Questioning the Past

January 18, 2019 by Selamawit Gebre

Two and a half years ago, I made the 20-hour trek from Atlanta to Denver and inevitably found myself in Kansas. During my drive, I came across a sign on the highway that brought me a bit of delight: “Brown vs. Board National Historic Site”. Without hesitation, I made the deviation and ventured off in search of what was on the other side. Twenty minutes later, I found myself standing here...

...and it was a lot. During my detour, I felt immense gratitude towards those who played pivotal roles in the history that has made my current life experience possible. I felt a deep sense of indebtedness and reverence for all those whose love and sweat has provided me, a Black woman in America, a sense of mobility in the 21st Century. Once I stood at the landmark, however, I began to feel other feelings. While I still felt reverence, I also felt a strain that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. I honored that tension, got back in my car, and continued on my way. 

Years on, I again found myself with this tightness. This time, it appeared in the forms of curiosity and question. Whenever this happens, I tend to go back to my childhood in an attempt to understand better “why.” Throughout our lives, we absorb socializations that render certain moments and certain things “unquestionable.” Some of these “unquestionable” moments are, for example, declarations that have long been revered as universal architects of the promise of freedom for all. One of the most historic declarations of this promise has undoubtedly been Brown vs. Board of Education. So, how does one question the “unquestionable”? You take the courage to start and might begin to get at something that looks like this…

Education is lauded as a significant force in upward mobility, then why are wealth gaps increasing despite various initiatives in “educational equity”? Sixty-five years later, why are schools still heavily segregated? How has the lackluster implementation in desegregation efforts exacerbated maltreatment? Who were the Browns, what exactly did desegregation mean to them, and how was this translated or not? What has the relationship between education and different groups of people looked like throughout American history? Why are there so many non-Black and non-Brown educators teaching Black and Brown youth? Is the dearth of teachers of color today a question of recruitment or a matter of racism? Why are there glaring racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates? Why is there a school to prison pipeline? Why are so many of the main texts not culturally relevant and representative of all students? Why don’t all kids have access to their unique histories through the lens of their people in schooling environments? What’s at stake? 

Over time, I’ve come to learn that history is almost always partial and is not representative of all truths. So now that we’re equipped with time, patterns and access to information and people, what is our duty in 2019 to the past and its truths? How do we meaningfully address the undertones and overtones of persistent racial inferiority myths that have shaped our country and continue to take shape in our educational systems? How do we do this with integrity? How do we resolve?

We hope that our “Consider This...” conversation next week begins to poke at many of these questions and resonates with a tone that looks toward the past as a critical part of shaping our present and our future. We will be joined by Dr. Michèle Foster who has done copious research on the implications of Brown vs. Board of Education on Black teachers, students, and community. We will also be joined by educators and youth, as it would be impossible to have an authentic discussion without their voices. We hope you will join us in this path towards honesty and truth. 

Photo Credit for previous page image: Marjory Collins. Reading lesson in African American elementary school in Washington, D.C., 1942. Gelatin silver print. FSA-OWI Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (57C)

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