What Black Schools Mean to Black Kids

What Black Schools Mean to Black Kids

Being in the racial majority at school can make all the difference for Black children.


I am a proud product of the Chicago public schools, which is to say that despite the controversy and corruption that have plagued the nation’s third-largest school district throughout its history, I think I fared pretty well within its halls. I was privileged to attend what were then high-performing magnet institutions from first through 12th grade. My elementary school had a nearly 100 percent Black student population, and the majority of the teachers, staff, and administrators reflected that. In high school, my Black classmates and I were about 60 percent of the student body; today, my alma mater has the same Black woman principal who had to call my mom when I smoked an herbal cigarette inside a school building just a few weeks after she’d written a recommendation for me to attend Howard University. I never had to be the only Black kid anywhere growing up, and as an adult I created a life in which I am rarely the only Black person in any situation that I might have to endure for more than a few hours.

Long before I became a mother myself, in 2013, I’d decided that I wanted to send my own children to schools much like the ones I’d attended: ideally, “good Black schools.” For me, a good Black school is one that centers the experiences and culture of Black children and is staffed primarily by Black teachers and administrators who are both invested in the education of Black children and have the skills to teach them effectively. If they aren’t exclusively Black, they need to be largely Black and concerned with the education of Black children as a unique population. The tales of bullying, confusion, self-loathing, and isolation that I’ve heard from Black people who’ve been in the racial minority at school have made the idea of subjecting my own child to such a thing seem impossible in all but the most dire of circumstances.

A good Black school, for me, may not be at the top of the local school rankings. Some routinely send kids to elite high schools and colleges, while others measure success simply by being able to get students prepared to graduate in the first place. But Black children enrolled at a good Black school are learning while being affirmed, nurtured, and loved; other children who attend this sort of school receive the same treatment, while also being educated about the histories of Black people in ways they may not ever experience again. Administrators, teachers, and staff are committed to helping the kids improve or even flourish academically. Their efforts may never be enough for most of these schools to outrank other institutions with better financial resources, and I am OK with that. Parents entrust schools with the minds, bodies, and souls of our children for extended stretches of time. Disparities in academic achievement and discipline suggest that the vast majority of non-Black educators in this country lack an understanding of Black history, Black identity, and Black culture that is comprehensive enough to serve our children well.

We were very fortunate that my Brooklyn-born daughter’s academic life began gloriously at Little Sun People, an “African centered” day care that provides a quality preschool experience rooted in exploring and celebrating students’ cultural identities. Here, Black people were the center of our own universe, not a subplot in someone else’s. The pictures on the walls, the books and toys on the shelves, all reflected us. Naima learned how to make collard greens, dressed up as Billie Holiday for a school play, took African dance and drum classes, and jumped around to ’90s hip-hop at school dances. We didn’t have to go back and update the history she was learning to include us, nor did we have to correct mythologies that too easily capture the imaginations of Black children with the notion that they are somehow inferior to white and other non-Black children. At Little Sun People, the teachers looked and felt like the people at home, as did the other kids and their parents. We never wanted to leave.

When pre-K graduation loomed, I was forced to confront how privileged I’d been as a student and how fortunate Naima had been thus far. I thought back to my college classmates, who’d had few, if any, Black teachers before Howard and were in an educational environment designed with Black students in mind for the first time. According to recent data from the Department of Education, the nation’s public school teaching force is 79 percent white and over 75 percent female. “The man,” a once popular colloquialism among African Americans referring to the unseen force that is white supremacy, reflects how white men have largely been the face of anti-Blackness in this country. But we can’t ignore the ways in which white women, too, uphold the nation’s racial caste system. When we talk about who is neglecting Black children in class and penalizing them unjustly, we are talking largely about white women.

Many of my own experiences with white female teachers were starkly different from those I’d had with Black women and non-Black women of color. My kindergarten teacher had won acclaim for her research and writing about early childhood education, but upon learning that I could already read, she could only think to sit me off to the side with a math workbook during literacy lessons. She wasn’t enthusiastic about my skills; instead, she seemed annoyed that they required her to deviate from her lesson plan. I transferred to a new school the following year, but my loathing for math stayed with me. When Naima moved on to kindergarten at a good Black school where many Little Sun People graduates had enrolled and I learned that her first teacher was a white woman, I had her switched—partly because all of her friends from day care were in the Spanish-immersion classroom with a Latinx homeroom teacher next door, but also in part because of my own traumatic experiences with a white teacher when I had just started elementary school.

