A Black Educator in Rural America

I watched the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris January 20, 2021 with hope and tears. I was reminded of the roads we have traveled and the “hills” we’ve climbed by a young woman who was ten years old when Barack Obama was sworn into office as the first African American president in 2009. Yet Amanda Gorman brilliantly reminded me that in any struggle there is always light, and we mustn’t be afraid. Indeed, at twenty-two, she is unafraid to be that light. 

The beauty of this inauguration was that Biden’s address lacked usual high-flying inaugural oratory, words designed to have us focus on some noble route to the future, while overlooking a not-so-noble past. Reflection is always dangerous in a turbulent republic such as ours. President Biden did not sweep the unreconciled tragedies of our history under the rug. Indeed, he has pledged to flush out systemic racism which many see as the underlying cause of America’s civil unrest. Our American president is unafraid to admit to us and the world that persistent and protected racism has been hidden deep under the rug of national conscience for too many years.   

We cannot reach that “mountaintop” together if we don’t reconcile the events that have been conveniently purged from memory. One such memory was brought back to me on January 6th when our nation’s capital came under siege. I witnessed a man carrying a confederate flag, defiant and proud, across the floor of the capitol building. This hateful symbol of the lost southern cause had never, ever been unfurled in this country’s capitol building – until now. Ironically, there were two portraits hanging on the walls. To his right was a portrait of the proud abolitionist, Charles Sumner. To the left of the flag bearer was a portrait of John C. Calhoun, a proud defender of slavery. The irony tells me that some battles are never over; never won, never lost – forever locked in ugly stalemate. And while the north may be credited with winning the war, the south can be credited, as evinced by the flag-bearer’s display, with winning the message.

That message was driven home for me one morning in 1998, my 10th year of teaching high school English in a small western New York town. That morning was unremarkable until I entered my building to find five angry white boys surrounding the door to my classroom – all draped in the confederate flag. I knew these boys were hell-bent on teaching me the same lesson other racist whites have provided for people of my collective for generations. Apparently, I needed to learn fear – for having reported one of the boys for writing “KKK, all niggers must die” on his desk the week before. There was no doubt who wrote the message on this desk that I had just cleaned the prior evening. But then, as now, I found it curious that whenever a racist is outed to the public, righteous indignation goes into overdrive. The young man and his family were incensed  at my accusation. And to prove himself he started wearing a hat with the confederate flag emblem on the front. (Irony is not dead.)  The story is long and involves many attempts on my part to talk to the young man in efforts to find any compassion beneath the bravado of good-old-country-boy grievance. Nothing worked. Not a community meeting with the NAACP nor other white students defending the rights of students and teachers of color against offensive displays like the confederate flag. My approach failed in the late 1998. Even so, I hope that my abbreviated story can act as guide for teachers and administrators when their school is rocked with the leftover stones of racial prejudice. 

Educators, especially teachers of American history, I ask that you not be afraid to teach the truth. In fact, work backwards and unteach the lie of slavery being a simple working agreement between blacks and whites. And if there is any doubt that presumably intelligent adults already understand the truth about slavery, introduce them to “Gene Allmond, the chief of the police department in Hamilton, Ga.” According to New York Times reporter, Bryan Pietsch, Mr. Allmond is heard saying, They furnished them a house to live in, they furnished them clothes to put on their back, they furnished them food to put on their table, and all they had to do was work.”  Chief Allmond as speaking to Mr. Brooks a patrolman who was heard “using a racial slur while making lewd comments about [Atlanta Mayor] Ms. Bottoms and Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for governor.” Both chief Allmond and officer Brooks were unaware of Brooks’ body camera recording the conversation. This incident makes for an excellent lesson in the difficulty in getting to the truth about slavery. Let all the students know you are going to teach a mostly ignored history. Give students the courtesy of expectation. Expect them to understand the truth that southern states wanted the right to govern themselves insofar as their desires to own other human beings were concerned. Tell them this lesson is not to instill guilt or promote retribution, but it is a lesson about an American past meant to inform an American future. If we don’t know where we come from, we are doomed to never be able to answer the whys of the present and the why-nots for the future. I’ve taken the wind out of a few bully-sails by being up front regarding racist retorts. “There’s nothing original or decent about racism.” Cutting the bully off at the pass can sometimes remove sneak attacks. Sometimes. Most importantly for educators, you have to believe historical truths. If you don’t, I beg you, please get another profession.

