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The Moral Arc of the Universe: Deconstructing Black Women’s Political Activism, Struggle, and Resistance

April 30, 2019

#InDefenseofOurselves

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, Ph.D.[1]

courtesy of:http://www.forharriet.com/2015/04/black-womens-activism-will-not-be-erased.html

Introduction: Less than sixty years ago, our country operated under a system of legalized segregation and oppression. Schools were separate and unequal and we had two nations—one black and one white—one oppressed and the other free.[1] Even though any challenge to the system was met with resistance there was a growing collective that was crying out for change and was willing to challenge and confront the system in both the courtroom and in political and social spaces. While college students were sitting down at counters in North Carolina; high school students were sitting down in classrooms in Little Rock Arkansas. And while nonviolent resistance was the battle plan for black and white foot soldiers throughout the South; unchecked violence, mass arrests, and murder were the primary responses of white Southern politicians and police officers. This effort in so many ways was led by black women who have often been left out of the historical narrative. While Thurgood Marshall’s name took center stage, lawyers like Constance Baker Motley and Elaine Jones also worked tirelessly to change the laws; and, while leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young were discussed and profiled, civil rights leaders like Dorothy I. Height and Fannie Lou Hamer also bent their privilege and found ways to use their social power to mobilize people to work within their organizations to bring about change.

America, particularly in cities throughout the South, was separated and deeply divided. It was an extraordinary time where leadership was a burden and jail time, particularly during the Birmingham Children’s March, was seen as something that was inevitable. From that tumultuous time where black people were fighting to have their right to vote be protected to today where a black man has been elected twice to the highest office in our country, our American society has drastically changed. From the work being done around the #MeToo movement to a record number of women being elected to political office, there is a sense that our society is on its way to becoming more inclusive, more diversity, and more just. At the same time, there are some members of our society, including our current president Donald Trump, who seem to be focused on pushing an agenda replete with white nationalism, Islamophobia, sexism, and white separatism. All ideas that are designed to drive us further apart rather that bring us together.

At this moment in time, as educators, our questions have changed so it “How do we teach young people about the Civil Rights Movement” but rather “What do we teach young people about the Civil Rights Movement.” And it is not “How do we tell them about the leaders from this time” but rather, “How do we let these leaders speak for themselves.” It is not “How do we include lessons about women and people of color” but rather, “How do we amplify their voices, highlight their experiences, and lift up their work?” In helping students to understand the significance of black women’s current activism, they must learn how the black women activists of the past and how their work has helped to shape their present reality.

Intended Audience:Middle and high school students

Overview: Using the March on Washington as a lens, students will explore the history and the significance of the modern Civil Rights Movement, including the bombing of the Birmingham church, the assassination of President John F Kennedy, and the passage of both the1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Scope and Sequence: The lesson begins with a broad contextualization of some of the  key events that shaped the focus and planning of the March on Washington.  Students will examine videos, photos, textile, and audio sources to interpret the historical context of this time period. With this context in mind, students will then engage in a series of close reading activities in order to analyze and evaluate this event.

National Standards for History[2]

Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

A. Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.

B. Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes and fears.

H. Hold interpretations of history as tentative, subject to changes as new information is uncovered, new voices heard, and new interpretations broached.

J. Hypothesize the influence of the past, including both the limitations and opportunities made possible by past decisions.

Common Core State Standards

This lesson plan is designed to meet the Common Core State Standards in History/Social Studies for grades 6th-12th grades.

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 6-8 http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RH/6-8

English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 9-10: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RH/9-10English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grade 11-12: http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RH/11-12

Objectives

1) Examine, analyze, and evaluate the events that took place leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.

2) Review and synthesize the major events that happened after the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

3) Write a critical essay exploring the impact of the Civil Rights Movement.

4)  Write and produce a mini-visionary community audiotaped interview with an elder 70+ years of age or older.[3]

Essential Questions

1. Who were the leaders that helped to organize the March on Washington; how were their organizations involved in the planning of the event; and what was the impact of their speech on the day’s events?

2. What are some of the incidents that led up to the March on Washington and how were these incidents addressed during the March?

3. How was the March designed to support President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill? How was the bill changed prior to it becoming the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

4. How was the 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to support and protect the voting rights of people of color?

