Then, today, and tomorrow

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2012 at 10:18 am

Jada Williams. 13 year-old. Rochester, NY. Eighth grader. Just another teen, aye? Well, Jada’s essay which was entered into a competition, an essay on the The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, has stirred the winds of controversy. While I haven’t read Jada’s essay, by all accounts it appears that the passage in the book that resonated most is the exchange Douglass heard regarding the instruction or teaching to Blacks: Williams when “reflect[ing] on what Douglass heard his slave master, Mr. Auld, telling his wife after catching her teaching Douglass how to read. ‘If you teach that nigger how to read, there will be no keeping him,’ Auld says. ‘It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.’ Williams wrote that overcrowded, poorly managed classrooms prevent real learning from happening and thus produces the same results as Mr. Auld’s outright ban. She wrote that her white teachers—the vast majority of Rochester students are black and Hispanic, but very few teachers are people of color—are in a ‘position of power to dictate what I can, cannot, and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mismanagement of the classroom.'”

Further, Williams asks “What merit is there not willing to share [suggesting that white teachers intentionally withhold knowledge sharing and information] because of the color of my skin?” In the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, guest columnist, Beth Vercolan, claims that “Jada made an error in critical thinking in her essay. She did not draw any distinction between the times in which Douglass was writing and today. Any piece of written work must be judged within the context of its author’s personal experiences and beliefs, and the time in which it was written. Jada and her contemporaries live in a much different time than Douglass did. To blame ‘white men’ for the low performance of students in her school is harmful and dangerous to race relations. Whenever a sweeping statement is made about all members of a race — whatever race — it is a racist statement.”

Just a couple days prior to Vercolan’s column, staff writer for the Rochester newspaper quoted Williams’ as taking account for context and different times, and Williams’ appears to suggest that while overt racism and other means to not educate minorities are not what they were during Douglass’ life, it is occurring but in a more subtle manner. “’When I find myself sitting in a crowded classroom where no real instruction is taking place I can say history does repeat itself,’ Jada recently read from her essay. ‘The reality of this is that most of my peers can not read, and therefore comprehend the materials that have been provided. So I feel like not much has changed. Just different people. Different era. The same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.’”

A provocative essay indeed. And yes, there was a teachable moment, but no one, on either side of the racial/ethnic aisles took the lead to dig deeper into the reflections, the accounts of one Jada Williams. It is alleged that Williams was run out of school by her teachers for writing the essay. Williams’ mother responded, only leaving questions in the midst: “’What message are you sending my daughter when you tell her you are offended by an essay she wrote about a book the district gave her to read?’ Williams said. ‘She feels like she’s supposed to go to school and learn, but now that she’s learning it’s a problem. All she did was compare her experiences now with the material that was provided to her. Did they realize the content of the book before they distributed it?’”

  1. great article. i don’t normally reply but just thanking you

  2. I visit your site all the time. I love your articles and blogs

  3. Interesting post, Kesha. Perhaps they (the school) didn’t fully appreciate the content in Douglass’s treatise and merely chose a classic written by a black author in order to provide an impression of academic diversity during Black History Month. Nevertheless, the fact that Miss Jada was able to not only make sense of the piece, but was also able to apply it to her own experiences deserves praise – especially considering the lackluster education she describes as receiving.

    If the school can put their insecurities aside, I think they would find that this is a wonderful moment for reflection and opportunity through which all involved could grow and benefit. Unfortunately, Jada’s story is not a unique one in this nation. The fact that the school leaders/teachers chose instead to allow their biases and insecurities to lead them to chastise a 13 year-old girl for making such a critical observation, speaks volumes to the caliber of (mis)education they are providing.

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