“What do I tell my son?”
Parents across the country including myself have asked this question in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s tragic death and George Zimmerman’s consequential acquittal. It is a rhetorical question of sorts, but it begs a concrete response.
As a parent and an educator charged with establishing a new college of education, I contend that school and university leaders must ask this question of themselves to help find answers. Therefore in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, what kind of curriculum can help heal a wounded and confused society, and what lessons can prevent this tragedy in the future?
‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ W.E.B. Du Bois courageously gave words to the painful realities of living as a black person in America in his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk. It was the ‘what do I tell my son” of his day, but it still provides a guide for the type of curriculum needed for schools and students who look like Trayvon.
Turn the pages of Souls and even the most surface read will reveal that Du Bois’ didn’t ask this question out of self-pity, anger, or confusion. Instead, Du Bois proactively sought the type of self-questioning that properly situated him in a specific time and space.
Du Bois pursued awareness. For the intellectual, he sought truth. For the religious, he pursued God. For the ethicist he hunted justice. He rigorously tried to make sense of a world that upheld an illogical view of justice and humanity. A daring curriculum of the time sought to make sense of peace, truth, justice, and God by reconciling irrational and inhumane ideas of racial and sexual superiority. ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ was both the byproduct and tool of that reconciliation.
The educational goal of self-awareness can get lost in an accountability era in which a limited set of test scores define growth. Being aware of one’s sociopolitical standing goes well beyond traditional measures of smartness. Trayvon’s death proved that a quality education is about knowing how to respond acutely as well as longitudinally to individuals and systems that carry perilous views of one’s humanity.
One must be able to read great books like The Souls of Black Folk in order to read society and question one’s placement in it. Being a member of a literate, culturally astute community is a matter of survival.
Du Bois found that he needed to see himself through the tinted glasses of racism as a black man. He also found a need to see himself as American. Being black and American posed problems primarily because blacks did not and often do not enjoy the full benefits of membership. Du Bois eloquently explained the problem of double consciousness.
Educating today’s youth
Today, it is clearer that race and class authorizes our social visas. To be poor is at odds with the assumptions of being American. Poverty certainly offers a different America. Many legal and everyday parent scholars point to how Zimmerman’s pursuit exposed the different realities between those who follow and those who are pursued. Courses explicitly on race and class are as vital as science and art; science and art must attend to race and class.
Schools cannot afford to compartmentalize knowledge like we have done in the testing era.