DAY ONE: Deconstructing the Civil Rights Movement: Understanding Nonviolence

Motivation

  1. Tell the students that they are going to spend the next five days talking about the modern Civil Rights Movement, the March on Washington, and some of the legislation that was enacted after the March. Explain that the use of activist writing to advance the Movement’s mission will also be explored.
  2. Show a small clip from a NVLP interview and tell the students that for their final project, they will identify and conduct a short interview with a local visionary.
  3. Activate prior knowledge by asking the students to share what they know about the non-violence movement. Write their answers on the board and tell them the class will review the list to determine what is true and what is not at the end of the lesson.  Ask students to also share questions they have about the Civil Rights Movement so they are also engaged in inquiry as they move through the lesson.
  4. Depending upon whether or not your classroom has internet access: play the song “Strange Fruit” while showing them photos from the primary source package that depicts some of the violence that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement.[4]
  5. Once the students have listed to the music, tell them that they are going to watch a NVLP webisode about Dorothy I. Height where she explains Dr. King’s reaction to the Birmingham church bombing. Take time to explain the legacy of Dorothy Height and her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement and her involvement with the March on Washington. Once finished the clip, have them think-aloud about why Dr. King stated that he “needed” women to come to Birmingham. 
  6. After the class discussion, have them read the quotes and work in small groups to discuss how Dr. King’s quote and Malcolm X’s quotes contradict one another and then decide which quote do they agree with and why.

If necessary, explain to them that even though African Americans were legally free in America their political, social, and economic rights were restricted by the Jim Crow Laws (or the American system of apartheid).

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.  -Dr. King, 1964

I don’t favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach his objectives peacefully. But I’m also a realist. The only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people. –Malcolm X[5]

Shared Reading

  • Explain to students that writing political essays[6] is a form of activism that leaders can use to work for social change.  Over the next couple of days they will examine different types of essays from the modern Civil Rights Movement that will give them opportunities to fully engage with the material.  
  • The first political essay students will read is Dr. King’s “The Power of Non-violence.”[7] Explain and model how they will use a close reading strategy[8] to understand the central arguments underpinning the essay. Identify appropriate close reading strategies from “Closing in On Close Reading” [9] to model for students.
  • Organize students in small groups to conduct a shared reading of Dr. King’s political essay “The Power of Non-violence.” Ask students to use the modeled close reading strategies to analyze the essay and discuss the most salient points.  Once small groups complete their initial reading and analysis, facilitate a whole class discussion.

Wrap-up

  1. After completing the close reading discussion have students revisit the no-violence list they made at the beginning of the lesson to determine the following: whether the list is accurate; remove things that are not true; add other points to the list; and identify any outstanding questions.

If students are still unclear about the history of nonviolence (as a religious ideology and as an organizing tactic) from Jesus Christ to Mahatma Gandhi to James Famer to Dr. King, take a few minutes to conduct a short Lecture Blast.[10]

  1. To close the session and assess student learning instruct students to write a short reflection on what it means to stage a “non-violent” campaign to achieve equality and social justice. Invite them to share out their responses with the class.


DAY TWO: Incidents in the Life of Civil Rights

Motivation

  1. Building on the previous activity, this lesson allows students to examine some of the incidents leading up to the March on Washington, including the release of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Explain to the students that they are going to discuss “A Call to Unity,” which is the political statement that prompted Dr. King to write his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”[11]
  2. Using both the “Timeline”[12] and the “Words and Phrases” [13] from the online Civil Rights Movement dictionary, create a timeline on the board to highlight some of the key events that took place during the modern Civil Rights Movement to help students understand what was happening throughout the South prior to Dr. King’s arrest. Time permitting (and depending upon your classroom’s access to technology), have students work through the “Timeline” website in small groups or individually.
  3. Have the students watch a clip from the Ray Charles interview where he discussed the 1961 incident at Payne College. Time permitting, play the 1972 clip of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” and explain to the students who he was and his contribution to American history.[14]

Partnership

  1. Explain to students that they will practice another close reading technique called text annotations[15] to deconstruct the political essay “A Call to Unity.”  Organize students in partnerships to complete the task.
  2. Once students complete text annotations on “A Call to Unity” discuss the parts of the text students annotated. Ask text dependent questions to guide the whole class in a discussion to deconstruct the central arguments of the Alabama clergymen.
  3. Return to the non-violence list from the previous day to clarify any understandings or outstanding questions with the class.

Homework

  1. Provide each student with a copy of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”[16] Ask students to read the letter and complete text annotations as an independent homework assignment.


DAY THREE: Exploring the Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Small group

  1. Tell students that today they are going to work in small groups to re-read Dr. King’s “Letter” and generate two lists: a) the key events in the history of non-violence; and, b) the goals and activities of the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Have students watch the NVLP Wyatt T. Walker mini-documentary and explain to them about his involvement in helping Dr. King to publish the “Letter.”
  3. Students should then use the internet to find more information on each of the points mentioned in Dr. King’s “Letter.”

Class discussion

  1. Once students are finished, have them share their lists and add any information that they have missed.
  2. Then, as a class discuss the following questions:
  3. In what ways did Dr. King’s letter contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?
  4. How can Dr. King’s “Letter” be used to understand the impact of the Civil Rights Movement?
  5. Did Dr. King effectively refute the arguments of the clergymen in “A Call to Unity?”
  6. What writing techniques did Dr. King use to extend his arguments for non-violence?

