Dilemma of Black Urban Education

Dilemma of Black Urban Education


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 I found it very hard to teach at first.  The kids were disrespectful. They

cursed all of the time. They didn’t do their work, most of them,

let alone bring books to class or  carry them home.  I had

females who had carjacked or were “so-called” gang members.




What Is the Source of the Dilemma of Black Urban Education?

Social Policy? Class Oppression? Race Prejudice? Lack of Personal Responsibility?

 Responses by Charles, Latorial, Kam, Miriam, Jane, Jeannette, and Rodney


Charles: I read this book— Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment—2 years ago and found complicity between school administrators and juvenile authorities. They make money from charging our kids with crimes.

Rudy: Charles, yes, I checked the amazon reviews on Zero Tolerance. A more extensive review of the work from your perspective would be welcomed. Though I am always suspicious of Jesse Jackson, who blamed black parents in the late 70s like Bill Cosby recently for their kids lack of performance, I’d be quite interested in what Bernardine Dohrn has to say. I worked in a magnet school last year and found the black principals (we had two in one year, a man and a woman) outrageously authoritarian, stupidly self-centered and self-promoting.

In another instance, there was a news report extended over a period of months of a Richmond, Virginia, middle school that brought in a white principal from the suburbs who was so cocky that he knew that he could set the school on track. The first thing I noticed in the report was the militarized aspect of the school—metal detectors, armed guards, and all. The principal soon learned that the teachers over whom he lorded himself as “expert” finally knew more than he about the situation. These urban black teachers were underpaid compared to those of the suburban schools and they were ready to protest putting in the evening after-schools hours that the principal began to demand. They had 2nd jobs to maintain their middle-class life-style.

Finally the principal shut down the cameras, discovering that the news audience was discovering that he was a pompous ass.

What we discovered is that this school situation was not a race problem as the principal believed, initially, but a class problem. That these kids knew more about the realities, the underbelly of impoverished America (their neighborhoods) and smart enough to survive that world. Neither white principal nor black teachers appreciated the situation.  

Both the principal and the teachers were not from that world or lived in that world. They were teaching the kids to tests and standards, not teaching these kids how to survive in the world that they were forced to live in. Neither principal nor teacher felt they had anything to learn from these kids. Receiving no respect in this top down education, the kids rebelled and neither the teachers nor the principal could contain that rebellion.

We are much more interested in making kids into our middle-class images rather than dealing directly with their poor working class circumstances. This problem goes beyond administrators and the juvenile systems. It has to do with us who are taxpayers and voters. For we believe and go along with all the disparaging images and things said about such black kids without trying to change the environment in which they have and manage to endure.

So there is a lot of blame to go around. Too many of us are too zero intolerant when we encounter black kids in dire situations. I have seen the wonderful work that such kids can do from such environments when they are given the love and inspiration they hunger for and need. If we are to make a better America, that love and inspiration these working class children need must come from all of us (white, black, Latino, whatever class), not just their parents or their families. We should all refrain from doing a Bill Cosby on black parents and their children.

Kam: Interesting take. I tried teaching high school in the inner city when I first came out of college, only to discover that neither the principal, my fellow teachers, nor most of the students were interested in education. I was forced to pass 90% of my students even though 90% deserved to fail. They had already been pushed along thru grade after grade, never having to master the material before, and they knew it.

I had attended Catholic school and never knew that NYC’s public schools in the black community were a total joke. I had to argue with the black head of my Math Department, who pressured me to pass even the a-holes who sat in the front of the class all year, playing the dozens with me while I tried to teach.

“Class, today we’re going to learn about the hypotenuse.” “Your momma’s a hypotenuse!” Thank God I split, and had the sense not to waste my life somewhere I wasn’t appreciated. Public school teaching, from my experience, is for hacks who just want a paycheck, though I know it’s different in some communities.

Rudy: Kam, I am not sure how to respond to you or this situation, other than to reiterate my point that we have all failed these “inner city” kids, unless we conclude that these kids get what they deserve. I can appreciate your looking out for your individual interest. I have worked with the parents of such children in adult education programs (in the 90s) and their writings had extraordinary insights that we would all benefit from. I will post some of them on our website ChickenBones, soon. That city program was closed down under Clinton.

Let me say this finally, possession of knowledge to transmit to others is not sufficient. Doubtless the administration of this school was a disaster. There are existing models that have dealt with these same kind of “inner city” kids successfully. I think we as teachers must do some introspection to discover whether we are contributing negatively to the dilemma. To expect that things will run like your Catholic school seems to expect too much. So it seems you were defeated as soon as you walked in the door.

