Hey my woke people!!! I just wanted to start this week’s blog with giving a shout out to all my NYC teachers. Only two weeks left before you officially start worrying about next school year. Seriously, I’m with all y’all in solidarity and hoping this post brings food for thought or better yet, nourishment for the mind. Enjoy.
For anyone who knows me, they will tell you that my favorite Spike Lee movie of all time is School Daze (no shade to Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing; both are definitely dope) and I can watch this movie at least three times a week. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film, the movie takes place at the fictional HBCU, Mission College where the protagonist, Dap is played by the legendary Laurence Fishburne and his nemesis, Julian AKA Dean Big Brother Al-migh-ty is played by Giancarlo Esposito. The film addresses the role that the students and the university play in the fight against South African Apartheid- Dap being the woke, pro-black, rabble-rouser and Julian being the assimilationist, pro-American, model minority.
The movie was released in 1988 but allow me to transport y’all to September 2009: I am a first year English/Special Education teacher and I am going to share one of my favorite scenes from this movie as part of the year-long theme, “The Year of –Isms”. My 9th graders are expected to analyze various texts through the lens of racism, sexism, classism and so forth. One of the dopest scenes in this movie takes place at Madame Re Re’s hair salon where there is a stand-off between the Wannabes (the light-skinned, straight-hair girls on campus) versus the Jigaboos (the dark-skinned, natural hair squad). In this scene, they sing the catchy tune “Good or Bad Hair” that features one of the best-choreographed moments in black film (and film in general).
Soooo… after I get all excited about my theme and the students have bought into the idea, I tell them to go on You Tube and view this scene. Their assignment is to write down the ism that they were observing and provide a brief rationale for their response. Shock moment #1 as a new teacher: about 90% of my students (out of 105) stated that the –ism that they identified was classism. I’m like “OK, why?” What really took me aback was their rationale which basically to sum up the collective response was that the dark skinned women looked poor because they didn’t comb their hair and the light-skinned women looked rich and pretty. My internal conversation went something like, “Where they say that at?” but my woke self was like “Girl, that ain’t nothin’ but some colonialism.”
After I picked my jaw up from the floor, I realized a few things. The term colorism wasn’t a familiar concept nor the word intra-racism so they didn’t believe that there could be racism within the same race. However, they did acknowledge color discrimination within their own culture (the majority of my students were from the Dominican Republic). When I asked the range of melanin in my class if they had any Black people in their country, they said “yes, the Haitians.” Due to Haiti’s position in the Western world, I could understand why they could make the assumption that the darker the skin, the more economically disadvantaged therefore the more they would want to distance themselves from that. My students bought into a lot of the negative stereotypes associated with Blacks, especially African Americans and therefore made the assumption that most if not all dark-skinned people were somehow, deficient, lacking, not as intelligent, poor, dirty…basically, INFERIOR. So needless to say, they weren’t feeling Team Jigaboo.
I spent a lot of that year trying to help them adjust their minds about their own culture and their relationship to Blackness. We discussed the importance of Haiti to their own freedom and we read Edwidge Danticat, Langston Hughes and Junot Diaz. We called one another out for saying offensive things in the classroom and discussed where these racist ideas came from (whether it was family, media and/or their limited experiences). But that one movie clip shown in the beginning of the year really helped to uncover a wound. While I could not heal it in one year, I was glad I began to treat it within my classroom. I learned a lot my first year from a pedagogical standpoint and from a cultural one. All of the places that were affected by colonialism were deeply impacted and the self-hatred that came along with knowing that there was African blood running through my students’ veins was something that they were taught to ignore. As long as there was a darker face in the room, they could avoid being seen as The Black One. As much as I wanted my little boos to learn, I also needed them to unlearn some really damaging beliefs that they held.
So my question is, what are we doing as educators to ensure that our Diasporic babies are learning about their roots, their history and appreciating their blackness, their color, their kinks, their African-ness? This is crucial as one of the first lessons that many of our students are learning is to hate themselves. We have a duty to help them unlearn that. How are we ensuring that we are decolonizing their minds from day one? How do we get our kids to even talk to us about or to recognize self-hatred and how do we help them heal?
One way to begin is to make sure that we as educators take Dap’s advice in the movie and “please, wake up.”