The level of comfort in any given classroom begins with the teacher: For the white teacher who may have his/her own buried, unaddressed issues around race and white supremacy, establishing a level of comfort around an uncomfortable subject can be an insurmountable task. Knowing the truth about this country’s history means knowing the truth about one’s self.  There is no faking it. If you, as a white teacher, have any discomfort springing from your own  preconceived ideas and or negative experiences with students of color, your students from racist family cultures will know where your sympathies lie. Intuition is strong in many students especially minority students.  Indeed, some may never tell you but, believe me, they will know your comfort level, sometimes even better than you.  I asked the African American editor of our school newspaper why she had chosen to forego her senior year? (Preferring an early start at Georgetown University).  She explained that three years of  being the recipient of bullying racist behavior from her peers was more than enough. Another reason she was in a hurry to leave sprang from the white adult “presumption of black ignorance.” Every student has a teacher-radar. They know when we are being sincere. They know when we want them to thrive just as they know when teachers don’t care if they fail.  

 Administrators are important in deciding who gets to teach as well as determining the comfort level of the entire school. A good idea might be to have prospective teachers, as part of the interview process, model the introduction of a race related unit. An actual presentation of a candidate’s introduction to race sensitive topics such as,  Slavery in the U.S., Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, can give fair insight into a teaching candidate’s classroom approach.  

An administrator’s job is not easy. Navigating the vicissitudes of school board and administrative demands is not for the weak of heart. When a student insists on bullying or intimidating others with items like a confederate flag, the administrator needs to act swiftly to defend a peaceful and educational learning environment. Any equivocation lends legitimacy to racism. The Confederate flag issue at my school  should have been a teachable moment. My administrator should have suspended those individuals for intimidation and harassment. (There was no question as to why they blocked my door).  The entire school should have been made aware of the incident and informed, in no uncertain terms, that such behaviors would not be tolerated. My administrator failed in showing how the confederate flag was offensive to her as it should have been to every compassionate human being.  My principal levied no punishment. In fact, in efforts at appeasement,  the wearing of the flag was allowed – but only in two-inch-by-two-inch displays on hats or t-shirts. (I’m sure the ridiculousness in expecting teachers and hall monitors to carry rulers for measuring offenders is why this decision too, was a failure). My administrator’s actions told me I was not worth the outcry from aggrieved, though misguided, parents fighting to preserve a fabricated heritage. I never believed nor do I now see this administrator as racist and I fully understood the pitfalls of navigating a high school student body filled with kids from all socio-economic strata –  ranging from kids of parents with six-figure incomes to those on public assistance. What I found most offensive though, was my principal’s weakness and inability to stand up and proclaim this flag utterly offensive – just as she had done with me in private.  Yes, my principal did not want to upset a community that might have called for her resignation. My right to work in a non-threatening environment was not worth it for her. This episode happened in the spring semester and I wanted my principal to take a stand. And because she didn’t, that same student stalked me the entire fall semester finding my prep periods, coming to my room and pulling the, since banned, flag from his pocket. I informed her of these infractions too many times because it wasn’t long before I became the problem. I quit complaining. Maybe, in the late 1998, I wanted too much. But today, expecting an understanding of the evil of slavery and knowledge of how the image of the confederate flag furthered that evil, is not too much to ask. 

Nothing is lost on the perceptive student and time has proven this true. One young man who was part of the confederate flag tormentors blocking my door, stopped at my desk a few days after the incident wanting to apologize. Not only did he need to apologize to me,  but his family also encouraged him to apologize to the entire class. I remember his name to this day and wonder what became of him. I do know he moved to Florida soon after the apology to be with other family members. I don’t know why. Another incident that gives me reason to hope, happened eight years after my retirement, in 2016. I was a long-term substitute teacher at a high school in a neighboring city. At a faculty luncheon I was approached by a young teacher who asked if I had ever taught at her high school. I said yes. She then proceeded to apologize for her inaction during the “confederate flag incident.” I was stunned to tears – it had been so long ago. I was caught off guard, assailed by an unaddressed grief at the inaction of my principal and the silence of most of my white colleagues. This young teacher continues to be guided by the decency required to fight a racist culture. I am encouraged that the entire confederate flag issue held some positive lessons even as I know putting an end to the confederate fight for legitimacy has not been and will not be easy. I can only promise to fight the flawed rationale of State’s Rights. In order to remain above the rabbit-hole of hatred, I remember the positives that sprang from negative events.  I remember the white students, a young woman in particular who dared stand up at our meetings and call out the racists amongst her peers. (Today, this young woman now runs an advocacy law firm and remains good friends with my niece). I have long been amazed at the courage it must have taken for her to stand up and be strong all the while navigating the vicissitudes of an unforgiving high school culture. So too do I owe gratitude and respect to those few white teachers who refused to ignore students wearing racially offensive clothing in their classrooms. I had become far more conscious of those educators in my building who would consider themselves my friends yet not challenge a white student’s desire to wear racially offensive clothing in our workplace. This waffling regarding my right to work in a non-hostile environment was painful even as it was understandable. We teachers tend to be a docile lot. I understand as well that, as a teacher who’s been called many things, docile was never one of them. 

