Generations after Black secularist historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson founded what was initially dubbed “Negro History Week,” the continued struggle for Black self-determination in education is an indictment of American democracy.
In his new book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Harvard professor Jarvis Givens argues that “teaching and learning themselves continue to be ‘a means of escape’…and a total critique of the current order” for African Americans. Consequently, Black fugitive pedagogy has:
“heavily informed both politics and values after Emancipation. Carried over from slavery (it) reflected the general story of black people’s shared past and present. In the postbellum era, black Americans continued to live their educational lives through the frame of this origin story. It continued to structure the relationship between education and the black political struggle more broadly.”
As national recognition about Black History month trends, the visionary Black teachers who have traditionally led the movement to uplift Black-centered curricula in K-12 schools are increasingly imperiled. Within the context of a white supremacist educational system, Black teachers have always been under siege. But the intersection of pandemic disparities and escalating anti-Black racism have taken a decisive toll.
Nationwide, Covid protocols, chaotic schedules, long working hours, budget cuts, exploding class sizes, and right-wing backlash against culturally responsive education and critical race theory are pushing many Black teachers to the brink.
According to a recent Rand report, “Black teachers were more than twice as likely as other teachers in the winter of 2021 to say they planned to leave their jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year.” Moreover, Black teachers routinely experience stress due to hostile work environments, as well as unsupportive administrators and fellow faculty.
This is devastating for Black students in particular, and children of color overall.
Quiet as it’s kept, the majority of BIPOC youth are taught by white female teachers—a disturbing reality that has major implications for Black student achievement. Studies have shown that having at least one Black teacher throughout their school careers increases the likelihood that African American students will go on to college. Yet, in many school districts, access to Black educators (be they mentors or full-time classroom teachers) is often an outlier.
According to 2017-18 National Center for Education Statistics, 79% of teachers in American K-12 schools were white, while only 7% were Black, 9% were Hispanic, and 2% were Asian. Between one and two percent of teachers in the U.S. were American Indian/Alaskan Native or multiracial.
Over the past year, numerous states have introduced legislation restricting educators from teaching about racism, sexism, LGBTQI+ identity, critical race theory, and other issues that involve social inequities. Driven by a white Christian nationalist groundswell of far-right special interest groups, school board members, and politicians, some states have even established websites and hotlines to report offending teachers, placing them at risk of termination. These McCarthyist tactics are occurring against the backdrop of a wave of book bans that have targeted contemporary Black authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), Nikole-Hannah Jones (The 1619 Project), and George M. Johnson (author of the LGBTQI+ coming of age memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue), as well as literary giant Toni Morrison (whose books The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon are two of the most banned books in the U.S.).
This backlash prompted Congressional Democrats to rebuke conservative lawmakers and call for designated funding to protect pedagogy on African American history. The Dems’ modest $10 million dollar ask is chump change relative to the grassroots political and legislative firepower right-wing militants have marshaled for misinformation and intimidation campaigns against critical race theory.
Many of the teachers I’ve spoken to agree that the climate has gotten more onerous. Darrin Johnson, a six-year teacher from Southern California’s Inland Empire commented:
“The students have been consolidated into fewer classes. Substitute teachers are harder to come by, and multiple faculty members will be out on any given day. There are times when the campus feels like a ghost town.”
In addition, “Anti-Black racism has certainly caused me to think about whether I want to keep doing this. It’s overwhelming at times. Instances of anti-Black racism that I experienced years ago still linger on my mind. What keeps me going is reminding myself that I do this for my students.”
Veteran South L.A. teacher and award-winning educator Yvonne Divans Hutchinson has also seen how the pandemic “exacerbated preexisting inequities that Black students were experiencing.” She notes:
“The revolving door of subs and waylaid permanent teachers have set back Black students. At the same time, conscious Black teachers still fight to implement culturally responsive and anti-racist curricula in their classes with minimal to no administrative support.”
Both teachers’ sentiments are reinforced by the conclusions of Sharif El Mekki, head of the Center for Black Educator Development (CBED). El Mekki stresses that some Black teachers say they are expected to solve all issues involving race and racism in their schools and police “unruly” Black students. These racist expectations lead to frustration and burnout. A recent Time magazine article on the exodus of Black teachers chronicled the departure of two Black and Asian educators who fought to hold their school administrators accountable for creating an anti-racist culture on their campuses.
The experience of these educators is far too common. As El-Mekki notes, “We talk about cultural competence, and many Black educators are trying to navigate their colleagues’ and supervisors’ cultural incompetence on top of everything else.”
The stress and anxiety of having to “school” culturally incompetent and/or outright racist, microaggressive colleagues and administrators is a constant source of trauma for frontline Black teachers. As El-Mekki’s colleague Shareefah Mason contends, part of the battle involves disrupting the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” racket which thrives on slapping “pretty words on pretty websites”, rather than “asking the hard questions about what is working and what isn’t working”.
In order to develop “anti–racist” schools, CBED and other organizations advocate providing Black teachers with consistent support, reinforcement, and mentoring to ensure retention. Creating teacher academies, scholarships, affinity groups, and apprenticeships for Black educators are paramount. Expanding and preserving the ranks of caring, critically conscious Black and BIPOC teachers who have school climates that actively champion their pedagogy is a critical step toward combating the toxicity of the white supremacist backlash against public education.