The question remains whether we are committed to quality black education, and without militarization of our communities and our schools. For that’s the plan in operation.

Kam: My experience occurred in the mid-70s, back when the black mantra was to develop a skill with which to return to the community. I was very young and had never, in grammar school, high school or college experienced the phenomenon of functionally retarded students who had simply been moved up grade after grade undeservedly. I also was shocked by the presence of unruly students who seemed to revel in their ignorance and in disrupting the class. I had no idea that that existed, or how it came to pass. In my Catholic grammar school, which was also all black, education was very serious business. My public school experience was a joke, just babysitting.     

Latorial: I taught 8th grade in Charlotte, NC, and my first month was very much like Kam’s.  I began teaching in January of that school year, and the principal told me that I was in for a rude awakening and a challenge.  I was the kids’ 13th teacher since August.  They had brought a female marine to tears.  And this was supposed to be a magnet school. 

To be honest, like Kam, I found it very hard to teach at first.  The kids were disrespectful. They cursed all of the time. They didn’t do their work, most of them, let alone bring books to class or carry them home.  I had females who had carjacked or were “so-called” gang members.  I had little boys who were calling themselves drug dealers, black and white.  And this was supposedly a magnet school in North Carolina. 

I had one female student invite me to whip her ass.  I had a little guy all of 4 feet push up on me when I tried to correct him.  It’s simply hard trying to teach in an environment where the kids lives are shot because of what has gone awry in their homes.  I was at a loss, but I  hung in there.  I was just as bad as they were, and I was determined to not allow them to push me out by June.  The school administrators’ hands were tied.  You couldn’t do much with these kids because all of the alternative schools were filled to capacity, and while there was no place else to put them, we had to endure hell in the classroom because of it.

When June came, I felt that I had really made a difference in the lives of some of the kids, maybe 5 of them out of 60.  I found it sad that you could simply look at them and predict who would make it through high school or college.  They were all carried away on their clothes, sneakers and hair and nails for the young ladies.  Everybody was having sex.   This was 8th grade, and several of them had even been caught having sex in the school.

I hated to see our youth in this predicament.  And I was sorry that I couldn’t be everything to them.  In this case, the school had not failed. These kids, mostly black, were in a wonderful school filled with resources (just like what I see here on the N. side of Chicago), and they had a black principal who was very concerned about them. But in this case, the school system had not failed these kids.

Their mommas and daddies failed them.  Most of them were from broken or single parent homes, and when I called parents for conferences, it was a joke.  They either didn’t come because they worked or because they were already “too through” with their own kids.  When I told one parent about her son trying to hit me, she wasn’t surprised because he’d called the cops on her various times, and she couldn’t discipline him anymore. 

(We can blame our gov’t for this).

But it’s really sad.  Black men and women need to learn how to stay together and parent these children.  We need to be serious about all of these babies being birthed by teenagers because this is the result of all of that.  School can’t slap a Band-Aid on children who are suffering from hurt that comes from home.  It’s very hard.  You can’t teach them algebra or English or history when their minds are already bogged down by things beyond their control.

After that semester, I returned to teaching college students where I don’t have to deal with the rigorous activity and the disgust and frustration of some public schools.  That was not my arena, and I certainly didn’t want to go to jail for defending myself against someone else’s child.

All I know is that some people have a natural talent for being able to make a difference in these lives, but I was not one.  I stick to what I know and do best, but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to see it firsthand.  And I really wish people would stop criticizing middle and upper class blacks for seeking out better schools for their kids.  I think that parents ought to always make the best decision for their child.  We can still be a part of this race and give back to our communities, but we must also seek out the best for our children, so that they can grow up and do the same.  I have made a vow that I’ll go broke educating my children before I allow them to go to a school where the children have so many issues that teachers cannot teach. 

I felt really sorry for the children in my class who were serious and ready to learn. Most of them came from good parenting.  But they missed out on what school was supposed to give them because of all of the problem students in the classroom.

I know that every school is not like this, but many public schools are.  Last month, I had the opportunity to speak at two schools for Black History Month.  The first was my children’s school in the Highland Park area.  This are is pretty wealthy.  To give you an example, I live about 2 miles from Michael Jordan.  We are a military family, so we are probably considered part of the lower class, right along with the Mexicans who provide most of the labor in this area.  The second school that I visited was a school further north, mostly black and filled with kids from the military base. When I got back into my car, I was literally brought to tears when I saw the difference between the resources available in Highland Park and those available in N. Chicago.  It was appalling and sickening.  We need to do something to make public schools equal everywhere.  I left that school with a sense of needing to do more, write some congressmen, tell everybody I know, etc. 

