"What have you been reading?"
This is the question I ask my students each week as we continue with learning from a distance. “What have you been reading?” Some tell me they’re rereading the Harry Potter series since well ya know, they have time. Others tell me about how they’re parents are encouraging reading the classics of their childhood like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis or how the book Wonder by RJ Palacio has made them enjoy reading for the first time. Then I have those students who avoid my question entirely because they haven’t been reading for one reason or another.
What have I been reading?
I recently finished reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds. It is what Jason calls the “remix”, or the young reader’s edition of American University professor and author, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Bold Type Books, 2016). This book couldn’t have come out at a more perfect time in the history of America, for a teacher and mother of school-aged children (me) who has been silently wrestling with issues of racism and public education of the past and present. You see, last Summer, I enrolled back in school for the third time, this time to pursue a master's degree in K-12 Educational Leadership. Studying how to be an effective leader in the world of education leads me semester after semester to this place of examining achievement gaps, instruction, and the importance of fostering authentic relationships with all constituents of the school community. These issues, without fail, take me personally by the hand, and lead me down paths of careful consideration of issues involving race, socioeconomic status, and culturally relevant education. This is the path I choose to travel whether an intentional predetermined course outcome or not.
Our country is currently experiencing unrest. Political tensions are thick and public education as we know it has been turned on its head. A groaning that keeps my attention throughout the day as I watch my own children navigate distance learning and on through the night when I toss and turn thinking of how I can best support my students and their families to do the same. We are in a worldwide pandemic. One that is causing the exposure of a plague more deadly than the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), that has been spreading for decades, centuries. Systemic Racism. This book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds, explores the root causes of our country’s contagion.
If you’re familiar with Jason Reynolds and his style of writing, you can expect his first line to grab you by the collar and demand your attention.
"Before we begin, let's get something straight. This is not a history book."
In this nonfiction work, he breaks down history as it’s been written, and should’ve been told, in small meaningful pieces for you to chew—leaving you anticipating the next flavorful bite. Unlike titles he’s best known for like, Long Way Down and Ghost, these stories are not fictionalized, although the extremities of many of this country’s historical events make you wish they were. The accounts in Stamped are real. No fiction here. Fact. No characters, but rather individuals who have shaped and twisted the plot of this American story.
According to Stamped, these individuals can be lumped into three major categories: the segregationist (a hater), the assimilationist (a coward), and anti-racist (someone who truly loves). Author Jason Reynolds goes on to explain that people in history (we) can all identify with the thinking of one of these groups. Many of us vacillate between them, or as he says. "Can be both, and.". I, however, wasn’t prepared for the revelation of myself as I journeyed through the pages of this (un)history book.
"The cornerstone of assimilationist thought basically says: Make yourself small, make yourself unthreatening, make yourself the same, make yourself safe, make yourself quiet, to make White people comfortable with your existence." (Reynolds, 2020)
Whoa. Wait. When I read these words, I realized that I have lived the majority of my life this way. Assimilating. Not always completely conscious of doing these things, and without being formally taught this school of thought. I've sat in college classes and at tables with certain people professionally doing these very things. But why? I wanted to be taken seriously, have my ideas and opinions considered, I wanted to disprove any stereotypes they possibly believed about what it meant to be Black. I didn't want to appear uneducated, aggressive, angry, loud, or too different. Carefully calculating the syntax of my sentences and word choice so that I am heard and taken seriously. Trying to make sure that I say what needs to be said in a way that doesn't make anyone uncomfortable. Making sure not to overdo, rise too much, or shine too bright. I shrink in rooms where privilege looms like a giant. It's unnerving. I'm exhausted.
This type of thinking is in some ways self-preserving, yes, but it is also unbelievably selfish. There are voices in our country right now that feel they have the permission and right to be amplified louder than others--- that's the problem. Some voices feel they should be able to over talk and intimidate, which in turn quiets or arrests the voices of others. I'm disgusted.
Unfortunately, in a country built on racism even those who live their lives doing their best to make everyone comfortable, it remains a dangerous and unpredictable place. I am tired of hearing and seeing injustice, hate, and selfishness. It isn't always safe to do regular things when doing them with Black or Brown skin. Period. As Dr. King said, "We cannot be satisfied...nor "Will we ever be satisfied until..." That "until" precedes so many things. I am beyond dissatisfied with myself and this America. I'm over it.
As a result of what I have been reading, I am not the same. I am angry and ready to tear some stuff up for the good of all students I am afforded the opportunity to teach, my family, and myself. I am angry with systems built on injustice and even more so, I am angry with myself. Now that I know better, I intend to do better. No need in wallowing in shame, right? A trusted friend in education shared these words after I took to Facebook to express my personal epiphanies from this book and my frustration with the news surrounding the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. “You don’t need to be angry at yourself, friend. Put that anger all back into that “tear stuff up” process. The same systems that killed Maud are the same ones that forced you to fit yourself into a box. That’s not your fault. That’s racism.”
Because of what I’ve been reading I feel empowered to “use my words” more often to speak up and out about the things that matter to me and should matter to all of us. I make it a point in my classroom to grant all my students opportunities and space to raise their individual and collective voices. Time to take my own advice, look myself in the mirror, and make the conscious decision to do better. Do better by myself, my community, the system of education, and this country. This country is ailing. I want to be a part of the cure, the healing. But first, I must start with myself.