by Clare Berke May 20, 2014 10:00 AM
If you grew up in rural Nebraska in the 1990s, like I did, you would have experienced few productive opportunities to talk about skin color. Nearly everyone in our town of 3500, including myself, was white. Educational conversations about race were generally relegated to an elementary school unit on Martin Luther King, Jr., and a high school unit on the era of reconstruction following the Civil War. There seemed to be a tacit belief that the Civil Rights Movement had passed and the country was generally better for it, but not a belief that race, culture and identity were contemporary topics to explore in school. The 40th and 50th anniversaries of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision to outlaw segregation in public schools passed me in 1994 and again in 2004 without leaving a lasting memory.
Last week marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Perhaps because I’m older, or perhaps because I live and teach in D.C., this is an anniversary year I won’t forget. As First Lady Michelle Obama, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and multiple news outlets have poignantly expressed, the nation needs to build on the steps taken in 1954 and continue forward on our quest for race-based equality and school integration.
At a high school graduation ceremony in Topeka, Kansas, on May 16, Obama recognized: “many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them.” Henderson, in an email to DCPS staff, wrote that “many of [our] children remain segregated in high-poverty, struggling schools.” ProPublica, an independent news organization, investigated Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which had been forcibly integrated in the late 1970s and later released from court oversight of their desegregation compliance. Today, Central High School is 99% black.
So how do we as teachers “work together to figure out a different way to solve this problem,” as Henderson asked? How do communities “‘break through’ barriers to talking honestly about race,” as Obama challenged her audience in Topeka? I don’t have the answers, but I will proffer what has been an entry point for me: reading texts that beg discussion and reflection, texts from a diverse pool of writers, texts that challenge and stretch the mind.
This month, my AP Language students read a blog post by Junot Diaz, author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Diaz wrote about his MFA program at Cornell University in the 1990s, and how difficult it was for him and the other students of color to survive the “unbearable whiteness” of their writing workshop. My students, emerging masters of identifying an author’s voice, purpose, and audience, correctly noted that Diaz’s informality, humor and raw honesty meant he was speaking to young writers like them, begging them to keep writing, imploring them to tell their stories. Diaz writes: “We need your work. Desperately.”
Like Diaz, I want to encourage my students to write what they know. All of my students have seen the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk about the “danger of a single story.” She speaks about the stereotypes that form when people hear only one perspective, and she high-lights the depth of understanding and human connections that occur when multiple voices are brought together.
Who has power in society? I ask my students. Whose voices are heard the loudest? What might we be missing because of what is NOT heard? These aren’t just stock critical thinking questions; these are questions for a society that has slid backward in time.
Sixty years after Brown vs. the Board, we must revive the nationwide movement to ensure that a multitude of perspectives are brought together in our schools and in our larger communities. Teachers have a unique opportunity to heed the First Lady’s call to “ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations” about school integration, race, and our nation’s progress toward equality.