The Power of the Black Experience in the Classroom | Keith Mayes | TEDxMinneapolis
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The Power of the Black Experience in the Classroom | Keith Mayes | TEDxMinneapolis

Translator: C E Blanco Santini
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I graduated from John F. Kennedy
High School in the Bronx with a D average, but I earned a PhD
from Princeton University. (Applause) This is a story about
once being afraid to learn to now having an ongoing love affair
with reading and learning that has not stopped. This is a story about Dr. Keith Mayes, but this is also a story
about the power of black studies, the importance of
the black intellectual tradition, and the relevance of the black experience. I want to demonstrate why we need to bring the black experience
into the K-12 classroom, where every black student sits. Many struggles surfaced
during my high school career, but I’d like to underscore
one that involved my dad when I was in the 9th grade. He made me read
Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, entitled “The Greatest.” The first problem with the book was
it was rendered as a form of punishment. (Laughter) The second problem was it was just too big. And, mind you now,
this was over the summer. (Laughter) But the real issue was
I was afraid to read it. I was afraid to read it because I had not developed
the wherewithal to learn. The book had no immediate import for me because in my formative
years of education, no one had bothered to connect
the larger black world I had come from to the possibilities of learning. Too often, for young black students,
reading feels like a reprimand, a form of punishment. How can you extract
all of the personal joy and all of the liberatory possibilities from one of the simplest
activities that is reading? No one had explained the relationship between reading
and my black identity development. It wasn’t until I read the autobiography
of Malcolm X many years later that my desire to understand
my surroundings triggered. I was fascinated by Harlem
and all of its decay. I wanted to understand why so many young black men
sold drugs on the streets, why were there so many
liquor stores in the neighborhood, and why were there
burnt-out tenements on every block. When traversing the streets
back and forth from my apartment to the campus of the City College
of the City University of New York, I became enthralled
over the pre-gentrification aesthetics of this urban black community – my community. I found the answers as to why my neighborhood
looked this way in black books. I found the answers to
the state of black America in black books. I found the answers to
the predicament of Africa in black books. But it wasn’t only
Malcolm X’s autobiography. Also Chancellor William’s
“The Destruction of Black Civilization,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Maya Angelou’s
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” Claude Brown’s
“Manchild in the Promised Land,” Nell Painter’s “The Exodusters,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,”
and Cornell West’s “Race Matters.” “The Destruction of Black Civilization” demonstrated that the continent of Africa
had a rich history and culture that stood on its own before
repeated European and Arab invasions. “Manchild in the Promised Land”
depicted a Harlem of the 1940s and 1950s that was very reminiscent
of the Harlem I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s. Maya Angelou’s
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” explained the life struggles
of my own black teenage mother, who birthed me at 16 – the same age Maya gave birth
to her daughter. And “Race Matters” contextualized
my anger and rage as a young black man by talking about how nihilism
permeated black America. Before black books helped me
earn a PhD from Princeton University, reading black books saved my life. They kept me off the streets, they kept me academically focused, they provided a sense of direction, they made me believe one day
I could be a university professor. More importantly, black books gave me the desire
to finally want to learn. I learned how to learn
through the discovery of reading, but I discovered reading
because of my own black experience. I believe we can use the black experience
as a vehicle to transform urban education and black student performance
in the classrooms. Many of us know the number of problems
black students face, which have life-and-death implications and now represents
a major public health issue. In school districts across the country, the graduation rates of black students
hovers between 40 and 65%. In some individual schools, the completion rate
for black students is below 50%. Reading and math proficiency
is in the 50th percentile and in some schools,
even much less than that. All of this contributes
to the school-to-prison pipeline, pushing frustrated
black students into the streets. After languishing
in these educational graveyards, too many now languish in prisons
across the United States. Why do we fail to see
the life-and-death implications of not educating
every black and brown student? We do not have a problem
understanding the relationship between a doctor and his or her patient. The doctor knows what’s at stake. The cut and laceration
has to be disinfected and bandaged. The bone has to be reset. The artery has to be bypassed. The tumor has to be removed. The doctor doesn’t judge
the incoming condition; he or she just administers the care. If it’s the doctor’s responsibility
to reset the body, then it’s the educator’s
responsibility to reset the mind by reestablishing the desire to learn. In the medical context, we get it. But we’ve failed to translate
that same sense of urgency and importance to the classroom,
from teacher to student, especially from white teacher
to black and brown student. This is not an indictment
on white teachers, because there are many good white teachers
and bad black and brown ones, but our classroom caretakers
must pay attention to those scars, those lacerations, those wounds,
those broken minds and spirits that are trapped
inside of failing schools. It is not the student’s fault.
It’s the system’s. An educational system
that likes to focus on numerical gaps, like graduation rates and test scores, but fails to see the more important gaps that black students
and students of color bring: the inspiration gap, the motivation gap, the engagement gap, the belief gap, and the relationship gap. Notwithstanding the deficits
that black students bring to the school, it is still the job
of those who work inside the system to inspire and motivate, to understand their racial reality, to engage black students with the intellectual content
and instructional styles that will foster stronger
and trusting relationships between student and teacher, and to forever close the belief gap
that says with so much ferocity that the American Dream
is not for young people of color. As a young black student in New York City, these gaps were more circumscriptive
and definitive in my everyday life than the numerical ones. So, why would we as a society
eschew the very things that can inspire, motivate and engage
black students in the classroom? Why would we want to preclude the possibilities of creating
better relationships with black students and inculcating within them the belief that they too
can achieve anything in this world? Currently, our classrooms are not built
to bring in the black experience – not at the level of the curriculum, not at the level of pedagogical practice, and not at the level
of administrative will. The reason that’s the case is because
there is nothing in the toolbox. What’s in the toolbox
of classroom teachers and administrators that could be transformative
in the lives of young boys and girls? Some good things currently exist, but if we were to open up the toolbox,
too often we would find the saw of indifference, the wrench of low expectation, the clamp of mediocrity, the nail of white racism, the hammer of oppression, and the tape measure of failure. What we would not find is the creative use