A month or so ago, I saw where  a south side Chicago school was in such bad shape that some white citizens banded together and volunteered to go and clean that school up.  They brought the damn materials themselves. They painted, repaired doors, they did it all, and the children were proud of their school. It’s a disgrace to see our schools in chaos.

We need to get back to family.  The solution to this problem begins at home. Our children need to learn how to be children. They need to feel secure in their families, and they won’t feel so threatened or left behind in school. This is not a one-sided problem.  I agree that our government needs to do more for our children, but I think that mainly WE need to do more for our children and that includes being a real family, teaching them morals and values that will allow them to be productive students. 

My husband and I do a pretty good job with our boys.  They get the best.  If they grow up to be something less favorable, it will not be our fault.  But many black youth don’t even get this head start.  There are too many negatives in the equation when they are born.  It’s not impossible to come from meager beginnings and make it.  Slavery has proven that.  Most of us have come from humble beginnings, and we’ve done well. But what we see in the Black community today is not families who aren’t doing well because they can’t.  Honestly, there are a various families in chaos because of the choices that have been made, bad choices.   Thank God for all of those who do have a strong sense of family, but I’m praying for those children who do not.  It’s hard to grow up and succeed when you have no idea of what success looks like or feels like.  We need to look at ourselves.  We need to repair black families.

Chicago lost 2 children in the last 2 weeks to drive by, reckless shooting.  A 14 yr. old black honor student and a 10 yr. old just this weekend.  I’m sorry, but this is not the white man’s fault.  White America has its fair share of blame when it comes to Black people in America, but I believe that half of our trouble begins with us.  If we fix us, we can begin to fix the problem.  I’m not speaking from the outside.  I’m speaking to my own family.  I have brothers and cousins, aunts and uncles who are plagued with the ills of a black family gone bad.  I am seeing younger family members rise up without half a chance to only continue making the bad decisions that they have seen made by their superiors and family leaders.  It’s sad.

We need to work from within.  I really believe that if we work from within, the other great things will come.

Rudy: Latorial, I respect you and I think you are well meaning and I believe you want to think the rights things and do the right things. Whatever you can do for your kids to bring them along in the world I have no objections. No guilt is required. But I do not think that you have a full grasp of the issue of the failure of quality black education within black communities.

The same is probably true of me as well. I recommend you read Prof Hayes The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling if you have not, also the Abell Report.  There are probably other such documents for Charlotte, North Carolina and Chicago schools.

There is a thread that runs through much of the dialogue on black education, namely, abandonment. Another is betrayal. Still another is isolation. That is the fate of poor black kids. That they misbehave as a result of this treatment should be of no surprise, considering the gravity of the situations within, not only their families, but their entire communities. It is difficult at best for any parent or two parents, when poor, to raise a child or children alone.

I am not unaware of the difficulties that exist in urban public schools within impoverished communities. I have substituted in such schools and I am aware of such behaviors you and Kam describe. I too was stunned by the extent of it when I first went into those schools. The loudness, the rudeness, the lack of deference, I have not lived the oppression under which they suffer. To a great extent I have lived a sheltered life. I attended a rural, segregated school in backwoods Virginia (1960-1965) – Bible country, to which I had my own rebellion.

The culture of such a society in such an era is extraordinarily different from that which exists now, and even from that which existed in Baltimore at that time. I came to Baltimore first when I was 12 for a summer visit. That was in a segregated area south of the City called Cherry Hill, a mixture of public housing and private homes. I had never experienced the like of it and there was gang violence. I was victim of such violence—broken tooth, hurt feelings. 

But I hold no hatred of poor, urban black kids. And I ain’t gonna be playing the dozens on them and talking about what their parents didn’t do, as some comfortable middle class folks are inclined to do. I took a tour through the South last summer. It was my own Southern Journey.  There was outrageous poverty and lassitude everywhere, all up and down the coast from Baltimore, MD to Jacksonville, FLA. Of course, this universal black urbanization was occurring as I left my rural village in 1965.

But there were still people then working in the fields—picking cotton, shaking peanuts, crapping tobacco—for no more than $6 a day for ten hours work. Or working as domestics in white folks homes or at roadside restaurants for about as much or less. Annual income at best for most was less than a $1000, sometimes much less. But people were attached to the land. They could raise pigs, chickens, plant a garden, can and store up food for the winter. All those advantages have been lost with urbanization. We don’t get food care packages from the South any more. There is no place for poor kids to go in summer, and no jobs.

