African American people are in this country because we are descendants of enslaved Africans beginning with the first Africans captured and brought here to Jamestown, VA in 1619 as indentured servants. From that point in history to the present, the experience of African Americans has been an experience of racism to the nth degree in the form of oppression, domination, exploitation, violence, subjugation, discrimination, prejudice, marginalization, neglect and I could go on and on. I would be remiss however if I didn’t also indicate that triumph, victory and breakthroughs have also been quite normal within the African American experience despite the aforementioned oppression. African American people have always been quite resilient despite the 400+ years of racism that we have endured as a people.
African American people have never sat back and allowed racism to endure without resistance. There is no era in American history where African Americans didn’t fight back against the reality of racism. Fighting back against racism is in our DNA. It is in our blood. It is who we are. We are born with an instinct of resisting oppression. Well, this takes me to your African American colleagues in your schools. Before I go on, let me say that I will not attempt to speak for all African American teachers but by the same token, I am very comfortable saying that in this essay, I speak for many of them.
Teaching, like any profession is something that individuals pursue because they have a particular interest in engaging in this form of work. So for example, one may love children but at the same time possess a desire to help children to grow academically, socially and emotionally. They therefore pursue education as a potential career path. I became a teacher in 1988 in Brooklyn, NY. I love children and I too possessed a desire to help children to grow academically, socially and emotionally. So I pursued teaching. The difference however was that I am Black man who was a student of African American History before I even thought about becoming a teacher. And because I was a student of history, I looked at my pursuit of teaching through that particular lens. I wanted to teach Black children. I understood the racism they were enduring in real time because I was enduring the same racism throughout my entire life up to that point. I was 28 years of age at the time. I wanted to bring the spirit of all the freedom fighters I had studied over the years into my classroom and to prepare my students for not only individual success but equally important – how to navigate the challenges, obstacles and pressures of racism and oppression as a people. I knew then as I know now at the age of 61 that racism is here to stay. I wanted to therefore position myself to teach Black children how to overcome and to be victorious in their lives while simultaneously teaching them their roles in helping others to do the same.
The key ingredient to meeting these objectives was to teach my students to have an extreme sense of pride in who they are as individuals and collectively as African Americans. Racism has done an immeasurable job of sabotaging this necessary pride and it endures to this day. This pride is restored however in teaching the children WHO THEY ARE historically and culturally. I would dare say that this is the biggest flaw in American education. Black children are in these schools every day and so many feel no connection to the learning because they do not see themselves in those lessons or on the pages of those books. Learning in these cases lacks cultural relevance; relationships lack cultural responsiveness and far too many educators are culturally incompetent. These are ingredients for disaster for African American children with so many of the children living their lives with no clue as to who that is in their mirrors looking back at them historically.
The point of this essay – as with myself, many of your African American colleagues are in your schools teaching not solely for the joy of teaching but instead out of a sense of duty, responsibility and obligation. From the day I started this work, I characterized it as a personal duty…a personal responsibility…a personal obligation…not as my job, career or profession. The classroom was my “battleground” in the fight against racism. I walked into that classroom with a “revolutionary spirit” in an effort to “revolutionize” the minds of my students. In many cases, that African American teacher down the hall from you is in that school and in that classroom for the same reason. Chances are that he / she is quite knowledgeable of the history and is therefore using the classroom as the vehicle to fight back against racism and to ultimately defeat it through the children. When African American teachers enter their classrooms, we are “at war.” We are “at war” for the minds of our children. These are serious times in America for African Americans and many do not comprehend the depths of how serious these times are for Black children in our schools. African American teachers are born into this “war”…they get it but when they are in the schools, their war is not limited to the classroom. There’s a whole other “political war” that accompanies their Blackness that they have to navigate daily as well….yet another layer of racism.
So when you see your African American colleague tomorrow morning, do know that your colleague’s world is a very different world from your own. And do know that your colleague is in that classroom for reasons that may be very different from your own. Your African American colleague is a descendant of the institution of enslavement and is therefore a product of a lineage of 400+ years of oppression. This makes the agenda of the teacher very different from your own. When this teacher speaks – listen. When this teacher writes – read it. When this teacher shares perspectives with staff, don’t challenge it – learn from it and grow from it. And to my admin colleagues out there, when this teacher brings perspectives that create cognitive dissonance and discomfort, don’t punish, ostracize, scrutinize or isolate the teacher. Instead, appreciate the teacher for having the willingness and the courage to speak his / her truth to colleagues.
For more of Principal Kafele’s perspectives, visit PrincipalKafele.com