How To Raise Pro-Black Kids: Subverting The School System
I think it goes without saying that if you want your child to know and appreciate their Black history, you shouldn’t be looking toward the traditional school system. When you think about education in this country, it was never designed to be inclusive. For centuries, learned spaces were reserved for White men. And while women and people of color have been granted access, White people still write the history books. So we can’t be surprised that the authors of our children’s history books are invested in telling their stories, often at the sake of ours.
So the onus of educating our children about Black children falls on Black parents. But the school system, as it exists now, just won’t do it.
My parents, who were born in the fifties, before schools were integrated understood this from their own childhoods.
My father, Edward Wells, spoke about the nurturing he received from school before integration and what happened afterward.
“I loved Black people in my elementary school environment. It was so nurturing. I would walk to school. Sometimes, I would walk my fourth-fifth grade teacher home. I thought I was doing some big stuff. She was walking me home! I didn’t have any Black teachers until the fourth grade. I had Sarah Curry and then I had her sister Estella Curry. I thought that was the best thing. I thought they were just beautiful. They were smart. They were an educated family and it was just the bomb. There were a couple of Black teachers in middle school. But it was the Black people, we were just unified.”
Because of the impact Black teachers had on my father, I know my parents made a concerted effort to make sure my sister and I had the same experience, at least our first year in elementary school.
Years after I’d graduated from college, I was looking at me and my sister’s old school pictures. I said to my mom, “Isn’t it so interesting that both Vanessa and I had Black first grade teachers.” My mom scoffed and said, “You think that was an accident?”
It was then, that I realized all the work my parents put into making sure that we had Black role models, in virtually every area of our lives.
My mom said, “I do know that I wanted your first teacher to be Black. That was a must. It was just important because each Black child needs to know there are Black teachers. There are Black teachers who are capable of teaching you what you need to know. And I also felt like a Black teacher, a good one–cuz they all ain’t good–but a good one would reinforce what we already taught you as far as Black history is concerned.”
It was a plan that worked. While I can’t recall specific Black history lessons my Black first-grade teacher shared, I know she made an effort as far as representation was concerned. She did a whole series reading Cinderella stories from different parts of the world. And I’ll forever remember the African version: Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. Who knows if I would have been exposed to that story and that role model if my first teacher were a White woman.
Because truth be told, I also had a White teacher who didn’t care too much about representation.
Ms. Leck, my music teacher in elementary school saw our class at least once a week. One of the most memorable things about her classroom was that fact that she had a very tall, curved wall. And on it, there were posters of famous musicians: Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin etc. As a child, I can remember leaning back and looking up at all those men on the wall.
In second grade, during parent-teacher conferences, my parents visited Ms. Leck’s classroom. They too stood in front of the wall, looking at the posters. I remember watching my parents’ concerned expressions and hearing their tense whisperings before my mother directed her voice, stronger now, to Ms. Leck.
“You don’t have any Black artists to put on this wall?”
I remember being mortified. As a child, I got the sense that my parents were too intense when it came to their Blackness. I thought they took race stuff too seriously. I watched as Ms. Leck’s face contort in both shock and shame.
After stuttering for a bit, she said that it was something she would work on. I remember going from embarrassment to pride. Maybe Black musicians did deserve to be on the wall.
Within the next week, there were famous Black musicians on the wall. And what was particularly interesting is that they were in the same format as the White musicians who hung up there by themselves before.
And if my parents hadn’t asked, would the posters of Black artists ever have made it up to the curved wall?
it would be years before I would understand the importance of that moment. But now that I’m older, I see the ways in which my parents not only exposed me to Black culture and history in my home but did what they could to ensure that images of powerful, intelligent, great Black people were also present in my life outside of the home.
I’ll never be able to explain the impact those images and the fight for those images had on my self-confidence, my world view and my appreciation for my people.