For three years, Black Lives Matter at NYC Schools, with allies from the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) have submitted a resolution to the UFT to endorse the Week of Action, to acknowledge the deep harm done by our school system’s white supremacist underpinnings, and to pledge action toward the BLM demands. Leadership in the UFT has either argued vehemently against the resolution, calling it divisive, or has refused to allow the vote by ruling the Black teacher who brought it to the floor “out of order” and silencing him. Meanwhile, teacher unions in major cities across the U.S. have endorsed the BLM Week of Action enthusiastically.
This June, after the murders of Nina Pop, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and amid nation-wide uprisings for racial justice, BLM at NYC schools again submitted a resolution to the UFT Delegate Assembly. Instead, the UFT brought to the floor a watered-down resolution submitted independently by a white teacher. This resolution does not name even one concrete action the UFT will take, nor does it name any of the four demands of Black Lives Matter at Schools. The four demands of Black Lives Matter at Schools are:
End zero tolerance; restorative justice in all schools.
Mandate Black history & ethnic studies.
Hire more Black teachers.
Fund counselors, not cops.
Separately, behind closed doors, and without any public announcement, the UFT Executive Board passed their own toothless “Black Lives Matter Resolution” to create the impression that they are on the right side of history. We know they are not. The Executive Board resolution, along with our corrections, is below.
During my years in elementary school, I found myself judging my Blackness. My Black peers wore this identity proudly. They claimed it in the music they listened to, the clothes they wore, and the neighborhoods they lived in. You weren’t from Manhattan, you were from Harlem. Biggie and Tupac lyrics were Bible verses. You wore Timbs in the winter and Uptowns in the summer. To be fully accepted, you needed to know this by heart. I didn’t.
I grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood. My family was from the West Indies and my mom was pretty strict about what I wore and where I went. I knew I was Black, but I wasn’t Black in the same way as my peers. They became the metric to which I measured Blackness, and I kept missing the bar. They would comment on the ways I wasn’t “Black enough” because of my ignorance of their interests. I developed the habit of trying to catch up on the things I didn’t know, because somehow if I knew what they knew, they would see I was Black like them.
I often asked myself: is my Black okay?
Then, in the fall of 1993, when I was entering the 3rd grade, my teacher was a biracial woman, and it was the first time I felt truly seen at school. No, she wasn’t my first black teacher, my preschool teachers were a reflection of my mother and grandmother, familiar faces that made me feel at ease in my early years. This teacher entered my life when I was beginning to explore my racial identity. She introduced the words “stereotype,” “prejudice” and “equality” into my vocabulary. As a class we engaged in deep conversations about racism and the civil rights movement. She was the first one to speak openly of the racial discrimination she faced as a biracial woman living in New York. She held my attention and spoke to me in a way that not many teachers did or have since. She was the first one to expand my understanding of what it meant to be black.
She challenged the stereotypes of blackness held by my classmates, and helped us to understand where those ideas came from. The time in her class made me realize that black people are more than how we are perceived. We are more than the basketball players and rappers that populated my mind. Her impact was so profound that it was at the forefront of my mind when I was stopped by a reporter a few months later.
It was a crisp Saturday afternoon, and my uncle had dragged me down to South Street Seaport for some reason I can’t remember, when a reporter for the New York Post stopped us. He was interviewing New Yorkers to see what advice we would give to the newly appointed mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. Without hesitation I said, “I think the mayor should hire more black teachers because at the school I go, there aren’t any.” I made sure I spoke clearly into his recorder. I watched as he wrote down my name, then my uncle’s, he thanked us and was gone. We walked away laughing and excited at what happened. The fact that I went to a private school and the mayor had no say over their hiring practice was lost on me. I was proud at the thought that my words might reach the mayor and that other brown kids like me would get to see themselves in their teacher.
My pride slowly turned to dread once the paper came out and I realized my classmates and teachers would see. My 9 year old brain feared that I had turned into the villian of my social studies lessons. Was I being unfair to my other teachers for expressing my preference for my black teacher? Was I racist? What would my teacher think?
I was just as nervous when I walked up to my teacher to tell her what I had done. While I don’t remember the exact words she said, I remember being put at ease and having my feelings validated. When I think back on this moment I remember feeling compelled to share my statement with the community and being encouraged by my proud teacher to do so. At the next school assembly, I asked my community if my quote was racist.
