Earlier in my career, I made the transition from middle school math teacher to high school geometry teacher. This was especially significant in a school district where I was not only the first black math teacher ever but definitely the first one teaching a core content area who was not also a coach.
My next door neighbor at the time, a well respected business ed black teacher, pulled me aside to offer the best possible advice meant to guarantee my survival.
“When you get to that high school, don’t let them know that you have any extra sense. Don’t let them know what you know how to do. Lay low and be quiet that that you don’t stand out.”
Now, before anyone takes issue with her advice to me, please understand the oppressive nature of school systems experienced by many black educators over the years. She had experienced teaching in a much different way than many of us and honestly in several ways that are the same…whether we admit it or not.
She was simply cautioning me to not only watch my back but understand that sharing my ideas created space for them to not only be co-opted but immediately shot down. She was also cautioning me about the nature of speaking out…one that would certainly guarantee me being labeled as defiant or worse…unemployed.
Our kids needed to see her and also needed to see me. This was a badge of honor that we wore in addition to the responsibilities of teaching.
Of course, I am my parent’s child so I didn’t take her advice on any level. This was not how I was raised. I had a mother, an artist in her own right, who made sure that we were involved in spaces and activities meant to build a sense of self-empowerment. These spaces…Junior NAACP, speaking contests, black sorority academic organizations, church groups, young leadership cohorts…taught us about who we were much like the days of my parent’s own education prior to integration where they learned about the world from scholars who cared enough to make sure that they were prepared.
Quiet is not me and never will be me.
Not cautiously…not purposefully
Earlier today, I engaged in a conversation where the words “be cautiously quiet” were used as a lens of which black tech educators must live as we evaluate our non-diverse spaces.
…as if sitting still and waiting on the environment to allow disruption creates the change that those spaces need
…as if someone in our stillness, people will simply wake up
…as if somehow our quiet will allow the pendulum of acceptance to somehow swing in our favor until we are “safe” enough to garner an invite, thus accepting tokenism as we quietly crack the exit door to allow our friends in
Hear me and hear me now. That’s not how this world works. That’s not how it should work and we certainly should not be expected to be cautiously quiet until it does.
I say this knowing that this is our reality in many spaces, both locally and nationally.
My privilege is that this is not how my local space is defined but my choice is not allowing my national spaces to be either.
Earlier today, my dad shared a story from his first year as an integrated high school student.
“My teacher assigned us to give an oral book report. I chose to read the autobiography of Malcolm X. Three days before the report was due, my teacher asked me what book I chose. When I told her, she said that I could not do that report and I told her that it was due in three days and since she didn’t give us a list, I wasn’t changing my book. For the next two days, she proceeded to tell me that if I used that book, I would not only get an F but would be sent to the office without giving a report. So, I went home and did what any person in my position should’ve done. We didn’t have your kind of technology so I grabbed my phonograph with my Temptations record and went to school. I gave my oral report on the autobiography of Malcolm X with the song, “Message From A Black Man” playing in the back. She had no choice but to acknowledge my work.”
So you see, I can’t be cautiously quiet.
My DNA won’t allow it.
My heart couldn’t stand it.
My ego wouldn’t approve it.
In the words of my father…straight from the written words of his report…
“One thing that makes this country so great is that this country is made of different ideas with different people coming together as one”.
We can’t move forward as long as we are secure in our spaces without the voices of those that build what defines our collective unity.
The words that inspired my dad years ago ring through my blood today.
From “Message From A Black Man”
Yes, my skin is black,
But that’s no reason to hold me back.
Why don’t you think about it?
Think about it, think about it, think about it,
Think about it…
I have wants and desires,
Just like you.
So move on the side,
‘Cause I’m comin’ through, oh!