Narratives about attempts to teach against the grain of a broken educational system have typically come from the perspective of white teachers. My own memoir of my teaching experiences in Chicago’s public schools, Holler If You Hear Me (1999), followed in a long line of such work stretching back to classic books by Herbert Kohl and Jonathon Kozol in the 1960s .In recent years, black women scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings, Michele Foster, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, and Annette Henry have countered this tendency by chronicling the “culturally relevant” pedagogy of a number of African–American and African-Canadian teachers. But despite these important contributions,the recorded story of attempts at teaching for change in America ‘s schools has, in large measure, retained a distinctly vanilla flavor.
My forthcoming book, See You When We Get There, represents an effort to portray the classroom lives of five young teachers of color who are working for change in their schools and communities. In observing and interviewing these teachers, I wanted to learn about their pathways to teaching, their day-to-day challenges in the classroom, and the factors that motivate and constrain their work with urban kids. I wanted to know what they believe about the purposes and possibilities of public education, and to find out how (or whether) they manage to renew themselves in the current climate of hyper-accountability and teacher-bashing. In short, I wanted to hear their voices and document their teaching stories, while also taking a measure of my own.
The following excerpt is drawn from a portrait of Liz Kirby, a high school history teacher on Chicago ‘s South Side.
In a week or so,” Liz Kirby told the juniors and seniors in one of her African-American Studies classes, “we’re going to start reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X . So you need to either buy it in the next week or give me five dollars to buy it for you.”
Around the room, several kids’ eyebrows raised. “You talking about the one by Alex Haley?”
“That book is about fifteen dollars.”
“No, it’s not,” Liz said reassuringly. “It should cost you about five dollars.”
“Do we get extra credit for buying it?”
“No, you get regular credit. I really think it’s a book you’ll want to have in your personal library.”
“I don’t have a personal li-bury,” said a kid with spotless white gym shoes. “And I’m not gonna read it, so why should I buy it?”
“Excuse me,” Liz said, furrowing her brow and turning her body toward him. “Let’s be strong. And focused. Can we have a little less resistance and trust me a little bit?”
The kid’s face softened. “How long is it?”
“It’s…” I could tell Liz was searching for a way to answer that wouldn’t alienate the skeptics any further. “It goes really fast. It’s a quick read.”
“That book’s about five hundred pages,” a young man with a radio announcer’s voice called out. “It’s this thick.” He held up a thumb and forefinger about three inches apart to show the group. “And, like I told my English teacher-if it don’t fit in my back pocket, I ain’t gonna take it home.”
“Can’t we just watch the movie instead?” a girl with braces and barely sprouting dreadlocks asked.
“Yeah, let’s just watch the movie,” several others agreed. I wondered if Spike Lee, who fought so hard to direct the film version of Malcolm X’s life in hopes of bringing the story to more young people, had anticipated these unintended consequences.
“Look,” Liz told them. “I really want you to own this book. I personally believe it’s a book that every person who lives in America-black, white, Latino, Asian-should read. I didn’t read it myself until pretty recently, but when I did, my first reaction was, ‘All my students have to read this book.’ It’s that powerful.”
“But I don’t got time to read a thick book like that, Ms. Kirby,” whined the radio announcer.
“How do you get to school?” Liz asked him.
“I take the bus.”
“There you go,” she said. “Read it on the bus every day.” He looked thoroughly unconvinced. Liz turned to the class: “I really don’t want you guys to be intimidated by the book because of its length. It’s an important, important book, and I really think you’re going to like it. And I promise you this: You will be a better person for having read Malcolm X.”
“A’ight, Ms. Kirby,” the kid with the sparkling shoes said. “Long as you don’t ask us no questions about what was the deeper meaning.”
The undercurrent of his comment, it seemed to me, was clear: Liz always asked her students about the deeper meaning of things, and he knew that it would be no different with Malcolm X.
As Liz began to outline the class’s four main projects for the upcoming marking period, it was evident that she expected a lot from her students.
“It’s going to be an intense quarter,” she told the group, “so please prepare yourself for that intensity.” In addition to studying slavery and slave rebellions, they would write additional chapters for their own autobiographies, read and discuss Malcolm X , write a research paper on some aspect of African-American history, and create a small-group performance to express something they’d learned in class.
At the mention of the performance piece, a loud groan came from the direction of the radio announcer, whose name, Liz told me after class, was Sherman. “Okay, look, Oscar the Grouch,” Liz said, laughing. “You have a lot of choice in this. You can do dance, rap, poetry, dramatizations, you can do scenes from-“
” The Jeffersons ?” Sherman asked.