As my question departed my lips, I remember hands going up and thoughts being shared. I remember not caring about what they said. I realized in that moment I had exposed an important truth, black teachers matter. Representation matters. I didn’t care if my classmates thought I was racist, I knew I wasn’t, I just liked my teacher and thought there should be more like her. The assembly was over and the memory fades off.
The mayor didn’t listen to me and the number of black teachers at my school didn’t increase. I continued to compare myself to my peers, trying to understand my own blackness. It wasn’t until college, where I had had enough experience with Black friends who shared my culture and interests, that I was able to feel comfortable with my Black identity.
Today, we can see proof that we are evolving our definitions of what it means to be Black. Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, in her TED talk describes how powerful images can be in people’s understanding of themselves and each other, and images help to initiate a dialogue about the subject. The image of black bodies through the ages has been that of degradation, humiliation and fear. Blackness has also been displayed as a source of great pride, beauty, and grace. Today we are exposed, through different forms of media, to the expanding landscape of Black identity. Kids today don’t know how good they’ve got it. Think about it: today there’s a kaleidoscope of black images to explore. They only need to click a button or enter a hashtag to see their many identities represented. From book lover to dancer, gamer to fashion designer, programmer to business owners; the black image cannot be pinned down to a singularity.
My personal journey took a new direction in 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed and everything shifted. Injustice was on full display and it made me sick. Initially, I tried not to watch the news. I couldn’t stand the sight of watching grown White people justify the killing of children. It was all too surreal. I felt helpless, unsafe, and lost in a country that claims to be so free. How could I feel free when Black people are under attack?
In 2014, in response to Mike Brown, there was this rage swirling in me that I could not manage. I felt an intense need to disrupt what was happening. I took to the streets with my kin. Surrounded by allies – Black and Brown people of all identities, united to assert that #BlackLivesMatter – I was able to give my rage an outlet. We are here, and we aren’t going anywhere. One of the thirteen guiding principles of the movement, Unapologetically Black is an unyielding stance in achieving the goal of justice and freedom.
I came to my understanding of my Blackness through the privilege of being able to dialogue with other black people. My Blackness is now uncompromising and I don’t care who might be uncomfortable. My Blackness demands justice and respect. My Blackness is rooted in love for myself and my community. My Blackness is a commitment to be active and aware. My Blackness is accepting of all who share this belief – regardless of identity. The current political climate does not allow us the luxury to make excuses or be passive. Stand strong in your convictions and be the change. Fight for the existence you’ve created. Live unapologetically.
Shani Brignolle has lived most of her life in New York City and began teaching seven years ago. She is currently teaching 5th grade at a Manhattan private school. She loves to use humor as a way of connecting with her students. When not in the classroom, Shani enjoys spending time with her husband and friends, as well as watching obscure shows on Netflix.
Loving Engagement: Embodying and practicing peace, justice, and liberation in our engagement with one another.
Queer Affirming: Freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking to create a queer-affirming network
Most mornings, I walk with a quick pace. My feet rarely make it to a stroll, because I’m usually a tad behind schedule. But no matter the time or the place I’m going, I need to give myself a moment to get myself together. “Get myself together” for handling haphazard train delays, back to back student meetings, and just how much grading I could put off. But, in the transitional years after I left my full-time job as a youth worker, to become a part-time English adjunct and full time graduate student, my predictable mornings were traded for three sweaty transfers, before depositing my nervous wreck on a train toward Yonkers.
For the better part of my career, I’ve worked in spaces of predominantly black and brown staff members and adults. When I decided to go back to school, to art school, it was inevitable that this space was not only going to be filled with white people, but with the absence of diversity, the kind of absence that is deeper than inclusive syllabi. I always taught myself that “the work” would never be done, but what held a different meaning, was knowing that my staff of black warriors would only come once in a lifetime. Throughout our time together, I was consistently floored and deeply humbled by their commitment to the wholeness and actualization of our self-same young people. Their work held space for the youth’s triumphs, fears, heartache, and challenges. But from that time, what I found the staff to prioritize overall was the unique imaginations of our young people. It was then that I understood just how precious my own damn mind could be. So, when it was time to leave that space and move on, when the work needed to be done differently, the “get myself together” part was key. More than a pep talk, I had to teach myself to hold the same space for my black woman morning meditation, my black imagination.
