This week I chose to kick off Black History by writing about the contributions of Black male educators on student achievement. Specifically, I wrote about two of the men who helped shape the course of my life in major ways; Richard Bacon and James Johnson. Throughout the piece, and the days since, the word, sankofa, has been ringing in my head.
The term “Sankofa” is comes from the Akan language spoken by the people of Ghana, located in West Africa. It literally means “go back and get it”, a symbol of the importance of learning from the past in order to move forward. In African culture, Sankofa is a reminder that the wisdom and experiences of our ancestors are valuable and should be remembered, respected, and learned from.
Sankofa is represented by a bird with its head turned backwards and an egg in its beak. The bird is flying forward but with its head facing backwards, representing the idea that one must look back in order to move forward. The egg in the bird’s beak symbolizes the importance of preserving the knowledge and wisdom of the past for future generations.
As I reflect on my journey to become an educator, I’m forever grateful for those who came before me. Those who dared to peak back into a very tumultuous past to carry forward the lessons and legacies of those who came before them. Truly, we ride on the shoulders of giants, both in the past and present.
As of late, there’s been much talk about the teaching of our nation’s history. Those who choose “go back and get it” meet heavy opposition. Some have attacked teaching history through the lens of truth, “CRT”. Others have claimed that those who dare mention the ills of our history, and the systemic realities that persist due to these ills, as being “unpatriotic” or instilling “hate for our country”.
These accusations couldn’t be further from the truth. Actually, quite the contrary. That fact people who’ve been historically excluded from the American experiment continue to believe in the ideals of our nation speaks loudly to their unyielding patriotism. We simply leverage our demands of liberty, justice, and equality for all by embracing sankofa, going back to get it, pressing our great nation to live out what it promised on paper.
Not just for Black people. Not just for White people. But for ALL PEOPLE!
Going Back To Get It
We must remember that what we face is not new. We should always anticipate, and prepare for, backlash in the wake of progress. As James Baldwin said:
…you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.
These efforts to write a revisionist history of our nation have been with us.
United Daughters of The Confederacy
After the South’s massive defeat in the Civil War, a massive resistance swelled. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was established in 1894. In the decades following the war, the UDC played a significant role in shaping the nation’s cultural and historical memory of the Confederacy and the Civil War.
One of the primary ways the UDC sought to achieve their goals was by forming textbook committees. These committees were established to review and influence the content of textbooks used in American schools, with the goal of reframing the Civil War as a “noble cause” and portraying the Confederacy and its leaders in a more positive light. Their textbook committees were highly successful in achieving their goals.
By portraying the Confederacy as a noble cause and its leaders as heroic, they helped to perpetuate the myth of the “Lost Cause” and minimized the central role of slavery in causing the war. Instead, they leaned on “states rights”. This revisionist history helped to justify segregation and the continued oppression of African Americans in the South, and served as a rallying point for those who sought to maintain the status quo.
But as we practice sankofa we can decipher this coded language. In actuality, it was “states rights to own humans and treat them like animals”.
Brown v. Board of Education
In the wake of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education ruling, White families from inner cities fled to suburban areas. While not exclusively the case, often it was in response to the racial integration of schools that would follow. The ruling declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, prompting the desegregation of schools across the country. However, the implementation of desegregation was found resistance from many White families who feared the integration of Black students into their schools.
The impact of White flight on Black teachers and principals was profound. Many Black educators were passed over for promotions, demoted, or even fired, simply because of their race. This created a vicious cycle, as the loss of Black teachers and principals further eroded the quality of education in urban schools, causing even more white families to leave.
White flights impact on Black educators was further compounded by the systemic racism and discrimination they faced in their daily lives. For example, many black teachers were paid less than their white counterparts (even though many were more qualified). Additionally, they were given fewer resources to work with, making it more difficult to provide quality education to their students.
The loss of Black educators, and the hostile work environments they endured, perpetuated the systemic racism and discrimination that existed in education and in society as a whole. We understand that we didn’t just arrive at this underrepresentation of Black educators by accident – it’s historical. And only when we understand, acknowledge, and address these deep systemic roots can we begin to build a robust Black educator pipeline.
We have come so far as a people in the United States. We, Americans, have so much to be grateful for and proud of. But we must always remember to “go back and get it”. This is how we create a more perfect, just, and inclusive nation for us all. We are a work in progress, and that’s ok. Our ability to acknowledge, embrace, flex, and grow has afforded us opportunities to overcome some very dark days.
And we must be prepare for the dark days that lay ahead. As for every moment of progress in our country, there has always been backlash. My hope for us is that we continue to lean on the wisdom and experiences of our ancestors. They are valuable and afford us a blueprint to remember, respect, and learn from.