Black Lives Matter: A Charge to Make Learning Culturally Relevant

Years ago, I was sitting in the computer lab with my best friend and she asked, “Why do you make all of your papers about black people or black issues?” As a college student, newly smitten with the learning process (because high school was a totally different experience for me), I zeroed in on her with a puzzled look. I did not really understand why she was asking me this question.

Sure, for one of my science classes, I did a report on lead-based paint in inner-city Milwaukee, exploring how the paint had an impact on the social behaviors and cognitive processing of black children. For my interpretive dance class, I did a kinesthetic presentation on Kwanza to share with others its principles and its universal value. And, for my senior capstone project, I centered my social science “innovation” on a neighborhood revitalization project committed to black economics.

But, in all of these assignments, I never thought about why. Consciously, my subject matter choices were not intentional as some type of radical stand against white-centered subject matter. I just was writing about those things that were relevant to me. I wrote about things that put me in context with the subject matter being taught.

As I reflect back on this conversation, I realize that it had a significant impact on the rest of my college days. From that point on (while in college) I identified as pro-black. I had assumed that in order to take on a subjective identity, where one sees the world through her own lens and not someone else’s, I must take a radical position. I must assume a position of being ethno-centric (as if blacks advocating under the pro-black identity are significantly different from other groups in their privileged undisclosed ethno-centrism).

After I graduated, I stopped prefacing my interests, my work… my person with a pro-black identity. As an educator, I left the social sciences and became focused more on school leadership and instructional innovation. In that world, so I thought—or maybe I wanted to believe, race and culture weren’t relevant. And while I became interested in the socio-cognitive needs of urban learners, my focus became more about class (naively overlooking its interrelatedness with race). So for fifteen years, I wasn’t pro-black. I simply was pro-learner.

And then five years ago, I had another shift in my thinking… and therefore my identity. Interested in learning how to increase the effectiveness of teachers serving urban learners, I went back to school. Returning to the social sciences and for the first time connecting it to my work as an educator, I learned more about the sociopolitical treatment of students. Some students are treated as subjects, while others with lower degrees of social power are treated as objects. The degree of subjectivity or objectivity in which students are given depends on the degree of humanness in which they are assigned.

It was here that I became pro-human!

Part of being human is recognizing that there is a world, being aware of self as a valuable and valid component in that world, and being comfortable to proudly live out loud in it accordingly. According to Paulo Freire, we have a natural desire to pursue our full humanity. Any state that denies our humanity or our pursuit for it ultimately is a state of oppression.

Through my new pro-human identity, I am now able to clarify what I could not articulate all those years ago in undergrad when I was challenged by my friend.   Back then, I focused my studies on inner-city housing, Kwanza, neighborhood revitalization not because I was pro-black. It was because I was pro-human. Through my human self, I had a subjective relationship with my studies and I wanted to satisfy my craving to understand the world in which I lived.

My focus on issues relating to blackness was not about erasing anyone else’s concerns or experiences. It was about giving visibility to mine.

When people say, “Black lives matter,” most of the focus is getting state sanctioned forces to respect the personhood of Black people. But, it is my position that Black lives not only matter in the streets. They also matter in the classroom… in the learning process.

When we give students content that is disconnected from their immediate world—from their immediate reality— we ultimately tell them that their lived experience does not matter. When we assume that our reality is their reality and fail to make their learning culturally relevant, we are saying that their subjectivity does not matter. When we make learning within the context of blackness a radical endeavor for black students, we reinforce an unspoken paradigm that somehow in their blackness, they are radical. We inadvertently say that in their bodies – in their natural state, they don’t matter.

But, they do!

I often said to my students, “Don’t talk about it; be about it!” In short, don’t profess something with your mouth yet fail to live it through your behavior. So, I now say this to my colleagues who are now championing this social justice mantra. Don’t say Black lives matter on the streets and then by your instructional (and administrative) choices, erase or neutralize their blackness in the classroom.

Don’t talk about it. Be about it! Make learning culturally relevant for Black children because yes, their lives really do matter!

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