Sixty years after Brown, it’s time to reimagine the struggle

8/21/2014, 1:59 p.m.
An educational game changer. That’s what’s needed for African-American and Latino children throughout this nation.
Freedman Bureau Richmond

An educational game changer. That’s what’s needed for African-American and Latino children throughout this nation. The question is, are we ready to change the game, or will we continue to do what we’ve always done?


Struggle is in our DNA. It’s our legacy. But it’s only a part of our legacy.

Before African-descended people were enslaved throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, and before we took to singing work songs and freedom songs and songs of ghetto life punctuated with a hip-hop beat, we were creating great societies, such as those in Ghana, Mali and Songhai. Africans’ advances in agricultural production, their technological advances in the use of metals and the expansion in trade with countries seeking the continent’s vast resources all contributed to the greatness of these kingdoms.

During our enslavement, we remembered who we were: healers who developed cures for snakebites and inoculations for smallpox, saving hundreds of lives on foreign soils. Our ancestors introduced their expert knowledge of irrigation systems and the management of tidal and inland rice fields to Southern U.S. planters who derived their vast wealth from Africans’ centuries-old brilliance as much as they did from the slaves’ back-breaking sunup-to-sundown labor.

But we’ve forgotten how brilliant we are, and we’re all caught up in “the struggle.” We take pride in the struggle, especially the struggle against racism, whether it be institutional or individual.

It’s time to reimagine the struggle.

We can begin by recognizing that education is not “the way out” of a bad neighborhood or bad circumstances. Rather, education is the way in—the way in to community-wide healing and transformation.

The legacy we leave our children can’t be that we struggled to ensure some could escape our communities and get a good education. Our legacy has to be that we worked within our communities to create and support a world-class educational system for all our children.

Our ancestors paved the way.

On plantations throughout the African Diaspora, men, women and, yes, children, devised ingenious strategies to become literate. We had determined spirits, such as young Thomas Johnson, who, though not old enough to work the fields, bought a spelling book he couldn’t understand. At night, he listened in while his master’s son completed his homework. Thomas then picked a word from his spelling book, challenged the master’s son to spell it, then left the room and spelled the word over and over until he owned it. He complimented his master’s son on how well he read and cajoled him into reading the passage again. Johnson would later tell an interviewer recording the narratives of formerly enslaved Africans, “each week I added a little to my small store of knowledge about the great world in which I lived” (Janet Cornelius, “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” 1992).

Others who were enslaved snuck away at night, attending midnight schools, and those who had risked their lives learning how to read taught sons and daughters and husbands and wives the skill.

In the United States, once slavery was abolished nationwide, folk in Black and Brown communities throughout this country began the work of nurturing, loving and skillfully educating our children in severely underfunded segregated schools.