Wrap-up

  • Tell students that the use of nonviolent resistance has been used in other nonviolent protests since 1849. Using the Time magazine photos of the “Top 10 Nonviolent Protests,” take them through a quick overview highlighting how it has been used, to help your students understand that it was not limited to the modern Civil Rights Movement.[17]
  • Tell students to take a moment and write a reflection on the three things that they have learned about the non-violence movement and non-violent resistance.

DAY FOUR: Deconstructing the March on Washington

Motivation

  1. Tell the students that for the last three days the lessons that they have had have been preparing them to deconstruct the March on Washington and its impact on American policies, practices, laws, and procedures.
  2. Activate prior knowledge by asking the students to share what they know about the March on Washington. Write their answers on the board and tell them the class will review the list to determine what is true and what is not at the end of the lesson.  Ask students to also share questions they have about the March on Washington so they are also engaged in inquiry as they move through the lesson.
  3. Ask them to think about  “How old do you have to be to do the right thing?” Have them watch the NVLP interview of Dick Gregory talking about the four-year old boy being arrested because he wanted his “teetum” (freedom). Ask them to think about what they could have contributed to the Movement.
  4. Using the background narrative, outline the purpose for the March on Washington and the planning that went behind the day’s events.
  5. Share with them the Dorothy I. Height interview where she discusses If necessary, use the NVLP narrative on women in the Civil Rights Movement as a reference. Look to bring in the Odetta interview – as the second webisode

Shared Reading

  • Provide each student with a copy of Dr. King’s speech and John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington. Have them work in pairs to read the two speeches and mark the places where the speeches are similar and where they are different. If necessary, conduct a short lecture blast on the life and legacy of John Lewis.
  • Conduct a whole-class discussion and note on the board the similarities and differences.
  • Have them watch the NVLP webisode of Coretta Scott King talking about her husband and his vision for America. Look to move this – to another day
  • Organize students in small groups to write a response to Dr. King and John Lewis’ challenges, being very specific about how their dreams have or have not been realized.

Wrap-up

  1. To close the session and assess student learning instruct students think about what would happened if America were to have a March on Washington today – what issues would be addressed? Who would attend? What are some of the problems we are struggling with as a nation? Who would be the speakers? And what would they contribute?


DAY FIVE: The Government Responds

Critical Essay

  1. Tell students that they are going to write a critical essay deconstructing the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Students should be broken into pairs and given one of the Acts to research and write about. The should take a position on whether these Acts were effective instruments for social change in society today. The students should cite the covered political essays in their paper, using evidence from the essays to support their position. Students should also reference current examples of social issues to support their claims about the effectiveness of the philosophy of non-violence in contemporary society.
    1. High School students should write a 5-7-page essay that includes a bibliography and footnotes.
    2. Middle School students in the 7th and 8th grades should write a 3-5-page essay that includes a bibliography.
    3. Middle School students in the 6th grade should write an essay that is no longer than 1-2 pages and should rely heavily on internet sources.

Share-Out

  • Once the students have completed their essays, revisit the essential questions to make sure that they have been covered and have student volunteers read their essays to the class.

Final Project

  • Students should be told that as a final activity, they will find a community visionary and conduct an audiotaped 3-5 minute interview with them asking them the following questions:
    • What do you remember about the Civil Rights Movement?
    • Do you think the Civil Rights Movement was a success of failure?
    • What do you think was accomplished during the Movement?
    • And do you think we need a “new” Civil Rights Movement? 
    • Share a story about the Civil Rights Movement – your participation, your involvement, how it impacted you, when did you first hear about it

**Note: younger students only conduct interviews with either a family member or a parent should be present at the interview.

  • Students should bring their interviews to share with the class.

[1] See the Kerner Commission Report for more information. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6545/

[2] National Center for History in the Schools. http://www.nchs.ucla.edu/Standards/  (Accessed 15 June 2013)

[3] Teachers will select three interviews to upload and share on the NVLP website.

[4] “1960s Civil Rights Movement” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXBvLbYqVMA; National Visionary Leadership Project Primary Sources http://www.visionaryproject.org/teacher/lesson1/primary.html#id2; iTunes:  “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/strange-fruit-remastered-single/id492233359

[5] Malcolm X Quotations http://www.malcolm-x.org/quotes.htm

[6] Overview of the Academic Essay: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/documents/Overvu.html

[7] The Power of Nonviolence: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-power-of-non-violence/

[8] How to Do a Close Reading: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/documents/CloseReading.html

[9]Closing in On Close Reading: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec12/vol70/num04/Closing-in-on-Close-Reading.aspx

[10] “Evaluating Nonviolence as a Method of Social Change,” http://www.visionaryproject.org/teacher/lesson3/hist.html

[11] “A Call to Unity” http://www.stanford.edu/group/King//frequentdocs/clergy.pdf

