Frederick Douglass was an emancipated slave described as brilliant, eloquent, and determined. He escaped slavery in 1838 and became a powerful leader of the anti-slavery movement. In 1852, he was asked to speak in celebration of the Fourth of July.
His words still ring true and, interpreted under a different light, underscore the current state of public education for children of color in the United States today. I chose to take a bit of interpretive license in my blog post each year on this day. In 2019, I choose to examine his message as though it were written for our school systems challenged with providing disciplinary equity. (Douglass’ full text appears below in italics.)
Almitra L. Berry, Ed.D.
What have the learners of color received as a benefit of this celebrated independence? Are the benefits of a disciplinary equity in public education truly extended to them? Where is their restorative justice? How can we celebrate when school systems across the nation still lack equity initiatives or are still at the “task force” stage in examining whether or not they have disciplinary equity? How do we celebrate the benefits of freedom for learners of color in the midst of yet another summer where immigrant brown children remain locked in detention centers?
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Our learners of color enjoy no privilege on this anniversary. This celebration only underscores the inequity learners of color suffer. Black learners make up 14% of the U.S. public school population, yet account for 36% of suspensions and expulsions. Whites account for 51% of the school population, but only receive 14% of all suspensions and expulsions. No task force is required. The numbers speak for themselves. Further study appears as merely more delay, at a time when precious liberties and academic opportunity, not to mention lives, are being lost on a daily basis. Their free, public education leaves them in blighted schoolswith punishment meted out disproportionately by race and socioeconomic status, high dropout rates, low literacy rates, and a pipeline to prison.
I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.
What to the learner of color is the Fourth of July? Were s/he truly woke,it would reveal the practices that label little black boys as behavior disordered and dismiss the same behavior in their white peers as mischief, or high spiritedness.Were we as a society free from personal bias, it would reveal the sorting process in the early grades that works to emasculate the warrior spirit of young Black males and their Latino brothers by supporting exemplars of docility and fear as the only appropriate, respectful behavior. In a system where our young men of African and LatinX ancestry have a greater possibility of a prison sentence than a college education; of being arrested for a playground skirmish. When a white teen of privilege avoids sentencing for a professed and publicized rape, what do these young men of promise have to celebrate?
Where is the equity for the learner of color? We allow these learners an educational system that many of us in education would never tolerate for our own children. In that lies fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy. When our rising graduation rate is offset by a 26% college readiness rate and 36% reading proficiency rate, a scathing rebuke, not celebration, is called for. When you refer to the growing population of learners of color as the minorityin order to minimize your willing inequity towards their academic needs when they are, in fact, the growing majority of learners in a rapidly Browning public K-12 education system…
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour forth a stream, a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
On this day, in this political climate, more voices are needed. More action must be taken. I cannot reach the ear of the nation beyond the reach of my social media. But you, my reader, have reach beyond mine. I ask you to extend the reach. Fire up a social media stream, a viral stream of biting ridicule, castigating reproach, disdainful sarcasm, and uncompromising admonition. As Douglass said, “For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake.” We have an entire nation of educators, education leaders, and politicians that need to be awakened; the Black and Brown communities as well must be woke; our allies must be publicly allied; implicit bias must be confronted; and equity become the way education is done, not an initiative that lives on paper and in policy only.
#PovertyIsNotAProxyForRace #EquityWarrior #K12Education #ImplicitBias #AcademicEquity #Suspensions #Expulsions