How can we—those concerned with the education of students of color, particularly Black males—critique and thus reframe existing educational research and policies in ways that recognize, to use the words of Mayor Cory Booker, “the genius within our students?” How might we reshape current theoretical frameworks, methodological designs, and pedagogical practices that many of us have come to rely on, in ways that center the powerful voices, perspectives, and ideological and epistemological stances of Black male students?
What have we not done to address and rewrite the pervasive issues of academic under-preparedness, unfair social policies and practices, and feelings of powerlessness and fear encountered by too many of our Black male students, issues that too readily lead to disparate results about what they can and cannot do in schools, and thus, in this larger social-political world? More interestingly, at least for me, are the questions: What is going on with the ways we have come to talk about, teach, and treat Black male students, particularly within the confines of educational systems that we know all too well are historically oppressive, racist, and classist? What might it look like for our work—and by extension, our very lives and actions—to be grounded in pedagogies of possibility and hope, on the one hand, and in serious efforts in social justice and civic engagement, on the other hand?
As I consider these questions in relation to the documentary Beyond the Bricks, I cannot help but to grapple with what many of us have yet to actualize when it comes to our work with Black male students: that in fact, they are brilliant, that they, that we, come from a history of struggle and perseverance, and that we cannot continue to ignore this history by neglecting to acknowledge their varied and diverse lived conditions. In order to not neglect this history, we must take seriously Pedro Noguera’s call for sound educational experiences that are grounded in problem-solving approaches, questions, the application of knowledge, the cultivation of clear values, and a firm sense of responsibility for self and community. Until we do these things—realize their brilliance, their histories, their varied lived conditions, and provide sound, solid educational experiences—we will always be left asking ourselves, “why” in ways that negatively point the finger at Black male students instead of at ourselves, instead of at our practices, instead of at our policies, instead of at our educational mandates (can we say, No Child Left Behind), and instead of at our false sense of the real world application of our so-called critical educational work. Let us honestly ask ourselves, especially in these challenging educational and sociopolitical times, “What are we not doing and why?” and “What are we going to do, and when?” How much longer will we allow the lives and educational experiences of our Black male students to come under-fire by policies that have not worked, by practices that are not reflective of who they are and of the culturally relevant ways they can learn above and beyond low expectations?
To ask ourselves those questions, in my opinion, requires that we reflexively examine the ways we work, interact, and transact with Black male students. On the topic of transaction, literacy scholar Bob Fecho (2004) summons us to do the following:
Immerse ourselves in looking closely at the transactions we make across cultures; that we think about these classrooms in the shower as we prepare for work, in the car on our way there, and in our sleep, long after we have closed the classroom door; that we wonder aloud and silently, alone and with colleagues, early and late, with students and because of students; that we see the work of learners and teachers as something infinitely worthy of all this close examination…that we come to respect the intellect of every child and every teacher by expecting them to transact within rather than just occupy space. (p.157)
Let me add into Fecho’s summons the following: that we immerse ourselves in the things we do not see, or pretend to not notice and thus, refuse to embrace, in relation to Black male students, students who walk into and out of our classrooms on a daily basis with stories yet to be tapped into, students who travel across their communities without being told that they are, or can be, community ethnographers, students who regularly confront social, political, and educational assumptions that they are not “good enough” or “educable” in comparison to their White counterparts, when in fact, they are. Recall Shaquiel walking out of his grandmother’s apartment—apartment #804—and narrating his experiences with truancy. He tells us of not wanting to be in a school [Shabazz] that imposed, in his own words, a “physical and mental toll on me,” a school in which he was met with gangs, drugs, beefing, chaos, and, to use his word, “pandemonium.” Then consider the banner that hung on the wall of one of the schools. It read: “Is a renaissance taking place in Newark?” Consider this message alongside Shaquiel’s confession that he is smart, that he does not engage in “dumbing down,” and that he used to love school, but that his passion for it has substantially decreased. Now consider both the banner and Shaquiel’s confessions in light of research that indicates, “By 4th grade, Black males start loosing interest in school.” Now let’s consider President Obama’s message that only “one third of our 13 and 14 year olds can read as well as they should,” and that the stubborn gap between “how well White students are doing in comparison to their African American and Latino classmates” continues to persist. Do these realities not slap us in the face in ways that encourage us to stand up, talk back, change, organize, and implement fair, equitable practices in schools and structures in communities that, according to Al Sharpton, can help us to remedy the situation that hinders Black males and that positions them for jail and street life? This is a dangerous positioning, one that we cannot allow to persist insofar as all students, generally, and Black male students, particularly, are concerned. I hope that we all have had enough of this type of positioning— Black males for jails and street life—instead of for schools and universities, for service to their and our communities.
I hear the message loud and clear, and it is not a message of hopelessness. It is a message, according to 19-year-old Eric Graham, that should motivate us to stop labeling Black males as bad. It is a message that should shake us to the bones when we confront statistics that read, “36,000 Black males” are removed from their homes each year by Social Service Agencies, and that Black students represent “17% of all public school students, 32% of all suspensions, and 37% of all expulsions.” Unfortunately, as Pedro Noguera describes, “the problem is that Black males are over represented in everything dealing with failure and are under-represented in categories dealing with success. We simply cannot accept this as normal or as the norm, and as Beyond the Bricks gets us to consider, we must address how public education and its related social institutions are not supporting Black males.
Clearly, the rich aesthetic nuances, the complex aspects of education, the words of Eric and Shaquiel, and the sentiments offered by those on camera—Al Sharpton, Cory Booker, Clifford Janey, Thomas Reddick, Sr. and Jr., Ivory Toldson, Pedro Noguera, and John Jackson—and those not on camera, have significant influences on the literate lives of Black male students, and the direction we know we should not continue to follow as a democratic nation because the lives of Black males, and in essence, of all of us, are at stake. I hope we realize this before it’s too late.