For a moment, let me be completely blunt about what the assistance you might provide is regarding?
WE ARE IN SEARCH OF BLACK CURRICULAR AND EXTRACURRICULAR LIFE!
Okay, my husband and I are desperate out here in a rural area of Maryland--and yes, this is the south no matter how you slice the state. I know, I know, we moved ourselves out here so why cry out for some social/cultural assistance when we made our own bed to begin with? Well, we're academics, teachers, so there was a job for Mark here, a good one, and the town is only 3.5 hours drive from our family in NY as opposed to hours by plane, and let's face it, Minnesota was like hyperborean cold--so forgive us, we felt compelled.
So here we are, in a town just under 5,000 people which is exploding with khaki, docksiders, and Polo tops. Just about twenty-two percent of the residents of this place are African American and the Latin@ and multiracial populations make up barely 2% of the town.
As you might know, we're a multiracial family: I'm Cuban and African American, Mark is white and Polish, and our daughter, age 8, is African and African American.
How can you help us? We need you to put your feelers out. Who knows who you know who knows someone out here in Maryland. Contact old high school or college friends, long lost loves, old and present business contacts, whomever. We need you to help us find our daughter a life outside of cultures of whiteness. More specifically, she needs one black guitar teacher and one ballet school with a racially and economically diverse student body and faculty. Post all recommendations here on this blog. Thank you in advance for your efforts because my guess is that you'll have to make enormous endeavors to find a healthy stock of black extracurricular life that is not:
- a one-time-per week "informal," "free class" for "diverse youth";
- the "special" "diversity" programming of some larger highly resourced organization or school, programming whose sparse existence is extremely vulnerable to any slight economic downturn;
- scheduled only during 1 or 3 weeks in the summer to keep youth in need (African American and Latin@) kids off the streets;
- programmed to meet only once per week (probably only Saturday) because the organization hasn't been as highly resourced as the more culturally and often more predominantly white-skinned (see below for definition of the latter terms) extracurricular activities, particularly in the arts;
- recently and/or suddenly canceled due to "low enrollment."
Let me provide some definition here as to what I mean by "culturally white" versus predominantly white-skinned organizations or programming. Quite simply, I think there is a significant distinction between whiteness and white skin. There are many, many families with what we in the North Atlantic recognize as "white skin" who have similar cultural and social values to Mark and me. Many are looking for just the same things in education and after school life. Too often, these "whites" and their hopes and desires for their families are seen as cultural anomalies in their own 'hoods.
Families like these, families like ours are simply seeking curricula in and out of schools (in athletics, arts, the classroom, school community, neighborhood) where actions or ways of doing something within the site don't patrol the boundaries of whiteness to prevent access by people of color; don't imply idealized images of whiteness by promoting ideas about the competence, "articulateness," or behaviorally "appropriate" student or adult of color who by implication is "deserving" of "opportunity"; lastly, and perhaps more importantly, places where actions or ways of doing something don't express or defend supposedly unconscious exclusion or dominance.
Mark and I are fatigued from engaging in the act of seeking what we now jokingly call "black curricular and extracurricular life," which is just our code for life outside cultures of whiteness. We have found from our search for African American, Asian, Latin@ and dare I even say American Indian extracurricular life is, as my southern momma might say, pretty sorry. I don't mean that the youth programming created and run by people of color is bad, I just mean that what of it exists is few and far between and far from where culturally white people have secluded themselves. As academics, this means we will more often than not live in such places among the self-sequestered.
Despite the fact that we live in a town where ¼ of the people are African American, yes, the local schools are "integrated" (and this county was one of the last to do so in the country), there is hardly any (creative or innovative) extracurricular programming here like there is for those who have culturally white values. Let me add right here and right now that we believe this "situation" is not to be easily solved by politics, economics, people who identify as culturally white or culturally black. The problem is far more complex than just that. This is a national, Western, "color line" problem. This is a problem with whiteness and only by larger cultural conditioning, white skin.
Here in this small town in which we now live, Sunday is, in fact, not the most segregated day of the week. Every day is. When we first visited--and as I tell this story you are not allowed to even think 'Why in the heck did they decide on moving there after knowing all of this?!'--we began the drive into town down its main "high" street. Lovely, truly lovely. All kinds of colorful and fragrant flowers in bloom that could never even catch a break in Minnesota. And there was this kind of quiet on the town's day time streets that allowed an east coast-I-spent-my-summers-down-south-with-grammy person to fall deep and heavy into the memory of large, pleasantly noisy crickets scratching their thick southern wings in summer's humidity. Old federal style houses and wee-sized streets and khaki, lots of khaki, hunched backs, and wooden canes, and boats, and brick. Absolutely adorable and cloying; a pure shot back into time.
"Oh, Mark, turn here please! Look at how sweet--"
And suddenly, without a warning, behind all of this old time saccharine charm sits the town's blackness snubbed, crowded, bedraggled, cornered, ghettoed and stitched like a post-civil war patch on the ass-pocket of white, rural, sweet southern, Maryland.