What we have in the cities today are descendants of those field workers, America’s 20th century slaves. Their great grands, and grands were driven from the land into the cities, where there are fewer and fewer jobs, and the wages are becoming less and less. And there is much less government support.

Even within the best of that rural environment, education was as much of a failure as it is now in the urban centers. Of the 200 8th graders that began with me in 1960, less than 90 graduated when I did in 1965. And there was also violence within the schools and on the buses and there was bristling up to teachers, not to the extent as now, but it was there. 

It was at once a class and a commitment problem. It was extraordinary fortune that that about 90 graduated.  I thank God that I did not go to an integrated public school. My suspicion is that the outcomes would have been much worse. Violence and misbehavior would have been worse. Teachers that taught me taught my mother and aunts and many came from the community, live in the community, and went to same churches. Today, those kinds of connections do not exist, as you and Kam have amply explained.

The previous generation had a much lower rate of graduation. I say that for neither my mother nor her four sisters, who lived through the rural Depression in which they received pay of 75 cents or less a day, did not graduate from school. Yet they committed themselves to their children’s graduating, however clumsily.

Most of those who graduated did not go on to college and graduate. Their families just did not have the money and could not afford to invest in their kids’ education. Some few got the few industrial jobs available depending on their family contacts. I had a family that extended into Baltimore and thus as a resident I was able to start at Morgan State College for $99.50 a year. And Morgan had a program to assist such rural and urban kids that came from a tradition of familial illiteracy. 

Coming from a tradition in which children (from as early as 8) as well as adults had to work in order to eat and keep warm, I worked as a construction worker during the summer for my tuition, while my mother worked in the textile industry for less than $2 an hour. I dropped out in my junior year. They say black girls are more dependable than black boys. There’s probably some truth in that. But more financial weight is on boys who get girls pregnant.

In some sense I was much more blessed than today’s public schools kids. Many are without this tradition of an extended family with resources and contacts, of childhood work and the availability of jobs, of living without running water and an indoor toilet—the hard, hard times), of cultural isolation, of commitment to education. I was ten before we got our first tv. Back then people used to go to each other’s houses to watch tv.

Now, there are so many more cultural influences (of the negative sort, self-indulgences, gangster rap, and pornography) that the new technologies have brought into our children’s lives, into our homes, brought to us by billion-dollar corporations. Parents have lost control as a result of business schemes and government policy. These new cultural influences geared and fabricated from without are emblems of progress and prosperity. These, for the poor, are their vacations at Martha’s Vineyard, in Mexico, and Paris. 

In addition, there’s widespread distribution of drugs of all sorts that did not exist when I was growing up in rural Virginia. But these cultural influences and drugs are all over the South and throughout the rural regions, which now have become bedroom communities, rather than places of work and production.

I now possess two graduate degrees but that at great cost of wife and children and a stable household. I made that selfish sacrifice for a university education. Many in my family and other acquaintances think me a fool, loving this life of the mind. I am an odd ball in my family, and even odder in that it has not translated into a middle-class house, middle-class status, a fancy car, and middle-class debt. For that is how education is translated in these schools through their teachers. Too many of us are debt slaves and proud of it.

Of course, certain social policies influenced my educational outcome. All my degrees are from the University of MD, College Park, which became open to black students and it facilitated black students in getting a graduate education by way of either scholarships, internships, or other financial support.  

With three degrees, I borrowed only $1,000 for eight years of undergraduate and graduate education. Is that possible today? I doubt it. Rodney Foxworth is working on this new phenomena. He will be reviewing for us a book called Generation Debt.

We must be careful in generalizing from personal experience. I think we have to look at what our researchers have written—our authorities in education, political science, and economics. My general impression is that class, cultural and technological shifts, and the failure of social policy have everything to do with what you and Kam experienced in teaching working class kids in public schools. Disparaging the kids and their parents, I do not think is the proper response.

Doing that which is necessary to change this system of governance so that it administers to the least among us is where we should have our focus. And for those of us who have the leisure that means study, finding out how the phenomena you observed came to be and how we as Americans can change it without militarizing our society and criminalizing our kids. I recommend we read Ron Walters’s White Nationalism, Black Interests. Read the Lani Guinier interview and her Meritocracy, Inc. when it is published. That is the approach we should all make. That is the best way WE can make our significant contribution. I will do what I can to correct some of the wrong-headedness that is so glibly being passed around. 