[12] http://www.visionaryproject.org/timeline/

[13] http://www.visionaryproject.org/teacher/lesson1/wordsphrases.html;

[14] Ray Charles on The Dick Cavett Show, 1972 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRUjr8EVgBg

[15] “Independent Reading Strategies for Students” https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/student-annotated-reading-strategy

[16] “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/resources/article/annotated_letter_from_birmingham/

[17] “Top 10 Nonviolent Protests” (note: photographs #6 and #7 are from the modern Civil Rights Movement)  http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1887394,00.html  



[1] Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

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In Defense of Ourselves: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

April 30, 2019

Written by Sarah Militz-Frielink, Ph.D. and Tracy Kent Gload

https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/baker-ella/

Intended Audience

Elementary Education Students 4th and 5th grade

A Learning Series based on the book We who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker by Lea E. Williams

Until the killing of black men, black mother’s son becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. –Ella Baker

Overview

This lesson plan explores the political activism of Ella Baker, which spanned from 1930 to 1980. The lessons begin with the people and experiences in Ella Baker’s childhood who had a profound influence on her involvement in the Black freedom movement.  Elementary education students will learn about several key aspects in Ella Baker’s activism and life.  From her birth in Norfolk, Virginia to her childhood in Littleton, North Carolina, her role in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and her years in the NAACP, students will demonstrate knowledge about Ella Baker’s multiple leadership roles and her commitment to racial, social, and economic justice. 

Scope and Sequence: Students will read We who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker by Lea E. Williams. In literature circles, students will discuss events, answer comprehension questions, and create notes about Ella Baker’s various leadership roles in the civil rights movement. In addition, students will discuss events, answer comprehension questions, and create notes about the importance of Ella Baker’s contributions to racial, social, and economic justice from 1930 to 1980. With the sequence of Ella Baker’s life and activism in mind, Students will identify some of the key events that shaped the focus of the Black Freedom Movement.

Common Core standards

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.1
Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.2
Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.10
By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 4-5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Objectives

Students will outline Ella Baker’s various leadership roles in the Black Freedom Movement.

Students will discuss events, answer comprehension questions, and write notes about the importance of Ella Baker’s contributions to racial, social and economic justice from the 1930 to the 1980. 

Students will identify key events that shaped the focus of the Black Freedom Movement. 

Teacher Preparation and Background Knowledge

Teachers would benefit from reading Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby in preparation for this lesson.

Day 1- Day 5

Students will form Literature Circles to read and discuss the book We who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker.  In Literature Circles, students will take turns reading aloud, facilitating the discussion and taking notes. 

Literature Circles

  1. Break students up into groups of four and assign them the following roles to assist in the reading of We who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker

Note taker

Reader 1

Facilitator

Reader 2

  • After each chapter students can switch roles so every student has a chance to be the facilitator, reader, note taker, etc.

Literature Circles Reading Guide for We who Believe in Freedom: The Life and Times of Ella Baker

After chapter 1, Growing up in the South, the facilitator will ask the following questions: Where did Ella Baker grow up? What was the name of Ella Baker’s home church? What was Grandfather Ross’s nickname for Ella? Why did the tenant farmers end up poor?

After chapter 2, School Days, the facilitator will ask the following questions: Explain the difference between white schools and black schoolhouses in Ella Baker’s rural farming community. Where did Ella Baker’s parents send her in 1917? What was her first petition about? During her junior year, Ella Baker and a large group of other students refused to take which examination? Despite her acts of rebellion against authority, what did Ella Baker accomplish in 1927?

After chapter 3, Making her Own Way, the facilitator will ask the following questions: What was the most important influence in Ella Baker’s life? Which speakers did Ella Baker listen to during the Harlem Renaissance?

After chapter 4, Harlem on her mind, the facilitator will ask the following questions: What were some of Ella Baker’s experiences in New York when she first arrived? What was George Schulyer’s idea to help ease poverty and the Great Depression? What did Ella Baker and her friends create as a result of Schulyer’s idea? In 1934, why did the Harlem branch library hire Ella Baker? Who did Ella Baker meet at the YMCA?

After chapter 5, The NAACP Years, the facilitator will ask the following questions: In 1940, the NAACP hired Ella Baker to fulfill what job? Within three years, the NAACP promoted Ella Baker to what post? As a result of Ella Baker’s promotion, how did the NAACP do as an organization? What was a common word used to describe Ella Baker at the NAACP?

After chapter 6, SCLC Keeps the Protest Spirit Alive, the facilitator will ask the following questions: What happened on May 17, 1954? What happened on December 1, 1955? Why was the Montgomery Improvement Association established? What does the SCLC stand for and what does it mean to the people who founded it? What were some of the civil right events that SCLC coordinated with the help of Ella Baker? What was challenging about Ella Baker’s relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

After chapter 7, The Birth of SNCC, the facilitator will ask the following questions: How were Black people affected by the Jim Crow laws? Give examples of how students reacted to the Jim Crow laws. What happened at the Woolworth’s lunch counter? What did Ella Baker say about the reactions of NAACP and SCLC to the students’ independent sit-in movement? How did Baker agree to help the students? What did Ella Baker provide to SNCC at the Atlanta Headquarters to help them?

