A couple weeks ago, a member of our network team approached me, asking if I could write about my experience as an educator and a mother. In rapid succession, Nashville had been hit by a tornado and a pandemic, setting the stage for a social, educational, and financial disaster. Against this backdrop, George Floyd was murdered in Minnesota. The images were right there in my living room, in front of my children, and in front of the world. Suddenly, the public health emergency that plagued communities of color, including job closures, no child care, potential evictions, and food insecurity, paled in comparison to watching a Black man choked to death on the pavement by an officer sworn to protect and serve. He sat comfortably, knees on his neck; hands in pocket; facing forward; failing to acknowledge the life fleeing from Floyd’s body; ignoring the pleas for life; ignoring the calls for mom; ignoring the demands of onlookers for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Making sense of my role as an educator, meant nothing as my daughter approached me with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, beautiful and hunted, shot down with equal disregard for his humanity and protected by the very laws we teach children to obey.
I had no answers and nothing but questions myself.
Who cares about education if all society will do to my children, my students, is kill them at any given moment? After all, who asks a victim whether they are college-bound or college-educated before murdering them? Dylann Roof, white supremacist vigilante, murdered nine worshippers, including a pastor and state senator, after joining them in prayer. Their faith and hospitality were considered as meaningless as their credentials. They were murdered for one reason only: their Blackness.
So many times I’ve rested in the myth of the exceptional Negro… if you go to school then… if you go to college then… if you dress appropriately then… if you speak articulately then… if you appear non-threatening then…. if you don’t talk back then…. if you don’t move then… But the truth of the matter is none of that makes a difference. How can I, a Black mother, be part of a system that lies to children daily? Training them to be rule followers and focus on character development as if that alone will save them from the uncomfortable experience of being non-white in this world? How many times have I admonished them, fearing how they’d be seen by their non-Black teachers if they faltered for even a second?
My whole life, I’d bought into the premise that if I’m “good enough,” the world will see my humanity. But this narrative is a lie, undone by the omnipresence of systemic racism. What do you do when you unfold a lifelong lie sold to you by the previous generation, cloaked in good intention, yet grossly untrue nonetheless?
“WHAT WE MUST NOT DO IS CONTINUE TO WHITEWASH HISTORY, DISTORT IDENTITY, IGNORE THE CULTURE OR POSITION OURSELVES TO TEACH CHARACTER AS IF OUR CHILDREN COME FROM FAMILIES DEVOID OF IT.”
I implore you to see the absolute anxiety I experience daily as I send my children into the world. Navigating the same institutions I had, they are demeaned, treated with apathy or indifference. I confess that I pray over them feverishly every morning that God keeps them safe. I manage their friendships, the images they see via the media. The legitimate, debilitating mother’s fear keeps our children and students from being truly free within their own community. Ask Aiyana, Trayvon, Jordan, Mike, or Tamir’s mother.
Yet, there is a form of divine resistance that arises in me, in all Black mothers, in the Black community that continues to push in the bleakest of circumstances. This divine resistance is not just to articulate our sense of humanity, but to fight for what is better, what is right, what is just, what is ours by birthright. A hungry lion waits to devour our kids, our students, in every aspect of their life, but the charge from us is not just to acknowledge the fear or pain, but instead it is to meet the moment with the greatest form of resistance we can muster: we must be revolutionaries.
What we must NOT do is continue to whitewash history, distort identity, ignore the culture or position ourselves to teach character as if our children come from families devoid of it. What we must NOT do is to continue to spin the lie of the acceptable and exceptional minority. What we must do (educators, parents, and students alike) is throw out the system designed to perpetuate white supremacy and become innovators in the effort to provide culturally responsive and empowering education.
In practice, students must have access to texts that reflect their lives and experiences rather than reading one Black author in a school year. Students should engage in a robust civics curriculum that not only teaches them the landscape, but provides space to analyze what is and encourages them to dream and strategize about what could be. Students need a truthful and critical presentation of history so that Blackness is not exclusively connected to subjugation and victimization. The celebration of Black excellence should not be reserved strictly for February, but students should be bathed in representations of Black brilliance as a constant reminder of the aspirations and success of our people. We need culture systems that are not punitive, but restorative. Black parents must be treated as partners in their children’s education as opposed to top-down models that fashion them as passive consumers. In professional development, we cannot have conversations about implicit bias and stop short of exploring our own- this is disingenuous. We must realize teachers are products of the same educational structures that are deeply rooted in white supremacy. We must become both students and teachers of the new school, pioneering a new form of teaching that requires both breaking down and building up. There is no shortcut.
COVID, halting the bustle of society, provided time for us to think about our next plan of action. Armed with the momentum, fueled by the screams of the righteous coming from every corner of the globe, we must take this mantle of education and use it for a new purpose. Rather than creating another generation of yes-men or yes-women, our charge is to build the next class of revolutionaries: brave, unshaken, girded by the truth, and prepared to build a better future for our nation.
Halima Labi is a passionate educator teaching English at RePublic High School. She previously taught literacy at Liberty Collegiate Academy.