FOCUS ON DENVER
Black Empowerment: What the School System Needs to Address a Racialized America
by Amal Kassir
Jen Renaldi is a self-proclaimed “white girl from Connecticut raised by hippies.” She is a Black Literature teacher at South High School, one of the most diverse schools in the Denver Public Schools system. With 74% non-White students, Renaldi says of her school: “Diversity cannot be overlooked”.
The purpose of her class, Renaldi says, is to expose her students to great Black writers and great literature. Social justice is an intrinsic part of the class. “How could I teach a Black Lit course in the US without talking about police brutality and race? This class is meant to empower Black students and inform all students.” She emphasizes that her course is decidedly pro-Black and will always be so.
Renaldi says that because her school serves students from more than 67 countries, it can be hard to acknowledge every single person’s experience. One thing the administration and her Black Lit course does ensure, however is that every student knows that his or her experiences are valid.
“Much of the material presented has nothing in common with them,” Renaldi says So she brings in a guest poet every two weeks, ranging from Oklahoman ex-prisoner poets to Denver vegan hip hop artists, to celebrate diversity and reinforce the idea that all voices are valid.
“It’s important to me to never shame kids for what they’ve been taught. I want to teach them that even saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is racist, but do so without shaming them,” Renaldi says. Renaldi believes she must address these ideas in non-threatening ways to correct subliminal racist values effectively.
“Many students don’t have a class where they get their voices treated as valid,” she says.
Anas Mohammad is a Denver-born Black Lives Matter hip hop artist and activist. His first experience of race was in elementary school.
The ideal curriculum to address race, Mohammad says that people need to “kindly take the back seat,”. emphasizing that to educate the community effectively, people must be willing to open their ears and listen. “They need to let go of the delusion of the mainstream narrative,” he says.
Mohammad references the Quran, saying that we must be “nations and tribes that recognize one another. Not what we look like, but actually understanding backgrounds and sensitivities.” Mohammad explains how an education system can achieve this only by empowering the Black voice and teaching Black history. “We need a system that does not push a Black inferiority complex and a White supremacy complex.
“There are different experiences for different people and not everyone is equal. Black people specifically are dealing with deprogramming,” he says.”
“We need a system that does not push a black inferiority complex and white supremacy complex. We need inclusion of real black history and real black stories.”
He argues that curricula must be tailored for black children specifically if they are to have that conversation in the first place. “There are different experiences for different people and not everyone is equal. Black people specifically are dealing with de-programming.”
Theo Wilson, a Denver spoken word artist, actor, and singer, echoes the belief that school curricula must be tailored to Black children if they are to deal with the race issue. Wilson talks about the early Black Wall Street in Oklahoma that was burnt to the ground by Whites after a race-riot in 1921. He explains that in the height of segregation, Black communities mobilized and created flourishing self-sustaining economies that did not require the interference of Whites. Wilson paralleled this historical event to the necessity of teaching Black children their own history. He said that to empower young Black children, we must help them understand where they come from, who they are, and the power they hold. Otherwise, he says, these children will grow up in a system of White supremacy and feel that they are unequipped to achieve the same privileges as their White counterparts.
“The White man had a 400-year head start on economic and social prosperity by the time Africans were freed from slavery, Wilson says.” He describes the systematic poverty and lack of education in the Black community as a result of having been pushed into housing projects and stripped of true Black history that has denied Black people of their self-efficacy. He explains that with only a White narrative in schools, Black children are taught that Africa started with slavery, and Black people have moved up from slavery to poverty to police brutality. Teaching this to White children is a reinforcement of Manifest Destiny, but teaching this to Black children is programming them to believe they are inferior. The only way to combat this is to teach Black children the truth about their roots, Wilson says.
To solve the racial divide, Anas Mohammad suggests a grassroots approach, inter-race dialogue as the main effective strategy. “We need diversity,” he says, “some form of recognition and acknowledgement of the role and presence of Black people, which isn’t achievable without teaching this to young people.”
Theo Wilson agrees that the only way to achieve productive dialogue is to make sure that children who know the “other side” of history. Although Wilson does not believe the racial issues of the United States will be solved, he does believe that the empowerment of Black children is crucial to helping them confront the racial battles.
Jen Renaldi says that, as a White woman instructing Black Literature, she understands how teaching Black children the voices of Black writers can help these children acknowledge the role their own voices play, how they can claim their struggles and be survivors of it. Renaldi’s Black Literature course empowers her Black students, and helps change the mindsets of her non-Black students. “This is the power of learning the story from the storyteller,” she says.
Although Renaldi is more hopeful about the racial issue than Mohammad and Wilson, the three do agree that young people need exposure to survivor stories and require the truth about their history to learn. Schools must accommodate the voices of the Black community and address the social, political, and economic realities these students face, as well as the historical circumstances that brought them there. Without this, the school system remains stagnant in addressing the racialized state of the United States
Amal Kassir is a Syrian American international spoken word poet. In addition to the war in Syria that has taken the lives of 31 members of her family, she is also a Muslim in the United States and actively works to build bridges and correct misconceptions through her poetry. She is a full-time college student, traveling artist, and waitress at her father’s Syrian restaurant. She is publishing her first poetry book, Scud Missile Blues, about Syria in December 2016, and all proceeds will go toward education for Syrian refugee children.
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