of the black experience that not only teaches but is also transforming the lives
of young black people. So let me take you back
to my early days in New York City and explain the major ingredients
that went into transforming my life. I call it “the early days
of being an autodidact.” It’s when the different worlds
of arts and letters, social justice, and the City University
surrounded and collapsed around me. It’s when a very public
grassroots struggle educated me about
the excessive use of police force. The victims of excessive force
weren’t Philando Castile or Alton Sterling but rather Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. The leaders of these organizations,
of the grassroots’ movements, were not Black Lives Matter,
Neighborhood Organizers for Change, Nekima Levy-Pounds or Wintana Melekin, but rather Al Sharpton,
C. Vernon Mason, and Alton Maddox. We must never castigate
black’s black movements for change but recognize how
they are part of the rich tapestry of intergenerational protests and that they, too,
have the power to educate. Street corner black book vendors,
whose tables line 125th Street in Harlem, continued to feed
the black experience to me, helping provide the historical context to the modern-day black struggle
occurring in the streets. I took courses with
black professors at City College such as Leonard Jeffries,
James Small and Venus Green, as well as white professors
who also had a great impact on me like Louis Masur,
Darren Staloff and David Jaffrey. Then came the undergraduate
research programs designed specifically to encourage
and nurture a pathway into the academy for undergraduate students of color. Not only did I spend my entire
$5000 summer stipend buying black books, it was here where the groundwork was laid to apply to majoring programs,
graduate programs in history. What I am describing to you
is a 7-year process that it took for me just to put myself in the position
to apply to doctoral programs – much less earn a PhD. Academically disengaged black students
don’t have seven years after they turn 18 to recover a lost sense of self. It’s usually too late. Intellectual and personal transformation is not on the mind of people
who have long decided that education is not for them. They have succumbed and now exist
at the margins of our society. So what does the power
of the black experience mean to a five-year-old black girl? Or a 10-year-old black boy?
Or a 15-year-old black student? What does the black experience mean to a white teacher
who lives in the suburbs but teaches at a predominantly – teaches a large number
of students of color? Is there anything
in the lives of the students that could be a source of knowledge
for you as a teacher? What about the background of the students
that could be a source of knowledge for them in their edification
and their personal transformation? It’s not a given that I know much
about the black experience just because I am black. Chances are I know very little,
but what I do know is that the key to my liberation
exists in the very fibers of my being, within the innermost corners of my soul. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a book
called “The Souls of Black Folk,” but he also followed that up with the book called
“The Gift of Black Folk,” explaining how black people’s
greatest gift to American society were the black experiences that contributed to the economic,
social and cultural development of the United States. As a young black student,
this is what I need to know. And I need to hear it
from you as the teacher as well as to read it for myself. But how is the teacher to teach something
that he does not know? How is the teacher going to teach
something that she does not care about? How does the teacher
going to teach something that his or her principal
does not support? How does the principal give support to teachers who want to teach
about the black experience when white parents are hostile to it? I’ve just underscored
much of the problem today: lack of knowledge
about the black experience, lack of will to teach
the black experience, lack of administrative support and vision
by the district and/or site leader, and white parent backlash and overall fear of the black experience
inside school buildings and classrooms. The longer we wait
to transform our curriculum – especially social studies in English – the stronger the message is sent. The message being sent is “We may not mind
having black bodies in the classroom, we just don’t want your experience
being taught inside the classroom.” But resisters must understand
that this train has long left the station. You cannot separate
the experiences of people of color from the intellectual movements
that represent them. The ethnic studies movement
is here to stay. It is not going anywhere. It’s a movement that has
multiple points of entry, dating back to the 19th century, but its later embodiments have been
at Howard University in 1967, San Francisco State in 1968, and the explosion of black and ethnic
studies, programs and departments across the country in 1969 and beyond. We see today, in places
like Tucson, Arizona, that there are people trying to put
the ethnic studies genie back in the bottle. The resisters are realizing that those courageous
Latino brothers and sisters are part of a larger movement
that exists beyond one city like Tucson. The resisters may not fully be aware of how broad, long, and deep
this intellectual insurgency is, but it only feels
like an intellectual insurgency because of your intent to resist it. The people who opposed black studies
or ethnic studies yesterday and today were in all on the wrong side of history. Just like the people opposing
queer and trans movements today will see that they were
on the wrong side of history tomorrow. I always tell my students, “Don’t find yourselves
on the wrong side of history.” So I want to say
to state education commissioners, district leaders, principals
and classroom teachers: Don’t find yourselves
on the wrong side of history. Don’t allow the good work
that you’re already doing, like in Minneapolis Public Schools with the creation
of Ethnic studies courses and the Office of Black
Male Student Achievement, under the leadership of Michael Walker, to wither away from a lack of administrative support
and teacher resistance. The most important barometer in education is what students say
about their learning experience. Listen to any student of color that has sat inside a class
related to his or her experience or has read a book about their experience, and, typically, they will say that it was the most exhilarating
and transformative experience in their college
or in their high school career. I hear this from students all the time in the Department of African-American
and African Studies here at the University of Minnesota, where I teach. I also hear this from students
in Minneapolis Public Schools, in Miss Courtney Bell’s high school
African-American History class and from students in the “Building Lives
Acquiring Cultural Knowledge” class taught by Jamil Jackson and Corey Yeager. Think about the academically
marginal student looking for inspiration, hope,
and personal validation. There isn’t any other place
a student can go to begin resetting the mind. But that student cannot do it alone. Once the student is on his or her way, yes, there is some level
of autodidacticism. But the marginal black student needs a curriculum that speaks
to his or her experience, black books that speak
to his or her history and culture, and an instructional style
from the teacher that can inspire intellectual curiosity
and transform behavior. Education is a service mission, which means the student
is on the receiving end of your ability to help him/her discover. So, once and for all, let’s discover the power
of the black experience and its ability to rehabilitate us all
and to bring us together rather than the fear
of the black experience, that many assume
will keep us divided and apart. Thank you. (Applause)

