hot water hits my skin
Dove deep in my nostrils
the furnace blows steam
hot water hits my skin
Dove deep in my nostrils
the furnace blows steam
While grading response papers this fall semester, a few times I noted for students that bell hooks’s name is spelled using lowercase letters. I didn’t offer an explanation; I left that for them to discover on their own. But also, I didn’t know. I didn’t have a definite answer. I was in a classroom observing a student teacher when the notification popped up on my phone alerting me of her transition on Wednesday, December 15th. My immediate feelings were of sadness. Here’s another great loss. My mind also occupied a space of pride and appreciation because bell hooks will live on not only through her writings but also through her students and loved ones, just as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, W.E.B. DuBois and so many others have done.
Many of the articles serving as obituaries used the explanation of bell hooks’s differently-spelled name in their headlines. BlackAmericaWeb.com reported a two-fold purpose: to honor her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, and to draw attention to her ideas rather than her name. I guess that worked on me. bell hooks’s name definitely made me wonder, who was this person who dared to be different? And I was pulled into a world that–although I didn’t completely understand or wasn’t completely committed to–I knew somehow was significant to the project I had begun of education transformation through the leadership of teachers.
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom is the first book I owned by bell hooks and a chapter of which was assigned on the abovementioned course’s syllabus. In this recent re-reading, I pulled the following quote to use in a talk: “Professors who embrace the challenge of self-actualization will be better able to create pedagogical practices that engage students, providing them with ways of knowing that enhance their capacity to live fully and deeply” (p. 22). This quote speaks to the book’s subtitle as well as the topic of my talk which was about critically evaluating our work as educators. Whether described as neoliberal, neoconservative, or neocolonial, global public education systems have career-readiness as a mainstay of their missions. hooks wrote and spoke of education having a liberatory purpose, having a purpose of overcoming oppression.
Seeing chapter titles in Teaching to Transgress such as “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process” and “Ecstasy: Teaching and Learning Without Limits” intrigued me–and made me uncomfortable. These were not words that usually came to mind when I thought about education and teaching. I had long earlier come to discover for myself the power of language during undergrad when I was drawn to study linguistics, sociolinguistics and Black vernacular more specifically. I have never felt like a “true” English major, or teacher for that matter, because I don’t have a love for literature. I have a love for structure, and how these structures both delimit and create. What I have come to commit to is a deliberate use of language in the process of re-constitution. This means diction, semantics, syntax, voice–power lies in what we say and how we say it.
A key point of the “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process” chapter is that thinking differently would lead to living differently. hooks discusses eros/eroticism as passion and a moving force, not merely existing in the sphere of sexuality. None of these ideas are welcomed in the traditional classroom, which reflects a White heteronormative capitalist patriarchal system. How can we transform if we’re told to stand still?
hooks also influenced my ability to name “a White heteronormative capitalist patriarchal system.” Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics gave me a foundational understanding of feminism and gave me the confidence to identify as a feminist (later Alice Walker would develop my understanding of intersectionality through the identity of womanist). hooks’s writing is profound without being esoteric; this book truly is for and can be understood by anyone. She provides a definition of feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (p. viii), making clear that being a feminist is not about being anti-male and that anyone, including men, can be feminists.
As a prominent cultural critic, bell hooks wrote regularly about race, gender, and class in society. Killing Rage: Ending Racism is a collection of her essays. And though published more than twenty-five years ago, the ideas explored ring true just as much today, particularly with critical race theory being debated in the political arena. A thread running through the chapters of this book is the central role White supremacy plays in maintaining the oppressive nature of our reality and how we must illuminate it every chance we get if we are to achieve a just and democratic society.
Rest in power bell hooks.
You and I met three times. First, at Barringer High School where we served on the School Leadership Council. You were a Community Representative and I was a teacher there. We didn’t get to know each other well, but I had a positive impression of you as a young guy who advocated for the students. You say you remember me from then, but I don’t believe you.
