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Education and slavery: A view from 8th grade

March 2, 2012

Frederick Douglass. Source:

History: It’s boring, it’s all about people and issues that are long-gone, it has nothing to tell us about ourselves in this brave new world of instant communication and gratification, right? We’ve heard that all before. But a tempest brewing in an upstate New York school illustrates exceptionally well how wrong that attitude is.

Jada Williams is an eighth-grader in Rochester, and in her English class, she and her peers were  assigned to read the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass (which you can do, for free, here), and write an essay in which she drew a personal connection with Douglass’ struggle to learn to read. You’ll recall that Douglass was enslaved, and literacy was prohibited him. As described by a post on Black Youth Project, Jada:

Made the very astute analysis that packing 30-40 students into a crowded classroom, and having mostly white teachers give them packets and pamphlets to complete that they don’t fully comprehend, impedes the learning process; and that this produces results similar to those hoped for by a slave master that forbids his slaves from learning how to read at all.

Jada’s point is that nothing has really changed since the days of Frederick Douglass; “the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.”

To that I say, “oh my,” and I’m echoed by the Rochester school officials, but for a different reason. To my mind, this is a case of a student (of color) reading a historical document (Douglass’ autobiography), drawing on her observations of present-day life to form an interpretation grounded in the past and the present, to make a statement about the state of the modern world. To my mind, this is the best possible educational outcome. To my mind, this young woman deserves an award from her school, or at least a heartfelt discussion with her teacher – perhaps on ways to focus her analysis, maybe for broader publication.

But apparently, the school folks didn’t share my opinion. From Rochester YNN:

Once she submitted the essay to her English teacher, she noticed a difference at school. Jada says she felt as though some of the staff was treating her differently for expressing her opinion.

Carla (her mother) says Jada, a straight-A student, started earning poor marks.

“You know, the grades, the Ds, where that never was going on the first two marking periods,” Carla said.

It was enough for Carla to pull Jada from School #3 and transfer her to School #19, but even there, Jada didn’t feel comfortable.

“I do feel hurt,” said Jada. The emotions are still heavy as Jada talks about her experience.

This situation illustrates so much that is dear to me. Jada showed the sort of critical thought and analysis that is usually absent from our cultural and political discourse. She grounded it in a significant document of the past, and in turn, made critical statements about the present. It is both overtly political (by virtue of her word choice) and political by its very nature as a critical statement in the present. But unlike those who ground their politics in a history that exists largely in their own imagination, Jada’s came about through her own analysis.

History boring? No, it can in fact be brutal and hurtful. We tend to honor and enshrine the brutality of those who represent power and privilege. In this case, the tables were turned by a black eighth-grade girl, and it suddenly became intolerable.

Jada clearly gets it: “When I myself sit in a crowded classroom with no real concrete instruction is taking place, it makes the saying, ‘history does repeat itself’ all the more true,” she said.

She deserves encouragement, not scolding.

One Comment leave one →
  1. [Course_Description] permalink
    March 2, 2012 12:50 pm

    Reblogged this on [Course_Description]: Learning the world because we owe it to each other. and commented:
    What does it say when a critical thinker doesn’t feel comfortable in the traditional school system?

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