This is a guest post by Kraig Knibb, a doctoral student at Stony Brook University in the School of Social Welfare. He is a social justice researcher, with a specific focus on education, culture, and power among students of African-American descent. He attributes his penchant for social justice to his Panamanian mother and his emphasis on employing culture as an instrument of power to his Jamaican father (as well as his love for Bob Marley).
African-American scholars — myself included — have been struggling for years to explain the problems within the American system of education concerning the education of Black students. I know that the increasing focus on “testing” and “accountability” is important, in part because some African-American students, especially those from low-income homes, do not test that well. Still, receiving an education in America is also about our children’s human growth potential, that transition from being to becoming.
With that said, is the ethos of American public school system an empowering one for students of African-American descent or one that undermines their needs? Have we taken for granted what receiving an education is supposed to be? What purposes – beyond getting a diploma and a good job — is a K-12 education supposed to produce? And is the school system currently one that validates and develops the cultural essence of Black youth?
One scholar to consider and respond to this issue was iconic historian, sociologist, and Pan-Africanist, W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois pondered whether “American Negroes” (or African-Americans) have a need for separate schooling because of their history, group experiences, and memories. Du Bois, an African-American himself, viewed Blacks as a “distinct entity” whose spirit demands a certain type of education for its development.
Allow me to say more about the “distinct entity” idea.
Merriam’s Dictionary defines “distinct” as presenting a clear and unmistakable impression on others; being distinct “means that something (or someone) is distinguished as being apart from others.” In other words, “distinct” means to be different and, in this specific context, to be racially different. This idea of a “distinct being” is a deeply important consideration for educating Black youth because they been made “distinct beings” in unproductive and destructive ways. For example, African-American are frequently referred to by scholars, policy makers, and professional educators as “at risk,” “disadvantaged,” “underrepresented” and “underprivileged.”
Now, I know that African-American students often achieve academic success. Yet they are still frequently made “‘distinct” by being cast in an inferior position, “distinguished” from their white peers in belittling term, presumed to be victims of inadequate resources.
The idea of developing an education for a “distinct being” as Du Bois intended is lost and blurred from view when research and policy is deficit-focused, as in the “disadvantaged” example above. I think this focus on “lack” and “deficits” is flawed. In my research, I begin from a position of the strength of African-American students. That said, an alternative approach to understanding how Black students are “distinct” shifts the representation” of racial difference from a liability leading to social oppression (an inferior position) to one of cultural strength and the development of supportive social environments. In my own research,, I plan to do so by comparing the experiences of students from Afrocentric schools — those that specifically serve Black students and celebrate African-American culture — to traditional westernized schools in America where Afrocentrism is given short shrift.
My research at SUNY Stonybrook aims to answer several questions. One is whether there are differences between the two types of schools — Afrocentric vs. traditional — in student perceptions of how nurturing and supportive their teachers are. Further, I want to determine how students from both types of schools think about the purposes of education: Is it to pass a test? Get into college or prepare for a career? Learn about and celebrate one’s heritage in order to gain confidence and pride?
I don’t know if W.E.B. Du Bois was right or wrong. I plan on finding out.