Oath by Christel Robinson

Swear me in why don't you
I’ve been watching from the sidelines for too long
We let the players skirt the boundary lines, we ignore every foul
Every time their words travelled further than their complacency 
Every time we are forced to watch as the clocks runs out
To be patient as the sweat scorches all of our faces, 
Burns our eyes because we’re too busy carrying the game to wipe them 

Why not just swear me in?
Really, it’s an honest question
You don’t have to be thirty five to lie to people
Hand me the wheel instead, and I’ll see what I can maneuver 
I may not have enough money to avoid my taxes, 
Not sure if speaking full sentences and being able to read a dictionary
Is a requirement anymore
But no matter, I can do that either way
It can’t be too hard of a job
I mean we did without it for four years
Four years
Four years to realize nothing he said
Had enough weight to survive being thrown against a current
Every word would get picked up by the wind
And taken away to some dark American corner of unsightlies
His KKKers are festering in
With their hypocritical loyalty to patriotism and treason
Swear me in why don’t you,
It’s just America
The country that prides itself on never being invaded... until it invaded  itself
Yeah, no foreign enemies might have made it to the capital
But thirty year old Reddit connoisseurs who still frequent their parents basement
Or who are probably late for a knee replacement 
Or who haven’t stopped suckling long enough to grow in their teeth
Are more militant than the millions of immigrants you swore would be the ones
Who made a mockery of strength and a joke of patriotism 
More powerful than all the Muslims you stop before planes
All the Black men and women you lock away in cells or premature graves
But I guess if we’re being reasonable,
Patriotic, even
We’d have more patience with the lack of defense. 
After all, it would be far too much to expect the police too defend the capital 
When they were the ones storming it 
Anyone who know better should be staring at the screen
And wondering why the stormers aren’t Mexican, 
You would think so from the hysteria in 2016
The way we cried bloody murder at the borders
While we committed bloody murder in the streets
I just want to know how you can lick the boot of the three richest tax evaders
The president, being another, no less
And then act like you care if immigrants pay their fair share
Why you protect the rich with empty pockets, I’ll never get
Just to wonder what would have happened if the stormers were Black
If rioters were Black
If the looter that stole that Congressman's laptop was Black
If the terrorists were Black
Wondering like I don't remember when the protesters were Black
When Black lives, not livelihoods, were at stake
Protesters being beaten, tear gassed, intimidated, trapped
Protesters who were beaten down for speaking, standing, existing
Protesters who were Black but
Who were Black women
Who were old
Who were children
First amendment users
20 Black kids in a park 
To four police cars, a police van, and detectives
But no, the 686 million dollars we allotted on defense 
Was no match for stupidity
No match for confronting the ugly truths that to you,
Only amount to old Confederate relics 
Which receive more recognizance than the mass graves they were fighting to fill
Unholy truths have evolved from the measly paragraph teachers have us skim read in history classes
But to me
Amounts to structures, cultures, people
Nay, heroes
Hold on to your favorite celebrity if you must so long as you plug your ears and pretend not to hear the echoes of their indiscretions 
Their human rage, digested hatred, inherited ignorance from Disney spin-offs and Labor Day sales
To secluded internet forums 
Bound to convict them in the court of Faux-Culture
How can you cancel someone from a culture 
Which bred the unsightlies you now shame them for?
I ought to give you some handcuffs
Like an air mask on the plane
Put them on yourself before you put them on your children
Looking at some of them makes me think:
“Well, where are the slave-catchers?”
The protect and servers
Who did neither when they chased after the slaves
Before they were freed, or freed themselves rather, 
Because ain’t it awkward how at the very least, no one ever talks about how in the hell we got off the plantations
Then I look at the sweatshops, the work days with crappy pay
The cycle of poverty, homeless, and flimsy healthcare
The Black trans sex workers who die for the work they do everyday 
The same people they work for, they die from
And I doubt whether we ever left
Swear me in, I built the country anyway
How else could America still look so shiny, 
As if we ever left the gilded age,
Income inequality has only gotten worse
Worse for white people too, yes
Sorry, I have to say that to keep your attention
Mine is well occupied
My eyes are on the police, my heart with the victims, my hands with others who are ready to use them
And your attention is on your phone screen
You can post all the MLK quotes and praise Boseman you please (RIP)
But Shakur said we have a duty to fight for our freedom, 
Not a duty to tweet 
For all the power in visibility, so is there in distraction
So is there in inaction
You might tweet, like, save, share, repeat
While my brothers and sisters are dying in the street
But you can close your phone screen, hide the world when you’d rather not see it
And criticize the ones who don’t like your feed
Like everyday isn’t a revolution in my skin
And a privilege in yours
Don’t look at how I live when you can’t see what it took for me to wake up 
And I cannot stress this enough
Let’s not make Biden a martyr for the cause, a speaker for the people
Let’s remember that democracy and the Democratic Party are not synonymous 
One means social equality, 
Speaking for those who need 
And the other only does so conditionally
Am I suppose to start standing up for the flag now?
When does the flag stand up for me?
There’s a reason we can’t be free when the Black women isn’t
While we can celebrate the death of a reigning idiot
In favor of a more palatable ‘not racist’
But then turn around and look at who we elected
Great a rapist for president
Is it indicative that this is the lesser of our two evils
Why we’d rather pick the racist over the woman to begin with?
A couple emails were worth surrendering the country but not 
Sexual assault allegations, discrimination law suits, … an empty resume
Why can we not respect women? 
Why is it only #MeToo on condition?
Can we have a news source that doesn’t lie when it’s convenient?
Why is Tara Reade the only one that has to prove it?
And then there’s the pandemic
The studio, full coverage lighting 
To everything shameful about American freedom
Every Asian and Asian American spit on for bringing the ‘China Flu’
That the US is so intent on propagating 
Every Jewish life threatened or lost by a history intent on gripping their     ankles
Neighbors too blind with hatred, resentment and hypocrisy
To recognize the irony
Every disproportionate amount of Black 
 and Latinx 
 and indigenous 
Lives lost or shaken
By inhumane healthcare system
And people who couldn’t care to take caution
Every person sitting on more money than they could spend
While others scrape for every coin they could have
Every person who is too different to feel worth it
This is full coverage lighting
Your spotlight to tell America
Just how much freedom it gave you
And just how much it took along with it
America do you refuse to hear or were you never listening?
How long can you pretend your cotton isn’t washed with blood?
Your flag sown with the pain which bred it
Freedom glazed in the sweat of every broken back that carried it to the edge of the world and back before it could ever be missed
Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
A more perfect union
Four score and seven years ago
I had a dream that your words meant something
That I can turn on the news and trust what I see
That I can say what I mean, be who I am and that will be enough
This is a nightmare
America, Swear me in
A fool's done the job and left us in shambles
I’m not so sure about the next guy
They don’t look like Obama
And they look even farther away from me
America Swear me in
I have lived my life and that’s more than the last guy can say. 

