Deborah Roberts “We are soldiers” (2019)
A note: The following was meant to be a reminder to Black people of their abilities and talents to build a better education for their children in New Orleans and beyond after COVID-19. Before I could hit send on my reflections on what COVID exposes and teaches us and how we may build anew from these lessons, another all-too-common tragedy emerged to remind us of how this country is designed to deny Black people their lives, abilities, talents and mattering. I see and feel the pain, grief, loss, and frustration of birthrights deferred and denied and I am unwavering in reaffirming, here, Black people’s mattering and brilliance. We stand with the freedom fighters protesting around the world and with the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Tony McCade, David McAtee, Joao Pedro and all other Black people who have been lynched by police forces and agents of white supremacy in Africa, America and throughout the Diaspora. Black children, Black students, Black people- ALL Black lives matter everywhere. This is not the totality of us.
Dear Black people,
Please know that you are seen and you are cared for.
Since March 13 we’ve all had to adapt to new routines, systems, and relationships in the wake of COVID-19 which will weigh on us for years and will be felt in all of the places and spaces we occupy. Many of you are taking care of your families with reduced or no income, figuring out how to stay in your homes, and trying to manage emergency isolation schooling with your children. I want to acknowledge the fear, chaos, and disproportionate illness, loss, and grief that Black people are experiencing at this time.
Black people are in pain because of centuries of racist policy and practice aimed to keep us at the bottom. Our experiences with COVID are testimony to historical, systemic and widespread violence against Black bodies. And there is pain, suffering and grief. But I know- we know- that this is not the totality of us. From the time our ancestors were brought here to endure the pandemic of slavery, we have always been greater than our oppressors’ worst acts.
Black people are survivors and creators. Black people make life and make it worth living. Black people make history, economies and communities, cultures and knowledge, political movements. We shape the world and build institutions that give us life. We have and continue to take radical action to dismantle spaces built on our exploitation, erasure and death. And as advocates for just and equitable school systems, it must be acknowledged that you, Black people, ARE the school system in New Orleans representing 80% of all students. You are the reason this school system exists and is incredibly rich with diversity and depth. Black children are complex, varied and intersectional. Black children are LGBTQIA+. Black children speak English, Spanish, Creole and French. Black children are native. Black children are undocumented. Black children have a range of gifts, abilities and talents. Black children are great achievers. And because of all of this- and all of you- Black children are gonna be alright.
I have been hearing concerns about our children’s education under these conditions and a desire for things to go back to “normal”. But COVID-19 has exposed how our normal is violent and ill-equipped to sustain us as it is responsible for our disproportionate illness, grief, and loss. Our normal is a capitalist system that exploits Black labor, political systems that violate Black life and public systems that don’t affirm or protect Black bodies. Our normal is a state that chooses housing and food insecurity and poverty for Black people. Our normal is an economy where Black and poor families are placed at the bottom even though they fill the “essential” jobs we need to survive. Our normal is 400,000 Black people and nearly 1 out of 2 Black children living in poverty in Louisiana. What’s normal for us is that all the “D” and “F”- rated schools in New Orleans (and everywhere else in Louisiana) are nearly 100% Black.
And even still, this is not the totality of us.
Black children will not be doomed to failure and underachievement because of COVID crisis schooling for 8 weeks. I hear the concerns of decreased time studying, poor instruction and the fear of our children being “behind”. I promise we need not fear. Trust that our children have been learning the whole time. In the middle of this pandemic Black children learned a thing or two about politics, law, society and economics. They learned that they need resources structured into their communities. They learned that freedom is a collective endeavor of care, not a matter of individual choice. They have learned and experienced so much and will emerge from COVID more knowledgeable and aware than before they were sent home.
Black people are an excellent people who produce excellent children. We should give Black children more credit with all they have to learn, know, process and navigate just to preserve and affirm their lives in the United States. We should acknowledge how their experience imparts a wisdom and intelligence that is unmatched and deserves our attention and respect. How they are backed by a culture of excellence and high achievement in spite of white supremacy in and outside of their schools. Trust that Black children will be okay, will advance and reach their goals. Black children are great achievers. And Black people have the talent, resources and ability to give our children an excellent education.
Our children are gonna be alright.
Don’t confuse what we do to survive a crisis with what is possible if we had the time, space and community resources to plan. Yes, emergency isolated schooling has been stressful to implement from all sides- students, families and teachers. Nothing is easy in a crisis. And I know that we’re hearing “summer slide”… “disadvantaged”… “at-risk”…“behind” and feeling the weight of these terms placed on our brilliant children’s minds and bodies. Please remember that it is a function of white supremacy to keep us busy with worry. Worrying about and fighting for the basics so we don’t have the time or energy to imagine or create anything else. A capitalist economic system based on Black exploitation requires us to hand over our power in educating our children so that we can labor for someone else’s wealth and privilege. A white supremacist education system requires standards that place white children on top and measures everyone else as deficient. Black children will always be “behind” in metrics and assessments designed against them. So don’t let anyone stoke fears about your child’s proficiency to force you back into a normal that harms Black people, particularly Black children.
The system is designed to compel our participation even though it is against our best interests and convince us that nothing else is possible. But we’re not stupid and we got eyes. We saw the governor suspend testing and grading. We saw those 10,000 hotspots materialize out of nowhere. We see the food distribution happening around the city. We see tenants on rent strike and a moratorium on evictions. We see that you can survive outside of laboring for someone else and your children can live, grow, and learn outside of oppressive school cultures. There is another way.
Even with the challenges of COVID, I heard from Black families on the phone, IG, Hangouts, and Zoom that Black children were also:
- Being kids
- Getting more sleep and rest
- Having more art, exploration and self-directed learning
- Learning according to a schedule that works for the whole family
- Being corrected through guidance, love, and respect
- Learning without surveillance, isolation, threats or punishment
- Exploring their interests
- Critically thinking and solving problems
And Black families were:
- Not fighting with their children to get up early in the mornings
- Connecting their children to dope educators and learning experiences
- Understanding their children as learners
- Letting their children play, explore and figure things out
- Evaluating the school’s curriculum according to their own standards
- Confronting the limitations of this public school system model
Simply, during the COVID-19 shut down I heard Black families and Black children reclaiming their power over their education. And just know that we have this power all the time, not just in times of crisis.
Let it be our love and respect for Black children that guides our decisions on what kind of education they should have after COVID, not fears of made up deficiencies. Black children are never deficient. That’s not what we create. Let us also remember our own greatness as we decide what kind of routines, systems, and relationships we will have with schools, school boards, and the state after COVID. Remember that it was our ancestors that taught Black people to read under penalty of death. It was Black people that created public education systems across the South. It was us that created freedom schools and learning centers of liberation. Whether in our own homes, fields, one-room schoolhouses and churches, or on our blocks, porches, or in our own institutions, we claimed our power over our children’s education before. We’re doing so now and we can do it some more.
Black families, Black children, Black educators, Black people I wish you healing and health, strength, and peace. I affirm your persistence, ability to thrive and to create beautiful Black life, living, loving, and learning. So let us move forward in a new reality of teaching, learning, imagining and building that is centered in the brilliance and preciousness of Black children. Because that is the totality of them.
We’re gonna be alright.