Finding a school when we relocated to Los Angeles would be trickier, especially considering that my daughter’s two households would no longer be in the same neighborhood. But there were two strong options on the table: one a Black school with a magnet program, the other a charter school with a small Black population and a stated focus on social justice and diversity. Naima’s younger brother would attend the latter, while her dad and stepmom accepted my strong desire to keep her in a Black school.

We were mostly pleased with the decision. Naima had a great relationship with her homeroom teacher, a white woman who took great care in her approach to teaching Black students. However, the switch to virtual learning in March of last year would highlight the resource disparities between her school and her brother’s, which was better prepared to handle the change. Her father encouraged me to consider allowing Naima to transfer there for the 2020-21 school year, and after a lot of soul-searching, I agreed.

One of my biggest fears came to fruition on day one, when Naima was the only Black student in her virtual classroom. Days passed before we learned that there were four Black students in the second grade: Naima and another girl, who didn’t attend the first week of classes, in one homeroom, and two boys in the other. By the time I spoke with the principal about how Naima had ended up on her own, I’d learned that she still had a spot at her old school, so we decided to make the switch back.

Things could have turned out differently if a teacher or administrator at the charter school had considered that the four Black kids might fare better together in one class, as opposed to serving as a dash of diversity for their non-Black classmates. Perhaps that’s what will happen the next time the school faces this situation. When we finally spoke, the principal seemed to acknowledge that there should have been more consideration given to what it would mean to be one of just two Black kids in the class. But for us, it was too late.

The events of last summer, much like the events of the past 400 summers, were among the many reasons that I gave up on this integrated-ish school so quickly, even if it was better prepared to handle remote learning. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that my child—my child—is safest in the hands of people who know that she is a human being, who did not have to learn later in life that she is a human being, who were raised by people who look like her to love and understand people who look like her.

When I think about the relative protection that Black spaces offer, I remember the day when George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The next morning, like the rest of my friends who were grieving and angry yet unsurprised, I had to get up and go to work. Unlike most of them, I went to the nearly all-Black office where I worked at the time, where I would never once have to explain why something like this was an outrage. That Black space was far from perfect, but in moments like this, it was as safe as any space could be. In the midst of racial uprisings and the increasing visibility of white supremacists, I have no desire to put Naima in a situation in which she may have to sit next to kids who do not believe her Black life matters.

Of course, no Black school is a utopia. It is virtually impossible for me to protect my child from the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and colorism that exist even in good Black schools. But I can contextualize and correct that much more easily than if I had to address those issues and her racial identity being unfamiliar or undesirable in the eyes of non-Black classmates, teachers, and administrators.

I acknowledge that my politics regarding racial solidarity and uplift are not everyone else’s; there are plenty of Black folks who view integration as some sort of ascension into something grander or greater than what is inherently theirs. Even having to make this choice is heartbreaking. The advantages that majority non-Black schools have, in terms of technology, extracurricular activities, human resources, and parental involvement, often come down to the difference between having money or not, an unfairness in public education that too often goes unchallenged. But none of those factors speak to the ability to make sure that Black kids feel happy, healthy, and whole within their walls.

I recognize that as college-educated, middle-class-adjacent parents, we have access to resources to fill in some of the gaps. I would never disparage parents who might require interventions and support that they were unable to find at a Black public school. And when it comes to choosing a high school, we are likely to find ourselves in a situation where a diverse school may be the best, or even the only available, option. Los Angeles has fewer than half as many Black residents as Chicago, despite having a larger overall population. But by then, with three years of preschool and eight years of elementary education in Black spaces and all of the work we’ve done at home, I think I’ll feel confident about my daughter’s ability to navigate the high school experience without feeling lost or, worse, losing herself.

As for the present, when I look at who Naima is as a person and as a student at nearly 8 years old, I feel like we’ve been making the right choices. A few months ago, I overheard her pose a “Would you rather” question to one of her friends during a Zoom call: “Would you rather go to a Black school where everyone is Black but there’s homework or a not-Black school where you’re the only Black kid but there’s no homework?” When I asked Naima later how she’d answered, she said, “Well, I hate homework—a lot.” She paused for a second: “But, girl, I ain’t trying to be the only Black girl, OK?”

I firmly believe that this child is right where she needs to be. At no point has my little girl ever indicated that she thought white people to be more beautiful, more intelligent, more capable, or more moral than Black people. In spite of how much she knows about the ways that our people are harmed because of our race, Naima is quite convinced that to be a Black girl is to be glorious. It is, and she is, and it is my duty to protect her and that feeling so long as I draw breath.

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