Last Thursday, Will Smith paid for several of the Black student unions (or clubs), from the high schools in the area to attend a screening of the film “Selma.” He also supplied food and after the film, organized a discussion with two men who had actually attended the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. All of this was terrific! Will is clearly very generous and was attempting to do something positive in the area in which he lives. My only issue is that the students – only Black students – missed an entire day of class to attend this program. Had this been a one-off event, I am not certain I would have an issue. However, this program is part of a larger program within the LAUSD, designed to close the Black-white achievement gap. Unless the SAT is going to ask questions about Oprah Winfrey and this film, this excursion represents more esteem building than it does academic preparation.
First, let me be clear, this is not an analysis of policy, an exploration of methodology, or an investigation of cause. What follows is simply one man’s story of frustration and engagement with one program.
My frustration began at the start of the school year. During the fall, I received a letter in the mail from my son’s high school. The letter informed me of the schools commitment to diversity and to improving the academic performance of the Black students enrolled in the school. The letter then informed me that all Black students in my son’s school, along with their parents, were invited to the school auditorium to be treated with programming in “the vernacular,” along with some hip-hop, and motivational speeches. The assembly was part of a program in the LAUSD designed to close the Black – white student achievement gap.
I declined the invitation.
It’s not that I do not believe that the achievement gap is real. To the contrary, I know it to be all too real. Black students currently score lower than whites on vocabulary, reading, and mathematics tests, as well as on tests that measure scholastic aptitude. And these gaps persist, even with students from families making more than $200,000 per year. As the kids like to say, “the struggle is real, y’all!”
All that said, assemblies in “the vernacular” are not my style, so I chose not to attend.
My boys, however, did attend and from what they shared, they really enjoyed the program as did the other students.
From what I was told, the program included a discussion of domestic violence, (the Ray Rice controversy was in full swing at the time). As with most programs of this sort, there was no shortage of references to the motherland, (Africa), a lot of talk about Black people being descended from kings and queens, and how things would be done if we were still living on the continent. My sons were excited to share this new knowledge with me. They even began calling me Baba, which is a term of endearment and respect, meaning father.
Later, the boys and girls broke up into groups. The boys learned how to shake hands properly and to tie a proper tie. Apparently, there was even some discussion of hygiene, which at their age is never a bad thing.
All of this was fantastic! The program sounded as if it was informative and what’s more, that it was fun. What remained unclear, however, was how any of what was discussed was going to raise their test scores in math. In addition, in order to attend the assembly, the students missed two classes. My oldest missed AP government and AP science, while my middle son missed his honors math and his biology class. Why wasn’t this program held after school or during lunch? Why were students missing class?
A month later, another letter arrived, informing me that Black students and their parents were invited to a school diversity assembly. Once again, the letter stated that this assembly, entitled, “The N-Bomb,” was part of a district-wide program designed to help close the Black-white achievement gap. Again, the Black students were to be excused from class in order to “gain an historical overview of the N-word and its usage in this country.” Fantastic! But again, how any of this was going to increase the academic performance of the Black students was unclear. What was clear was that missing algebra or AP history, in order to attend this program was NOT going to help either of my son’s GPA’s. And frankly, given that Black students lag behind white and Asian students in math and science, this program seemed to actually be counterproductive.
Needless to say, I contacted the school inquiring as to how all of this missed class was going to further their stated goal. Until that question was answered to my satisfaction, I was requesting that my sons not miss class in order to participate in this or any other similar assembly. I didn’t receive a response from the principal’s office, however, the faculty adviser for the program did respond. I received a lengthy and (to my reading) rather snarky letter congratulating me on my son’s academic success and then explaining that all the kids weren’t as fortunate as my children. The gentleman then listed all of the fun activities my sons would miss, including visits to college campuses and talks by staff of HBCU’s. I read that letter twice and couldn’t find any explanation for how this particular assembly on the “N-bomb” would aid in raising their scores on the scholastic achievement tests.
I chose not to respond.
At the end of the day, all of my contacting the school was for naught. My sons tagged along with their friends to the assembly. Of course, their teachers let them go – even without passes – because, well, I guess because they are Black and this was a Black event that is very important to the academic success of Black students, unlike, say, ACTUALLY BEING IN CLASS.
I am not sure a special assembly to learn all about the word Nigger is very useful. (I am using the actual word rather than the now common, “n word” or “f-word” on purpose. It is my belief that the acronym robs the word of its ugliness, it makes it nice – acceptable. These words are NOT nice and we ought to be confronted with exactly how ugly they are. Just my opinion.) However to the extent that he program has value, shouldn’t the white kids have also been in attendance? I mean, they also use the word and often in its’ pejorative sense. In fact, the prior year, there had been a huge controversy at the school because a white kid on the football team called one of his teammates a Nigger. Neither the Coach, nor the school principal saw fit to discipline the boy until the Black student’s parents raised a stink. The coach then suspended the boy for a game, after which the boy allegedly returned and called the Black student a faggot. Clearly, the boy learned his lesson.
I asked my sons how they enjoyed the assembly. They were enthusiastic. The kids learned all about the history of the word and engaged in talks about why use of the word is bad. When they got home, they searched out Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” to play for me. Apparently, there is a song by a hip-hop artist they like, who uses a sample from Simone’s version. (I have since heard the song. What this young man is singing/rapping about and what Nina Simone and Billie Holiday were singing about are two very different things!)
Last Thursday, when my eldest son returned home from the screening of Selma, I asked how he enjoyed the film. He liked the film, though he enjoyed much more, the talk given afterward.
I said, “I’m glad you enjoyed the film, son.” I continued, “I have one question: How many white kids were there?” My son looked at me quizzically and then responded, “The screening was only for Black student unions.”
My son smiled and said, “Oh. I get it.”
“Do you, son?”
The school sends out a letter telling Black parents that their goal is to close the Black/white achievement gap at their school, yet Black students are being removed from class to attend assemblies that are little more than ethnic pride seminars. Meanwhile, the white, Asian, and Hispanic students are getting their lessons.
One might argue that the lessons in Black history are useful and I might agree. However, they are also useful for ALL the students. Most of the kids at the school are listening to the same type of music and many of the same artists. Why on earth would white children, who hear and use the word Nigger just as much as their Black school mates be excluded from an assembly discussing the use of the word? We complain that our white neighbors are ignorant of Black history – that Black history is American history (and it is), so, why exclude white students from an opportunity to hear men who were part of an historical event tell their story?
But this isn’t about what should and should not be in the regular school curriculum. The fact is that achievement is measured by test scores and grades. How are Black students expected to compete when they are sitting in the auditorium discussing how their ancestors were kings and queens, while their white and Asian (and Hispanic) counterparts are in class learning the material that will be on the test?
WHY ARE THE STUDENTS BEING TAKEN OUT OF ACADEMIC CLASSES? I have screamed it from the rooftops for almost a year and no one has been able to answer the question beyond that it is part of the programming.
In my opinion, the reason is that neither the principal nor the administrative staff at that school gives a hoot about the Black white achievement gap, use of the word Nigger, or anything else that isn’t provided to them in the bureaucratic book of knowledge. The book says that Blacks must have ethnic programming, so no matter how absurd, the programming continues. No one asks any questions and when parents ask, no one provides any answers. I am certain, however, that the budget for programming will continue to grow.
Following the “N-Bomb” program, I asked my son, “So, I guess after this program, you and your friends are going to stop listening to that music?”
“No. Of course not!”
Res Ipsa Loquitur