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I missed a lot of classes in high school.
Since my sophomore year of high school, once, twice, or even three times a week I was pulled from class at various points in the day to lead what my school called Equity Meetings. They went something like this:
Two or three other Black students and I went into my principal’s office, a white man. We sat at a round table with a few other white teachers. Only one was a woman. My principal would open up with some statement about the purpose of today’s meeting and it was always along the lines of: “Find out what our Black students, you guys, need, and we will come up with a plan to help”. For a school whose student body is 41% Black and Latinx, and has been for decades, it felt a little late to just now be addressing the systems of inequity within the school but better late than never I suppose.
Then, we would say what we needed:
“We need a more inclusive curriculum,”including history courses that talk about Black people outside of the two day unit on slavery and the civil rights movement because. Believe it or not, Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman were not the only Black person to ever exist.
“We need more students of color in AP classes.” It’s kind of disheartening to be one of two POC (people of color) in AP English Literature reading Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” when the white girl across from you says she didn’t enjoy the book because it “just didn’t apply to her as a white woman.” Meanwhile, I have had to make every story about white superheroes and scholars and saviors apply to me.
“We need better access to school resources.” In schools across America, students of color, specifically young men of color, fall below the educational standards set by white students. This was true in my school as well. The numbers were shared with me in these meetings, while solutions were not. One of the many contributing factors is a lack of resources in neighborhoods whose population is majority POC.
“We need Black teachers.” Nearly every teacher in my school is white. Not a single educator in my school is African-American. In my four years of high school, I did not have a teacher that looked like me. That is damaging.
In every meeting, every week, for years, we would say what we needed. That’s around 105 meetings over my time in high school, assuming they only occurred once a week. This is not counting the weekend city-wide meetings and last minute lunchtime sessions. I’d estimate the actual number to be around 300. Our needs were never met.
Going into these meetings as determined but naive 13 and 14-year-olds , neither I nor my friends understood that the administration wasn’t interested in actual change. They wanted quick fixes. They wanted to be able to go to the city-wide Department of Education meetings, put their token Black kids on stage, and say “Look! We’re letting them speak! This is progress!”
We were scapegoats for actual change and we didn’t even know it. There was no progress being made.
No curriculum or policies were altered. No Black teachers were hired. The most these meetings yielded were once a year powerpoints my friends and I were in charge of putting together and presenting to every class in the school. They covered random topics of inequity like cultural appropriation and colorism. While these topics are important, they’re not the determining factors of the unbalanced racial dynamics in my school. We spent so much time focused on educating Black and Brown students on what they already knew, what they grew up knowing and having to know instead of giving them what they needed to overcome these things. In the eyes of the all-white administration, they did not need to educate themselves. That burden was on us.
The pressure was unbearable at times. It felt like my fault that the so-called “achievement gap” between Black and White students was still so wide. It felt like my fault that the statistics weren’t improving and that my people were still struggling. My friend, Erica Simone Barnett, carried this weight with me. She sat next to me at many of these equity meetings and felt the same disappointment when we were denied what we knew we needed to thrive.
On June 2nd, three weeks before our high school Zoom graduation, Erica made a video on Instagram voicing her own experience as a member of our school’s “Equity Team”. She recalled in her sophomore year being sent by our principal, along with two other Black students, to a conference meant for white teachers to attend in order to learn how to facilitate racial conflict between adults and students. They were the only students there. The burden was put on them, on Erica, to learn and relay these gravely important lessons to our school’s white administrators that listened only so they could say that they listened, instead of actually implementing what was taught.
“My identity has been exploited by my teachers and administrators,” says Barnett in her video speaking on her experience. “Your diverse student body will not exploit their identities to educate you and to make your school look like a better place…That’s not their responsibility. Hire Black educators. Do it. Your students deserve it”
I am graduating amidst two pandemics; one, a deadly virus that has drastically changed my future, and two, the pandemic of police brutality and white supremacy that runs rampant in the United States. As I reflect on these past four years of my high school life, I cannot help but examine them through a lens tinted by the events of today. I am conscious of the racial dynamics that exist within my small school, and how they serve as a microcosm of the racial dynamics of this country. I am conscious of the hundreds of hours I spent as an involuntary activist, pushed into the role of an educator by those who were supposed to be educating me. I am conscious of the responsibility thrust upon me when I was too young to understand its weight,the toll it would take on my young body, mind, and spirit. I have vivid memories of crying in the stairwell out of sheer frustration, feeling as though I was failing everyone around me because I was pulled into hundreds of meetings but seeing so few results.
Not every moment was like this, of course. I am an activist by nature, as are many who are born into a group that has been historically disenfranchised. I wanted to advocate for my people, for Black and Brown students. There were days my friends and I had fun in those meetings. Teachers would bring doughnuts and bagels, keenly aware that free food is the quickest way to a broke teenager’s heart. There were days we had fun planning those powerpoints, blasting Kendrick Lamar and integrating quotes from activists we admired.
But we got tired of pouring our hearts out to blank stares in cold rooms.
We became a resource to alleviate the white guilt of our teachers. As we got older, we began to realize this and the work started to feel useless. Our voices started to feel useless until we figured it was better to simply stop using them. We had no more energy to give. We had been exploited for the singular purpose of our race and our ability to speak on it with some level of intelligence, and we were so tired.
My mind will forever hold the words of Black Panther Assata Shakur: “This context of struggle and being a warrior and being a struggler has been forced on me by oppression. Otherwise, I would be a sculptor, or a gardener, carpenter – You know, I would be free to be so much more.” Assata Shakur was never truly allowed to be anything but what she was, a revolutionary. Black America is full of these martyrs for the cause: Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Medgar Evers, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, men and women whose lives have been greatly defined by the function of their ends.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ critically acclaimed book “Between the World and Me,” he speaks of the Black body, his own, those around him, and their function in American society. He highlights the fact that far too often, the Black bodies function in society is defined by others. I am still learning the function of my body as defined by my life, by my own choices and terms. I am still finding my voice. I am still learning how it sounds under my own motivation instead of obligation. I am still learning that it is okay for me to be tired, that my Black body does not have a singular function in this world and that it was not created to bend at the will of others.
I am still learning.