by Mia McKenzie
I was born Black in a Black family in a Black neighborhood. My early childhood was an entirely Black experience. Besides what I saw on television and in movies, my whole world was Black people. My family, my friends, my babysitters, my neighbors and my teachers were all Black.
From Head Start through third grade, I had exclusively Black teachers. As a very bright, gifted Black girl, having Black teachers, mostly Black women, who saw my giftedness and encouraged and nurtured it, meant everything. These were teachers who could look at me and see themselves. They could see their children, their hopes, their dreams. These were teachers who could be as proud of me when I did well as my own family was, who could understand me when I talked about my life, and who knew how to protect the spirit of a gifted Blackgirlchild in a world they knew would try to tear her apart every chance it got.
I thrived in those early years in school. I loved learning, I had a very high capacity for it, and it showed. My teachers challenged me creatively and intellectually, supported my growth, and rewarded my efforts. My second and third grade teacher, Ms. Lucas (who goes down in history as the best and most influential teacher I ever had) gave me my first paid work as a writer. In third grade, after I wrote the best poem about springtime (“…sometimes words can never say the things that flowers say in May…”), she brought me ice cream! She, like the other Black teachers I had, recognized, and helped me to see, my extraordinariness. Seeing it, I soared. I felt confident and self-assured. I believed I was the smartest, most talented kid ever!
Then, in fourth grade, I was put in Ms. Reisman’s class. Ms. Reisman was my first white teacher. She had dyed red hair, a thick Northeast Philly accent, and a complete inability to see my extraordinariness. Ms. Reisman didn’t like me. The same confidence I’d shown in Ms. Lucas’ class was viewed by Ms. Reisman as arrogance, as immodesty, and she bristled at it. I sensed her dislike of me and responded to it with hatred of her, with defiance. My 8-year-old spirit raged against the notion that I was suddenly un-special, that everything I knew about myself, everything in me that was smart and talented and funny, was completely devalued under this woman’s gaze. Though I couldn’t name the racial dynamics at the time, I knew something was off. We battled in that classroom, she and I. I remember her dragging me by the ear to the corner when I refused to obey her, which was often.
Fourth grade was the first time in my life that I didn’t love school. I still did well, academically, but it didn’t feel the same. For the first time, my teacher wasn’t on my side. She wasn’t impressed with me. She didn’t encourage me. She didn’t understand me. And, unlike every teacher I’d had before her, she didn’t love me.
It wasn’t just me who hated Ms. Reisman. We all hated her. She was the first white teacher for most, if not all, of us and we all felt the difference in the way she interacted with us. Behind her back, we exchanged miserable glances. We whispered about how ugly and terrible she was. And we stuck up for each other when she came down on one of us unfairly. She was our enemy and we were united against her, because we knew we had to be. She had the power and we knew, somehow, even at that age, that she would take something from us if we let her.
Maybe Ms. Reisman came to our school actually believing she gave a damn about Black children. Maybe she never expected to end up in a Black school at all. I don’t know. I do know that she never should have been there.
A major factor in the decline in Black student’s academic achievement is the decline in Black teachers. The number of Black teachers has decreased by 66 percent since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. There are reasons (you can read about them here), but they aren’t the focus of this piece. I’m really concerned with the impact, not just on test scores but on the souls of Black children.
In her article for Clutch, “Are Black Students Better Off With Black Teachers?” Renee Martin reports on the story of Jada Williams, a Black student who wrote an essay comparing the racist oppression faced by Frederick Douglass to her current lived experiences as a Black student with white teachers, only to have her white teachers get offended and retaliate by giving her lower grades. As Martin writes:
“The fact that her grades declined after handing in this essay adds validity to the charges of racism that Williams bravely made in her essay.”
She goes on to say:
“The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision brought an end to segregation in schools, and for the first time, Black students were exposed to White teachers. This has not necessarily been positive for Black children. The history that is taught in schools is framed through a lens of White supremacy, with additives like Black History Month being thrown to mask enormous inequalities in education. Today’s students are forced to learn the oppressor’s truth by a white supremacist educational system that presents heavy-handed biases into history, language, and even the arts.”
Black children need teachers who can reflect the history of our people to them in an honest and empowering way. They also need teachers who see them, who don’t think of them as deficient, as problems to solve, or as thugs-in-training, when they are really just children, innocent and eager and as capable of learning as anyone else. They need teachers who can love them. In a world that tells them they are less, having authority figures, from an early age, who believe in their humanity, in their goodness, in their extraordinariness, is everything.