On this particular morning, the trains were held in the station for nearly half an hour, causing me to miss two Metro North trains. My eyes bulged white, and a light foam gathered inside my mouth. I was late, after leaving early, and this lateness was getting in the way of brief moments of quiet.
The blue vinyl train seat received my collapse. Hunching over, I tried to scrub a coffee stain away off the front of my shirt with a white paper napkin. Just chill, I kept telling myself. Just chill. It doesn’t matter if they like you. I slumped further in my seat. The lights on the tracks to the left of me brightened, expecting another train. On the other side, passengers jogged past the window seeking a seat at the front of the car. Focus on the people who are interested in getting to know you.
The napkin left a white papery patch on the front of my button down. With my thumbnail, I scratched my shirt’s surface. From this angle, I could see the floor, and on it were pairs of scuffed sneakers and boots moving past my seat–one by roaming one. When I looked up, I realized that these were young black girls. And these young black girls were parading down the aisles of the train. They trudged toward me, flowing in one door and out the other. Each one was muted: patrolling the train inside blinders, head forward. All were silent, wearing plastic cuffs, wrists resting against their backs. These girls were being watched. Followed. Supervised. I watched, too, because something in me wouldn’t look away. Something in me didn’t want them to walk alone.
And then, there was Pearl. The last one to come through– shoulders paused in a shrug, she hesitated with a mouthful of “Hello, Miss Erica,” remembering that she shouldn’t draw attention to herself. I stood– papers and napkins fell to my feet and yelped her name. Her presence told me that I hadn’t been late, that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Pearl needed to see me. My tongue glued to the roof of my mouth stricken suddenly with the fear of getting her in trouble. I melted down in my seat. The folks around me continued staring out the window, head low, savoring their own quiet space.
Where was she going? Why was she cuffed?
The doors closed and Pearl shuffled out of my sightline. The train eased away from the platform, seeking the romantic morning light. I didn’t want to leave. I walked to the window and waved frantically. Pearl pressed her lips together and opened her eyes widely. The edges of her eyes were full, and her neck appeared slightly hollow. She was exhausted. The train slid away, abandoning Pearl.
What happened to Pearl?
It is a question that I will never have the answer to. And it is a question that I would dare say is irrelevant to where she was going.
Who is Pearl?
Pearl had braces and wore her long, natural waves in a ponytail that trailed down her back. She always wore a fitted Yankees cap perched on the top of her head. Her laughter was contagious; people usually giggled by association, even when they were only walking past, unsure of what she was laughing at. She was very smart and could have been a good student, but her challenges at home interrupted her high school career and she never finished. Getting her HSE diploma was her number one priority.
But above all things, Pearl was always, always always in love.
“Naw Miss Erica, I don’t have a girl. That’s my wife.”
“See you in Lez Lounge.”
Lez Lounge happened on Fridays. It was a group created for lesbian, bisexual, queer, gender nonconforming youth where they could call the shots and be themselves. We would sit around with granola bars and cups of juice and enjoy one another’s company, grateful for Friday. We would read the journal entries of Lorraine Hansberry and love letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Sometimes we’d prepare for a community event and put together safe sex packets with dental dams and finger cots, elements lesbians and queers often refer to as “good,” but with air quotes.
Lesbians and queer women on staff regarded the Lez Lounge with hallowed protection. Some would peek in, hanging out in the doorway as if they were stealing time, or reluctant with the feeling that they couldn’t stay too long, as if they were sampling a dessert that they weren’t allowed to enjoy. Some staff would jump join youth in conversations about healthy relationship and safe tactics when confronted by the police. Often, I was cornered for maxi pads from the pantry. And, there was so much flirting going on among the group members. Lez Lounge was a nurturing and intimate space where our black, queer, mixed, Latinx, bisexual, Trans imaginations could pause, breathe, and just let it out.
My favorite part of the week quickly became about choosing the queerest, strangest, gayest, MOST AFFIRMING poem or story to bring to the group. We vented and cried when Trayvon was murdered and we vented and cried when someone got dumped. Lez Lounge proved that the lushness of our heart and the wealthiness of our dreams could be enough. The most significant unspoken rule was that there was nothing too hard for Lez Lounge because Lez Lounge was about feelings. And some Fridays we just talked.
