Ed Note: This post was originally published in 2021.
As a Black man, I want to start by saying that it’s refreshing to see that Juneteenth is now a federal holiday! For my people, Juneteenth represents a day of unapologetic Black joy, as well as a celebration of Black resistance, Black excellence and, most significantly, Black liberation.
As happy as I am about this growing momentum, the realist in me still questions how liberated we truly are in this country. With Juneteenth just around the corner, my hope is that we continue to call out and combat the anti-Blackness that is still alive and well in our schools.
I have to wonder—are we allowed to talk about our new federal holiday at school? About Black liberation? Because Republican lawmakers have gone to extreme measures to ensure that critical race theory and any curricular resources or conversations associated with it do not see the light of day. Although critical race theory itself has never been a part of the K-12 curriculum, many politicians have erroneously connected the theory to any books, lessons, curricular frameworks, or academic databases that speak the truth about institutional racism or white supremacy, or acknowledge the disenfranchisement of Black students in schools.
What I find ironic is that these folks have gone so far as to describe critical race theory as a form of racist indoctrination. In all honesty, the American education system, in and of itself, is the greatest example of cultural indoctrination because it was never created with the intention of allowing Black students to thrive and develop pride in their cultural identity.
Some bureaucrats and policymakers have gone on record to say America is not a racist nation. Well, if racism in America doesn’t exist, then how come Connecticut, Oregon, New Jersey, Washington, California, and a growing number of states are advocating for ethnic studies programs to be incorporated into their schools? How do we explain the racist school policies that continue to disenfranchise Black students? Why are Black students still overrepresented in special education programs? These are just a few of the questions that critical race theory can help us answer.
Anti-blackness is also present in how teachers police the language that Black students use in school. Dr. April Baker-Bell and Dr. Jamila Lyiscott talk extensively about the prevalence of anti-Black linguistic racism in their books, “Linguistic Justice” and “Black Appetite, White Food,” respectively. For many of us who completed our training in traditional teacher preparation programs, we need to reevaluate our mental conditioning as it relates to what is deemed as “appropriate” language for students to use in the classroom.
So often, the operative word “appropriate” is a code word used to discriminate against Black students and isolate them from their culturally linguistic identities. Why are we conditioned to think that standard American English is the only appropriate way to speak while on school grounds? Why do we check our other languages at the door before we step into the school building? As a student, these actions were so normalized around me that I never bothered to question them. Now that I’m an educator, I realize that I was sacrificing a part of myself to be in compliance with this racist thinking.
Black vernacular should not be viewed as a deficit but rather an asset for learning. As teachers, we must affirm the linguistic versatility and brilliance of our Black students in the classroom and use their linguistic skills as a vehicle to drive our instruction and enrich their educational experience. Furthermore, affirming their linguistic versatility and brilliance is a form of scaffolding that needs to be normalized in our instruction. By denying and failing to take full advantage of their special skills, we are simply playing the role of the classroom colonialist and, therefore, we are complicit in the perpetuation of white supremacy culture.
In the end, I’m a firm believer that joy is a form of resistance in our struggle for Black liberation. In no way am I discouraging anyone from celebrating and commemorating this important day in American history. As Black people, celebration is necessary for our survival so, by all means, I implore you to throw those cookouts, blast that Black music, be in community with your loved ones, throw those Black power fists up in the air! All I ask is that we continue to maintain this energy when the celebrations are over and keep our eyes on the prize—liberation.
Liberation is still the endgame and the prevalence of anti-Blackness within our education system should remind us of how far we are from that goal.True liberation cannot be achieved for our Black students if their minds are clouded with whiteness.
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.
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