Anti-racist schooling starts with the danger in me
“Even if, juristically speaking, we were not accessories to the crime, we are always, thanks to our human nature, potential criminals.” — Carl Jung
I walked with my father through the cold streets of Central Harlem in the winter of 1997. Perhaps we’d just visited Revolution Books on 132nd Street. I don’t recall. I do recall that I felt that we were being followed.
I had just graduated from college and I was living with my friend on 1st Avenue and 117th in an old public school building. A fallen-from-something-other-than-grace real estate schemer from Long Island had turned the massive building into DIY lofts and other enterprises that had little regard for building or moral codes. It was a fascinating and ugly scene. There were infamous Halloween parties in “the castle,” which took up full half of the second floor, furnished with crimson carpet and ornate floor-to-ceiling wood paneling from dismantled mansions. Suits of armor stood by under soft light. Sometimes you might find a person sleeping on a couch, or on the nod in a corner chair. Down the hall, Salsa Productions filmed mail-order porn.
The owner of the building, Greg, was a white guy. He cruised the neighborhood in a struggling black limo. The guys making the porn were also white. It was all very predatory. My friend and I would leave after a few months, moving into a third-floor walk-up owned by Fanny and Olga, two old Italian-American sisters living in the brownstone where they’d grown up on Pleasant Ave, just east of First.
My dad had come for a visit and we went for a walk across town. On one of those long blocks, maybe between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X Boulevard, I looked back over my shoulder. A black man took out his knife and held it glimmering at his side. He stood there. He wasn’t pursuing, and it wasn’t a mugging. I think he was just telling us to leave.
I didn’t feel panic, because he was half a block away. But I did feel fear.
“Since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid,” wrote James Baldwin of white police in Harlem in 1966. I myself wasn’t a cop. I was a teacher at the time. But was the fear I felt a similar fear? Did I feel hated in Harlem?
I felt at many moments unwelcome during the first years I lived there. The knife. The comments at the jazz club bar to the white girls I had come in with. The spit on the sidewalk a few paces before I walked past. The way the maître d of the supper club gently but firmly ushered us in from the sidewalk where my friends and I were laughing and carrying on as midnight approached.
If I isolate myself as an individual in the present, separate from the history of the place where I walk and the history of my skin, I can feel confused. What did I do wrong? I might wonder. I didn’t do anything. They don’t even know me.
But if I couple my story to history I can better understand. If I consider how my walk through the Harlem streets echoes the quick steps of the white cop on those same streets in 1966 — hated and therefore afraid and therefore very capable of killing — I can understand why I would be shown the knife and told to leave. If I consider how my walk and skin carry the trauma of, indeed, centuries of white men who walk where they please and take what they want from black and brown bodies I can better understand.
Last week, a 13 year old boy, Adam Toledo, was shot and killed by Chicago police in the ally into which they’d chased him. A few weeks ago, a white man assassinated six Asian-American women in Georgia. Next week continues the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
I wake on a hilltop and drive through spring mud to a high school in central Vermont where I’ve been principal for ten years. I am far from this recent news. But it is important that I feel proximity. Across space and time white supremacy links white lives, lies, privileges and powers in a terrible kinship I must recognize.
Chris Hedges is a journalist with an upbringing in the church and a career as a correspondent in war-torn societies. He also teaches in US prisons. He wrote recently about the killings in Georgia, which he says are “not an anomaly by a deranged gunman.” The “externalization of evil,” he writes, “is not a fringe phenomenon of the Christian right.”
“White supremacy, which dehumanizes the other at home and abroad, is also fueled by the fantasy that there are superior human beings who are white and lesser human beings who are not. Long did not need the Christian fascism of his church to justify to himself the killings; the racial hierarchies within American society had already dehumanized his victims.”
As an educator, part of my charge is to connect individual lives — including my own — to current events, contemporary politics, and historical understanding. How am I — how is my school — how is our school system — perpetuating racial hierarchies of worth? And, as a white educator, how much can I truly distance myself from the police who just killed Adam Toledo, or from Derek Chauvin, or from the murderer in Georgia?
I will never forget when the brown child of once migrant farm laborers ran from me down the hallway of our high school. I can still see his small form turning a corner, his hat falling from his head. I never thought of myself as someone to run from, but I am — because he was. He was running from his fear of my fear of him.
What would I, or the state police, or Customs and Border Patrol, or the county sheriff, or the white boys in the woods with their boots who had already kicked him in the mud at the county fair — what might such men do to him because of our fear of him?
I won’t offer here concrete guidance for how white educators can plan curriculum and pedagogy in light of the darkness in which we work. I have those suggestions, as do many others wiser than me. I will suggest that Hedges and Baldwin are writers that can help white educators see our individual stories more courageously in historical context. And by historical I mean until yesterday. And by stories I mean the lives we’ve lived and the work we do in schools.
“Education occurs in a context and has a very definite purpose,” Baldwin wrote in 1980. “The context is mainly unspoken, and the purpose very often unspeakable.”
The boy who ran from me was 14 years old. Adam Toledo — rest in peace — was 13 when he stopped running. The white supremacy in our lives and institutions is fueled by fears of these boys: a fear that honoring their humanity will shake the foundations of our identity and power. This fear can’t be undone unless we speak it and confront what it’s doing to us and to others.