What We Get Wrong About Dr. Umar Johnson
Dr. Umar Abdullah Johnson is undoubtedly one of the more polarizing figures to surface within the Black community. Johnson became popular with members of the Pan-African movement for his lectures on a phenomenon he called “The Psycho-Academic Holocaust” against Black boys in education. Johnson would grow to travel the country lecturing on the matter, teaching parents how to protect their children from a system in which one could easily get lost. Later forming parent advocacy groups in major cities across the country and hosting a weekly group call to field parent questions on the subject.
Dr. Johnson would not become popular for his work among the parents of Black special needs children. Instead, the self-proclaimed “Prince of Pan-Africanism” would gain notoriety for his disturbing views on the LGBTQ community, single motherhood, relationships in the Black community, Black celebrities, masculinity, femininity, and a smorgasbord of other issues Johnson had no real authority to speak on in the first place. At one point, Johnson was simultaneously arguing that Black children were being converted to homosexuality through television programming, facilitating a million-dollar fundraising campaign for a school that to date has yet to be actualized, and being aired out for his relations with a “conscious stripper.” Dr. Johnson is no stranger to controversy. We either love him or loathe him. Mainly because we suffer from an inability to be indifferent towards Black people we disagree with, but that’s a conversation for another day. Personally, I don’t hate Dr. Umar, and it’s not because I agree with his poisonous rhetoric. Dr. Umar is ignorant, abrasive, loud as hell, intense, misogynistic, condescending, spiteful, unhinged, and did I mention he is loud as all get out? Dr. Umar is wrong about a lot of things, but when it came to protecting my son from falling victim to the special education system, he was 100% right.
The problem began when I started the process of enrolling my son in the local Preschool Program for Children With Disabilities. Up until that point, my son hadn’t spoken a word. We hadn’t quite identified the problem but he had been receiving speech therapy for a year with no progress. To attend the program, a child must be identified as eligible to receive special education services. This requires a series of evaluations and a disability classification. The 14 classifications determine how much money the school receives on the child’s behalf, how much time lapses between re-evaluations, what services the child is eligible to receive, and classroom placement. Despite reports from his therapists’ and pediatrician, the team was insistent that my son had autism. I was adamant that the diagnosis didn’t fit our observations at home, arguing instead that the root of his problem was speech and language. Still they insisted.
The more I contested their findings, the more of a delusional mother I became to them. To the point of being told that I, like many other special needs parents, was in denial and would eventually come to terms with my son’s condition. I couldn’t understand why a 30-minute observation trumped my lived experiences. Not to mention, for many children with disabilities, early intervention is crucial. If a child isn’t receiving services that meet their needs in a timely manner, not only can that stunt their potential development, but it’s also time that the child cannot recoup. At that time, I submerged myself in Dr. Umar’as lectures. Trying to find out everything I could about advocating for my son. Although my parents raised 10 children of their own, they never really dealt with developmental, behavioral or academic issues with any of us. I didn’t know anyone personally who had been in my situation, and if one more family member told me to pray about it, I was going to snap. I didn’t know where to look, i had no resources, and here I had this man speaking passionately about a problem that had recently become my own. I listened intently.
The first thing Dr. Umar taught me was that my son had rights. One of them, as outlined in “The Individuals With Disabilities Act”, was the right to have an independent evaluation in the event that I disagreed with the school’s findings. Another was the right to receive a fair and appropriate education at the expense of the state. But the most important thing was that if the state failed to provide a fair and appropriate education or didn’t have the means to, the law required that they provide a private education that could. I would use this information to advocate for my son repeatedly over the course of the next year.
After rejecting the classification and insisting on a second opinion, I was referred to a specialty clinic that specialized in speech & language disorders. The evaluation would consist of a series of play-based activities with him and intermittent discussion with me. About 15 minutes into the evaluation, two of the observing therapists noticed my son was using his tongue and the roof of his mouth to “chew” food. As they continued, other signs were observed, signs like oral groping without producing sound and exhibiting difficulty mimicking oral movements like smiling and puckering. I learned that he had Childhood Apraxia of Speech, a rare neurological disorder that doesn’t respond to traditional speech therapy methods and is often accompanied by sensory issues, mimicking behaviors observed in autistic children. I would deal with the intricacies of what his diagnosis meant later, but the satisfaction of knowing exactly what was going on with my son and being able to formulate a plan was priceless. I took the second evaluation back to the therapy team and successfully had the autism classification changed.
