Blog Post

"If I Were A Poor Black Kid" - Wait, I Was A Poor Black Kid (Response to Gene Marks)

 

Howard University Magazine Cover, Fall 2011First, let me now say that I recognize I'm a bit late in responding to this blog post.  But, I've been working so hard at running my nonprofit organization and preparing for my new PhD program over the past several weeks, that I have not had a chance to really read, gather my thoughts, and respond.  [Ode to Marks's notion that poor black kids are somewhat lazy.] But, alas.  My busy schedule has cleared for a few minutes to allow me to add my thoughts to the discussion - if I can call it that.

I read Gene Marks' article on Forbes.com and a knot formed in my throat, stomach, and in my heart.  It's hard to believe that race and equity in education are still intense areas of discussion.  Neither should be a problem and both should be free and clear of heated debates.

Nonetheless, here's what I think.

First: My Worldview...

I am a fairly successful African-American woman (that's me in the middle above), who was in fact, a poor black kid.  I am actually a computer scientist and engineer as well.  Go figure!  My story begins with me sharing that I was to be skipped from the 1st grade to the 3rd due to my abilities in math and other subjects.  My mom didn't like the idea of me being around those 'older' students and was instructed to give me something challenging or else (I suppose my teachers couldn't do the challenging part - related to this response, but I'll leave that right there).  My mom obliged and found an Apple IIe (Shout out to Steve Jobs and Apple) and the rest is history.  I've been passionate about computers and all that computing can do since then.

I have been in honors classes throughout school, got accepted to every college I applied to, and succeeded in graduate school as well.

But...

...not without facing racist behavior and not without meeting people who don't like or appreciate "people like me."  The world of education and academic is a strange bird.

Granted, I've had jobs where I was "the only one" - female, Black woman, etc.  But, it wasn't until I stepped into the world of those in the ivory tower or those whose parents are from the ivory tower, that I experienced the worst racist behavior of all.  Let's face it, there are alot of 'wealthy/middleclass white people' who don't like seeing others succeed, particularly people of color.  It's the same sentiment but it shows in one way when you are an adult and another when you are a poor smart black kid, as you'll see below.

I endured too many interesting situations (in my old PhD program) where my (and my family's) integrity and perseverance were questioned ...because I am the "1st in my family to pursue a PhD."  I've been accused of not being 'good enough' because I had more B's than anyone else in my program (maybe 1 or 2 more - even though I took a third more classes than everyone else in the same amount of time) and I've endured remarks and jokes that would make your head spin (they sure made mine).  But enough about me...

Reading what Gene Marks suggests as a "all you have to do is..." solution to a much larger problem in this country, made my entire body tightened.

Why?

For one, the stance of his post assumes that poor black kids aren't already doing all the things he outlined.  More about what I know black kids are doing below.

Two, his thoughts were purely based on assumptions of what he thinks is or isn't happening in black households.

Three, how dare he (and I know there are others who agree with him) speak as if the challenges poor black kids face are a result of what THEY are not doing.

Four, as an educator of students of color, I hate to read perspectives that combine one, two, and three.

Five, ...I could go on but I won't.  Instead, I'll just resort to what I thought when I realized -  he's just 'one of them' - one of those wealthy/middleclass white people whose family probably got where they are on the backs of hard working black people like those in my family and neighborhoods. ---> Proverbially blind, ignorant, and really self-righteous.

So, with that worldview and an instinct to blow my top, I continued to read responses to Marks' post....

Many, unfortunately, pointed to examples of black kids who have to endure some rough situations at home - as if to say, "of course they couldn't concentrate on school" (given the 'choice', which would you), while others referenced historical legal facts in this country where our forefathers legally kept black folks from getting ahead.

Although, these responses are interesting, I still think something is missing.  Why? Well, because I teach intelligent 'poor black kids' all the time!  They work hard, are extremely technically inclined, and could probably outdo Marks' kids at whatever is thrown at them.  Will they succeed in future endeavors they face in life?  If I had anything to do with it, they would!  But, as so many other responses have highlighted, 'wealthy/middleclass white' people block so many paths to success.  I know it from my own experience and I'm sure thousands, if not millions, of other families have experienced it as well.

What about those straight A poor black kids who don't get accepted into the school of their choice because..... Or that poor black kid who clearly wrote the best essay, scored the highest points on the test or had the highest GPA, but didn't win the prize (enter whichever prize here) because... Or that poor black kid who is extremely better than that wealthy/middleclass white kid on the team (insert any sport here), but won't get noticed because....  What about those poor black kids in West Philly who are already doing what Marks outlined, but still have articles like this written about them because....

What is the problem there?  Would Gene Marks still blame these poor black kids and stand by his "all you have to do is..." advice?

I would love to say more, but I think Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings says it best.  In her 2011 Brown Lecture -- the Annual Brown Lecture is powered by the American Education Research Association (AERA) to commemorate the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision-- Dr. Billings talks about how race and education in this country have always been tied together.  She follows the historical facts of this country from it initially being life threatening to learn how to read, for blacks that is (I find it astonishing that many wealthy/middleclass folks today don't know this), to how the census assumed education level and social status based on skin complexion (using her family members and their census accounts as examples), to how for many years, researchers in this country did all they could to 'prove' black folks were intellectually inferior.  She continues to talk about the impact of all this on black students.  Can you imagine the impact of Marks' article on a poor black kid in West Philly?  I wonder if anyone of them have read it ...and responded to it in a class essay or something.  Can you say essay contest, Gene Marks? Tuition money (from that wealthy bank account you have) would seem like a nice prize, I mean since you seem to want to help and all....

I digress, my apologies.  Back to the matter at hand...

Dr. Billings went on to cover so many things about race and education and how the entire education system and the field of research around it, rests on a deficit complex and the inferiority of entire groups of people (insert Marks' article here as a great example of this).

She then shares a story of about Barry and Bonny Black and the "3 best black children ever - Bonita, Barack, and Belinda".  These 3 best black children do everything right (what's in Marks' article and more) and still are kept from fulfilling and being their greatest selves. How so, you ask? Listen to the story to find out!

The story reveals what I think is missing from the conversation and one you should hear.  But don't just listen to the story, listen to the entire lecture.  It will certainly provide context for this hideous national discussion.

*If you only have time to hear the story, skip down to the part in the lecture index on the left that says "Barry and Bonny Couple" - you are certainly in for a treat!  It is an awesome story, that concludes an awesome lecture.

To Gene Marks, I especially invite you to watch and listen - and then, I implore you to rewrite your blog with more substantial advice for 'poor black kids' (since it seems you want to help)  ...and even more, advice and lessons learned for 'wealthy/middleclass white adults' like yourself.

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