Why Black children must see themselves in the classroom.
...we can cultivate a new era, an earthly paradise, where liberation exists in every crevice and space for Black children.
by Liljuan Gonzalez
I remember seeing a little Black girl being viciously yelled at to stop moving and to sit with her hands folded while her eyes followed the teacher. When she moved an inch, out of jitters or childish restlessness, her teacher responded with a death glare or a disparaging tone that blindly enforced obedience. My task was to identify certain skills the teacher demonstrated that were “great” and while sitting in my disbelief and discomfort, I couldn’t find any. Instead, violence and militarism is what I witnessed. This is the position so many Black educators have found themselves in. The position in which the status quo in education— where whiteness dictates which behaviors, attitudes and scholarship is to be permissible and celebrated within the classroom— is perpetuated regardless of the inherently racialized violence it inflicts onto Black students. It is by refusing to reproduce the status quo in my classroom that I have worked aimlessly as a Black educator to resist harmful forms of teaching by educating from a place of love and not from a place of duty or violence.
As an educator, I have existed in white spaces in which colorblindness became the unspoken decorum of the space and students’ Blackness or Brownness was violently erased from the classroom. In a world that continues to see my students’ Blackness before it sees them, the (un)intentional act of divorcing my students from their race and culture is a crime. This was necessary for me to recognize because this enabled me to invite my students to be their authentic selves and therefore provided a space for their visibility in school. This came in the form of acknowledging and incorporating their cultural backgrounds, voices and communities within the curriculum and classroom. By doing so, I undermined a system that wishes to deprive them of an education centering them and their history—a tradition performed by many Black educators.
Blackness needs be integrated into classrooms so that Black students can see and engage with existing Black scholarship, divorced from the stifling slave narratives commonly found in most accredited curriculums. Often, white-dominated curriculums negate the significance of Black students’ experiences and culture by violently erasing Black voices and upholding whiteness as the standard to be assessed by. Thus, violent classrooms and classroom cultures are constructed to focus on assimilationist teachings and erase non-white cultures, behaviors and attitudes from the classroom. However, my decision to actively allow Blackness to permeate the classroom has allowed for more freedom and scholarship in the space to occur. For instance, a lesson was constructed around the history of hip hop, which provided historical insight on the liminal stage of the movement and culture. Other lessons we analyzed Black poets like Nayyirah Waheed and Maya Angelou; we interpreted the underlying meaning and symbolisms found in “This is America”; we deconstructed mainstream topics using prior lessons as a lens and foundation (ex. Kanye West’s argument about slavery being a choice vs Frederick Douglass’ autobiography).
These pivotal cultural moments pushed my students to become navigators of their own education by inquiring about their interests and converting that insight into lessons that adhere to Common Core Standards. Thus, the classroom became a transformative learning space where my students and I collaborated to curate a classroom that is culturally competent and challenges all of us to grow. While an unconventional space was needed for culturally competent teaching to occur, love was needed to cement the metamorphosis of the space by changing the active members from within.
When I think about love, I think about the gems I found surreptitiously placed in bell hooks’ books about radical teaching practices and cultivating genuine love; I think about Corinthians 13: 4-6, where the Bible lists love as “patient… kind… no record of wrongs… always protects…always hopes, always perseveres”; Lastly, I think about the unconditional love I feel from my parents, and their selfless willingness to support and provide for me beyond their means. These sources— bell hooks, the Bible and my parents— have helped me define what love is and what love can become. They have helped me to realize the infinite possibilities and forms that love can take. But it is my students who pushed me to develop my own love devoid of contingencies and unmet expectations when confronted with undesirable behaviors from students.
I love my students. However, I didn’t enter my field practicing unconditional love; in fact, I had to learn how to love them. I had to call out my own bias against those students who defied the rules more frequently. I realized some of my students’ breach of the rules was their resistance and outcry to their own trauma they encountered. Although unfair that many of them have experienced so much trauma in their lives, I had to find ways to obviate their outbursts in the classroom while simultaneously providing them with compassion and coping mechanisms to process and redirect their emotions. Eventually we reached a place of understanding and high accountability, one in which my students were aware of the classroom rules, and their necessity, and I became aware of the additional responsibilities, fear and trauma they were experiencing within their own lives. Loving my students was more than just teaching them, it was also recognizing their trauma, fears, laughter and their dreams. To teach my Black students, I had to learn to give genuine love or carelessly perpetuate racialized institutional violence in my classroom.
As a Black educator, I sense an obligation to teach my students about anti-Blackness, and the real world, while simultaneously empowering them to navigate it, combat it and hopefully to change it. Restoration, space, and love were tools used to facilitate this urging need to prepare my students for what awaits them. At the same time, these tools were also used to reconfigure my students’ warped and traumatic exposure to the American educational system—a way to revitalize and redefine their interest in learning. Was it perfect or easy? No, but the willingness to allow the classroom to become a lab to actively inquire the world around us and explore possibilities to alter its current trajectory, empowered my students. Perhaps freedom can no longer be found in traditional education, but through unconventional learning and love we can cultivate a new era, an earthly paradise, where liberation exists in every crevice and space for Black children.
Liljuan Gonzalez is a graduate student, social justice advocate and an educator based in Chicago. He enjoys dancing, anime, and practicing radical self-care.