We met again at New Jersey Communities United some six or seven years later. There, you were one of the Lead Organizers and I was working under your direction on the campaign for organizing the in-home childcare providers. We became work friends and comrades around the education struggle. You were supporting NSU and I was an active member of NEW Caucus.
Aside from the job, I got to know “Mr C,” which is what the Dynamic Dynasty dancers who would stop by the office called you. I was impressed you had a-whole-nother life as a manager of a dance team. You were a true mentor for young people.
Our friendship grew over those four years, but we didn’t get close until after I left NJCU. I wanted to start a new iteration of millennials organizing for political change, to move the spotlight on our leadership and interests. You were the first one I called, the only one I could have thought to call first, and you were down. That was the third time we met–and when you became my brother.
This past weekend I felt zapped. I nearly slept the day away, chalking it up to my cycle. Monday, I got back on the ball and Tuesday was even more productive. I drove downtown to pick up flyers for my new business. It happened to be on Clinton Street with the old NJCU office. It had been a very long time since I’d been on that narrow, one-way. I parked in front of the old building. It is now condos. The new downtown. On my way back to the car, I snapped a picture and sent it to you: “You’ve probably seen this already but this is my first time. So weird 😲”
I head over to a school to flyer the parking lot. I remember being on the campaign trail together. You were committed to me. Like so committed. Back in the car, I head up the Parkway to drop off some flyers at a friend’s house. I receive a call and then another and another. They say you are gone. I don’t–won’t accept it. It’s the worst joke you could ever play and I can’t wait to cuss you out. I don’t know what’s happened and I don’t know where you are. I get home. I get more details. It was this weekend. This weekend. I believe you were here. I believe you were fighting. I wish I could have given you all my energy. But I didn’t know.
You accepted me for who I was, let me be me, and listened to me talk about who I wanted to be. We would talk for hours from the personal to the political, seek advice, bounce ideas, figure shit out.
You protected and cared for me. And now I feel less safe with you gone.
You constantly told me you loved me and trusted me. Maybe you did it more as a reminder for yourself that you had people who genuinely cared for you; I did my best to let you know I felt the same exact way. How much your friendship meant to me. That you were truly my brother. I have a fear that expressing difference will divide me from others. But I never felt that with you. Even in our differences, we still loved each other.
My commitment is to carry your spirit with me everywhere I go. To hear your laughter, see your smile, and feel your hugs. To be present, to live in my truth to the fullest extent. To be everything you saw in me.
Yesterday, I celebrated Juneteenth partially by marching in POP’s (People’s Organization for Progress) annual march and rally for reparations, partially by volunteering to sort books for the Rotary Club of Newark’s Read 4 Life initiative, partially by coming through Nat Turner Park to support my sister-friend Sheila Montague’s business venture, and partially by living and breathing as my unapologetic blackwomanteacher self. Because we weren’t meant to survive, let alone thrive, every day that we do is a testimony to our humanity. I keep that at the forefront.
Standing on the street outside of Newark City Hall, I snapped a few pictures as the steps became populated with signs and t-shirts representing the many organizations that co-sponsored the event. Our attention was brought to the podium, the speaker and mic carried by Larry Hamm from the Lincoln statue on Springfield Ave and W Market Street no longer leading us in the call-and-response chants of “They stole us! They sold us! They owe us!” I looked for and spotted the newly installed statue of George Floyd to the right of the steps. At the same time this event acknowledged my power, it also triggered that critical voice in my mind. Why aren’t there at least double the amount of people out here considering the number of organizations being represented? Who’s going to be doing what, if anything, tomorrow to bring an end to this struggle? Are you here because it’s “the place to be”? And where are the children?