Kam: Latorial, thanks for sharing your experiences. It certainly resonates with me and so closely mirrors my experiences. You triggered a memory of my trying to break up a fight in the hall between two boys, only to have the sister of one of  them start swinging at me as I tried to pull them apart. Fortunately, I didn’t have the ego to think that I had to be a part of this insanity, since I had grown up in 100% black atmosphere where everyone I knew respected  elders and had high aspirations.

I didn’t really know that black people like that existed, even though I grew up in NYC. Thank God, I could see that the system was bigger than I, and that my job in that public school system would be as a babysitter to souls long since lost. And exactly like you, I felt  sorry for the 4 or 5 students in each class who really wanted to learn, but the rest of the class kow-towed to the disruptive jackasses. It truly was a culture shock for me. And sadly, the schools have only gotten far worse  since the seventies.

Miriam: We need to get back to family. The solution to this problem begins at home. Our children need to learn how to be children. They need to feel secure in their families, and they won’t feel so threatened or left behind in school This is not a one-sided problem. I agree that our government needs to do more for our children, but I think that mainly WE need to do more for our children and that includes being a real family, teaching them morals and values that will allow them to be productive students.  Latorial, I agree with you 110%.  You have stated the situation quite eloquently.  Those are the same conclusions that my daughters—one, a public school teacher and the other, a former teacher with a child in school—have reached.

Last week, my daughter was bodily threatened by a student, and there have been 200 assaults against teachers by students in Memphis, but the administration will do nothing. 

They are bending over backwards to “protect” the students, and the result is that many of the really fine, dedicated teachers are leaving the school system.  This is a tremendous problem that WE as a community must address, and the parents have to get involved.  This is much much more than a class issue, and we cannot blame concerned parents, whatever their circumstances, for seeking the best possible education for their children.

My kids were threatened daily in the D. C. schools many years ago, but I taught them how to screw up their courage and fight back.  I took my 8-year-old out of the public schools, however, when I found that her classmates were calling her “white bitch,” threatening her every day, and, as a result, she was hiding out at home for three months, after I left for work.  I would not sacrifice my children for any “cause”;  that would be the height of irresponsibility. 

Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989) 

*   *   *   *   *

Rudy: I agree that “WE need to do more for our children.” But that WE usually ends up being translated by too many as, “THEY should do more for their children.” WE need to make a revolution. But too few are buying tickets for that game. For WE got our own getaway.

Jane (from Canada): I found it interesting to read Latorial’s comments and see what similarities American schools have with Canadian schools. Now I do not teach and I did not go to school here in Canada so I shall not claim to be a connoisseur of the education system. So I am going to use the example that one of my former co-workers gave me.

Ella is a Belarussian immigrant. She graduated as a teacher in her country before coming to Canada. I must say, having experiences it firsthand, she is an excellent very patient teacher. She was teaching for several years but she came here and had to deal with the red tape most immigrants deal with. Having to go back to school and work wherever you can in the process.

Because she loved teaching, she did that, making lots of sacrifices because she is a mother of two. While doing that she used her languages and worked in a call centre. Finally after over 5 years she had a chance to go there and teach, but the only jobs available were French teachers. So she chose a suburbia school so that she did not have to deal with the inner city youth issues. She assumed that things would be better and it also worked for her because it was close to home.

Well! Before her several teachers had come and gone, one had even had a mental breakdown. So she tried to use her old country styles and she had the principal all over her telling her that she was too old fashioned. But she went through some of the things that Latorial went through. Kids calling her a bitch, (can you imagine that!), telling her to shut up, laughing at her accent, refusing to do their homework, heckling her in class, talking while she was talking, fighting with her, etc.

When she tried to talk to their parents, those who did not have a defeatist attitude got angry at her for challenging the way they had brought up their kids. These kids by the way were not even 13 yet! They had been studying French for over five years and none of them had anything to show for it. By the way most of these kids are white . . .

The last time I spoke to her she was ready to have a break down and that was only 3 months into the job. She is no wimp. She is a very tough woman who has gone through a lot. But the kids are killing her. She has two small kids to take care of and she is wasted when she gets home she is too wasted for her kids and husband. She considered going back to the call centre but did not want to give up her passion for teaching.

Another co-worker a teacher from Mauritius went through the same experience. In the end she gave up and decided to take a pay cut of almost half what she was getting and go to a call centre where she could punch in and leave . . .

Something is wrong. I HATE being on the 76 bus at 3pm (when the kids leave school). It’s a nightmare. They are little terrorists. The girls (13-18 years old) are all in miniskirts (uniforms) that are shy of their underwear length with tones of make up, chewing gum with their mouths opening and swearing like whores.

