Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!

– Marcus Garvey

If you didn’t know, today is officially Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C., a holiday celebrating the end of legal slavery in the nation’s capital.

For all of us edu-fighters, reformers, activists, liberationists, and people who talk about education as the “civil rights movement of our time,” it’s a holiday worth cheering because it holds history, sociology, economics, and politics in one important story.

But the folks who might benefit most from observing this holiday are the opponents of school reform, and their noisy cousins in that national festival of privilege that we call the opt-out “movement.”

For as long as there has been such thing as organized education in the United States, black folks have been trying to reform it to meet the needs of our people – with our biggest need being freedom from white power – or trying to opt out of it to save our children. Our history offers a call and response between racism and our retorts to it.

When teaching black people to read was forbidden by law, we met beneath the cover of big trees, out of view, and we devised the earliest systems of peer learning.

In case the institutionalized racism of that time isn’t clear to you, and by that I mean to account for the possibility that you have been abused by what passes for history in public schools, this excerpt from the Virginia Revised Code of 1819 is a good example of what black folks were opting out of:

That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY; and any justice of a county, &c., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, &c., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, &c., may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.

Back then a person could get twenty lashes for teaching us to read, but times have changed. Today fewer people believe it is possible for us to learn so lashes are unnecessary.

Back when white schools didn’t want us, we built their own schools. In fact, with the help of Sears and Roebuck, Booker T. Washington built over 5,000 schools across the South that were arguably more responsible for the emergence of the first black middle class than any other contributor. Black communities, poor and facing all forms of trauma, determined themselves capable of building schools with their own hands, their own nickels and hammers, and electing their own teachers from their own communities to be held to their own account.

Again, times have changed. Today we would tell them their poverty and trauma were insurmountable and that they should succumb to subordination.

Back when white educators couldn’t or wouldn’t teach us, we taught us. When integration failed, we created our own space.

On this Emancipation Day we can celebrate the fact that we’ve come a long way.

Today, when new schools hold lotteries, we overwhelm the process. We try desperately to opt out of our captivity in educational ghettos. When you give us options, we take them with a quickness.

It’s a bizarre irony, then, that education, once alleged to be the great weapon against bondage, has now become something of a sad plantation where marginalized people are captured again and treated as 3/5’s a person.

Our new overseers, and the private associations that represent them, fight fiercely to restrict our movement by eliminating choices. They bellow weird slogans like “those new schools are not better for you than our schools.” It’s like that moment in “What’s Love Got To Do With It” when Ike tells Tina she’ll never succeed without him.

It was once said that the cruelest of all masters were those that were kind to their slaves. It’s true, those middle-class folks living off the dying educational system which seems to still be forbidden from teaching black people to read have recast themselves as nurturing revolutionaries fighting those evil outsiders who come to confuse enslaved people, with options and access to smaller, cleaner, better functioning schools.

In truth, the system workers are not revolutionaries. They are middle class agents of the state in revolutionary drag.

I’m reminded how Northern industrialists and missionaries came to the South with wild eyed claims of freedom for enslaved people. The competitive response of the southern plantation owners was to tell people in slavery not to trust the Northerners. Those “missionaries” were only looking for wage slaves and their promises of freedom were only pipe dreams iced with the profit motives of greedy business men.

Only the plantation owners have ever truly cared for enslaved people, right? Of course there was no profit motive in maintaining a plantation where owners and overseers alike could draw their wages, right?

This is the updside down state of education debate we live in. Our middle class overseers cheat usbeat us (or worse); and help hasten our transition from their educational starter-prisons to the adult correctional authorities; and then talk about us as if it’s all our fault, or the fault of the “heroes” and “missionaries” who come to free us, and as if the plantation system of education isn’t to blame for any of it’s predictable injustices.

That system is fine. You Negroes are not.

In truth, many speakers before me have said our schools are not failing, they are doing exactly what they were designed to do. But the “workers” in the system seek an escape from indictment in their part of our oppression, going so far as linking proposals to make them accountable through student assessments to Eugenics and slavery,

All of their plans, taken in total, would offer us little more than status as attended wards of the state, with low expectations being our cages, and belief in the system being our bars.

So, on Emancipation Day, I leave you with this quote from Doris Lessing, a famous contrarian:

“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.”

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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