This is a story about experience. Strangely enough, experience has the power to both sever and prompt connection. There are threads of my story—my experience—that are particular to me as a black child, a black woman, and an African immigrant. On the other hand, there are fibers in my story that are universal, and linked to my and your human self. I imagine that you will find things in my story that will surprise you, resonate with you, frustrate, and perhaps even anger you. I hope that all of the above will happen. When you arrive at the end of my story, I hope that you will be wrestling with your own experiences, struggling to understand how they have shaped you as a particular individual, how they have molded you in a universal context—as a human being—and how they both marry you to and divorce you from the people with whom you share this who are other shirts hanging on the wobbly clothing rack that is our imperfect society.
I spent much of my early life in navigating school. By my freshman year in high school, I had mastered school in so far as I had a certain comfort with the routines, structures, and expectations that exist in most classrooms. I easily recognized the heavy, lingering smell of scented Expo markers, the sound of the bottoms of metal chairs scrapping painfully against wood or cement floors, the feel of cool rubber erasers and No. 2 lead-filled pencils resting lightly against my warm fingers. But I also had a rather ambivalent relationship to learning. My face was typically the only black one in my classes—a dark speck in an otherwise vast sea of whiteness. Yet, paradoxically, I spent my high school years feeling invisible. It wasn’t that my teachers didn’t know I existed—they graded my papers, made comments on my report cards, and performed all other teacher-ly duties—but rather, it was that they seemed apathetic, at best, to my existence. Perhaps their eyes, hearts, and minds weren’t broad enough to see me in my totality—to cradle the me who existed under the skin that draped my bones. Or perhaps they were paralyzed by fear, by the unknown that I represented, and therefore unable to peek into the Pandora ’s Box that housed the visceral reactions which my blackness, in stark contrast to their own familiar whiteness, undoubtedly triggered. The part of me that they did see—the student—they rewarded as best they could, with As, and Good Jobs scribbled hastily in red ink across the lined pages of my notebooks. Despite my academic success, being a student was something I did, rather than someone I was.
I went to high school in Shoreview, which, at the time, was one of several racially barren suburbs in Minnesota, an equally racially barren state. My school enrolled 2,000 students, less than 10 who, at any given time over the course of the 4 years I spent there, were black, and most of whom were either on the vocational track, or in the self-contained special education class. In that context, I suppose I was a bit of an anomaly. When I was 15 or 16, I found a dusty, old audio-cassette of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye at my local library. I proceeded to spend the next 3 hours, immersed in the beautiful and horrendous tale weaved in that book. I saw glimpses of myself in Pecola Breedlove, the novel’s main character who is described as “a little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.” Pecola wanted this, I imagine, because no-one had reassured her that her coffee-bean hued eyes were just as beautiful and just as valuable as Shirley Temple’s baby-blues, for which she ached. In describing an interaction between Pecola and a store keeper, Morrison’s narrator says, “she looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition—the glazed separateness.” It was as though Morrison’s words were leaping out of my Sony tape player, determined to split me open, or at least wake me from a heavy slumber, and drag me out of a daze that I didn’t even know was holding me captive.
The book moved me so profoundly that I decided I wanted to enroll in a college where I could meet people who wrote and read texts like The Bluest Eye, and works by Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, and Gwendolyn Brooks. I wanted to sink into the arms of people who were willing to do more that engage with those books on an intellectual level. The Bluest Eye triggered in me the realization that there were aspects of my being that I didn’t and couldn’t see much less embrace. It exposed to me the existence of a hunger—one that could only be fed by being around people who recognized themselves and their mothers and their fathers and their cousins-sister’s-best-friend’s-husbands in the characters created by these authors. It was obvious to me that the natural place to find these people was at a Historically Black College or University. So the summer I turned 17, I replaced my tape player with a spiffy, new CD player, and went off, much to the chagrin of my lovely mother, to Hampton University, in Hampton, Virginia.
At Hampton, I was quickly submerged in a wave of blackness—debutante cotillion, bourgeoisie blackness. Oddly enough, I needed to be lost in this sea of 5,000 cinnamon, caramel, ebony, latté, and espresso-hued faces in order to be visible, in order to be found. I met educators who, for the first time, were interested in me as more than an academic being—professors who saw me as a whole person, who celebrated my intellect and my personality, quirks and all. These professors talked to me about Morrison, Ellison, and Wright, but also about their own lives, and their own unique and twisted journeys, as they supported mine.