Liz gave him a look that said she’d had about enough of his silliness. “You could bring in an India.Arie song and do something with that,” she suggested. “Or you could do a dialogue between Tupac and Dr. King.” The two references to black popular music weren’t accidental nor, I would learn, were they isolated. Liz frequently wove rap lyrics or song references into her lessons, and posters of hip-hop artists such as Common (who is from Chicago) and The Roots decorated her classroom walls. On several occasions in the coming days, I witnessed kids approach Liz after class to talk about a new video they’d seen or a song they’d heard. For Liz, music was an avenue for making connections, another way to build bridges of common understanding with her students.
After the class discussed the project assignments, Liz turned to the main activity she had planned for the day: Several students would be reading aloud their “appeals”-poems or essays inspired by David Walker’s Appeal , an impassioned anti-slavery plea published in 1829. Walker, a free Black man, urged slaves to rise up, to fight violence with violence, and to claim their dignity and freedom. Liz had asked her students to compose their own appeals that touched on current or historical issues that affected them, and they had responded, she’d told me, with hard-hitting, provocative, insightful pieces.
Shontell Flowers,* the first to read, waited for the class to settle down before she began.
Today I am writing to bring to your attention
Whether you be white, black, or somewhere in between
I too have decided to break the
I’ve found that America is corrupted by politics, and has been washed unclean
By the time she reached the end of that stanza, the only sound in the room was Shontell’s voice.
From the beginning, it has been
contradictions, lies, and obscenities
Though poorly blanketed with a
Do you even dare call this cold ground the land of liberty?
Well, I’ll tell you what I have read, seen, and interpreted through my eyes
As she read on, spotlighting historical injustices from World War II-era Japanese internment camps and U.S. involvement in Vietnam to George W. Bush’s questionable election in 2000, the audience listened even more intently, responding aloud to lines that struck them as if they were at a tent-meeting revival: “Mmm-hmmm!” “That’s right!” “Say it!” When Shontell concluded with the lines, “Race-related, black-on-black, drug-related crimes/America, built on our backs, will fall in due time,” a guy behind me leaned over and said to a friend, “She deep. She need to go ahead and pop a album off. She got more lyrics than Mos Def.”
“So what’s she appealing?” Liz asked the class.
“How America has been hypocritical since back in the day,” Jazmine answered.
“She’s finding a lot of inconsistencies with the whole founding of the country,” added Rodney. “And with what’s going on today, too.”
“My point was not to bash America,” Shontell said. “I just wanted to show how we have to change and better these things if we don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.”
Saying that we have to make things better, of course, assumes that it is possible to do so, that bringing about social change is something that is within our collective grasp. Shontell clearly believed that it was, and that notion, Liz told me, was one of the most important messages she tried to get across to her students.
“I really hope that in my teaching I can encourage kids to look at their lives and their roles differently,” she said. “I want kids to feel-empowered is not the best word, but-connected to their lives and connected to their communities. I don’t want them to feel like things just kind of happen around them and there’s nothing they can do about it. I want them to understand that each decision they make, like it or not, is a decision, and it has an impact. And I want them to take responsibility for that.”
Discussing Malcolm X
A week later, in Liz’s fourth-period class, students pulled copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X from their backpacks or messenger bags. Despite their earlier complaining, most of the kids had ended up either purchasing the book themselves or giving Liz the money to buy it for them. Her impassioned endorsement had surely swayed some naysayers to get with the program, and others had been persuaded by her no-nonsense bottom line: “Let me be real clear about this,” she’d told all four of her Afro sections. “You will not pass my class if you do not read this book.” For those students who hadn’t been able to come up with the cash, Liz had created payment plans, giving kids the book on credit if they agreed to pay her back in weekly, one-dollar installments.
Sierra Sanders, who always sat behind me in the back corner of the room, had been one of the most stubborn resisters of Malcolm X , and today she’d come to class without her copy of the book in hand. Liz noticed right away and made her way to Sierra’s desk to investigate.
“I can’t read that book,” Sierra said. “I can’t even pick it up no more. It’s garbage.”
Liz’s eyes narrowed but she kept her composure. “Have you read it?”
Sierra looked out the window. “I read enough of it.”
“Well, if you haven’t read it, you really can’t critique it.” The irritation in Liz’s voice was impossible to miss. “But it’s not garbage.”
