We couldn’t hold back our mirth imagining what assumptions people made by looking at us together or learning where we went to college.
Little shoots of dreadlocks sprung from his head whereas I had long, unruly hair parted in the middle. He wore leather trench coats and I felt most myself in band T-shirts. He effortlessly worked whatever room he happened to be in, I naturally gravitated towards corners. He went to a university not far from home, I attended one of the most prestigious colleges in America.
I don’t think anyone would have guessed that it was me, not him, who had a working-class childhood in a major city. This man I used to date hailed from a picturesque, middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. His family lived in a lovely colonial-style house with a lawn so big that I winced when he told me his father expected him to mow it every week.
Despite his comfortable upbringing by a white-collar father and homemaker mother (compared with the more hardscrabble circumstances of my childhood with immigrant parents), it was he who lived with fear, and with that, a different set of expectations.
I could not, and still cannot, fathom that fear.
It’s a fear many black parents carry and then pass on to their children, a crushing psychic burden in which they know they are more likely to be scrutinized or they must work twice as hard to succeed.
It’s a fear, so eloquently described by James Baldwin in his searing essay, A Talk to Teachers, that can turn schools into minefields for children to tiptoe around:
But a black child, looking at the world around him, though he cannot know quite what to make of it, is aware that there is a reason why his mother works so hard, why his father is always on edge.
He is aware that there is some reason why, if he sits down in the front of the bus, his father or mother slaps him and drags him to the back of the bus.
He is aware that there is some terrible weight on his parents’ shoulders which menaces him. And it isn’t long—in fact it begins when he is in school—before he discovers the shape of his oppression.
When he was about 7 years old he got in trouble at school because he insisted his name was Spider-Man when his teacher took attendance. The school called his parents and he was punished again by his parents, who said he had to be careful to avoid even minor infractions. It was for his own good.
He was visibly angry recounting this story. When I met him, he was approaching 40. He had recently left a well-paying government contracting job that made him miserable—in favor of finally pursuing his passion for the arts.
That early incident, inconsequential as it seemed, affirmed his parents’ belief that to be black was to be vigilant every day. The dissatisfaction he felt in living a secure, prescribed life ate away at him until he veered off the path laid out for him to carve out his own.
Racially charged cases of police shootings and excessive school discipline have dominated news headlines. Racial bias among teachers has been well-documented. There has been much handwringing among educators and casual observers as to how the scourge of racism still afflicts this country.
Less discussed are the ways these practices not only devastate the lives and psyches of black children, but undermine the purpose of education: self-determination.
Fear—of not attending college, not having a career or landing in the criminal justice system—cannot be the motivation behind a child pursuing an education. It must be intrinsic, a reflection of what a child holds dear and the kind of life he wants to lead.
It’s time for educators and parents to move away from a carrot-and-stick approach and instead see schooling as the greatest possibility for their children’s flourishing, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:
What I generally try to do is avoid messages about “hard work” and “homework,” not because I think those things are unimportant, but because I think they put the cart before the horse.
The two words I try to use with them are “excitement” and “entrepreneurial.” I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.
My belief is that, if I can get them to understand the “why?” of education, then the effort and hard work and long study hours will come after.
We do children no favors by turning schools into punitive, rigid places where children learn that the point of education is not to broaden their minds but to follow the rules and stay out of trouble.
We don’t equip them to govern themselves, ask the hard questions they will inevitably have to answer, and perhaps most important, get along with people who are not like them.
In trying to control for everything, timidity and a sense of powerlessness takes over. The desire to protect children, especially those from unsafe neighborhoods, is borne of good intentions, but when school becomes yet another venue that discourages children from being themselves, we perpetuate the already considerable amount of fear black children experience every day.
We tell them to hurry up and become adults yet leave them with a poor sense as to what that truly means. We teach children what to avoid rather than what to enjoy and in doing so, we turn education into a Skinnerian experiment of behavior avoidance.
My friend would have chosen a different life had he been without fear; he wouldn’t have waited until he was nearing 40 to be his authentic self.
The purpose of educating black children, all children, shouldn’t be to save them from criminality or poverty, yet for too many, school is another place emphasizing obedience lest they run off the rails. This belief is too cynical.
A good education has to do far more than mitigate against harm—it has to allow children to dream, to begin building the lives they want for themselves.