My best friend Millie sent me this TikTok video Friday night and I was like “Yaaaaassss!! All of this!” Lynae Vanee (@_lyneezy) breaks Juneteenth down, moving past what is now a national narrative of Union Army soldiers riding into Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 to inform the Black people there they were no longer enslaved. She instructs her audience on the underlying motivations of Abraham Lincoln and the Union–that taking away institutionalized slavery was the way to end the Civil War, since the Confederates did not accept a truce offered months earlier that would have allowed them to keep slavery. (Yup, watch the video ↑)
How do politics, policy, and law have an impact on our lived experiences? It’s understanding history and contemporary life through this lens (and others) that keeps me vigilant to the many ways people are oppressed and the many ways I can actively work toward liberation, particularly through teaching current and future teachers. To quote Eve Ewing on a podcast about examining freedom, “What are the tools I want to give people to look at contemporary life differently?”
One of these tools is critical race theory, which is under attack in one of the latest battles in the culture wars over public education. I say culture wars because, in agreement with others, many opponents of critical race theory tend to be misinformed about the concept itself and are instead responding to a threat to the ideology of White supremacy (read this NEPC newsletter and watch Marc Lamont Hill conduct this interview).
Critical race theory has roots in the legal field in the late 70s and was later applied in other disciplines, one example being education and namely by scholar Gloria Ladson-Bilings as one of the first in this field. Critical social theories look to explain power structures and differentials in society; critical race theory does this as well as looks to transform inequality, thus having an activist nature that other theories do not carry. It allows for an illumination, an adjustment of the light so that we can see in places we had previously found dark. Critical race theory supports an analysis like the one provided by Lynae Vanee. I used it in my dissertation to illuminate actions/behaviors of myself and others during the decade of organizing I chronicle for the purpose of drawing implications for creating a critical democratc public education.
Besides laws being proposed and passed not to teach critical race theory in public schools, states and districts are responding to the conversation in other ways. The Randolph Board of Education voted to remove all holiday names from the district calendar, instead just writing “Day Off,” after community members of the affluent NJ town packed the board meeting in protest to removing Columbus Day as a name on the district calendar. The board’s rationale for removing all the names was that it did not want to exclude or offend anyone. This action literally erases history and is akin to colorblindness–if we say we don’t see it then it’ll disappear. The atrocities at the foundation of the United States need to be acknowledged and addressed. We can move in a new direction by centering BIPoC’s histories and by enacting policies that will provide reparations for the harms done as well as create critical equity. Erasing history does not put different groups of people on the same starting grounds.
Dr. Greg Carr offers an authoritative critique of critical race theory. In a recent episode on In Class with Carr, with host Karen Hunter, Dr. Carr points out a severe limitation of critical race theory and why he doesn’t practice it–because the focus is on asking the dominant social structure to acknowledge your humanity:
And I get that. I’m not concerned with success within the dominant power structure–my own or others’. How would that be transformational? That reminds me of a critique I have of charter schools. The corporate charter school movement likens itself to the civil rights movement and preaches that it brings equality of opportunity to disenfranchised communities through education. But opportunity is still delivered within the system of the United States, within the system of White supremacy. How many charter schools center African “governance and ways of knowing,” as Dr. Carr would say?
Dr. Carr further critiques critical race theory as being bound by time and space–the contemporary and the United States–when the goal of liberation must be a function of knowledges that come before and outside of these boundaries imposed by Whiteness. He points out how even the 1619 Project starts “at the water,” as though Black people did not exist before slavery in the United States:
The global imperialist social structure is threatened not by critical race theory itself but by a disruption to its hegemony, the threat of its power being overturned and rightfully restored to the melanated people of this planet. Again, I agree with Dr. Carr; critical race theory does center the United States and its history. If our work is to liberate humanity, we must have a broader perspective on anti-Blackness.
Studying Sylvia Winter’s work is helping me to broaden my perspective. Reading her work is not for the faint at heart, but once you pick up her rhythm, you can visualize the figures dancing in space before you. While I am thankful for critical race theory because it created an entry point for my understanding of our material condition as a result of war, enslavement, dispossession, violence, and the like, I am confident there are more places to look for each of us to discover the human condition as it has come to be and, more important, how to be an intervention in the current trajectory.