It was significant that these professors were black, because it meant that in their presence, there was a part of my identity that didn’t need a footnote, an explanation, or elaboration. I exhaled. For the first time, in a really long time, I found myself among people who didn’t consider me a curiosity, an oddity or a modern, living, anthropological artifact. I found comfort in the fact that Dr. Prince, my mentor, had hair like mine, which quickly shrunk when kissed by water, and I found joy in the fact that the dark tone and soft texture of Dr. Holloway’s melanin-rich skin matched my own. And it was under their gentle and protective wings that I found my own, and mustered the will to stumble into flight.
My Hampton professors’ recognition of me was a validation of my humanity, and conversely, my Shoreview teachers’ indifference to me was a denial of my existence, a negation of the very qualities that made me human, and in essence, an invalidation of my humanity. Unlike my high school teachers, Dr. Prince, Dr. Holloway, and many of my other professors at Hampton had eyes, hearts, and minds that were broad enough to see me as a complete person, with my blackness as a component of that whole self. They also recognized the parts of me that cried when watching Hallmark commercials, talked incessantly on the phone, rabidly scoured thrift stores and sale racks, eagerly learned sorority strolls, and wasted lazy Sunday afternoons indulging in foreign, subtitled movies and silly reality shows. What that did for me, is that it taught me how to see myself as a whole, and complete person, and gave me the courage to unveil and recover those parts of me that were bruised and needed tending. This resulted in a renewed belief in my own ability to learn, and a new belief in my capacity to love learning, to love myself, and to love others.
Parents, mentors, teachers—we need all these people to see us, to provide us with a lens that magnifies, allowing us to better see ourselves, and to see our better selves. When I entered the classroom as a teacher, I strove to be a Dr. Prince and a Dr. Holloway for my own students—a teacher with eyes, a heart, and a mind broad to embrace my students in their complex totalities, one brave enough to see myself, and to make it safe for them to look in the mirror and see themselves, even when they didn’t like the image that was reflected back to them. And sometimes a shared a race with my students made this work easier—and sometimes it didn’t.
Don’t misunderstand me: the fact that most of my teachers at Hampton were black mattered. Teachers of color matter. Gay teachers matter, as do lesbian and trans-gendered teachers. Muslim teachers matter, as do Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and atheist teachers. Teachers, and more broadly, educators who live within the narrow margins of diversity, who personify difference, matter. But what transcends race, class, sexual orientation, religion—what rises, like froth, above all incarnations of difference—is a teacher’s willingness to battle privately and publically with what it means to be human, to invite students to observe that battle, and then to help them wage their own war.
To that end, teachers who have battled addictions matter. Teachers who have celebrated life’s unexpected joys, and wrestled with its precariousness, those who have wrangled their souls away from the grip of depression and despair once and again and again, matter. Teachers who have refused to look away from those fears that are paralyzing and piercingly painful, coldly confusing, and utterly unknown, within and outside of themselves, matter. Teachers who courageously embrace their own cracked, bruised, and evolving selves, and gallantly expose that to their students—sometimes because of, and sometimes despite their fear—matter. Teachers who live passionately and authentically, matter. Ultimately, these are the teachers who guide students toward their own humanity. They are the teachers who provide solace, guidance, nurturing, and shelter to children who have been lost for so long that even the memory of a refuge, of an inner home, escapes them.
In the book Developing Democracy, Larry Diamond argues that “democracy maximizes the opportunities for self-determination, for persons to live under laws of their own choosing. It facilitates moral autonomy, the ability of each individual citizen to make normative choices and thus to be, at the most profound level, self-governing. Consequently, the democratic process promotes human development (the growth of personal responsibility and intelligence) while also providing the best means for people to protect and advance their shared interests.” Democratic education, then, requires a commitment to supporting the development of a citizenry that is humane. At the heart of this definition is the fact that sometimes the most humane—and therefore the most democratic thing you can do as a person—and subsumed in that category, as a teacher—is to summon the courage to see yourself, be yourself, live as yourself, teach as yourself, and to show your students how to do the same. “Imitation is suicide,” Marva Collins famously said. It is a kind of death, and a death for teachers and for students.