Monday, April 2, 2012

The Right Picture in the Wrong Frame

The lost lesson of Jada Williams' essay on Frederick Douglass

While most of her peers were spending Christmas break diligently avoiding anything that resembled schoolwork, 13-year-old Jada Williams spent her time reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and preparing an essay on the book. What Williams read moved her and opened her eyes to some of the problems extant in her Rochester, NY public school.

In her essay, which she shared with her class, Williams drew parallels between the appalling illiteracy rate in city schools and the illiterate state slave owners kept blacks in. And she took aim at her teachers. That was apparently a mistake. According to Jada and her mother, the essay launched a campaign of harassment directed at the girl, ultimately forcing her to transfer to another school.

I will admit, at first I was skeptical. I thought perhaps Jada’s essay was merely a diatribe of racial grievances with no basis in reality or the book and that the harassment was little more that poorly received—or even poorly given—criticism.  But upon reading the actual essay, I feel that my first assumption was mostly wrong.

It is true that Jada singles out “white teachers,” placing them in opposition to “black students.” But to zero in only that detail is to ignore the insight shown in drawing a correlation between Douglass’ literacy and that of her peers. She also makes some salient charges against teachers and the education system. She charges them with inconsistency in their teaching methods and mismanagement of their classrooms; of inciting boredom rather than fostering curiosity; and of resting on credentials and tenure rather than finding ways to teach so-called “unteachable.” Jada’s challenge is not leveled solely at teacher, either. Her call to action is also leveled at her peers, challenging them to become active learners rather than merely passing time in a desk.

That said, young Jada does cast a pall over these calls by framing them in a racial context. Perhaps she was overcome with the strength of Douglass’ writing when she wrote about the “discrimination that still resides in the heart of white men.” Even in drawing an astute parallel, she failed to draw any distinction between the time of Douglass and today. Like so many minorities, Jada attributes the root cause of all disparities to race with no thought to examine the matter further. Ironically, by making broad remarks about the white race, she engaged in the very mindset she was railing against.

Still, Jada is a child and relies on the adults around her for guidance. It certainly doesn’t help race relations when those adults make her essay the focus of controversy rather than that of a teachable moment. And while that certainly draws an underline beneath Jada’s charges against the abilities of her teachers, where she will likely perceive that underline is beneath her charges of racism.

It is probably worth mentioning that I have not entirely let go of my second assumption, but the facts of the matter are difficult to amass. According to Jada’s mother, the English teacher confronted her about the content of her essay and told the girl she was offended. She also said that she started receiving calls from various teachers at the school saying that Jada was acting out in class when she had never been in trouble before. The Rochester School District has acknowledged that Jada’s teacher did not act in accordance with the District’s mission, but is saying little else.

Jada Williams
December 30, 2011

Expressions from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

During my Christmas break I had the opportunity to read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

The Rochester City School District supplied us with this novel to read and expected me to expound on what I read and how it made me feel, as I myself being an African American and an eighth grader in the Rochester City learning institute.

Before, I began to read this novel, I had heard about it prior from a few older people that have read it and raved about it. I myself experienced it differently; I had some mixed emotions towards it.

When reading the novel my first impression was “what am I reading”? The content of the narrative was far more advanced for me. I found myself getting a dictionary/thesaurus to look up words I have never seen before in my life. On the other hand I was appreciative because it helped to expand my vocabulary. So with that I am grateful.

After, being able to cross-reference the words unknown to me I was able to read through the novel again with a clearer understanding.

That’s when it all sank in. So then I began to feel very angry to read such material that was brutal and degrading to African Americans.

Furthermore, I myself began to question,” as to why the Rochester City School District would supply us with a novel that would evoke such emotions?” I, also began to question,” what were the District motives and the intent behind us reading about history that doesn’t compliment the white race and their behaviors at all; what would come about of this?”

Would they even consider my thoughts and my opinions? So I’m very curious to see what the turn out will be.
The one passage I would like to focus on was written on page 20, where it quoted Mr. Auld’s (a master mentioned in the narrative) opinions towards black and education, and I quote:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters.

Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world.

“Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.
As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

(Skipping down)

I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty- to wit, the man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.
My thoughts: This type of thinking is somewhat still prevalent in our society today.

Most white teachers that I have come into contact with, over the last several years of my life, has failed to instruct us even today. The teachers are not as vocal about us not learning how it has been described in this narrative; but their actions speaks volumes.

When I myself sit in crowded classrooms and no real concrete instruction is taking place. It makes that saying “history does repeat itself” all the more true.

For white teachers to be able to be in a position of power to dictate what I can, cannot and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mis-management of the classroom and remain illiterate and ignorant; or better yet distracted because some children decide to misbehave because they don’t understand, and ashamed to ask for help.

The teacher recognizing all of these things and still not addressing the matter at hand, so much time has been wasted- then the bell rings and on to the next class, same drama different teacher, different class. When do we get off of this roller coaster?

When the white teachers began to pass out pamphlets and packets, they expect us the black students to read the directions, complete it, and hand it in for a grade. The reality of this is that most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided.

So, I feel like not much has changed, just different people, different era, the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.

In closing, my suggestions to my peers, people of color, and my generation to try achieve what has been established by the African Americans and Abolitionists that paved the way for us to receive what’s rightfully yours. Blood, sweat, and tears have been shed for us to obtain any goals, which we may set for ourselves.

Never being afraid to excel and achieve, because our ancestors have been bound for so, so, so, so, so long. We are free to learn, and my advice to my peers, people of color, and my generation- start making these white teachers accountable for instructing you. They chose this profession, they brag about their credentials; they brag about their tenure, so if you have so much experience, then find a more productive way to teach the so-called “unteachable”.

They contain this document that states they have all this knowledge to teach, so show me what you know, teach me your ways. What merit is there, if you contain all this knowledge and not willing to share because of the color of my skin.
To all of our surprise, we all have the same warm, red blood running through our veins, regardless of what race I may be. If you don’t believe me, then poke me and poke a white man and you will see.

To my peers, people of color, and my generation, start asking questions, start doing the research, get involved. A grand price was paid in order for us to be where we are today; but in my mind we should be a lot further, so again I encourage the white teachers to instruct and I encourage my people to not just be a student, but become a learner.


rlaWTX said...

She can think. That is a rather amazing accomplishment for a student coming from public schools - esp. in a blue city in a blue state that owe so much to unions.

It would be interesting to see her in a few years, see if her views of who is to blame (white teachers & black students) has changed to one only of race or if she has found that race has less to with the problem than ideology.

Thanks for bringing this to light.

tryanmax said...

She seems like a bright kid with a thirst for understanding. I think there is still hope that she won't be influenced by the adults around her into taking on their same preconceived notions.

Too bad this is the reward she gets. If I were her teacher, I would praise the connections she made and suggest that she also look for points that highlight Douglass' influence in the present. As it is, perhaps Douglass has had no influence in Rochester.

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