We persist in our call for the resignation of Board President Josephine Garcia and tonight’s meeting provides further evidence as to why this demand should be met.
I applaud aspects of the Program & Instruction report–I’m looking forward to the “forthcoming” information on the teaching and learning presentation and, yes, tracking the strategic plan is a responsibility of the board, though that is not a new idea and should long have been a priority of every committee of this board. However, the Governance report underscores how this board falls short of authentic, critical civic participation.
NEED was an invited guest of the Governance committee, and several other board members made time to meet with this group as private citizens–though that’s a fine line to be walking when the purpose of the meeting is to discuss what is at least tangentially board business. Meanwhile, several other community organizations and individuals also took the time to express input to appointing a board member to a vacancy, not only after the board took action, but BEFORE the appointment was made. Not ONE of the individuals who submitted official letters of interest for the vacant seat was invited to speak to a committee or to the board.
Further, these same community organizations and individuals followed up their requests and comments at board meetings in written form to board members. One or two received a response; the vast majority were ignored. No one was invited to discuss their concerns or ideas further. No one was publicly thanked for illuminating how the public education system is rooted in oppression and inequity and for how our contributions are a reminder of how we must all actively fight oppression.
Even teachers are ignored. Nicole Sanderson has come before this board numerous times this school year with the simple request of turning on students’ access to Gmail so that teachers can communicate with students through Google Classroom, thus improving their learning conditions. Tonight, we finally heard something. But how many months later? No acknowledgement. No follow-up. No response. ALL teachers, residents, parents, and students deserve responses.
The praise from board members for NEED’s work around a proposed board vacancy policy plays into respectability politics in that you’ll respond to certain folx but not others as a function of the approach used and the relation of the people to the board members. NEED is constituted by folx who are not bringing a critical or abolitionist approach to education and who are intimately tied to the charter school sector and Teach for America through its political arm, Leadership for Educational Equity. Members also have personal relationships with board members.
I urge you to reflect on your actions and not intentionally or unintentionally pit members of the community against each other because some did it “the right way,” or position the participation of young people as a shield against justifiable critique of your silence regarding President Garcia calling public participation “bullshit.” It’s both/and–accountability and transformative policy.
The call for Josephine Garcia’s resignation is a call to open up a space for the transformative leadership needed for this school board.
My remarks tonight are all about what occurred at the Jan 28th meeting.
I’m not into #cancelculture. It contributes to the project of dehumanization and doesn’t allow for learning or what I refer to as re-constitution.
But I do believe in accountability and transformative leadership–and for those practices, I echo calls for you, President Garcia, to step down, preferably off the board but minimally removed from the chair position allowing Dawn Haynes to lead the board.
All that occurred on Jan 28th was not just a mistake or your legal right. It was a clear demonstration of how you’ve allowed yourself to be a tool of oppression. And it’s a pattern of behavior, some of which I experienced during my time as a board member.
From day one, you’ve led with a sense of entitlement. At the April 2018 meeting, you were nominated for president; I was nominated for president. At the call of general counsel, I spoke to my ability and character; you said nothing. And were elected.
Six months in, at the Oct 2018 meeting at Science Park, Student Rep Andre Ferreira spoke passionately about critical issues, including suicide as a problem in our schools and racism at Science Park. He called on us to “listen” and “acknowledge.” Your response was to tell him: “inform yourself more with the district’s website” along with a list of other things he needed to do; you said: “… and we are listening…you just got here…communicate…email us.” You were both defensive and dismissive.
Two plus years later at last December’s meeting: the same kind of response–feeling personally attacked and chastising board members for not “communicating” with you. Following your logic, I should have received a direct communication from you; I was a speaker on that list you had in front of you. I’m not requesting an apology, just pointing out how you fail to even follow your own logic.