As Liz returned to the front of the room, Sierra mumbled to herself: “Why we need to know about this? How Malcolm X gonna help me in the real world? If somebody pull a gun on me, what I’m gonna say: ‘Oh, I know Malcolm X’?”
“Okay, who has a section from what you read last night that you’d like to read aloud?” Liz asked. “Something that spoke to you.” The chapter they’d been assigned described Malcolm’s first encounters with the middle-class blacks in Boston’s Roxbury section, and his initial experience with having his hair “conked”, a then-fashionable method, popular with urban blacks, of soaking one’s hair in burning-hot lye in an attempt to straighten it.
Camilla volunteered to read an excerpt. “This is on page 54,” she said, “right after he got his hair conked.” She read:
This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are ‘inferior’-and the white people ‘superior’-that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look ‘pretty’ by white standards.
“So what’s Malcolm’s message there?” Liz asked. “And by the way, as you read each chapter, underline the messages Malcolm is trying to teach people. This is a teaching book.”
“He’s sayin’ don’t conk your hair.”
Liz nodded. “Okay, but is it just a hair management issue or does it go deeper than that?”
“He’s saying we have no sense of identity and beauty as a race,” said Camilla. “Most of what we call beautiful has something to do with what white people call beautiful.”
“Like the contacts people wearin’ now,” Keisha added. “Everybody want green eyes or blue eyes or hazel eyes but not they own dark brown eyes.”
Earlier, Liz had told me that jokes about dark skin and other forms of what she called “self-hatred” were all too common among some of the black students at Matheson. “In one of my classes last year,” she told me, “they would make jokes about each other all the time-‘You black so-and-so.’ ‘Wash your face off.’ ‘We can’t even see you if we turn the lights out.’ Just cracking up, you know?
“A couple of kids have done it this year, too. And when I challenge them on it, they’re like, ‘Why are you even bringing that up? We’re just joking! We don’t mean anything by it!’ They think I’m way too sensitive, and that I address it too much. But I want them to think about why they’re saying those things and what it really means.”
If Liz seemed passionate about encouraging her students to identify and overcome buried feelings of self-hatred, it was largely because she’d spent years dealing with it herself. “When I was younger,” she explained, “I really suffered a lot of black hate stuff. Being dark skinned-it was real bad. My friends and I, we would sit and put our hands out and say, ‘Who’s darker?’ ‘Oh, you’re darker. Too bad. Your life’s gonna suck!'” She laughed, but the pain of the memory was plain to see. “So that really kind of affected me. I had the long hair, I did the whole perm thing, I had a horrible, horrible Jheri-curl-but only for a week!” Liz laughed again and touched a hand to her short dreads. “Oh, my God, it was the worst! I was, like, 11, and of course I didn’t go to the shop-my mother did it at home. It was this whole kit. I don’t know how my hair ever recovered from it. It was just, like, frizzy and wet. I mean, it was really traumatic. It was horrible.”
Though Liz’s parents and her all-black Catholic grammar school both communicated messages of African-American cultural pride to her, she received quite a different message from the mainstream media, where white, Eurocentric norms were constantly idealized. “I was just part of that culture,” she told me, “that idea of buying into the American dream of what you should be and what you should look like and what you should do. I got all of those images from television and movies. And it’s really difficult to love yourself when you buy into those images.”
As a teacher, Liz sees her students being seduced by the same standards of beauty-wearing light-colored contacts, for example, or dying their hair blonde or platinum-and she finds it troubling. She regrets that it took her so many years to embrace a healthier, more affirming self-definition. And she worries that some of her students might never get to that point without a caring adult prodding them along. “I think that’s part of why I want them to be analytical about everything,” Liz told me. “I want them to be able to remember something we read or talked about that will make them think twice about getting violet contacts or making a black joke.” She paused. “It’s difficult, though. “So many of the self-hatred issues come from ignorance and a lack of exposure to things and a lack of critical reflection. You’re talking about years and years of stuff that you have to unpack, and it takes a long time.”
Of course, some would argue that that’s exactly what’s wrong with public schools: They’re spending far too much time trying to raise kids’ self-esteem, and not enough teaching them how to read and write. But Liz doesn’t think it needs to be an either/or equation. She prides herself on setting rigorous standards in the classroom, on having high expectations for her students and insisting that they rise to meet them. But she also believes that a crucial component of her work with African-American young people involves helping them to see themselves with more accepting eyes, and to value-yes, even to love-who they are.