Ms. Reisman was the first terrible white teacher I had, but after her there were others. Mr. Fleischman, my seventh-grade homeroom and math teacher, was one. He disliked me and he showed it. He punished me for things more popular kids got away with daily. He seemed to like only the Black kids who were hip and cool but not smart, and then only if they were also boys. My awkward girl presence bugged him, particularly because I wasn’t silent or invisible. I was still confident, in spite of not being cool, or a boy, and he seemed to loathe it, his misogynoir showing quite clearly. I battled him, too.
My list of awful white teachers goes on and on. Were they all bad? No. Two or three of them were okay. But they were still white people ingrained with the idea that their job was to save us, who didn’t really understand our lives or what we actually needed. The “best” white teacher I had was my junior-high Mentally Gifted Program teacher, Ms. McMahon. She saw our smartness and even made us feel cared about. But the times we watched films in class—films chosen to expand our cultural experience, I guess—they were all about white people, with minor, stereotyped characters of color. 12 Angry Men and It’s A Wonderful Life, for example. I liked 12 Angry Men and thought It’s A Wonderful Life was the most boring thing I’d ever seen. More importantly, I saw no trace of myself in either film, besides the Black Mammy character in the latter, a cringe-worthy stereotype that no Black child should be forced to watch.
The thing is, Ms. McMahon should have known better. She didn’t because white teachers then, and most now, aren’t required to have any analysis of systems of white supremacy or anti-Blackness, and their own complicity in both, before they enter classrooms to teach Black children, some of whom will be introduced to those realities by the behavior of these white teachers. Having done little or none of the necessary work required to examine their complicity, what gives these teachers the right to teach our children? How have they earned the privilege of being such an influential figure in a Black child’s life? Why do we grant them access to the minds of our vulnerable youth, who will already have to face so much racism in the world? I’m 38 and I’m still regularly traumatized by my interactions with blatantly racist, and ‘well-meaning’ but still racist white people. The same is true for all of the Black adults I know. So, how can our children possibly be ok? They can’t be. They’re not.
And what about non-Black teachers of color, such as Asian American, Native American and Latina/o teachers? What effect do those teachers have on Black students? I couldn’t find any studies or articles tackling that question. I do know that anti-Black racism exists everywhere and that non-Black people of color perpetuate it, too. But there isn’t the same evidence, even empirical, of negative effects of non-Black POC teachers on Black students. Also, the percentage of teachers of color overall is abysmally low. So, Black student/non-Black POC teacher isn’t much of an issue. Black student/white teacher is.
So, what’s the solution? Well, I personally believe Black kids should have Black teachers, especially in grade school (if you think that’s ‘reverse-racism,’ you don’t understand anything about systems of oppression, so please STFU). The realities of what Black kids face from teachers and administrators who do not see their potential—including being unjustifiably and disproportionately assigned to lower tracks and almost excluded from accelerated tracks, regardless of performance, as well as being disproportionately suspended and expelled, even in pre-school—are dire. Anyone who knows the numbers and, more importantly, understands the experiences of Black students, and still thinks otherwise is more concerned with absurd notions of a post-racial society and white people’s hurt feelings than they are with Black students’ safety and growth (emotional, mental, and spiritual), let alone their achievement.
With of the dearth of Black teachers, what hope is there, then, for Black students? We can keep trying to recruit new Black teachers, but recruiting them into the mess that is the education system in this country seems pointless in the end, at least to me. Continuing to put our energy into “fixing” systems that are doing what they were designed to do—to disenfranchise us—isn’t something I’m for. But if folks see the usefulness in that, great.
Recently, I’ve been reading about the uptick in the number of Black kids being homeschooled. Over 100,000 Black American parents are now homeschooling their kids. Research shows that Black kids who are homeschooled do better. That the achievement gap we hear so much about virtually disappears. The reason? Well, put simply: LOVE. Black children who are schooled at home are loved and respected and nurtured by their teachers, which removes the barriers to learning that they face in schools.
Obviously, not all Black parents are able to homeschool their kids, though. So, then what? Well, now I’m dreaming of Black homeschooling communities, where those of us who don’t have the means come together with those of us who do and build something. I’m dreaming of a day when we divest our money from systems that oppress and criminalize our children and invest it in radical community alternatives that prioritize nurturing and love of Black students.
Malcolm X said, “Only a fool would let his enemy teach his children.” The system of white supremacy and anti-Blackness that is the education system is our enemy and we’re fools to continue to let it claim to teach our children without looking for some serious alternatives.
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