Novelist James Baldwin once wrote that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
Several weeks ago, during the annual AERA conference in Philadelphia, esteemed scholar Charles Payne chaired a symposium entitled 60th since Brown…50th since the Civil Rights Act. As I listened to Payne’s powerful reflections on the past 60 years, I ruminated on the unique period of history that I have lived. At the same time, I was struck by the realization that the person I am today is the result of an intersection of Payne’s “public” history of court cases, legislation, and demographic shifts and my own “personal” history of family, schooling, and subsequent interactions with my environment.
Not only does 2014 mark significant anniversaries of Brown and the Civil Rights Act, but also marks 40 years post Lau v Nichols, another landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case that served to advance the cause of educational equity for future generations of English-learning students in the United States. It’s tempting to believe that each of these milestones facilitated a steady stream of progress toward the goal of equal opportunity for all students, but our recent public history (like my personal history) is far more nuanced. Payne captured the dilemma in his statement that “it is difficult to say with confidence…just why Brown matters as much as was commonly-assumed. School desegregation on a broad scale just does not seem to be feasible public policy.” Although my instinctive reaction to this statement is deep sadness, I recognize the barriers to achieving a complete reversal of a national legacy of oppression, brutality, and injustice – a state of affairs that was hundreds of years in the making. In fact, 2012 Department of Education data reveal that across the country, 43 percent of Latinos, and 28 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white.
I was born a year after the passage of Brown, although it would be many years before I had any awareness of its meaning or significance. In 1964, a year after the Kennedy assassination, I was a 3rd grade student in our neighborhood, public elementary school in New Haven, Connecticut. Our classroom was exclusively white and we were, for the most part, raised in similar middle-class households with stay-at-home moms. Neither race nor racism was in our lexicons or consciousness. In the fall of 1964, the first yellow school bus pulled up in front of our school, our first African American classmate entered our world, and a great social experiment began.
Over the next decade, the racial demographics of my public school system changed dramatically. The number of schools buses increased, white flight to suburbs and private schools became the norm, and New Haven became a hotbed for political activism. Unlike the majority of my white classmates, I stayed in the public school system where I entered adolescence, as did the American Civil Rights movement. History marched on: Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in ’68. For three consecutive summers, New Haven, like many cities in U.S., became the scene of race riots in which neighborhoods burned and National Guard troops filled our streets. Corwin author Gary Howard lived in the Hill section of New Haven during these years and described the experience as a “baptism by fire,” the spectacular beginnings of a lifelong journey toward racial literacy.
I suppose I experienced my own baptism by fire during those years, although in the throes of adolescence, I had neither the awareness nor the vocabulary to describe what I was experiencing. I was a good student who, for the most part, benefited from my privileged status in the schools. However, at the same time, I spent most of those years as a fish out of water, in part because of the tremendous divide between students of color and the few white students who remained behind. To further complicate matters, I was growing into the awareness of another variable of my “otherness” – my emerging gay identity. As a result of my marginalized status, I was a loner in high school and sought refuge in a world of books. Much of my adult life has been spent trying to make sense of those years, and my personal commitment to educational equity and social justice is a reflection of that meaning-making process.
In a Corwin book entitled The Cultural Proficiency Journey, authors Franklin and Brenda CampbellJones pondered the question of what shapes the actions of those who have historically benefited in a highly-racialized society to work at dismantling a system that gave them the benefit of privilege. For many of us, the drive to disturb the status quo can be traced back to early encounters with injustice.
By the time I graduated high school, White students were a minority population in the New Haven public school systems, although the demographic of our teaching force remained stable – primarily White females. This pattern has endured across our nation’s urban, public schools some fifty years later. In more recent years, in part because of Federal requirements to disaggregate achievement data by race and ethnicity, the presence of sizable achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers, as well as between ELs and their non-EL peers are undeniable. We have begun to acknowledge a stark reality that really is a very old story: in fact, the problem was never about those children but instead about the schools that failed to serve them. And many brave educators, motivated by the pure desire to “untrap” ourselves from our tangled histories have embarked on their own Cultural Proficiency journeys – a process that begins with self awareness and questioning of our personal beliefs and the norms of our schools.
As Program Director for the Corwin Equity and Diversity line, I am fortunate to have had extraordinary guides on my journey. My friendship and work with the proponents of Cultural Proficiency lead me to examine my own cultural history and apply the lens of CP to my daily interactions in work and life. Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton’s Courageous Conversations about Race taught me the vocabulary and tools that help expose and challenge the presence of systemic racism in our educational institutions. Bonnie Davis, a gifted educator and author of How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You, helped me to better understand the important work that needs to take place at the classroom level – the work of relationship-building, honoring home cultures, setting high expectations, and building inclusive classroom communities that honor individual differences. And I would be remiss in not acknowledging all that I’ve learned from my authors and consultants who have dedicated themselves to ensuring that our nation’s ELs have access to high quality educations.
I invite each of you to reflect on your own public and personal histories and wish you well on your journey. Together, we can do this.