Naturally, there was also tons of rightful rage. At times, that rage amounted to bullying or violent conflict out of pain. Because those of us in pain release it by creating more pain. But when the fights happened, they were relegated outside. There was something about that space that kept the youth in it moderately civil, in subconscious agreement to protect what little was ours. And on my darkest and most discouraged days, when a grant report was incorrectly done, or when the racist, patriarchal nonprofit industrial complex had officially done me in, the youth never backed down from demanding that we open the Lounge. We all needed that space.
Pearl was a long time member of my Lez Lounge. She wrote poems about depression and passion in our zines. She made sure that folks behaved most of the time. Pearl was a fixture who would one day disappear, in the same way that so many others did. And if they returned, they would ask for juice, sit down, to pick up where we left off.
On Saturday, January 20th, 2018, I marched with the Revolting Lesbians at the Women’s March in New York City. I had no plans of attending the march. As a feminist, as a black woman, as a queer person– I didn’t feel that the women’s march has ever been a place for me. But on the Saturday of the march, I shouted the names of Kerrice Lewis, Brandi Mells, Shanta Myers and Kaladaa Crowell. Say Her Name. The crowds of people stared at us, growing uncomfortable with the presence of the dykes, lesbians, and queer elders announcing the names of the dead, in grave display. We shouted because their lives could not be ignored. They don’t know who these women are. Shouting will never open their hearts. They didn’t know who we were honoring. Because to remember someone is to find their life important. But they heard their names. Is that enough?
When I wonder about who Pearl is, how she found herself in cadence on the Metro North that morning, or who she will become, I stop myself, remembering that I do know a little bit about who Pearl may be. And so does she.
Erica Cardwell is a writer and radical educator for CUNY.
Donald Trump caused an uproar over the summer when he declared, “There were fine people on both sides,” of the Charlottesville clash that left Heather Heyer dead, and many other injured. Apparently Curriculum Associates feels similarly about the Civil War, because today my students had to read a passage about Robert E. Lee that left me feeling angry and sick.
Curriculum Associates publishes a digital learning platform called i-Ready that is popular, because it provides personalized learning to kids. They also publish “Ready” test prep materials and assessments that mirror state assessments. Because I teach at a Renewal school, my kids have to take two Ready assessments a year to track their progress in advance of the state exams.
Today was the third day of our ELA Ready Assessment #2 and my students had to read two passages about Robert E. Lee. One of them provided some decent historical context. It described Robert E. Lee as a vicious slave owner in contrast to his enduring heroic reputation. The other one focused on Lee’s “struggle” to choose between loyalty to his family and the Union.
Lee didn’t support secession. He believed that states did not have the right to leave the Union, and he worried that war would come if they did. Lee also did not like the idea that a war would be fought over slavery. He claimed that he didn’t like it that slavery existed in the United States, and he once wrote that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” At the same time, he was very much against an immediate end to it. He favored what he later called a “gradual emancipation,” one that would take place over time.
Lee and his family owned slaves, and by all accounts, he treated these people as property. Legally, he could have freed them, but he didn’t. His wife, Mary, however, did show genuine concern for the slaves at Arlington, the estate where they lived. She taught the female slaves there to read, write, and sew, so that they would be better prepared for freedom when the time came.
There is so much about this passage that frustrates me. First of all, inserting it into a test leaves students on their own to make sense of the “debate.” Without a proper historical background or understanding of bias in texts, kids could easily come away from reading this text thinking Robert E. Lee wasn’t so bad (he was loyal after all)!
I think my biggest issue with the passage is just… why? You’re a test maker. You provide tests primarily for schools that need test prep (i.e. schools serving Black and brown kids). You have to choose three passages for one of the tests. This is the passage you choose?
Even if you put aside the offensiveness of this passage, aren’t there 1,000,000 better options out there? Was it really necessary during Black History Month for my 22 Black and brown students to read a sympathetic portrayal of a man who fought to preserve slavery?
This is a glaringly bad example of the racial bias embedded into tests, curriculum, and the U.S. education system in general. I intend to discuss this with my students tomorrow.
