By Marcus Harden
“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.”
“You can go to bed... but will you be able to rest?”
This was a line at the beginning of “Avengers: Endgame” that caused perspiration inside of my eyes and a twinge within my educator soul. In my last blog post, I wrote about the conditions that cause many Black educators to leave the classroom.
As an eternal optimist, I have to believe there are equal and compelling reasons why we would not only choose to stay, but create conditions in which we can grow in numbers and thrive instead of just surviving as educators.
“Part of the journey is the end.”
The pop-culture version of “memento mori” is what guides a lot of my work (and my life) these days. The perpetual practice of gratitude-filled backward-mapping has me plotting an exit plan or torch-passing, because even in thriving as an educator, we can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) do this work forever.
It seems white educators come in and out of the profession and simultaneously plot long-term exit plans and torch-passing because they know that their legacy is secure. If a white female teacher retires tomorrow, the odds are deeply in her favor (80%-ish) that another white female will carry the mantle forward. Sadly, if you’re a Black male educator, unless we are intentional, our torch is akin to a birthday cake candle in a wind tunnel.
The battle against the systems and structures — as well as the temptation to fall into the superhero or martyr syndrome archetype — is heavy. All too often we are tasked with falling on the sword, and while I do believe being a Black male educator is heroic, it doesn’t have to be in the fatal sense. All the things we know to be true are indeed facts. Teachers as a whole are vastly underpaid, African-American educators are often in unsupportive environments, and the profession isn’t promoted (or respected) as a viable option in the canon of “careers.”
So why stay? How do we ask others to come? What are the conditions we can create — right now, right where we are — to make this seismic shift? Here are seven reasons that I’ve come up with (feel free to add more!):
The (R)evolutionary act of our time: Cliche as it may be, I believe that education (not schooling!) is the (r)evolutionary act of our time. Specifically in the hands of those who have historically been oppressed or had their voices left out of the conversation. As Black male educators, we can be liberating practitioners, evolving ourselves and the notion of what education is.
Purpose-Driven Life: Muhammad Ali said it best: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Often in our students, we find that their behaviors are rooted in not knowing just how important they are. Those same attributes become rooted in them as they become adults. As Black Male educators I would argue there is no more purposeful profession that can have long-reaching impacts on the lives of thousands of students we come into contact with.
I am my brother’s keeper: I am so thankful for the few times in my hometown of Seattle (shout out Brad Brown and Joe Carlisle) when I was fortunate enough to be mentored and befriended by other black male educators, even though we typically had to hide in corners as not to be seen talking together (crazy!). Yet, in this last couple of years traveling the country and moving to Atlanta, having organizations like Black Male Educator Fellowship, Education Leaders of Color and becoming an Impact Leader with Profound Gentlemen has filled my cup in ways unimaginable. These organizations (and many more like them!) have inspired me, held me accountable and made me question why GroupMe was invented! More importantly, it’s given me brothers in arms, without code-switching, without relenting to white dominant structures and with the elevation of our profession in mind. The opportunity to create and enjoy fellowship in spaces as we grow in number for other Black male educators is not only necessary but worth it.
When They See Us: Connected to the above point, I am convinced that white women become teachers because they’ve seen other white women teach them. I did not have a Black male teacher until I was a junior in college (I did have two black male admins, but that's another post for another time). As a good friend Ed Chang reminded me, it’s not JUST about having Black male teachers present, it’s about us being exceptional Black male educators that will inspire the same. The commercials in the ’90s were “Like Mike,” not “Like Will Perdue.” To be mediocre — to be no more than present — is not enough. We are called to be excellent examples of what it means to be Black, male and an educator.
SWAG Surfing: One of the dopest things that Rashiid and Vince at BMEC have done, is brought swag to teaching (along with brothas like Chris Emdin, Cornelius Minor, Alfred Shivy, Dwayne Reed, and Barry White Jr.). This is not scientifically backed, yet as we bring our authentic selves into the educational spaces, with us typically comes “the culture!” We invariably change any and every environment we touch. A country rap song is on the verge of being the #1 running song, period, of all time, rapped by an LBGTQ black male 20-year-old! We by our sheer presence have the power to transform spaces. If we can create a hip-hop-country lane, then why not an education lane? The authoritarian, necessarily-clean-cut mold of an educator is dying. We can help be that change while showing our students and others that IT’S LIT to be educated and to be an educator (that may be the first time IT’S LIT has been written in an educational blog).
One Mic: “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” -Audre Lorde (or Murch from the Best Man movie)
If we can create space and grow the Black male educator pipeline, we have an incredible opportunity to influence the voices and stories that are told in every discipline and to truly showcase the full spectrum of what it means to be a Black male. As we already know, we are not a monolith, yet as we continue to grow and recruit, more stories about us and by us can be told.
Dignity. Joy. LOVE: Dr. Monique Liston of UBUNTU out of Milwaukee, a powerful sister, has researched and taught on the practice of Dignity for Black Young Men. She says, “What we need to talk about is how do these people feel about themselves, and how do they feel like a part of their community. When we say that, we start holding ourselves accountable to a new standard...So when we’re talking about dignity, we’re talking about that worthiness that you get from being in community with others and being seen as worthy within that community, so understanding yourself as worthy and seeing everyone around you as worthy because that community is built. We put that concept together with dignity.”
Her powerful work centers a framework that applies to not just young Black men but an environment that can happen for Black Male Educators as we begin to enhance the space. Within the purpose-driven work of being an educator is the sheer joy that comes with being a part of the village that helps facilitate the innate greatness inside of our students. I didn’t know true joy and pride in seeing others become their best selves until I became an educator. It’s a gift that gives long beyond the years of “teaching” your students and goes deep into life.
Lastly, LOVE! “I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love because that liberates. Love liberates.” -Dr. Maya Angelou
Love in and of itself is a liberating act. As a Black Male Educator, the love for our students, the love for what we do and — as we build — the for us as a collective will free us. It will free us all.
“Some people move on… but not us. Not us!”
- Captain America
As easy as it would be to walk away, we’ve got to fight this battle, right where we’re at. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? We’ve got to rally the troops, intentionally see the future in our students, friends and colleagues (those folks with the will, who we can teach the skill), and join together as a Band of Brothas and truly create change, inside and out of the systems we’re tied to, permanently breaking the chains. Whatever it takes…
Whatever it takes!