As my son neared the conclusion of his first year of school, it was apparent to me and to his therapy team that the public school setting wasn’t for him. Due to the complexity of my son’s disorder and their loose adherence to his Individual Education Plan, we came to the conclusion that a private school focusing on speech and language development would best fit his needs, which meant I was about to put Dr. Umar’s claim to the test. I went through the necessary steps of applying for admissions to a private schools in our area. The price tag, a whopping $41,650 a year. At his annual review I presented my concerns along with documentation from my son’s therapy team outlining significant behavioral changes, areas of regression and their overall lack of confidence in the school’s competency. I followed that with my sons admission letter and a request for private placement. Initially the room was silent until one of the members of the review team asked me if I worked for the school district. I replied that I did not. She then asked how I knew the district offered Private Placement and since I wasn’t about to name drop Dr. Umar, I simply said “research”. Another member of the review team began to talk about the many services my son would be eligible for next school year, including his own classroom aide, daily speech therapy, and an iPad to assist with communication. Casually suggesting that I “give it another year.” I advised her that her suggestion let me know that she neither understood my son’s condition nor the time sensitivity of it, which only further proved my point. The meeting ending with me being told my request would be reviewed by the district, and within two weeks I was notified that it had been approved with the stipulation that the district would choose the school. Although it wasn’t the school I selected initially, it was an excellent alternative.
Dr. Umar Johnson is a problem in our community in many ways.The irony is that he is also a solution. There are countless parents struggling to navigate a system that’s basically designed to entrap rather than empower Black students. Of the 6.7 Million students in the US receiving special education services, over 20% of them are African-American. Despite our students being more likely to be identified as having disabilities, they are less likely to graduate from HS with a traditional diploma and even less likely to continue on to college. Our children are often buried under the most lucrative special education label and the disregard that comes with it. How many of us recall the trailer looking structures that housed the special-ed students back when we were in school? And with mainstream students complaining about a lack of adequate heating/cooling, outdated materials and ballooning classroom sizes, what do we imagine the conditions to be for the students who can’t complain? These institutions of learning, who cannot provide fair and appropriate education for students with regular demands would have parents believe that they’re capable of providing them for children with additional demands. And we’re not talking about determining whether a child goes to a university or a community college. For many special needs parents, 13 years in the wrong educational environment can mean a child remains in a state of dependency well into adulthood. The stakes are undeniably higher for us, which is why Dr. Umar’s message is a message Black parents need to hear, just not from him.
I can’t say with certainty that Dr. Umar was the catalyst in my son’s situation and I can’t say that every parent who follows his directives will have the same outcome. But I know that I’m not alone in the fact that I felt alone and hopeless when trying to maneuver through the special education system. Could I possibly have stumbled on all of this information on my own, I’m sure there’s a small probability that I could’ve. But where does one begin to search for information on something they don’t know that they don’t know? Dr. Umar is undoubtedly the wrong messenger, but in discarding him we also discard any value his message carries with it.
Black children, children who with the appropriate education and early intervention services, could grow to be contributing members of our community, are being discarded by the systems that our tax dollars maintain and yet who is advocating for them? I’m no fan of Dr. Umar’s, he is the epitome of the broken clock that tells the right time twice a day. I am a fan of his willingness to educate parents who feel lost and without resources, parents like myself. When our discarding of problematic Black figures creates a void in our communities, it’s our responsibility to fill those voids with positive replacements. And when other Black educators and psychologists decide to step forward, I’m certain they will be of immense value to our community. In the same way that Dr. Umar was to me and my son. Now, I won’t be nominating Umar for a Hotep Humanitarian Award any time soon, but today I give credit where it’s most certainly due.