After chapter 8, Mentoring the Sit-in Students, the facilitator will ask the following questions: What did Jean Wiley say about Ella Baker after her first SNCC meeting? As a founding member and third national chairman for SNCC, how did John Lewis assist Ella Baker with SNCC? How did Joanne Grant’s friendship with Ella Baker begin at SNCC? Who were some of the other gifted and capable women that Ella Baker mentored through SNCC?

After chapter 9, A New Mission for a New Day, the facilitator will ask the following questions: After the first wave of lunch counter sit-ins, what strategy did SNCC execute with the help of Ella Baker? What happened in Mississippi to the freedom fighters after they tested their strategy? As a testimony to Ella Baker’s influence in their lives and later career choices, name the SNCC leaders who became national leaders?

After chapter 10, The Black Power Struggle within SNCC, the facilitator will ask the following questions: In 1966, when Stokely Carmichael unseated John Lewis as the chairman of SNCC, what was the primary debate? How did the students resolve this debate? What is the black power ideal? What did Ella Baker do to help SNCC during these debates? Although Baker’s relationship with SNCC eroded as Black Power Advocates took control, she never severed her connection completely, name some of the other projects that she focused on.

After chapter 11, Standing for Something, the facilitator will ask the following questions: Rather than seeking high paying jobs, Ella Baker seized opportunities to do what? Give examples of how Ella Baker continued her advocacy for social justice even in her older years. Explain the many ways that Ella Baker has been honored since her death in 1986?

Day 6

Wrapping it all up

Upon completion of the book and the literature circles, students will break up into groups of four to fill out a chart that summarizes Ella Baker’s key contributions to the Black Freedom Movement. Students can use notes taken from the literature circles to help fill out the chart. 

Large Group Discussion

Have students sit in a large circle. Use the completed charts for inspiration and discuss the meaning of “In Defense of Ourselves: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement.” Ask students to share Ella Baker’s contributions to social, economic, and racial justice.

Ella Baker’s Key Contributions to the Black Freedom Movement
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

copyright 2019

Dispatches from Baltimore: Black History is America’s History

February 26, 2019

Written by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, originally published in the Afro newspaper 2/16/19

http://www.blackwestchester.com/rev-samuel-austin/black-history-is-american-history/

Growing up in Washington, DC, in a small all-black community full of teachers and pastors and government workers, I learned early on that Black history is America’s history and it is American history. There were days when my father and his friends would interrupt our game of Freeze Tag or Simon Says to teach us about our history. We were told, more than once, that our history did not begin and end with slavery. Africans arrived in this country and worked as indentured servants, just like everyone else. We were taught that the Christopher Columbus “1492 Arrival Story” was a lie and that as black people, we were a part of the 1619 legacy. It was not until I was a college student, majoring in history, that I finally began to make the connections between 1619 and the beginning of the Black American history story.

It was in late August 1619, at Point Comfort, on the James River, that the first 20 Africans arrived on the shores of this country aboard the White Lion, an English ship. They were sold in exchange for food and later transported to Jamestown, where they were placed on indentured servant contracts. Given that Virginia’s General Assembly had not yet worked out the terms for what constituted enslavement in the colony, it is likely that they received the same rights, duties, privileges, responsibilities, and punishments as white indentured servants. Five years later, in 1624, two of the people from that ship, Anthony and Isabella, had a son, William Tucker, who was the first person of African ancestry born in the 13 British Colonies. Although very little is known about his life, records suggest that he was born at Fort Monroe, baptized in Jamestown, and named after Captain William Tucker, who held his parents’ indentured contracts.

When I first read through the research, I was reminded of what my father used to always tell us, Black History is American History. It has been 400 years since Black people arrived in this country and we are at a moment where we must pause to reflect on what it means to be the descendants of people who survived being born black in this country. We have survived four hundred years of constant brutal attacks on our blackness. We have endured four hundred years of degradation, humiliation, pain, death, and fear. And, yet, we are still here. They did not break us. They did not stop us. They did not erase us. They did not kill our joy, our faith, and our absolute belief in justice. We survived, and it is not because of magic; it is because we come from people who chose every single day to survive.

We are here at a moment that will define us, where we have to decide who we want to be, what do we want to be remembered for, and how do we want to contribute to this current movement for humanity. We are witnessing a moment, during a week of what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 24th birthday, that Black Lives Matter is actively being taught in the classroom while Virginia Governor Ralph Northam defends his use of wearing blackface. It is a week where Stacey Abrams became the first black woman to give a Democratic rebuttal to our nation’s first whitelash president. It is a moment where we are dealing with the reality that across the country unarmed black people are still being shot by the police while right here in Baltimore, our homicide numbers within the Black Butterfly neighbors are slowly inching up.