And now we live here. Rarely do we see an African American person engaged in the hustle and bustle of the town, which takes place on the town's "high" street[s]. Rarely do I see African Americans in khaki, which here seems to be a sign that you agree, that you were either raised within the type of white milieu that thrives here or have joined, acquiesced, i.e. acculturated.
Perhaps, though sans khaki, because Mark, my daughter, and I walk this town's streets, we are considered one of those people. The working poor are never on the high street in daylight. I can only guess they reclaim their streets after they finish work, after all the white folks have closed up shop and retreated to their homes.
But we accepted the job anyway. Despite the poverty of black folks that we saw in a state touted in 2007 as the union's wealthiest; despite the obvious and stark cut off between black and white; despite the fact that the majority of residents voted for Bush-Cheney in the 2004 election; despite the fact that the only supposedly "good" school on this side of the Bay is an independent school created in 1967 in response to the town school's being forced to integrate by the Supreme Court.
Despite all of this, we moved.
So this is what happens when an interracial couple with an African/African American daughter, a couple who believes that their daughter's life (i.e., school, after school fun and learning) should reflect their seemingly scarce breed of social and cultural values, searches for black curricular/extracurricular life:
They drive 40 hours round trip (to save on air fare) from their home in the Midwest to the state in which the husband's prospective job opportunity has been offered to check out the schools in the deep heat of July.
They spend hours writing explanatory letters to admissions directors of independent schools and they leave long voice mails on anyone's phone at local public schools explaining what they hope for in an education for their daughter and a school experience for their family. They ask the schools: Can we find this here?
They, then, spend the next month, down to the wire trying to decide among public and independent schools. They are compelled, therefore, to decide between denying their values of equity, voice, and mutual responsibility in classroom and school practice and the following: public schools in which certificates to Pizza Hut are awarded to children for reading more than their classmates, and 3rd-grade teachers who advertise their top movie on the school's web site as Tom Cruise's Top Gun and their favorite food as macaroni and cheese; independent schools which enforce a khaki code and state that boys "hair may not approach the brow" and which were established way after Brown II as a way to cloister white children and keep them away from the neighborhood descendants of quite possibly their grand- or great-grandparents' former slaves.
Top Gun trailer (1986) / 2:30
After taking the job, these same parents then spend hours upon hours--and this, after unpacking a lifetime of family belongings and over 125 boxes of just books--scouring the Web looking for something not all-white, not culturally white, but instead some educational program that promotes, perhaps, community and not neoliberal principles of individualism, "free enterprise," and U.S. "patriotism." One school who did not have a required uniform but instead a required "dress code" encourages in their Parent Handbook that parents purchase their childrens' clothing (all of it--both leisure and school) from Lands' End. Lands' End promotes a particular kind of culture: "professional," "business," "casual." Such seemingly neutral language describes what is left out of the discourse: culturally white. The school even provides a link to the store and its online "school uniform" page which displays images like the following:
Parents in search of black curricular/extracurricular life hope for something outside of the small, rural town in which they have chosen to live that will allow their daughter to experience the world as an intriguingly complex place where African American, Latin@, Asian, American Indian, Middle Eastern, multiracial and white people make music, kick soccer balls, read books, count on their fingers, use computers, make films, and raise their torsos en pointe together.
We have learned that this is too much to ask of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and of this country. What makes me angry is that something which seems so right to me begins to appear so wrong in light of the abundance of extracurricular programming for "kids" (code: white-skinned kids). The reality is that programming for kids of color just doesn't really exist in significant numbers; it doesn't exist outside of small pockets of "efforts" toward "diversity" and "multiculturalism." I'm fed up with our desires for our daughter being a dang "special need."
We are a family of longtime educators. Our family's needs and expectations in terms of education are "radical," in that what is important for us really lies at the root--the radix--of a school--i.e., in its demonstrated methodology. Articulated to this interest in the foundation of a school and our own work as educators is the fact that I am Cuban and African American, Mark is white-Polish, and our daughter is East African. Mark is from a working class Polish neighborhood and I grew up in NYC in the Harlem of the '70s and '80s while attending an elite, predominantly white independent school from grades 1-12.
Some families like ours might require that a school visually reflect this racial/ethnic mix, and yes, we would like to see this, too. But, more important to us is that the guiding principles of the school allow for as opposed to resist any organic and/or child-initiated attempts to explore and engage equity, voice, and justice. It is our belief that if children choose to learn what they inherently feel compelled to understand (e.g. some of the interests of our daughter: gorilla mating rituals, Hmong language, or why economic divisions are constructed by people in power) and they do so in a purposeful community of compassion and integrity, then they will go out into the larger world with the necessary foundation for helping to build representative, just societies.
We know that what does not work is the food and feathers attempt at "multiculturalism" or representing what I call in an article on which I'm working: "the iconographies of multiculturalism" in schools or after-school programs. We know that visiting difference, dancing with difference, and tasting oreating difference does not create understanding, especially if such efforts never raise the following questions: Different from what and Different from whom?