If there’s a silver lining to this mess, it’s that it perfectly illustrates the need for the New York City Department of Education to make a radical change in the way it addresses racial justice in schools. It’s current approach is essentially no approach at all.
End zero tolerance and implement restorative justice.
Hire more Black teachers in our schools.
Mandate Black history/ethnic studies in grades k-12.
These are a much needed antidote to the poison that is Curriculum Associates racist tests. When Black and brown kids interact with a curriculum that celebrates Robert E. Lee, they might reasonably disengage or act out. In this case they need healing, not push out practices.
If Black and brown kids had more teachers who looked like them, who shared their history, who valued and affirmed their lives through their teaching and very presence, they would be more likely to succeed. I think it’s also fair to assume that Black teachers could do a lot better by Black kids (and white kids) than Curriculum Associates racist test (or any of the other teachers you get to meet when you Google “racist teacher”).
Lastly, Black history and ethnic studies would replace, or at the very least, counteract passages like today’s text about Robert E. Lee. If Black, Latinx, Asian, and white kids had the opportunity to learn Black history and ethnic studies curriculum, they would know the true history of the United States. They would know basic history like the fact that the
White House was built by slaves. They would know the contributions of Black, Latinx, and Asian people to U.S. and global history. They would know to be skeptical if they came across a passage about Robert E. Lee’s “struggle.”
We can do so much better as educators. The kids I teach deserve so much better. There’s so much work to do, but we can start by ditching racist tests like the one published by Curriculum Associates.
Ruben Brosbe teaches 5th graders at PS 194 The Countee Cullen School in Central Harlem. He is a founding member of Teach Resistance, an anti-bias elementary education learning community, a Cohort 14 Teaching Fellow, and graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Picture this. You own and live in a two story home in New York. Your kids go to school a few blocks away from your house. On Sundays, you and your family go to church where your neighbor is the pastor. You have a stable job and can afford simple pleasures like coffee in the morning and dessert after dinner. You don’t live in the center of the city, but that’s alright because you are part of a tight-knit community that looks out for one another. You feel safe and comfortable and see a future for you and your family here.
It’s 1843. And you are black.
You’ve been living here for 10 years, and you receive notice that the city is making plans to construct the largest public park in the country. On your land. And they have the legal right to do so; the law of eminent domain says the city can claim private property for public use as long as they provide compensation. Your choices are to move from your home, neighborhood, and community, or be moved.
You see that the village that you and your community have created, which is about 2/3 African American and 1/3 immigrants, is called a “n—r village” in the media, “a ‘shantytown’ inhabited by ‘wretched and debased’ ‘squatters.’” You hear that the founder of The New York Enquirer has said that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.” You wonder if you and your neighbors have a fighting chance in the courts, knowing that almost everyone outside of the area claimed for the park is against you.
Some African Americans in the 1800s actually experienced this story. From 1825 to 1853, Seneca Village was a thriving neighborhood of majority-black landowners and professionals that inhabited the area in the West 80’s between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
In 1853, the city carved out what would become Central Park, swallowing all of Seneca Village and some surrounding neighborhoods as well. In 1856, some landowners took the compensation the city offered and left, and in 1857, some were forced out by the police.
As Diana Wall, anthropology professor at City College, told the Daily News in 2016, “You demonize the people who are being dispossessed so it’s OK to dispossess them.”
A Flint, Michigan government official, who has since resigned, said: “Flint has the same problems as Detroit: f–ing n–—s don’t pay their bills, believe me, I deal with them.”
The governor of Maine said about drug-related crime: “You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy and the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority of people coming in, are people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”
Rev. Jamie Johnson, director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at Department of Homeland Security, now also resigned, said that black people turned “America’s major cities into slums because of laziness, drug use and sexual promiscuity.”
And, of course, most recently coming out of the mouth of the current President of the United States: “shithole countries.”
We create black villages in schools so that we can be healthy and present enough to teach our kids, but also in the media to tell our stories, in the courts to protect ourselves from injustice, in the hospitals to advocate for ourselves and our needs. Knowing that no amount of money, no level of education, no circle of friends, no show of respectability will protect us from the individual and institutional racism that’s pervaded this country since long before the destruction of Seneca Village.
Black Villages is a guiding principle not just for Black Lives Matter week, but for life. We rely on black villages to survive.