Black to School

A new year has began. I look around me in my Civil Procedure class, and of the 60 or so students, I am one of four black people. Not a bad number, you might think. But I know better. Just because they are black, doesn’t mean we’re fighting the same battle. I’m just sayin.’ I don’t know them, so I assume I’m fighting alone until experience tells me otherwise.

The class begins with a discussion of Walker v. City of Birmingham, decided by the Supreme Court in 1967. Already my stomach is sinking. Anything about Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s is not really something I want to talk about on the first day. Not when I’m surrounded by fresh-out-of-undergrad-white-folks-who-have-never-paid-a-bill-and-really-believe-they-are-here-based-on-their-own-“merit”. Shit.

But in it we go. Short law lesson: The case is about Walker et al, with the et. al. including MLK Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, appealing a decision by a lower Alabama court. The city had an ordinance on the books that gave it broad discretion in who to issue a permit to. Bull Connor refused them a permit to march twice during the Easter weekend in 1963. They started small protests anyway, so the city got a judge to issue an injunction – an order that said they were not allowed to march or protest in any way. Now the ordinance was pretty unconstitutional, and the injunction just mimicked what the ordinance said. But the ordinance is a statute, and the injunction is an order of the court.

The men marched anyway. Bull Connor and his police arrested them and jailed them, of course. Then the city filed a motion for contempt of court, because the men violated the injunction. And that’s the issue that went to the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court upheld the contempt order. You cannot violate an injunction, no matter how unconstitutional it is, out of respect for the “rule of law.” You must challenge the injunction, in front of the court who ordered it, before you violate it.

Fine. I love legal analysis. Of course, there are reasons to agree with the court’s ruling, and reasons to disagree. There were dissenting opinions.

What gave me pause in this class was that after we’d discussed the case, the professor decides that we all need to understand the “context” of the case. Generally, I’m all for that. I’m a sociologist; I believe context is paramount all the time. But when you are the 1/4 black contingent, and suddenly huge powerpoint photos of black people, black children being hosed, attacked by dogs, beaten with billy clubs, and inhumanely jailed, you wonder if “context” is really the right word.

The next slide put up is Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in that Birmingham jail, writing his Birmingham letter, and the professor asks the class, what would you have done in this man’s situation, and then adds on quickly, well, of course this is a trick question because these images being projected into living rooms across America is what led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And everyone laughs.

But to me, what made it a trick question was the fact that these people would have never been in MLK’s position, never in his position to put black children on the street because all the black adults were in jail, never in MLK’s position to break the law in homage to justice over order, never in MLK’s position to stare down water hoses and dogs because their skin color would never have been black. It is not a hypothetical they have to truly contend with.

But for me, and the millions of students that go into classrooms this year, the hypothetical feels real. A girlfriend of mine told me a story of her six-year-old who was taught about segregation and MLK in his first grade classroom. This mother is very light-skinned, and her child brown-skinned. After the lesson at school, the child came home and told his mother that if things ever “went back,” he’d have to leave her. He might also have to “fight, like MLK did.” Why? Because the teacher didn’t take any account of the fact that in teaching this “lesson,” the only black child in the classroom might take it literally, and not place it in its historical context.

In other lessons, this teacher, attempting to be “historically correct, not politically correct” had black children act out being slaves on a field trip to a plantation while white children looked on. This teacher bound the hands of two black girls in a lesson about slavery order to make it more lively. Another teacher had black children create fugitive slave posters of themselves.*

While black parents have fought hard to have “our” stories told in schools, something has gone horribly wrong in implementation. Has your child been the recipient of this psychological attack disguised as a history lesson? What is the alternative for teaching all children about the sordid legacy of oppression in this country without making the historically oppressed relive their oppression?

5 thoughts on “Black to School

  1. This is a great post Latoya! One of the things I constantly remind my grad students of color, and recently others I have presented a talk for as well, is that for all of their complaints about how “hard” grad school is, “it’s not a cotton field,” “it’s not a Ford Motor Plant,” “it’s not a sweatshop,” “there is harder work out there!” I know that it is not fair to qualify oppressions in this way but I think it important to remind them that there were, and are still, others who were jailed, exploited, and/or physically brutalized so that we could go to school.

    I say all this to say that it’s not only the “let’s only make the brown kids slaves” approach that is troublesome. Our perspective, as a nation, has still not resolved to say how can we teach the history of a people, through images even, that is not caught up in pretending that ANYONE, even that person’s direct descendant, could, or should have to, “relive” that experience.

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  2. Good post. I’ve thought a lot about these issues, too. Especially the problem that the very things I do as a White instructor to get a point across to White students can have the impact of discomforting or hurting the students of color. And hi, sorry I missed seeing you at ASA this year.

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    1. Hi OW! Good to hear from you. I was not at ASA this year – you know how funding goes for grad students – if you aren’t presenting, you can’t get funding to go, and since I was working on the JD part of my degree, I didn’t have anything new going on in the past year.

      It really is a hard balance to achieve. One student who took the class in a previous year said that I professor would spend weeks on the case, which I think might be a better approach than spending one day – one day is trite, while over a longer time period everyone’s voices can be heard, the case becomes more humanized. Just like discussing black history in a month, it makes black people so much more like the “other” instead of a part of the whole, while integrating diversity of experiences throughout the entire year makes diverse experiences normal.

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  3. In law school, my crim teacher once showed a taped interrogation, to illustrate coercive police practices. As the film loaded up, I thought to myself, “please don’t let the suspect be black; please don’t let the suspect be black; please don’t let the suspect be black.” No such luck; the suspect was an uneducated black man. It was uncomfortable for most of the black students in the room (and, like you, there was only, like, 4 of us) but when the lights came up, an Asian girl rose her hand and said, “why did you show this to us without any context? How dare you not address the racial aspects of this? How do you think it made the people of color in this room feel?” The professor, a white female, flipped out; she thought the girl has accused her of being racist. She made the student feel awful; she ended up leaving class in tears. The next class period, our prof brought in her “black prosecutor friend,” to talk to us, because according to her, whenever she tried to discuss race, people clammed up. I’ve always been impressed that that Asian girl made the comment that I really should have made; I’ve never forgotten how absurd it was when my prof brought in her “black friend” to make it all better.

    Fast forward almost a decade, and I’m trying to teach my students about the racial aspect of false imprisonment claims; we are discussing racial profiling, and I show a CBS investigation documenting absurd racial profiling, and 2 instances when people of color were falsely imprisoned by store managers after being accused of stealing clothing. They had not, of course, stolen anything; they had been targeted because they were black. At the end of the film, a white female student raised her hand and says something to the effect of “I get how, like, those 2 people at the end were falsely imprisoned, but, like, how does the rest of the film about racial profiling fit into this? I don’t get why it matters…” At the end of class, a black male approached me and said, “this was a hard class; watching the video, it was like they were telling my story; it happens to me all the time. I found myself laughing at parts of the video–trying to distance myself from the pain.”

    I felt awful for him; I certainly understand what it’s like to be a person of color in these discussions. And yet, precisely because of that white female student’s comment, I cannot refrain from having these conversations. I can’t let her go out into the world as an attorney, knowing nobody has ever challenged her worldview as a privileged person. I try to do so if a substantive manner. It’s not an isolated event; we discuss gender, ethnicity, race, class and sexual orientation all semester long, whenever it is appropriate. I never ask black students to comment; they are free to volunteer only if they want to.

    But the truth is, it still hurts. And I’m not sure there is any way around it.

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