Frederick Douglass once said, that Black people watered the soil of America with their tears, nourished it with their blood, and tilled it with their hands. As a Black woman, it makes me proud to realize and understand that we helped to build this country and we are one of the reasons why it is so great. Ninety-three years ago, Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week, as a time to remember and teach about Black history. In 1976, it was expanded to a month and became an internationally recognized time of celebration. I grew up celebrating Black History Month in February and being taught Black history from March to January. As both a supporter and a critic of Black History Month, I hold fast to the hope that one day we will not need a designated month to remind people of who we are but that people will recognize that Black History is American History. And as such, it should be regularly taught in the schools, around the dinner tables, on long drives across the country, and in the middle of Fortnight games and Netflix challenges. This is how we rise, how we move forward, and how we honor those who made a decision to survive so that we could thrive.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

Dispatches From Baltimore: ‘I’m From Baltimore, I’m Already Dead’

December 20, 2018

Karsonya (Dr. Kaye) Wise Whitehead

Originally published in The Afro 12.12.18

Synopsis: This is a Part VIII of my ethnographic study chronicling life inside the Black Butterfly hypersegregated neighborhoods of Baltimore City. Part of the reason why I am doing this is because of Jason, a ninth grade student from Frederick Douglass High School. I met him in the hallway last year when I hosted a teach-in at his school. I asked him what his plans were for his life and what did he want to be when he grew up. At first, he did not respond. He turned and leaned up against the locker. He sighed and checked his phone. “My father is dead.” he said, “My brother is dead. I had two cousins, they got shot. My uncles are locked up. What do I want to be when I grow up? Nothing. I’m from Baltimore, I’m already dead.”

Baltimore Holds "Ceasefire Weekend" After Highest Murder Rate Ever In 2017

At any given moment, there are about a half a million stories that need to be told about the reality of growing up and trying to grow old in Baltimore City. Stories about racial and economic inequality; about predatory policing and structural racism; about health disparities and food apartheid; about some of the people who died, like Freddie Grey and Tyrone West, Taylor Hayes and Wadell Tate; and, about all of the people who are trying to live. In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul tells his fellow shipmates that an angel told him that the ship was going to crash and in order for them to survive, they would need to hang onto the broken pieces and make their way to shore. This is what it feels like trying to grow up and grow old in some neighborhoods in our city—you do everything you can to hang onto the broken pieces and try like hell to make it to the shore.

Life in Baltimore City is complicated. It is challenging and hard. It is racially segregated and economically divided. It is a tale of two cities—one mostly White and the other mostly Black, separate and unequal. I believe that in order to understand the deep sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and malaise that hangs like a cloud over certain parts of our city, you must intentionally spend some time in both Baltimores. You have to visit the schools, the corner stores, and the churches. You have to catch the buses and walk the streets. You have to try and see what it feels like to hang onto the broken pieces and what it feels like when you do not have to do this. This is what I have been doing for the past five months as I have been conducting my unofficial ethnographic study of Baltimore’s hypersegregated Black neighborhoods. I have been trying to understand what life is like within the Black Butterfly, trying to find some answers to the questions that I have been wrestling with since 2015 when a Harvard University study concluded that out of the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, children born in poverty in Baltimore City have the worst chances of ever escaping it.

As much as possible, I spend my time talking to young people, asking them questions and trying to listen to them. I want to see the world from their perspective. I want to hear their stories and in some small way, help to shoulder their pain. Part of the reason why I do this is because of Jason, a ninth grade student from Frederick Douglass High School. I met him in the hallway last year when I hosted a teach-in at his school. I asked him (like I asked all of the students that day) what his plans were for his life and what did he want to be when he grew up. At first, he did not respond. He turned and leaned up against the locker. He sighed and checked his phone. I just stood there, quiet, hoping that he would answer me. “My father is dead.” he said, “My brother is dead. I had two cousins, they got shot. My uncles are locked up. What do I want to be when I grow up? Nothing. I’m from Baltimore, I’m already dead.”

