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Celebrate and Critique / Critical Race Theory and Juneteenth

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.

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