About James Carlton

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20 thoughts on “The Power of the Black Experience in the Classroom | Keith Mayes | TEDxMinneapolis

  1. FANGA!I must say where is the platform for the poor uneducated they are the ones with the story,,,especially of how wealth eluded the African communities in America while other communities got a foot hold through corruption and allowed to prosper,,I must say he hit one,Europeans and Arabs….I did not go college I hated school,none the less I graduated I can definitely read better then some college grads,and will out wit them with common sense,,,my only issue is I don't have this platform or some degree,,,,at the same time is it worth it as we (African) people are constantly being attacked relentlessly….while our elites run away from people that look like them instead of building us by us.ASHAY! Y3 FRE3 ME STEVIE

  2. An "intellectual insurgency" does not account for those who have different values. I am talking about basic core values like trait openness and in-group loyalty, not any specific cultural values.

  3. This guy has never been a teacher, he should give it a try, the he will see that many blacks are not interested in there own history

  4. 2 years after this video was posted and it has 7,000 views and 15 comments including this one. It’s a shame all this knowledge is going to waste 🙁

  5. As an educator I totally agree my class is not called Language Arts its called Life Arts where you learn to read, think, and utilize the language to Open New Doors, eliminating excuses. Keep reading

  6. People of colour do not understand the "White" experience. For example, in North America where I am from, if you are shopping in a store with only white anglo saxons present, the sales people allow you to take whatever you want without paying. Life is good, if you're white. Plus, police won't shoot me for Jay walking.

  7. This is a parents fault. However they are stressed beyond belief. So changing parents minds. Will change the kids minds.

  8. Thank you for mentioning LGBT folk. Reading their books gave life meaning and helped me earn a Ph.D. in LGBT Studies

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