I did not say anything. He looked at me and then turned and walked away. I wanted to go after him. I wanted to talk to him and tell him that he was going to be ok. I wanted to ensure him that he could make it, that I was going to help him, and that together we could change his future. I wanted to do and say all of this, but I did not. I felt overwhelmed. Standing in the hallway, it was hard to breathe and hard to imagine a different way forward. His life, according to the data, was being shaped by racially segregated neighborhoods, poverty, poor schools, subpar housing, drugs, gangs and a history of racism; his response showed that he had been listening, he had been watching, and he is no longer waiting for someone or something to come along and save him. He did not believe that he could be saved and, on that day, standing in the hallway, listening to his story, I failed to tell him that he could. I will not fail again.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead  is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

Baltimore City Schools, Throwback to the Jim Crow Era

September 16, 2018

I have been a Baltimore City resident for close to fifteen years. My husband and I are raising our sons here and teaching them how to navigate city life. I have worked as a middle school teacher, at one of the most persistently dangerous schools in Baltimore, and I am now a tenured professor at Loyola University Maryland. I am also the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” at WEAA at Morgan State University and like most people in this city, I live and shop and work somewhere between the intersections of the white L and the black butterfly.

With everything that has happened in this city—from Freddie Grey to the Gun Trace Task Force and the ongoing impact of redlining to the rows of abandoned houses—I believed that I have seen and heard it all when it came to Baltimore City politics but I was wrong. Every day on my radio show we talk about some of the stories that matter and demand our attention. And last week, for four days straight, all we could talk about was what was happening within the city schools. We could not understand how a city that spends almost $15,000 per pupil could justify having its students sit in hot depilated buildings for even a half of a day. It felt racist and unfair. We said it was criminal and that someone should be held responsible. I talked with Dr. Sonja Santelisis, the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, and my listeners were unsatisfied with her responses. I shared Governor Larry Hogan’s statements and they were offended by his excuse because while we talked and politicians passed the blamed, our children were attending schools and suffering in silence.

I spoke to a mom whose daughter attends Mt Royal Elementary School and she said that the students in her daughter’s class spent four days crying and coughing because they could not breathe. They were told not to complain and to lay their heads down on the desk. On the third day of school, a teacher called my show and told me that her and her students felt like they were in hell—in a hot building without water (they ran out of Deer Park after the first day), or air conditioning, or toilet paper (they ran out on the second day). She said that it was so hot that the mice were coming out of the walls, running around, leaving mouse droppings everywhere, and scaring their children. My listeners and I were stunned. Many of us were outraged because we could not understand how a city that is 63% black with a black mayor, a black CEO of city schools, and, where a majority of our elected officials are black, could allow this to happen to our children.

What is most ironic is that historically Baltimore City was one of the few school districts that quickly moved forward to desegregate schools. In September 1954, four months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down by the United States Supreme Court, the Baltimore City School Board made the decision to begin desegregating pupils and faculty. This is important to note because the rest of the state wanted to wait for the Supreme Court’s second decree (due to be handed down in 1955). This was the case that legally ended Jim Crow and it was supposed to create equality in the schools.

During the era of Jim Crow it was not unheard of to have black children sitting in hot classrooms with no regard for their health. It was not unheard of for a system to intentionally work to miseducate black children and force them to endure the type of conditions that were designed to break their spirit. It was not unheard of to expect black parents to quietly complain but publicly comply with the law. It was not unheard of to have overcrowded classrooms, dark and dingy hallways, dust and asbestos, and very few resources and innovative designs.

Desegregation was supposed to fix that. It was supposed to create classrooms environments where our children would be safe, where their genius could be sparked, and where they can be  comfortable. It has been 63 years but if you look closely at a bulk of our Baltimore City public schools, it looks as if time has stood still. I know this because I have visited these schools and as a former teacher, I have endured these conditions.

Our children deserve better. They do not deserve ice cold classrooms in the winter and stifling hot classrooms in the fall. They do not deserve lunches that are not nutritious; dust and mouse droppings; unusable water fountains; and, bars on their classroom’s windows. They do not deserve to be chastised and humiliated and made to feel like their lives do not matter. Unfortunately, after four days of talking about what was happening in the classrooms, complaining about it, and demanding answers for it, it was painfully obvious that nothing was going to change for our children any time soon.

In 1954, a decision was made to desegregate Baltimore City schools and 63 years later, we are back where we started. This system is failing our children. They do not love them and they do not value them. They do not see their genius and even when they tell us they do (as they do all of the time), the conditions that our children are dealing with tell a different but familiar tale.

 

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Letters to My Black Sons II: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.

 

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A Black Woman’s Open Love Letter to Her Teenage Sons #DontGetKilledToday

March 23, 2018

Boys:

  1. As the world continues to rally around #NeverAgain and Parkland, Florida, let us not forget to #SayTheirNames – Stephon Clark and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling; Terence Crutcher and Korryn Gaines; John Crawford III and Eric Garner; Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Jones; Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray and so many more

    2. As those young activists are being lifted up as touted as the future leaders of our nation, let us not forget that when you stood up for #BlackLivesMatter, you were called a terrorist, a hater of America, the worst thing that could happen to this country
    3. As colleges rush to send out letters of support to these young college-bound activists, let us not forget the number of black activists whose college offers were rescinded because they dared to raise their voice
    4. As the world supports their First Amendment right to protest and peaceably assemble, let us not forget that this white and black world conveniently forgot that you had/have the same rights to march and to assemble and to kneel before that flag
    5. As the world sends money and prayers and bodies to support the NeverAgain March, let us not forget the work we did to help raise funds, a dollar at a time, for #BLM work to continue

