In my current role as an assistant professor of practice at a graduate school of education, one of the things I try to impart to new teachers is the importance of understanding our own identities as people and as educators when entering the classroom. I can’t help but think back to my classroom in West Philadelphia. It took me years to understand that I could not, and indeed should not, seperate my identity from my teaching practice. I couldn’t ignore the fact that I am a privileged White man. I couldn’t ignore the fact that nearly all of my students shared complexions with one another,
but I did not. My identity was a huge factor in how I developed relationships with my students, and it became even more apparent when I taught lessons centered around racism, segregation and slavery; essentially teaching experiences that are not my own to a classroom full of students for whom such experiences might very well have been their truths. Recently, I learned something new about my identity, something that would have changed how I interacted with my students immensely. I found out my great-great grandfather was a captain in the Confederate army. His name was Greenberry G. Gordon, captain of the 9th Georgia Regiment for the Confederate States of America. I love reading and learning about the Civil War. I get wrapped up in the somewhat nonsensical ‘romance’ of a war that killed and maimed more than a million Americans. And admittedly, I have at times fallen for the revisionist allure of the Southern Rebel. But even so, there is nothing to be proud of for having a family member who fought to preserve the right to enslave other human beings. Period. I’m glad I learned about Captain Greenberry G. Gordon. It’s grounding. It’s important to see my connection to our national history, particularly the history I’d rather ignore. As noted by Civil War historian Barbara Fields, “The Civil War is still going on, and regrettably,
it can still be lost.” Fields’ point, as far as I understand it, is that if we are only talking about battles, then yes, the Civil War is over. But, if we are talking about the struggle to make our country live up to the values of justice, equity, and liberation, then the war is certainly far from over. Indeed, teachers and educators are on the front lines of this war each and every single day. As a nation generally, and among White Americans like myself particularly, ignoring the history we find uncomfortable is what we do. It’s what keeps us from holding ourselves accountable for our complicity in perpetuating our nation’s systems of injustices. But as teachers and educators, it is precisely what we cannot do. I think back to my classroom teaching Toni Morrison’s “
Beloved” to high school seniors. What conversations we could have had. What deep, passionate, challenging, and complex analyses we could have constructed, tackling head-on the problematic, ironic, and layered reality of having a White descendant of a Confederate Captain teach Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to a class full of Black children. The worst thing in the world would have been for me to ignore this singular facet of my identity simply because it doesn’t align with how I would like to perceive myself. It is impossible to separate our identities from our classrooms, nor should we try. Think of the conversations we could have.
Photo of Greenberry G. Gordon, courtesy of author.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...