My small head and big eyes barely saw over the huge round wooden table. My five-year-old limbs could not reach the ground. They dangled off the floor, ungrounded, swinging, floating — looking in desperation for an anchor. But like my words, they were untethered and unmoored.
I was in the library on Carson Street to give a book report as part of a summer reading program. I liked this book. I had selected it, checked it out, and read it to myself. I was excited to tell the librarian all about it. But that all changed when I was actually in front of her. I have both a shy and extroverted personality and it was shy Tereneh who showed up that day. I could not look up; I could not find the words to describe the book, to prove I understood. Here was a great time for the librarian to be patient and ask leading, open-ended questions. Instead, she snapped, “This book was too advanced for you; you should not have selected it.”
Later, when I told my mother, she snapped, “You should have said you understood the book. Never let anyone intimidate you that way.” I am not sure if she admonished the librarian or just me, giving me some of the tough love that is supposed to make you stronger in a country that hates Black children.
That was the first time that I remember an adult who should have been my education advocate becoming a barrier, but it wasn't the last.
In elementary school, when we reached the one lesson on the transatlantic slave trade, our class was arbitrarily divided into two debating teams. One team had to defend slavery in the United States; the other team had to condemn it. Guess which team I was on?
If you guessed the pro-slavery team, you are correct.
When I told my dad, he said, “Well that is good, you need to learn how to debate all sides of an argument.” I cried. The next day, I went to class and defended slavery. I am not sure if it made me a better debater; the memory still makes me sick to my stomach.
In high school, the topic of slavery made another appearance. Again, there was only one lesson, one chapter dedicated to this foundational pillar of the United States. The chapter was messy; the teacher ill-informed and uncomfortable. After the class, I was distraught. I went to talk to the teacher who said, “Well, it was not all bad. Imagine if you were still living in Africa?!” His incredulous tone was clear. “I mean, at least slavery got your people out of Africa and into America.”
At least. My people.
Fast-forward just a few years and I was in college, getting a degree in business. In my labor relations course, I decided to write a paper about African-American women in unions and the labor rights movement. My professor told me, “There is not enough to write about” and suggested I pick another topic. I wrote the paper anyway. He gave me a C.
These experiences never made me hate school. I am too invested in the belief that education is essential. Heck, I even went on to get a graduate degree in Kenya. What I dislike is the miseducation we all receive when we are not taught the multicultural reality of these United States and the world. It makes us miss or devalue ourselves and others. We cannot see each other clearly with all the myths and fairy tales about each other flowing through our heads.
This miseducation destroys. It could have destroyed the little girl in that library. But it didn’t. I am still here, still learning and fighting.
No one should have to fight so hard to learn in a truthful and supportive way, especially not a small child who just wanted to talk about a book she read and really liked.
There are opportunities and resources to combat the mindsets and practices in the above examples, starting with bell hooks' 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. There's Race and Revolution (racerevolution.org), a national touring art exhibition that made curriculum instead of an art catalog; you can follow and learn from #HipHopEd (HipHopEd.com), which "brings together a community of educators and scholars who challenge traditional educational systems to value the power of youth culture and voice;" or AAIHS: African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS.org), "which focuses on researching, writing, and teaching black thought and culture."
If you have suggestions for other resources, email CPcontributors@pghcitypaper.com