Christel Robinson is a writer, actor, visual artist, and social activist. She is an alumni of the MCC Theater Company’s Youth Performance lab and is currently a member of their Playwriting lab. She is also a First-year Psychology and Performing Media Arts major student at the College of Arts and Sciences of Cornell University. Christel graduated from Bard High School Early College II in 2020.


This One’s for the White Teachers by Naomi Sharlin

It’s hard for me to write about the antiracist work in my teaching. There are a couple of layers to this. First, I know that I mess up, probably daily. I don’t have it all figured out. And that’s a tough pill for me to swallow, especially publicly. This is, of course, connected to the next layer. Whiteness. I’m white. My voice should not be amplified when it comes to antiracism. On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of teachers in New York are white, 80% as of the 2018-2019 school year, a figure consistent with the nation as a whole. So if white teachers aren’t actively engaging in conversations around antiracist teaching, well, that’s a lot of complacent teachers perpetuating white supremacy. While the need for more Black teachers is pressing, in the meantime, we white teachers need to keep eschewing perfection and deliberately make ourselves vulnerable. Because lives are at stake. This is heavy work we do. 

Because no matter how many books or social media posts you read about decolonizing your curriculum or how many seminars and conferences you attend about teaching through an abolitionist lens, we are guaranteed to miss the mark sometimes. There is so much racism buried not just in our curriculum, but in the very structures of schools themselves, not to mention in our own minds and bodies. Of course, to engage with the challenge is, nevertheless, obligatory. I do hope it’s helpful for other white teachers to read about times I’ve both hit the mark and missed it in my antiracism work. 