The board, under your leadership, has resulted in short, shallow meetings. The January Retreat is a prime example with the (lack of) discussion on equity. I was left wondering, have you read the strategic plan? How did that conversation not lead with the equity statement?
Other board members: I, and many others, were in the WebEx. We saw your responses; your nonresponse is a response. Silence is consent. You don’t have to condemn anyone. You can say what you stand for to provide a distinction.
In conclusion, local control is not doing the minimum, not doing what you, personally, think is best. That is demonstrating strains of privatization–where your personal ideas rank while others’ don’t, discounting voices that you believe don’t matter.
We fought for a collective process, NOT to be oppressed by our own reflection, NOT to have to fight our own school board.
Public participation is indispensable and requisite to local control. We–actual parents and community parents, students, education workers, education advocates and activists–we bring perspectives you don’t have, we ask questions you don’t ask. We are, in effect, the 10th board member.
Bullshit. Begin and end quote.
That’s what Newark Board of Education President Josephine Garcia called public participation at tonight’s meeting.
Yup, that’s my FB profile pic in the bottom right corner. So why did I record it? It’s just a petty comment right? Heat of the moment. We’ve all done it.
No. That sentiment expresses how the board, under her leadership, views the democratic process. For them, deliberation has no place in our public education system. This is further demonstrated by another act from tonight’s meeting–the swearing in of a political appointee to the vacancy left by the untimely passing of Board Member Tave Padilla.
The law states that a school board gets to fill a vacancy of this kind by majority vote of the remaining members. In no other place is a specific, required process outlined. This board, under Garcia’s leadership, allowed nearly the full 65 days allotted to make an appointment go by before having a discussion (in Executive Session no less) as a board about what to do. Then, with the business and regular meetings occurring two days apart from each other, made NO mention at Tuesday’s business meeting of their decision to appoint someone. They approved Thursday’s (tonight’s) agenda at the Tuesday meeting and then amended it as soon as tonight’s meeting opened. They amended the agenda to add the appointment vote.
So, if the law allows them to do this (but does it?), they’re not in the wrong, right? Wrong. This board had a choice. They always had a choice as to how to go about filling the vacancy. One such choice would have been to take applications from all those interested, deliberate over the applications, and then appoint someone. Another choice would have been to appoint a candidate from the last school board election, first asking the highest vote getter.
I guess this isn’t what they mean by school choice. I guess it’s all just bullshit.
January 2021 will be one of the most memorable months in my lifetime and I wonder ten years from now, what will the textbooks say about this moment in U.S. history? Who will determine the curriculum and who will write the narrative? Questions like these keep me thinking about yesterday, today, and tomorrow all at once for there is not much distinction among these time markers beyond the arrangement of numbers. Today is tomorrow’s yesterday and yesterday’s tomorrow.
Why will it be memorable? Amanda Gorman. Gorman’s poetry performance at the inauguration was inspiring and profound, crafted to #talkback to the insurrection orchestrated to stop the certification of November’s presidential election as well as the ideology of White supremacy on the whole . A line that struck me:
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Democracy is an ideal, a social project hundreds of years in the making. It’s alive, and like any being it must be nurtured, care has to be taken. White supremacy is a constant threat to democracy and we must protect against it at all costs. One way this country purports to do this is through public education. The dominant narrative recited today about the purpose of public education is to prepare students for college and career. A historical perspective shows us preparing students for citizenship, and thus leadership, was just, if not more, important (albeit for a select class of people).
As teachers prepare lessons both today and tomorrow, they need to be prepared through the critical lenses of democracy and anti-racism–they the lessons AND they the teachers. An article shared on Facebook, “Wilmington 1898: When white supremacists overthrew a US government,” taught me about another coup led by White supremacists which was much more successful at enacting terror and thwarting democracy. This history is important to know as a singular event as well as part of a pattern of occurrences that brought us to our present. The day that teacher education centers study of history from a critical lens is the day that we’ll be in the position to prepare students to lead this world toward a just society.