and community leaders have bellowed "education reform" as a cultural tactic to underscore the heresy of how Black and brown students have been maltreated in public schooling. Instead of an academic democracy that centers, empowers, advances, and resources Black and brown students to thrive in their communities and in the world, most have endured an academic panopticon that polices, subjugates, disciplines, and under-resources.13 As such, education reform is an insufficient strategy to guarantee equity for the disinherited Black and brown students in our nation. Instead, we need education abolition—an unequivocal deconstruction of all that we know and hold to be true in order to create a new system of public schooling.
As an abolitionist educator who lives, works, and navigates as a Black being within a system of oppression and subjugation, it is of utmost clarity that there is no singular, linear path to abolishing education subjugation, pedagogical oppression, and systemic racist teaching and learning practices. Kellie Carter Jackson notes,
The strategy of abolition was a long and winding road. A moral campaign required a change of the heart, conscience, and will. An abolitionist campaign with a political bent called for a restructuring of power and political systems. The abolition of slavery had to both stand for morality and institute real social and political change.14
On the long road to communally conscious education—where students experience an abolitionist approach to teaching and learning and care, guided by school leaders who situate their task, function, and burden as passionately human, radically moral, but no less divine—we must act. Our actions demand an understanding of the history of abolitionism as a movement that formed and informed much of the nineteenth century in the pursuit of freedom for Black folx within the American democratic project. As Marcus Garvey, political activist, publisher, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association imparted to us, "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots."
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- 14. Jackson, Kellie Carter. (2019). Force and Freedom: Black Abolition and the Politics of Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 7.