I can picture only one black boy from high school. If there were other African-American students there, I don’t remember them. Maybe it’s just the passage of time and the passing of memory, but one thing I am sure of is that there weren’t many African-American students at my high school. There were some minorities, but I don’t know whether the staff at that time took part in discussions of how to teach across cultures. They must have been at least somewhat aware of the need, otherwise I wouldn’t have had that experience where I felt embarrassed when my own biases were tested. In other places, however, these discussions had been ongoing for sometime.
Lisa Delpit first published her collection of essays on cultural conflict in the classroom in 1995, and between then and 2006, certain circles became deeply familiar with her work. As civil rights activist and academic author Charles M. Payne put it in an essay about Lisa Delpit’s work,
Delpit’s introduction to the 2006 edition laments the ongoing racism in our country as she reflects on the suffering endured by people of color after Hurricane Katrina. She writes:
“Since the publication of Other People’s Children, the country’s educational system has become caught in the vise of the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates more standardized testing of children than the country has ever seen, with more and more urban school districts adopting “teacher-proof” curricula to address low test scores, along with school consultants whose sole purpose is to police teachers’ adherence to scripted lessons, mandated classroom management strategies, and strict instructional timelines that ignore the natural rhythms of teaching and learning.
“But perhaps one of the changes that carries the most weight for all of us is the realization that we are not the country we once believed ourselves to be. The great putrid underbelly of racism and classism in our nation has been exposed through the tragedy of New Orleans. The horror of nature’s attack on a major U.S. city has been overshadowed by the distorted attitudes toward those who are darker and poorer.” (xiii)
Lisa Delpit, a Harvard-educated African-American professor and author, whose own father died of kidney failure at the age of 47 when he was denied access to the dialysis machine due to the color of his skin, found a way to bridge the divide and elevate voices too long dismissed as emotional and anecdotal. Her work got the attention of stuffy research-based Anglo-academics and brought relief to educators of color.
Delpit asks, “what should we be doing” to foster the education of African-Americans and other minorities. She writes,
“The answers, I believe, lie not in a proliferation of new reform programs but in some basic understandings of who we are and how we are connected to and disconnected from one another.” (xxv)
She continues, “I have come to understand that power plays a critical role in our society and in our educational system. The worldviews of those with privileged positions are taken as the only reality, while the worldviews of those less powerful are dismissed as inconsequential. Indeed, in the educational institutions of this country, the possibilities for poor people and for people of color to define themselves, to determine the self each should be, involve a power that lies outside of the self. It is others who determine how they should act, how they are to be judged. When one “we” gets to determine standards for all “wes,” then some “wes” are in trouble!” (xxv)
Since then, and especially in the last year, the awareness of our white population to the racism and disparities in this country has grown immensely. Regarding what this means for the sphere of education, Delpit’s ideas have certainly become more mainstream. Scores of books are now available in the mainstream market that touch on these ideas. Take Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, among others.
As a parent with kids in the public school system of a multicultural city, I can see how teachers come together to work at bridging cross cultural divides. They study together, conference together, and partner with families. Our city votes in people of color to leadership positions in a variety of settings, and our school system is no different. During our recent search for an interim superintendent, two of the three candidates were African-American, and when the one white candidate withdrew her application, I breathed a sigh of relief as it became clear that we would elect an African-American educator to fill the role.
Our city has been criticized in recent years by its own high school students for struggling to walk its talk when it comes to hiring and supporting educators of color. And yet, through this search for an interim superintendent, one candidate mentioned the impact of Delpit’s book of essays on his career. It was following that interview that I picked up a copy and got a taste of the history of these issues for myself.
If my family stays in this city for the long term, my kids will have an incredibly different high school experience from my own. During that same interview with candidates, one interviewer shared an incredible statistic on the state of multiculturalism in our city. I was impressed to hear that in Cambridge Public Schools, there are approximately 560 English language learners from 101 countries, with over 70 languages spoken in the district. Candidates were asked to present an action plan to create effective ways of communication between the district and school partners and the families of these students. As Delpit points out, there is work to be done on the tug of war between embracing Black English and/or Standard English and yet literacy in my kids’ community has ballooned into a much greater challenge.
Yet, at the heart of this work, it is clear that Delpit’s mission remains, that our children’s success in education is very much tied to how well their teachers can reach them. I feel proud to be in a city where educators are trying. Our city and our lives are richer for it.
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Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.