Ironically, what those aggrieved rioters who ransacked the Capitol Building on January 6th  of this year helped to pull rug from under the feet of this nation. A rug that had become so bumpy and uneven that it impeded our forward march. I saw the flag of the south waved in grievance as a potential stand-in for people who feared loss and desecration of their rural lifestyle. I realized as well that my former confederate flag-waving students were not knocking at the ceilings of academic or athletic success. The rural dairy farms were all but gone. Local machining and factory jobs were upping the skills requirements that would leave the less motivated on the outside. I see now that in their inarticulate hearts they must have felt they were being forced out of a way of life by the influx of highly skilled, very diverse, and educated workers hired by the county’s two major fortune 500 employers. I wondered how many of the DC rioters shared the same grievance?    

Racism ceases to be a problem when most people feel prosperous and employed in meaningful work. Yes, racist groups like the KKK and Proud Boys exist but their numbers increase with the increase in this white majority’s fear of loss. I wonder how many of my confederate flag tormentors looked at the newsclips with sympathy for the angry mob? I don’t think the January 6th  crowd understood the manipulation of their anger and frustration by racist and anti-Semitic groups. Just as those who blocked my door were being manipulated by the instigator whose initial grievance was being labled racist for his racist graffiti and not  the shared grievance of lost position in school and community.  

On my good days I am hopeful. Hopeful that those who wanted to wreck democracy on January 6, 2021 can come to some understanding of how their grievances are being coopted by hate groups who’ve blinded them to the irony of storming the “citadel of freedom” demanding a nebulous freedom for themselves. On my worst days, I know education has failed some students. We’ve failed to push them to do the right thing when we allowed a hateful rationale to prevail. We’ve equivocated when we should have been strong in our demands for decency and empathy. We didn’t want to hurt feelings by informing some that a time would come when the family farm would no longer sustain them after graduation. We failed to impress upon them the need for the human being to be useful, compassionate, and work for the good of the whole. As educators we’ve delighted in the successes of those motivated and strong students whose lives after college have made us proud. But all of that seems to have come at the expense of those who needed more from us than we were ever capable of imagining. Much is demanded of educators.  I’m not alone in my memories of leaving work in the dark, mired in fatigue  after a long and tiring meeting with my Students Against Violence And Discrimination group. Countless times I’ve sat in my car wondering why I worked so damn hard at an extracurricular that pays nothing?  But years later, I recognize I was paid – every time a student finds me on social media or writes a thank-you card letting me know the impact I had on their lives. Yes, I’ve been paid – in the currency of hope.

Teachers are expected to solve the problems of the world. As such, we must remember that our light will shine even if we can’t see its reflection in the moment. We have to be fearless as we take up education’s lantern, to shine the light that shows all students that America has a place for them. If nothing else – we must remember this.

2 Comments

  1. Gwen, thank you for posting this. The good and bad things that you have experienced are quite a microcosm of race relations in our country. I am a white man in my seventies who continues to teach and tutor students of a variety of races and nationalities in the local campus of our state’s community college network. I have not seen any instances of racism or prejudice among our students, perhaps because the college has made it clear that this would not be tolerated. It is also encouraging for me and my colleagues to be able to show our students how to distinguish truth from falsehood. We cannot change the whole country, but we can change the lives of individuals, and there is much to be said for that.

    1. Thank you Darrell for your comment. Teaching students to distinguish truth from falsehood is a most difficult task for educators – now more than ever. I taught introduction to Journalism at the local community college a few years ago – I actually had one student drop my class because I refused to look at Fox News as on par with the Big Three ABC, CBS, NBC. I had one student come up to me after class and demand I not say anything negative about Rush Limbaugh! “I am more Rush Limbaugh than Rush Limbaugh!” he tells me. I often wonder if my pity (a useless emotion) shows in my eyes as I stand and listen to ignorance speak. I’d love to say that I’ve ceased to engage. I am retired from teaching altogether but, alas, not from life. Be well. Peace

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