While originally posted in September 2017, the message and historical framing still seem relevant today. Regardless of the quality of the educational tools and facilities, without teachers and school administrators who affirm, uplift, and believe in their students, students’ potential will never be fully realized. Wishing everyone much success as the school year begins.
The first day of school is always exciting. I’m sure that mine was no different when I walked into Albert V. Norrell Elementary School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had struck down separate-but-equal schooling, my education started in an all-Black school environment. I suspect I didn’t notice. All the people in my world were Black. Back then, we were all Negroes—in my family, in my neighborhood, at my church, and now at my school. Nothing new.
At the time, nationally and in Richmond, Virginia, where I lived, people argued whether separate school systems were inherently unequal and whether Black students were disadvantaged by this practice. In many ways, the evidence was clear. We received hand-me-down books from the white schools, our science labs, if we had them, had outdated equipment, and the school facilities themselves had only marginal upkeep.
But there was one significant difference. In that all-Black environment, everyone was fully dedicated to the success of all the students. From the janitorial crew to the cafeteria team, the entire faculty all the way to Mrs. Ethel Overby, our principal (the first Black woman ever named to be a principal in the Richmond school system), they were all willing to do whatever it took to nurture our desire to learn and to give us every possible learning opportunity they could. This reality was a powerful counterbalance to the deficits in the system.
I don’t believe that Black students experience that degree of total commitment to their success anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teachers and administrators don’t want to see their students succeed. I believe that most do. But put simply, I also think that unconscious bias looms large in the education system. Far too many have bought into ideas—preconceptions—about the pathology of Black families, about the inability of Black boys to focus, about the myth of laziness, and the list goes on. You know the stereotypes as well as I do.
I remember being surrounded by a cocoon of love and support. I can still remember the pride felt as I stood at school assemblies for the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because everyone told me I would be successful. And the actions of everyone around me were intended to open the doors to success and to help me walk through them.
The older I get and reflect on the current state of America, the better I understand my father’s comment that integration was the best thing that happened to Black people and the worst.
For more information on unconscious/implicit bias, watch this — https://www.puttingracismonthetable.org/implicitbias