Our Story Didn't Start in 1619': Dr. Chike Akua on How Our Education System Is Failing Black Students

Aug 28, 2020 12:00:00 AM


On Monday, August 31st at 5:30 ET on Facebook Live, Citizen Ed, a brightbeam platform, will host the next virtual Town Hall in our #SeekingChildJustice series, “We must have an Education for Liberation Beyond the Pandemic.” 

One of the guests will be Dr. Chike Akua, professor of Educational Leadership at Clark Atlanta University and an authority on increasing the achievement of Black students, especially those attending schools that fail to nurture and educate them. Dr. Akua is an award-winning teacher and was selected as one of Ebony’s “50 Leaders of Tomorrow,” a distinction he is living up to today.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Sure. I was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, schools in a progressive and nurturing community which included a significant number of working-class Blacks and Black professionals. Yet at school I was culturally isolated, one of very few Black students and Black teachers. I struggled because growing up in that type of setting is confusing: I was receiving one message about excellence from home and an entirely different one from school. I attended two HBCUs [Historically Black College/University], Hampton University and Clark Atlanta University and went into teaching—in Newport News, Virginia, and Stone Mountain, Georgia—to help kids who didn’t have the support I did. More recently I’ve provided professional development on culturally relevant pedagogy, equity, accountability and African-centered education to school leaders and teachers across the country.

What kind of support do Black students need?

They need a curriculum that is centered in both African and African American culture and history. Our story didn’t start in 1619! They also need an education that helps them meet needs and solve problems in their own communities. What American schools offer is woefully insufficient and has been for far too long. [pullquote]They need teachers and school leaders who look like them and who have been trained in African-centered and culturally responsive instructional strategies.[/pullquote]

You’re speaking of the lack of Black teachers?

Of course. You know, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit effectively destroyed the pipeline for black school leaders and teachers. The case was supposed to be about desegregation but it turned out to be disintegration … disintegration of Black schools, teachers and leaders. The research shows that, under the guise of Brown, well over 39,000 African American teachers were fired and replaced by underqualified white teachers. Black principals were demoted to assistant principals or back to classroom teaching or shunted into small offices with no real power. 

More than half a century after Brown v. Board, you can walk into urban schools and see a carefully-constructed, racist response to segregation—few Black leaders and teachers, underfunded and overcrowded schools with curricula and teaching standards that do not take into account the unique nature and needs of Black students. 

But is it enough for teachers to be Black? 

No, it’s not enough for a teacher to be Black. If that teacher was mis-educated, they'll pass on the virus of mis-education to our children. They have to be trained in content and methods that produce excellence in African American students. Most teachers and students have never been taught the legacy and tradition of African and African American excellence in scientific innovation, literary production and wealth creation.  

Also, they are not taught to critically examine historical figures. I’ll give you an example: When students study Thomas Jefferson they’re told he was a Founding Father and the third president. There’s no critical analysis that he and many of the other Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution were slave-owners, racists and pedophiles. But we need that perspective, that truth. 


You’ve spoken about reparations. What do you mean by that?

Look, you know that other groups in America that have endured crimes against humanity received reparations. Native Americans whose land and lives were stolen, Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps during World War II, Jews, even though the Holocaust didn’t take place in America—all received reparations—and rightfully so! 

Even white slave owners after the Civil War received reparations for the loss of their captive Africans when slavery was abolished! But the only group that hasn’t received reparations is African Americans who have arguably endured the greatest suffering. America and its wealth as a world super-power was built on the backs of our suffering and continued exploitation.

And the best place to start reparations is with education.

How would that work?

Let’s start with children kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents should have the right to direct their children’s education. I don’t want this to be misconstrued as if I’m a big supporter of charter schools. I’m not: Access and opportunity gaps lead to persistent achievement gaps. For African Americans, access to qualified teachers and the opportunity to attend equitably-funded schools remains a persistent problem.

Instead, I’m suggesting that if a group of parents want to start a small learning community, the government should provide per-pupil funding for those students. Most independent African-centered schools are tuition-based and many parents can’t afford that. Reparations in education would provide that. Our children need teachers and counselors who are trained in how to resolve unaddressed multi-generational trauma caused by persistent white terrorism. We’ll need this even more after Covid-19 and the current racial uprisings.

How about college?

All student loans for Black people should be abolished immediately, including current balances, because they were denied education for centuries. The federal government should establish annual appropriations for HBCUs to hire more faculty and improve infrastructure. These schools must be provided the resources to retool themselves. After all, more students will be coming and their tuition plus room and board must be free from freshman year through the doctoral level, should they decide to pursue graduate studies. Black students should be allowed to attend any college or university they desire, free of charge, but only HBCUs have a long-standing track record of producing consistent excellence in Black students.

Black students who choose to go to community or technical colleges should also be able to do so free of charge.

Also, there will be a need for annual appropriations for a group of scholars to serve as an additional accrediting body to hold all schools accountable based on African American standards of excellence.  In addition, there needs to be funding for Black scholars to conduct research to ensure fidelity of implementation of the mandates of reparations in education.

When do you see this happening?

I envision it happening right now! Look how quickly schools pivoted during the pandemic. They are far more nimble than we thought, at least during a health pandemic. Now it’s time to deal with the first pandemic, which is racism and white terrorism. This is a critical moment that is pregnant with possibilities. 

Laura Waters

Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, where she was president for nine of those years. Early in her career, she taught writing to low-income students of color at SUNY Binghamton through an Educational Opportunity Program.

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