Keeping Dr. King's Dream Alive while being a Haitian-American Teacher

Keeping Dr. King's Dream Alive while being a Haitian-American Teacher
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These past 12 months I have been continuously confronted with the reality of race in America. I have been challenged with the idea that I spoke of last year, at Teachers College Columbia University, while presenting a speech on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, more than ever, I find myself examining the role of race in the United States. Today, I have collapsed some of my writings and speech to share my thoughts on Haiti, in light of alleged recent comments, and the intersectionality of race and education.

Growing up bicultural, as a Haitian-American in New York City, there was a multiplicity to my reality. Daily, I crossed borders. Race is at times at the perimeters of my consciousness, at other times it serves as a circumference, confining aspects of my identity, and at other moments it is a very real boundary limiting in nature - hemming me in behind and before. My experience with race intersects at the crossroads of culture, class, and gender. Like my ancestors before me, my skin-color has been constructed to be a chain, holding me back, daring me towards a land that I know is more mental than physical – the land called Freedom. My experiences are colored by the experience of my parents as immigrants, inhabiting the “land of the free, and home of the brave.”

I thank my parents, because they like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., believed that “the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education.” Haiti was, and still is, depicted as a third-world country, that phrase illustrates the endemic quality that characterizes the dominant ideology about race, and certain people. Unfortunately, the status quo has made such descriptives commonplace. Haitians were, and still are, categorized as “boat-people.” And when I was growing up, Haitians were called all sorts of stigmatizing names, including “AIDS-carriers” and “HBO” for “Haitian body odor.” This week I was not shocked at the comments allegedly made by “him who shall not be named.”

Haitians are a political people; this is not an overgeneralization - conversations revolve around politics, race, and the media. Though I was too young to understand it at the time, my parents were exposing me to media theories. I remember my dad pointing out the mass of Haitians marching across the Brooklyn Bridge, protesting the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that members of the community be banned from giving blood. My family served as an active audience, challenging the framing of news stories, always questioning the agenda of the gatekeepers.

In first grade, I remember receiving a blackface doll, as part of a gift-exchange at school. Though I was only six years old, I knew that it was wrong. I knew that it was racist. I may not have known the word or ideology of racism, but in my heart I knew that a discourse took place without words; in a single moment in time I was “othered.” Racism became a term I could describe fluently by seven. My parents, as the gatekeepers of our educational experience did not protect my siblings and I from these attacks against our identity. Instead they welcomed the discussion, including us.

I remember that time in third grade, because I was the “smart black girl,” I was called a very bad word (excuse me for not disclosing, as I am a middle school teacher), for not letting another student copy my homework. The next time it happened I was taking a class at Columbia, a white male classmate, with an avant-garde name typical of a conventional Connecticut suburb with its perfectly cut grass, said the same when I would not allow him to use my work. I remember, “You’re such a [insert very bad word here]”. I remember the other white students, girls with names like Johnny, saying nothing. Silence, deeper than deep, shouting louder in that moment than any pundit appearing on Fox News. In Needing Not to Know:Ignorance, Innocence, Denials, and Discourse, Barbara Applebaum (2016) quotes the work of Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack. Fellows and Razack use the word “innocence” to describe the complicity white women have in the act of racism. It is defined as “a deeply felt belief that each of us, as women, is not implicated in the subordination of other women” (p. 451). That very bad word implied less than, other, animal, and not human; it is a most degrading term. As I turned to my Columbia colleagues, with the too cool for school names, names which serve as proof and badges of honor of their families’ liberal leanings, and said, “He would not have said that to you.” I remember the heads turning away, in avoidance perhaps? Or was it shame in knowing that I spoke the truth? I remember the vain illusions of camaraderie shattered in a moment.

When I first arrived to college, before the events above, I was shocked to meet Haitian-American peers who had covered up their dual identities because of the shame and stigma of growing up Haitian. Though I was shocked, I understood. During college, many became free of the oppressive mindset of “less-than” and began a new education. This too, was a dual education in the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Now as an adult, caught at the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, I have come to a deeper understanding of my parents’ views of education. Using the lenses of immigration and the nuanced reality of what it means to be black in America, my parents understood education as a privilege. That privilege is a wall. A wall that many want to continually build. A popular campaign slogan, “Build that wall,” is about much more than physical borders.

My parents wanted to make sure that my siblings and I were provided the “passport” to citizenship. Yet, even as we hold precious documents we are documented as “other,” “less than,” and marginalized. Our dreams are in action, yet very often we find ourselves held back by ignorant ideals that need to become inactive. How are we to keep dream of Dr. King alive?

His words continue to ring true, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” “To everything there is a season, a time and purpose under heaven,” (Ecc. 3:1), today it is a time to rend asunder cemented practices of injustice and speak out boldly.

Why is education a privilege? Why are particular people with particular experiences living in particular places in the land of the free and home of the brave forced to perceive education as a privilege and not a right? Why is the color of skin still the concluding factor regarding the context and content of learning? Why is truth inconvenient, and when did truth become insufficient for change?

The truth is that the time has come for us to critique ourselves and judge our society, and ask, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, once did, and former President Barack Obama once reiterated, and I echo, “Am I judging by the color of skin or the content of character?” If the function of education is as Dr. King stated, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the true goal of education,” I challenge you to think about what are you doing to keep Dr. King’s dream alive? Are you squashing voices of dissent or disagreement? Truth has fallen in the streets, and lies have become the currency of value.

As a black woman in academia, as a fyè Haitian-American, marginalization and “less than” come with the territory. It shouldn’t. Challenges revolve around the politicized nature of blackness, and the caricatures of color compounded through time. As I hear harmful words continually spoken I think of the dream of Dr. King. I think about students of color, and the misrepresentations they encounter, I know that my strength must be renewed in order to engage constructively and productively in the racialized conflict they are or will encounter. I cannot give up. Those of you who know the truth cannot give up. Teaching is an act of social justice, and learning is part of the walk to freedom.

Some have found my identification as a Christian to be incompatible to the work of social justice. Like Dr. King, I am not ashamed to say that I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I believe that the Bible is a holy book, the infallible word of God. Does this make others uncomfortable, yes, but this truth remains the very foundation of my faith. How do I remain humble, be angry and not sin, all the while not growing bitter, and resentful when encountering injustice?

I am renewing my mind, and am inviting you to work with me in changing the narrative, even when the skin we find ourselves in becomes uncomfortable. The ironic truth is that discomfort and distress have become a pathway to building bridges of understanding. I can teach them, my precious students, well, and even better, because of all the times I have felt like I have been in a classroom where one is separated on the basis of class, color, and culture.

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