In fact an alien who has been studying whores will think that they are whores. The guys are no better. Every word begins with the F word. No stepping up to give seats to old and pregnant women, if you look at them they curse you out and say “bitch who are you looking at?” It is scary. I find the white kids worse than the black kids to be frank.

The black boys are already dealing with a negative stigma so they mind their own biz. The black girls are just seeking attention like normal teens. In general the Asian kids, especially the Chinese ones are the best behaved I find. In general I just keep my eyes on the window. Something is wrong.


Now in Africa, let me speak for Uganda, it’s different. Dare to speak up against an elder as a kid and you will be beaten. Not abused. Beaten. They will get a stick and whip you on your ass. Teachers are allowed to do that and so there is a general respect for teachers. I received my share of licks and let me tell you they put me in line. Some kids needed more licks than others (the stubborn ones who got immune) but for the majority we were scared of the licks.

You just do NOT disrespect elders. You call them Mr, Mrs, Sir or Aunty and Uncle. No first names. You greet an elder. In some areas, you even kneel to greet elders—male or female—to not do so means you have no manners. It’s an old custom but still exists. For example as modern and emancipated as I am (my dad never really reinforced the old traditions as I grew up in Europe). 

I could never refuse to kneel for my grandmother. It’s just a respect thing. You do not interrupt elders conversations, you never call them names (try calling one of my aunts a bitch!—They will whip any of us to high heaven). Punishment is big in Uganda. Here it’s called child abuse, but parents do it to keep their kids in line. They hit their bottoms to show them that what they did was wrong.

Unfortunately a lot of Western cultures are permeating African societies and the youth are changing but not that drastically. Teachers are needed there, so African Americans can consider that. The pay will not be the same but neither will the standard of living. There is where you can make a difference. Peace.

Charles: Every response is a great contribution and I say ‘thank you’ to all . We now see a portion of the problems in public schools, with an aspect that has crept back in…, “The Shame of the Nation: Desegregated Public Schools in America” by Jonathan Kozol has revealed what was a peculiar institution of the Jim Crow South has become the norm across the nation…, and we haven’t paid it the least bit of attention. Has this occurred by natural selection or is this the result of a plan with the end results yet to manifest. Charles

Latorial: I just wonder what Malcolm and Dr. King would do?

Rudy: They would be for not only a revolution in personal values, they would be for a social and a political revolution, beyond the static universe that is implied by those who responded to your very sincere and personal comments.

Jeannette: Rudy’s analysis is right on the mark.  As a public school social worker who regularly visited inside the homes of urban students between 1981 and 1991, particularly those designated as “emotionally disturbed,” (most of whom were black boys) I found parents and grandparents in dire need and desirous of emotional and many other kinds of support. These parents and grandparents did not receive it from extended family, churches (filled with teachers and school administrators) or community. 

Many “middle class” teachers came to school with their own set of personal and family problems, making it even harder for them to deal effectively with “acting out” children or relate with understanding to the woes of their parents.

I saw adults (principals, administrators, teachers, teacher aides and other school staff ) who had health insurance (that would pay for individual and family counseling) unwilling to begin doing the inner work that might help them become emotionally healthier individuals, which might in turn have some effect on how they dealt with many problem students. I saw parents and grandparents working for less than a living wage who had no resources for ordinary individual or family counseling. (The local mental health clinics (no longer in the neighborhood) basically were set up for severe problems like sexual or substance abuse. I saw overworked young probation officers who didn’t particularly care and court-related therapists who didn’t really possess the skills to engage urban families in on-going “family therapy.”     I saw juvenile court judges that paid little attention to the school social worker’s recommendations. “Managed care” for mental health became everyone’s “big brother,” dictating that whatever individual or family ills one possesses must be “fixed” within a designated number of sessions.   Teaching professionals who possess health insurance must be insistent and seriously committed to self-examination.        So yes, while we wring our hands and disparage parents, grandparents, urban children, and black folk, we need to look at CLASS and SOCIAL POLICY.  We also need to seriously consider Murry Bowen’s FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY.  This knowledge might help us to understand how INTERGENERATIONAL FAMILY DYSFUNCTION in this country goes all the way back to somebody’s PLANTATION and the ALMIGHTY GREEN American dollar.  

Rudy: Thanks Jeannette. Sometimes, I despair. According to Sharif, Stokely said white people cannot condemn themselves of their racism. I think that principle is true too of our black privileged middle and upper classes they cannot condemn themselves of their demeaning hierarchical views of the poor and the oppressed. Though it is now seen darkly, it will come out in the wash of history.