I want to share two concrete examples of shifts I’ve made in language and the framing of questions in the service of antiracism. I teach mostly beginning English Language Learners. Having nuanced and sensitive conversations in English can be challenging. Beyond their shared status as ELLs, my students are incredibly diverse. They come from Honduras, Yemen, Bangladesh and Guinea. From the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Vietnam and El Salvador. And more. Their schema around race is different from young people raised in the United States, and different from my own. As new immigrants, many also believe the best about this country (they have all sacrificed to be here), and I don’t want to be the one to burst the bubble. On the other hand, facts are facts. So, I try to navigate these conversations with sensitivity. One sentence I find myself repeating as a reminder to myself and to them is that regular people have always resisted discrimination and injustice. 

Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that the two examples I want to share occurred within units centered around problematic literature choices. The first was Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. It’s a book about chattel slavery written in dialect by a white man, so I should’ve known better than to touch it. To say it is a text that centers Black trauma over Black joy is an understatement. Ostensibly, it is a story about Black resistance during chattel slavery in the United States, but it’s also obviously focused on oppression and it contains graphic descriptions of the violence inflicted on enslaved people by their enslavers. Not an empowering text! My planning partner and I realized our mistake too late, so we tried to be intentional and transparent with our word choice: slave vs. enslaved. Because our students are ELLs, we are always deliberate with word choice and sentence structure. And as long as we’re being careful with language, we might as well dive into nuanced conversations. One early pre-reading activity focused on the character, John (nicknamed Nightjohn), who escaped bondage, learned to read and voluntarily returned to slavery in order to teach other enslaved people to read. After brainstorming character traits to describe him, we introduced slave and enslaved as contrasting vocabulary words, side by side. We then asked students, “Which word do you think John would prefer and why?” Through class discussion, we teased out the primary difference: slave encompasses your identity, like student or immigrant, whereas enslaved denotes that this state was imposed on you, but doesn’t necessarily define who you are. Simply understanding the nuance between the words was the task for some beginning ELLs. Other students wrote about why John would prefer enslaved. This laid the groundwork for its use throughout the unit and helped frame the book in the most empowering way we could.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly initially felt like a much more empowering literature choice. But at its core, it is also about oppression, especially in the distilled manner that most of my students interacted with the text. We were careful, however, to avoid framing the strength and courage of the protagonists as playing to the stereotype of the “strong Black woman.” We found small shifts in language actually could accomplish this. So instead of asking, “How does Katherine demonstrate persistence?”, we asked “Why was it necessary for Katherine to be persistent?”. Instead of a bunch of responses about Katherine not giving up when her boss told her she couldn’t attend the meetings, students wrote that it was unfair that she was excluded and had to work harder to prove herself because of her race and gender. Such persistence should not have been required.

The thing about antiracism work is it never ends. You never “graduate”. We just have to keep pushing against white supremacy and bias where-ever it arises. For now, my most immediate antiracist teaching goal is to be more thoughtful with text choices. In our next unit, starting in mid-March, we plan to read 4-5 picture books. I’m already curating a list of books that might acknowledge Black struggle, but definitely center Black joy. In the spirit of continuing to get better through reflection and feedback, I’d like to know what you think about the examples I described above. Do you think my focus on word choice and framing to affirm that Black lives matter in my class is valid? Did anything I presented here resonate for you? In your lessons, how do you think about your word choices and framing, or the way changes in language shape your interactions with young people?

Black educators, thinkers and writers whose ideas have informed this post:

  • Blair Imani 
  • Ericka Hart
  • Sassy Latte
  • Shishi Rose
  • Sonya Renee Taylor

Naomi (she/her) is an editor of this blog and teaches high school in the Bronx.

Can You See Me? by Jenn Allen

I don’t know the 13 principles of Black Lives Matter movement but as a Black educator it is imperative that I empower all my students through positive reflections of themselves. My pedagogical philosophy is not based on social movements trending within society. For so long, myself and my people were always excluded from “the table.” My practice empowers me to provide the tools necessary for my students to bring their own seat to their table of choice. 98% of my students are students of color from various backgrounds, but one thing we all commonly share is a feeling of exclusion. 

