April 14 — 12:39 pm, 2015

Lecture explores why racial literacy should begin in schools

Earlier this month, Penn held its annual lecture named after Constance Clayton, Philadelphia’s first Black superintendent. The title of the lecture was "Do Black and Brown Lives Matter? Reframing Public Media Racial Narratives for Urban Schooling." Addressing that issue was Dr. James Peterson, director of Africana studies and an associate professor of English at Lehigh University.

Peterson, a leading hip-hop scholar who regularly appears as a media contributor on MSNBC and other media networks, spoke about why the Black Lives Matter movement means so much for organizing and transforming classrooms and communities. Educational institutions, he said, should be at the forefront of unpacking the issues of systemic inequities found in schools, police departments, and other areas of civic life.

To reframe the often unbalanced and negative portrayal of Black and brown people, he strongly endorsed making the critical study of media essential in schools. The 24-hour screen generation needs tools for understanding and telling their own stories, he said. Instead of telling young people to stop wasting time playing video games and using social media, educators and parents need to help young people make responsible choices, reflect on the media they consume and create their own social action projects.

A couple of statistics he cited jumped out at me: Every 28 hours, an unarmed Black person is killed by law enforcement, vigilantes, or security forces, and 25 percent of Black women live in poverty. These numbers alone do not fully tell the story of what it’s like to live in under-resourced communities, but they do provide some context for understanding the tense relationship between law enforcement and the Black community. Though students in many neighborhood schools may or may not know these statistics, they internalize them and develop a distrust of the very institutions that are supposed to protect and serve them.

Peterson pushed back against “respectability politics,” which seems more concerned with telling young men to pull up their pants than with deconstructing the implications of poverty and structural racism and violence in our schools and communities. Mayor Nutter has been known on occasion to chastise young men to wear belts and pull up their sagging pants (disclosure: I have had the same talks with my students and sons). But the question we might want to ask is: What do saggy pants have to do with the disproportionate school closures in Black and low-income communities or the higher rates of Black and Latino males in emotional support classes?

Peterson also discussed rapper Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics from his recent album To Pimp a Butterfly. On the track "The Blacker the Berry," Lamar seems to reflect on the hypocrisy of Black men who lament the killings of those like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but still commit violent acts against other Black people.

During the question-and-answer portion, a young lady asserted that many of her peers disrespect themselves by listening to music that debases Black women. He appealed to the young lady and the audience, noting that hip-hop should serve as a pedagogical lens to explore the positive and negative aspects of the youth culture.

When Peterson asked the young lady whether she would consider being a teacher, she dismissively said, “No way.” He used her response to highlight a point from his lecture, that there needs to be an effective teacher pipeline to get more teachers of color in public schools.

In talking about schools, he noted that many are de facto segregated and lacking a diverse teaching staff. They could be seen as “mini-Fergusons,” he said. At Philadelphia’s Bartram High School, for instance, the student population is predominantly Black, but the teaching staff is mostly White. But more important than their race or ethnic backgrounds, he noted, teachers should be culturally competent to teach and serve in challenging school environments.

At the end of the evening, a young male student attending the Jubilee School, a nearby private school, asked Peterson why the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recent exhibit on 200 years of African American art was limited to just three small rooms. Praising the young man for actively listening and staying engaged throughout the lecture, Peterson shrugged, lacking an adequate response to this astute question. Then, time was up. The issue of race in museum politics would have to be a topic for another Constance E. Clayton lecture.


Samuel Reed III, a teacher consultant with the Philadelphia Writing Project, is an active member of the Teacher Action Group (TAG Philly) and is founding teacher at the U School.


Editor’s Note: The figure cited, that every 28 hours an unarmed Black man is killed by police, is a claim that has been proven untrue.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism