Monday, April 2, 2012

Race in America Part 2 – Jada Williams

I was in second grade when the Black Power Movement was in full swing and the sounds of James Brown I’m Black and I’m Proud pierced the air. Like any other impressionable child, I began imitating what I saw around me. At school I traded drawing women with long locks cascading down their backs for women with big gigantic afros and huge hoop earrings. I drew men with big afros and facial hair, and all of my people wore the requisite platform shoes. Then one day my white teacher told me I couldn’t draw people with afros anymore. Even though my seven-year old self could not comprehend the why of it all, I knew it wasn’t right.

The next day my older sister accompanied me to school to talk to my teacher. My teacher explained to my sister that my afros were disproportionate to the bodies. I watched as my teacher folded one of my pictures in half to demonstrated that my gargantuan-sized natural was the same size as the entire body. She told my sister that if I drew people with smaller afros I could continue to draw them. The funny thing is I never remember her telling me that my Rapunzel-like figures were out of balance.

The incident has resurfaced as of late because of Jada Williams. Jada, an eighth grader in Rochester, New York wrote an essay for a contest sponsored by the Frederick Douglass society based on the text, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in which Jada compared education at her predominantly African-American and Latino High School to that of modern day slavery. She said the white teachers at her school were no better than Frederick Douglass’ slave master. She described how students are given texts that they cannot read and how the classrooms are often out of control, and when the bell rings and students move to the next class, the cycle starts all over again.

What happened next was unbelievable. A teacher copied the essay and distributed it around the school, and the normally well-behaved A-B student suddenly became a “troublemaker” and her grades started slipping. Things got so bad, that Jada’s parents transferred her to another school because of the harassment. The school has since apologized to Jada and her parents, but the damage is already done.

As a writing teacher, I would love to have a student like Jada in my class. She is both an analytical and critical thinker as demonstrated by her ability to apply what she learned from the text to her current situation. And instead of taking the content of the essay for the teachable moment that it was, the teachers at her school further instilled in Jada’s mind that the white teachers at her school don’t care about students of color. What a missed opportunity for intellectual discourse on the problems of urban education!

Jada’s frustration with her education is understandable. But it’s so much bigger than the complexion of the teachers at her school. Those of us that teach are members of the status quo and we want our students to follow in our footsteps especially if we teach in blighted communities. We don’t understand why they don’t “want better for themselves” and in too many instances, we want to fix them more then we want to teach them.

The paternalistic nature of urban education gets in the way of the work that we need to do. Instead of looking at the pluses that our students bring to school and merging what they have with what they need, too often we teach from a deficit model. And the more removed we are from the population we serve, the harder it is for many of us to find that middle ground. Sometimes it’s color, sometimes it’s class, sometimes it’s culture or some combination of the three.

It’s impossible to live in a racist, classist, sexist society and not have that follow us in to the classroom. Neither educators nor students are exempt. We come to school every day loaded down with societal baggage and to think that our internal biases and prejudices are checked at the door when the bell rings is nonsense. But in the classroom we can create a community if we willing to heal what ails us.

My second grade teacher was an older woman teaching on the cusp of serious social change in this country. I cannot imagine what was going through her mind anymore than I can imagine what Jada’s teachers were thinking when they read her essay. What I do know is that teachers have the second hardest job in the world; parents have the first. And in neither role do we always get it right, but we can learn from our mistakes.

Education in America for students of color needs an overhaul. Jada’s essay gave a pulse to the problem of urban education. But instead of praising her we, persecuted her. And we wonder what’s wrong with our youth?


  1. I wish I had Jada as a student, too. Thanks for this insightful article, Stephanie, and for bringing Jada to my attention!

  2. Jennifer Brown BanksApril 3, 2012 at 10:26 AM

    BRAVO, STEPH! Insightful and timely piece.