Hence, we believe in academics that speak truthfully; academics that complicate history and the contemporary, that, for example, position the "pioneers" and "settlers" as a part of a socio-economic colonialism geared toward Indian removal rather than pioneers travailing at the hands of "violent" Indians. And we want kids to be asked How might you do it all differently? so that kids are able to practice being better than "us," the often fumbling yet courageous adults in their lives.
What we care about most in terms of our daughter's education and our family's membership in a whole-school community can be captured within three significant queries: Will our daughter enter a genuine community of partnership, compassion, choice, and integrity? Will the place of learning to which she belongs provide the open space for its children to 'question, challenge and create' in an environment that respects and encourages the particularities of insight, knowledge, passion, and interest that each young person brings? When visitors or the school's children cross the school's threshold, can they immediately sense an ethos of imagination, ebullience, individuality, and dynamism--qualities based on the mere fact that all within the school (adults and young people alike) are fervently engaged and actively supported in artistic, socio-intellectual, and/or athletic endeavors of their own choosing?
Some have said to me, "Oh Mambí Maestra! You and Mark are asking far too much from a school. A school can't be expected to meet all of those needs."
Really? This is too much to ask? It's too much to ask that, quite simply, our daughter be educated fairly, lovingly, openly, critically, truthfully, and genuinely? Call me naïve--and this is probably why I never "made it" politically in Chicago's quid pro quo education environment--but asking that kids be educated with integrity is, quite frankly, the least we should ask. This is the way education is 'spozed to be!
It's like that Chris Rock joke where he talks about black dudes who brag about the fact that they're not in jail and are taking care of their kids according to all the rules. Now, I neither want to mimic (or support) Obama's recent rebuke of African American men nor his use of this same Chris Rock routine I'm about to quote to perform his admonishment, but Rock had a good point about what I'll call the "'spozed-to-be" factor. Maybe I should just call it the "Chris Rock factor." Here's Rock's routine but written in a way useful for encouraging us parents who seek a kind of curricular and extracurricular life for our kids that is apparently considered to be extraordinary and very much unorthodox.
"You know the worst thing about [schools and special youth programming in culturally white organizations]? They always want credit for some [stuff] they supposed to do. [These places] will brag about some [stuff] a normal [place for kids] just does. A school or program will [have a mission] like, "We provide programming for youth in need [code for poor African American and Latin@ youth]. . . or 'We are building a respectful, diverse and nurturing learning community in collaboration with staff, children and families.'" You're supposed to, you dumb[y]! What kind of ignorant [goal] is that? . . . What do you want, a cookie. . . you low-expectation-having [dumby]!" (Chris Rock, Bigger and Blacker)
It's not 'spozed to be so hard to seek and then find black curricular/extracurricular life for all of our kids. And good parents are 'spozed to want sites of joy, compassion, integrity, and intellectual challenge for their kids provided by creatively trained adults who are globally representative.
It is the end of August and just yesterday we finally decided on what we think is an absolutely wonderful and courageous school that meets our educational expectations, not visually, but remember, we said what's going on inside the school to develop individuals who work to provide for all is the most important to us. Yes, it's a kazillion miles away, but no, we did not feel we had a choice in what is now, our town.
Okay, so here is how all of you come in. Like I said, we live in a town where the only representation of blackness our daughter and all the other children have in town is penned into a small ghetto. As well, the only representation the town's kids have of white-skinned people is similarly narrow. They could easily leave this town at age 18 and believe that white-skinned people are either poorly employed people who choose their "paths in life" and whose best friends are African American, or are wealthy whites who disdain the poor ones.
Our daughter totally gets oppression based on sexuality, ability, gender, race, and income, but the racial dynamic in this small, southern town means there are no organized activities made affordable or accessible to the African American kids. So, like the main artery through town, all extracurricular activities flow through the heart of whiteness.
So, do you get your role here? We need our kid engaged in some activity outside of this town and with kids that look like her and with kids that are white and preferably with good teachers who look like her and with those who do not. We need your help because we're actually beyond dismay. We are frightened about the lack of prospects and the seemingly lack of large-scale community-like response to the dearth of black curricular/extracurricular life. We need that secret program we haven't found.
Maybe someone is running something out of their garage like the Johnson & Wales University undergrads baking and selling the best Pain de Campagne I've ever had. We won't know about these kinds of folks unless we begin to ask around. And maybe, just maybe some donor will read this and grant some money to some willing organization ready to begin innovative youth programming nationwide. Heck, I have such grand ideas for programming, give me the money and I'll do it.
Can you hear our desperation? Slowly, the once beautiful vision our girl had of the world--that it was truly multicultural; that all the adult "professionals" in her life were African American, Latin@, Hmong, and white--could so easily slip away. We do all we can do inside our home, but we need the help of those outside our home now. We need you.
Opening photo taken from the web site of Maryland Youth Ballet.