  Rodney: I’m not sure how much I can contribute to this conversation. I’ve never held a teaching position per se, but I have worked as a youth counselor and instructor during the summers, working mainly with low-income students, many of which might be classified as “problem” children. Most times their parents didn’t know any better; other times, when the children had active, involved parents, the child had fallen victim to outside influences. We so often forget that today’s children interact less than 8 hours a day with their parents, so the parent’s influence is not–in my opinion–as strong as we’d like to think.

And this is a sign of the times, I don’t put the blame at the feet of the parents necessarily. Even quality parenting might not be able to best the outside influences that plague our cities.

This is not to say that parents shouldn’t parent, only that we should come to terms with the cultural shifts that have made it that much harder for parents to transmit the values and ethics that we all believe are valuable.

I’ve been a student in the classrooms that Kam and Latorial have described. I was one of those kids serious about their education, a “goody two-shoes.” I just wanted to go about my business with school. But my experiences in these classrooms, as a student, were few and far between. My mother has worked at the courthouse downtown since before I was born, so I have always been informed about the criminal system and the local political players, and the picture my mother painted for me was that academic excellence was my one shot. I took that very seriously most times. But I didn’t have it bad. When it was just me and my mother and stepfather (I recognize him as my father, but just to clarify), my parents were able to move from Edmondson Village to a Cross Country apartment so that I could attend that community’s “zone” school. My mother saw everyday what can happen to young black boys, and she wasn’t about to let that happen to me. Rather, she was going to provide me with more opportunity so that it didn’t happen. Now, my parents don’t have the resources to just up and move and provide my sisters with more opportunities.

This past summer, I worked with a group of working class, low-income students who attended public school in the county, though this county is really just an extension of the city, which is to say, the schools are crap. The curriculum is crap. Pardon my French. The students were unaware that they were being ill-prepared for the world, and this had nothing to do with their behavior. This was about the curriculum. And students could be passed having only acquired remedial reading and writing skills. Remedial might be exaggerating the case; subpar is probably a better description. And this mediocrity lasts a lifetime: Here in Baltimore, there was a recent newstory about the low literacy of the police force. One officer was unable to read the Miranda Rights that had been written down on a piece of paper. But any way, these were all good kids, though they lacked motivation, which is something we are all guilty of. I implemented a policy that they would have to at least get scores of 80 percent on all summer course work if they expected to participate in some of the summer activities.

“Why so high?” they asked and grumbled.

I thought it a joke at first. But then I realized that the bar was set so low for these kids, that their concept of high achievement was 80 percent, if not lower. This isn’t to say that 80 percent is bad, but in most quarters that is just a C plus at best. I tried my best to explain to these kids that I was looking out for their best interests, and at 14, 15, 16, 17, they needed to be doing the same. Clearly, the school system wasn’t looking out for them. They weren’t allowing them to compete with their more well-off suburban peers in what is a growing knowledge-based economy. And so the options for these kids will be limited and they don’t yet comprehend it; it is so disheartening.

We need innovative thinking, not the same old tired arguments.

“But the kids are so bad!”

Yes, we can all agree that good parenting is a necessary step, but that is just one piece of a rather large puzzle. It is indeed a positive step forward. But will good parenting counter the onslaught of parental unemployment, the joblessness of the children, the violence, the broken public school systems, temptations of the underground economy, and political mismanagement? No. These are all forces at work against “our” youth. Even if our children achieve to the highest levels in secondary school, what then? College? Where might they find the money? Meaningful work? Where might they find the jobs? We need a more contemporary conceptualization of the economics, politics, and policy adversely affecting the youth in addition to constructive criticisms, not the sort of mean-spirited stuff that we are inclined to spew without an inkling of meaningful sociopolitical context. I’ve said my piece. Holla.

Rudy: My brother, my brother, you move me to tears.


Joyce:  Rudy and Foxworth, you all are doing a great service with these heartfelt pieces. I have invited my daughter who is an urban school principal, and her teachers (struggling valiantly in West Oakland) to join this conversation. Her school was featured in an article in the Oakland Tribune just yesterday. They are doing amazing work against tremendous obstacles. Their school has an on-site clinic,by the way, that also provides mental health services–needs that Jeannette discussed.  I’ll pass this conversation on to my son, who is an emergency room physician–and who sees the casualties of the system everyday.  

I will also engage my own students and invite them to share their perspectives on what is happening here in Georgia. They are seasoned school teachers and administrators. 

