Look at this picture of a white man on a horse appearing to whip a Black man.
And no, this isn’t from the year 1712. It’s from earlier this week — the United States of America, circa 2021.
This image of what looks like the Malboro Man from the cigarette box at a human rodeo was a United States border control agent trying to deter and detain Haitian refugees fleeing their country, desperately hoping to gain refuge and a better life in ours.
If I can deflect for a moment, it’s interesting how the Statue of Liberty reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” but that motto seems to only apply to select tired, poor and huddled masses. I mean, over the past few weeks, the United States has been simultaneously welcoming thousands of Afghan refugees trying to escape the Taliban with open arms and turning its back on Haitians running from political turmoil, violent uprisings, poverty, and natural disasters in their country.
But many aren’t trying to talk about the history or trauma associated with this photo and how it’s shown up in the present. Nor are many willing to have a candid conversation about the contradictions in The New Colossus, the Bill of Rights, etc.— especially not in schools.
And while I could certainly go there, this isn’t a public policy conversation — it’s an unpacking of how this image is symbolic of the policies, practices and politics of our public school system. So aside from the blatant inhumanity, here are the other ways it showed up in my mind.
High level, the border agent is the system itself that creates barriers for millions of parents and students (represented by the Haitian refugee) seeking the “American Dream” and, overall, some sense of freedom through education. But, the border agent’s job is to keep them in their place or send them back to their place — similar to plantation overseers. Either way, they do not get to pass go, they do not collect their freedom or the “American Dream” through education.
Getting into specifics, this whole “back to school” push has been irking me for weeks, feeling like the government and school districts are telling parents, students and teachers to get back to business as usual — like a master telling their slaves to get back in the fields right after a tornado devastated their families and the land. Meanwhile, there’s been nothing on getting back to education. And maybe “leaders” have been silent in their talking points about this because — real talk — you can’t get back to something you never really had in the first place. There’s been access (using that word loosely) to schools since Reconstruction, but has a quality education ever been consistently available for all students? Nope.
But nevermind that we’re still neck-deep in a pandemic with the numbers of youth contracting COVID-19 on the rise. Never mind that there’s a national shortage of teachers and school staff, which usually leads to overcrowded classrooms and an inability to provide quality instruction. And most importantly, disregard the opportunity gaps that widened and the learning loss during the pandemic, leaving the most vulnerable students at risk of complete academic failure — because all that matters is getting kids “back to school” and things getting “back to normal.” The overseers of public education are represented by the “Marlboro Man,” trying to maintain the status quo.
I’m not at all saying that our young people don’t need to be back in school, but I am saying that they need to actually be taught and learn while they’re there. Back to normal in schools isn’t an option — quality and equitable education have to be the present and future.
On the subject of quality education, I’d be remiss not to touch on the anti-history (aka “critical race theory”) controversy.
This one is easy. The border agent is all of the elected officials, history deniers, erasers and so-called “patriots” who want to keep raw and true history out of schools with their conspiracy theories of forcing critical race theory and activism on kids.
The refugees are the pieces of history that have been denied access to classrooms to maintain a narrative of American virtue and valor, but also all of the people fighting for representation in books and curricula, classrooms and leadership.
And as my friend and educator, Monica Lewis pointed out, how can y’all explain the legalization of Juneteenth as a national holiday without telling the story of how we got here? Furthermore, how can we claim to take steps towards freedom and equality when Black people are still being threatened with whips in 2021?
Last thought. The “Marlboro Man” is emblematic of the discipline policies and practices schools and districts use to keep Black, brown and special needs kids in their place — except the “deportation” process is sometimes slower.
Think about it — when you have underserved students being suspended at higher rates, attacked by school resource officers and, in a lot of cases, ultimately expelled from school, those encounters are designed to cast them back into and perpetuate destitution that, deep down inside, they want to escape. It’s parallel to the experience of the Haitian refugees whose hopes were shattered at first contact with these border patrol agents.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is a sham. These Haitian refugees migrated to the United States with those words as the north star leading them to a better life — the same hopes that many Black, brown and poor parents have when they send their kids off to school every day. But waiting to disrupt those journeys and dreams are the Marlboro Men (aka border agents) that represent these systems, these policies, these practices, and these attitudes.
Again, this isn’t a conversation about public policy or immigration reform. But if you can visualize what I see in the image above in the public school system, these are all the more reasons why we need to step into our power and turn the whip on these systems that seek to deny us educational freedom.
SO SHARE IT OUT RIGHT NOW →