Buffalo, racism, and education

By Sundjata Sekou 

No one arrives at this point in time without history placing us here. 

An armed, dangerous, murderous, racist 18-year-old white male arriving at Tops grocery store in Buffalo with the intent to kill Black people is the historical consequence of a society that fails to confront its legacy of racism.  

The place that most fails to confront the American legacy of racism is the nation’s K-12 public school systems. We live in a country where schools are still named after slave owners and confederates. Students attend schools that daily reinforce how Greek, Roman, European, Western, and predominantly white societies contributed to civilizations. Yet they refuse to educate children on how Black societies like Ancient Egypt, Nubia, Ancient Ghana, Mali, Songhai and other African nations contributed to civilizations in areas of writing, mathematics, science, religion, music and the arts.  

In most curricula, the only time that Black people appear is during slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. To simplify a people’s history to two moments in time is educational malfeasance. But to this day, in most classes, this practice continues.  

Although Asian civilizations contributed the numeric system, paper, printing and agricultural advances to the world, the mere mention that people from these areas did those things is almost universally ignored in most curricula. Also, most curricula ignore the fact that Mesoamerican societies such as the Olmecs had cities, a calendar and a writing system. The Aztecs built a city on a lake and schools. The Incas built a city 9,000 feet in the air. The Iroquois Confederacy, which consisted of Mohawks, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Oneida, the Seneca and the Tuscarora formed a multistate government in North America before the United States was created.  

Why don’t most children know these facts? Why don’t most adults learn these facts until maybe college or when they become autodidactic? It is because of the omission of these facts by state learning standards. “Wack” learning standards create wack curricula which produces wack teachers who are evaluated by wack administrators who expect to see exclusionary wack lessons. For a teacher to be “dope” (very good) at including Black, Brown, Asian, native, and Indigenous people’s history, they have to smuggle contraband into classrooms. What is contraband in this perspective? The contraband is inclusionary lessons and books.  

Thus, the essential question is how do you become a dope teacher and dismantle an educational system that bolsters and promotes whiteness and largely excludes Brown, Asian, native, Indigenous, and particularly Black people’s history? The second essential question is how do we stop perpetuating the myths fostered by white supremacy that mass shooters may use as justification for their racism? 

If you are a dope teacher who is creating room in your class for students to discuss, interrogate, and grapple with American racism, I salute you! 

If you are a teacher who neglects to engage students with issues of race, African and Native people’s histories before enslavement and colonialism, you are doing all students a disservice. In order to become a dope teacher, you should undertake an endeavor of self learning about non-European nations, attend the NJEA Members of Color Conference on Sept. 16-17, NJEA REAL Movement workshops, read books by the Zinn Project, and you and your children should attend MapSo Freedom School events.  

What students need now and in the future is for teachers to become education liberators, uncompromising truth tellers, abolitionist teachers, student advocates, researchers, presenters of historical facts, and deconstructors of American historical myths.  

This is what we must do as educators to get rid of the dangerous scourge of white supremacists online and in person!  

Sundjata Sekou is a third-grade math and science teacher at Mount Vernon Avenue Elementary School in Irvington. He is a member of the NJEA Amistad Curriculum Design Team. Sekou can be reached at sundjata.sekou@gmail.com