    6. As professional posters are being made and artistic t-shirts are getting printed, let us not forget the day you simply wrote your name and your phone number on your white t-shirt in case you were killed that day
    7. As some schools across the country continue to support walking out and protesting, let us not forget that you were threatened with suspension for trying to organize a peaceful sit-down on the front lawn of your school
    8. As we mourn and stand with the families and survivors of mass shootings, let us not forget to mourn and stand with the sister of Tyrone West on West Wednesdays and with Daphne Alston of Mothers Against Murdered Sons and Daughters and with the families of the 900+ people that were murdered in Baltimore City over the last three years
    9. As the world continues to move on from #BlackLivesMatter, let us not forget that earlier this week, a black man was shot 20 times in his OWN backyard
    10. As the world tries to talk about equality and justice, let us not forget the unspoken rules that govern blackness and that could easily result in our death: you cannot Wear a hoodie, Play in the park alone, Sleep on the couch in our living room, Walk or Run in the street, Ride or Sit in a car, Stand on a corner, Stand up or kneel down before this system, Have your hands in your pocket, Hold a cellphone or a wallet, and now you cannot even Walk in OUR backyard
             I offer you these words in love and I beg you #DontGetKilledToday

MOM (Your #blackmommyactivist)

Fifty Years Later: America is Still Two Nations –one white, one black; separate and unequal

March 23, 2018

by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, published in The Baltimore Sun

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Fifty years ago this week, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that was organized by Lyndon B. Johnson released the Kerner Commission Report, named for its chairman, Otto Kerner Jr. It attempted to answer three questions in the wake of intense racial riots and unrest that had swept through the country: What happened? Why did it happen? And:What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

The report noted that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” Commission members concluded that this division was the result of failed government housing, the lack of decent education and social-service policies and the narrative that had been created by mainstream media who reported the news while looking out from a “white man’s eyes and a white perspective.”

They suggested that the main cause for urban violence was white racism and that white America needed to fully and completely shoulder most of the responsibility for the rioting and rebellion that was happening across the country. In 1967 alone, more than 1,800 (mostly black) people had been injured, and 83 people had been killed. The property damages were valued at upwards of $100 million in over 120 cities.

The Kerner Report outlined some broad solutions to promoting racial integration — on top of the laws that took effect a few years earlier: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination and prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodation; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

Specifically, the commission called for the creation of more jobs and job training programs, the establishment of decent housing and increased financial aid to black communities.

Johnson rejected the report because it did not praise his anti-poverty program, but conversations started taking place across the country as some black and white communities tried to work together to find solutions to bridge the divide. And, 30 years later, in 1998, the Eisenhower Foundation commissioned a follow-up report. The news was not good.

It found that there was more poverty in America; that it was “deeper, blacker and browner than before”; and that it was more concentrated in cities, which had become “America’s poorhouses.” Even with all of the conversations and policies, the laws and the direct intervention, America was still a racially and economically divided nation.

Since then, America elected the nation’s first black president (twice). We’ve seen the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the impact of the work many of us have done to help create a more diverse, open, accountable and inclusive society.

We’ve also seen the election of a president who actively works against us. Despite the protests and marches and ongoing pushback against him, with every decision, tweet or comment that he makes, Donald Trump encourages a world that is more white, more racist, more classist, more exclusive, more misogynistic and more frightening.

America is still clearly a divided nation. This is not a startling revelation. It is a simply a fact. So it’s no wonder that a new report released this week, “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report,” says “there are far more people who are poor now than was true 50 years ago. Inequality of income is worse.”

This latest report — which included input from black people, Latinos, Native Americans and women — concludes that since 1968 the country has not only had a widening gap in poverty but there has been a noted and concentrated lack of, or reversal of, progress. In other words, the lines of division are getting worse.

Its authors also offered suggestions, similar in scope to the ones that were offered in 1968:

  • Spending more money on early childhood education;
  • Increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2024,
  • Adding more regulatory oversight over mortgages to prevent predatory lending;
  • Establishing community policing that works in concert with nonprofits in inner-city communities;
  • And adding more job training programs in an era of automation and emerging technologies.

They also called on the mainstream media to hire more people of color to cover and report the news, particularly in the communities of color.

So, 50 years after the Kerner Report, the country is worse off, but the solutions, the way to turn the tide, have not changed.

My hope is that this time, we will not let those in power forget. We will not let them dismiss the report. And we will not let them continue to move us farther away from where we want to be: one nation, one society, inclusive, diverse and equal.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead (todaywithdrkaye@gmail.com; Twitter: @kayewhitehead) is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.”

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