This “crisis” has a long history, as other correspondents have pointed out, and it is not only a national problem, it’s global. What we get in the Black community is a harbinger of what’s on tap for the other folks who might think they are “safe.” Plus, we could be having this conversation in Brazil–adding of course, their own specific circumstances. Foxworth, you offer us some powerful observation about how the society is working. These and other issues raised in this discussion are addressed in the book, Black Education, which I edited for the American Educational Research Association. (Rudy posted information about the book last year.)  

I am convinced that that we need to think beyond the “either-or” arguments of “class versus race.”  We need to deepen our understanding of the nature of the system we are in and the systemic nature of our dispossession–as Black people and what this means for others as well. This conversation points us toward a more complex and nuanced understanding.  For example, “we” are dispossessed–from the Black “underclass” to the so-called “middle class” folks who are just two or three paychecks away from falling out of the “class structure”. But our dispossession serves a system-maintaining function. White folks and “middle-class” black folks can say: “Well, at least I am not. . .(fill in the blanks–“black and poor” or “African and poor” or “oppressed by Saddam,” etc.

The curriculum is critical and so are funding issue but also fundamental is our own capacity to respond–in our families and communities.  What we are dealing with is a systemic crisis of immense proportions and the “chickens are coming home”: How will we (all) make a living and live as human beings on the planet? How will white people divest themselves of their “dysconscious” whiteness that Jonathan wrote about in his piece on Bill Cosby and Billy Graham? How will we all get rid of the anti-African inclinations that lurk in our minds and that propel the media defamation that our children are defending themselves against–even while they try to “out do” these distortions of their humanity?  

Hollywood (the corporate-capitalist mass media) is a major culprit and some of “our” black actors (and musicians, comedians, etc) are all about getting “paid”. Of course, what they get is crumbs compared to the profits to be made selling degrading images of Black people around the world. How many of us believed the stories about heinous murder and rape of babies coming out of New Orleans? How are teachers of any color or class supposed to love and care about students whose people are so easily perceived like that?

If we understand “equity” and “justice” to mean seeking “middle class” consumerism for more of us “Americans”–as the solution–we should bear in mind the cost the rest of the world pays for our “freedom” to (over)consume. Black youth’s “bling” consciousness only mirrors (darkly) what the rest of the society is doing. 

There are excellent resources available for further study. There are excellent examples of outstanding education going on in our communities and in some of the most “unlikely” places. The book, Black Education, includes up-to-date analyses of the economic problems that globalization poses and concrete democratizing solutions. That the book is chock full of “best practices” –examples of what IS WORKING in cities like Detroit and elsewhere is not to deny that the problems, however, are massive.

In my work (teaching and research) I try to focus on getting clear about our vision of the solutions we are seeking. I’m finding ways to bring community people and educators together to address concrete manifestations of these problems in the lives of families, students and teachers. Our students need to envision themselves not as a problem but as the solution to our problems–as Grace Boggs wrote years ago in her article: “Education to Govern.”  This gets us back to the fundamental issue: What is the purpose of our education? The times have changed and the situation we are in has indeed worsened. But it’s still “all of we.”

Dr. Joyce King Benjamin E. Mays Chair for Urban Teaching, Learning and Leadership

Books by Joyce E. King


Black Education / Preparing Teachers for Cultural Diversity / Teaching Diverse Populations

 Black Mothers to Sons: Juxtaposing African American Literature with Social Practice

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Rudy:  Thanks Joyce, your comments are quite excellent. I was hoping, in that you are an expert, would respond.

Angela: I think that if surveyed, issues concerning the safety, well-being, and education of children would be paramount in importance to most Georgians. After 11 weeks of working within the Georgia Juvenile Court system it is clear that a concern for the long-term health, emotional stability, and safety of children is either unexpressed by or completely lacking within the Georgia legislature’s financial policies and actions concerning children.

Over the past couple of months, thanks to the Barton Child Law & Policy Clinic, I have been able to observe every aspect of the Juvenile Court System in Georgia. What I have learned is that every department with a significant impact on the system is overworked and under-funded, that there is a lack of communication between the various departments which inflates the time and cost of dealing with children in a given community, and that the goal of protecting children is lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.

Angela Blevins, Barton Clinic Summer 2005 Intern Report, The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice

posted 14 March 2006

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#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

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#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

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#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.

She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 22 July 2008




Home Education History of the Negro Table

Related files: Abell Report  The Meritocracy Myth  The Collapse of Urban Public Schooling  Statistics on the Inequities    Responses to Race as a Decoy for Class

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