My presence alone is not enough. I strive to be a positive role model both in and out of the classroom. As a high school English teacher, I bring in various authors from different backgrounds so all my students have a chance to see positive reflections of themselves. We talk about and celebrate each other’s cultural backgrounds. I also attempt to make real life connections daily. When you can make a personal connection to what you are learning, it builds authenticity and value to your life. One example of when I attempted to bring history to life was interviewing a historical figure with my students. We were researching segregation in our society and the struggles people went through both in the past and also currently.

When discussing historical Black movements in the 1900’s there are a slew of names that come to mind. One is Rosa Parks. But, did you know that Rosa Parks was not actually the first Black person to refuse to give up their seat and move to the back of the bus? In actuality it was a teenager named Claudette Colvin in Alabama. What an honor and pleasure it was to reach out to Ms. Colvin herself. She lives right here in NYC! Due to failing health she couldn’t visit the school in person, but she agreed to do a live question and answer with my students. It was exciting to say the least. 

For two weeks we did a deep dive researching the political movement sparked by her courage and the backlash she suffered. We also studied questions asked during interviews and the science behind open ended questions versus closed. My students worked in pairs before merging into groups. In pairs, we used the DOK levels as a model to assist us in framing our high level questions. Students also used those levels to assess the questions of their partners before sharing with the entire group. After sharing, groups decided whether the question “made the cut” to be officially asked and I wrote them down on each individual group’s chart paper. We brought the chart paper to our discussion so students could rehearse in their groups before the interview. Questions included: “How do you feel your actions have contributed to American society today?” “What advice would you give students today seeking to make a change in the world?”, “How did you feel when you were slighted by your own people? Explain”, “You made a courageous stand decades ago, do you feel society has changed much since then? Explain”.

Students worked cooperatively and so did Ms. Colvin! She was very candid and honest about that time period in American history. She explained that Rosa Parks was one of her mentors as was Martin Luther King Jr. Although she made a courageous stand, it wasn’t to spark a political movement, she was tired, both literally and figuratively. Tired of being treated like a second class citizen. She relayed how undignified basic life was for people of color. Something as simple as shoe shopping left her feeling small and invisible. They had to cut an outline of their feet on a brown paper bag and take that to the shoe store to purchase shoes. People of color were not allowed to try any shoes on. Ms. Colvin was also literally tired from being in school all day, as a 15 year old high school student.

She was feeling empowered that day after learning about other historical figures before her who courageously made history for boldly voicing their disdain for social and racial injustices encountered and endured in America. She said she felt as if those historical figures were pushing her down, preventing her from moving her seat. She was handcuffed and arrested on the bus for her “crime” and bailed out by the NAACP and MLK Jr. But they decided Ms. Colvin could not be the face of change. Two factors were used against her: her age and complexion. Not only did they feel she was at an unreliable age as a teen, but she was also of a darker complexion. It was decided that the face of change should come from someone older and with lighter skin, thus Rosa Parks was selected and used to spark a powerful political movement nine months later.

We were never taught that Claudette was among four other women who challenged the law in the Browder v. Gayle case that successfully overturned the segregated bus laws in Alabama. We learned that history taught in schools teaches us so much while not teaching us much of anything. So much is omitted, blurred and layered in political jargon that only confuses students of color instead of empowering them. Students read very little about historical figures that look like them and year after year only hear of the same handful of Black leaders that impacted society. What about the others? Why is there a limit in the first place? Sharing that historical moment with Ms. Colvin will be remembered for a lifetime. Although I am not sure how many historical figures I will have the opportunity to interview in the future, this motivated me even more to keep reaching beyond the status quo for all my students. They deserve it.

 When teachers say “I don’t see color in my classroom, just students”, that sounds great and I truly understand what they are attempting to say, however that phrase alone still divides and excludes. We HAVE to see, recognize and learn from the cultural backgrounds of our students. See them! See their color! See their struggle and hear their stories. That is the first step in an antiracist and inclusive environment. Celebrate our differences while weaving in how we are yet still one in the same. I am them, they are me, we are one.

Jenn Allen is a high school English teacher. She is native to NYC; born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She attended and graduated from NYC public schools and has been teaching within the NYC public school system for nine years. She can be contacted at msjallen1@gmail.com.