I Am Not Your Negro

“Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” (link) Let’s expand that idea to my PLN or PLF (personal learning family) as some have started referring to it as. I surround myself with producers and creators who are constantly pushing themselves and others to learn. Andy Milne, the National Health Teacher of the Year, creator of slowchathealth.com and sendateacher.com, is one of these producers. Andy hit me up with the kind of text that causes immediate motivation. Check it out:

These texts are catalysts to my continued passion and growth. They are the wood that keeps my fire burning. For those who are unfamiliar with the movie here is a brief synopsis:

I Am Not Your Negro is a 2016 French, American, Belgian and Swiss documentary film directed by Raoul Peck, based on James Baldwin‘s unfinished manuscript Remember This House. Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar EversMalcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as his personal observations of American history. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards.

The first thing that was apparent to me is that I was ignorant of who Medgar Evers was. How did I not know about this man who is put in the same movie with Malcolm X and Dr. King!! According to the History Channel:

Medgar Evers (1925-1963) was an African-American civil rights activist whose murder drew national attention. Born in Mississippi, he served in World War II before going to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After attempting to segregate the University of Mississippi Law School in 1954, he became the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. Evers was subjected to threats as the most visible civil rights leader in the state, and he was shot to death in June 1963. Although accused killer Byron De La Beckwith escaped conviction, the unearthing of new evidence decades later resulted in Beckwith’s retrial and imprisonment. (link)

What amazed me about the killing of Medgar Evers was that his killer was finally convicted after 3 trials and 31 years. Mr. Evers death by most accounts had a huge contribution to the national outrage that forced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His legacy should be celebrated by one and all.

After the movie, Andy Milne and I had numerous conversations about what parts of the movie stuck with us. The line that resonated with Andy was when James Baldwin stated, “…that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed”. This started the conversation about what were we actually doing to make a change in the world? Check out his reflection blog about the movie by clicking here.

That line resonated with me but based on the other end of the spectrum. What do educators have to do not only abstain from being actors but prevent themselves from becoming witnesses? My first thought is that you must tailor your social media accounts to only follow education accounts that avoid discussions and posts about inequity within education and the United States. Unfortunately, it is all too common that educators with the biggest platforms avoid these conversations completely. This allows people to remain blissfully unaware of the harm they are doing to their students.

The next step you have to take is to insulate yourself from having real friendships and conversations with someone from a marginalized group. You can be acquaintances where you show up to work every day and say hello thinking it’s a real friendship; however, if you have not had a conversation about race, religion, SES, or the LGBTQIA community how deep is that relationship? I guarantee you if that person you are speaking with every day is from a marginalized group they have thoughts and ideas that they are willing to share if you only open the door.

Another necessary pattern that must be upheld is only reading writings that deal solely with the cognitive or psychomotor aspect of education. It is impossible to read about Social Emotional learning and the affective domain without addressing differences in how we look and act. I would add that the race, gender, religion, sexuality and national origin should be analyzed. If you are only reading material created by people who look and act like yourself you are only reinforcing your life experiences.

A big piece of the puzzle is that people must travel to conferences that avoid highering speakers whose passions lie in social justice. This allows them to feel that they are learning and growing professionally without having to confront the fact that they are harming the students who they don’t identify or empathize with. Organizers of conferences have a moral obligation to address the ongoing social justice crisis that is affecting our students and our world. This means being explicit with bringing in speakers who will address intersectionality.

The last thing educators must do is have confirmation bias when they do come across anything that deals with race, religion, gender, or sexuality. They must only go to the sites that are going to reinforce their views that People of Color should be able to work hard and get ahead or that LGBTQIA is a choice that people make. How else can you go through life never understanding how much harm you are doing? You have to have your thought process reinforced that things aren’t as bad as people say and that someone is just looking for the easy way out or is “milking the system”.

Circling back to Andy Milne’s musing that he is not doing enough acting I would say that learning is the first step in the process. Many well meaning white people have acted in a way they thought was beneficial to a cause without realizing they were co-opting or causing more harm to it because they didn’t do the necessary work to learn first.  In the movie, James Baldwin asks why we do not consider Nat Turner a hero. In order to form an opinion about Nat Turner we first have to understand who he was and what we did. In my opinion, we have to really understand history before we can even begin to address inequity in the present day society. How does slavery in the 1600’s effect black people today? How does de facto segregation and white flight in the 50’s and 60’s effect Students of Color today? We can not become actors until we become historical scholars. This is not said to absolve him or me from taking action it only speaks to the fact that before action is taken we must arm ourselves with information so that the measures we take are effective.

This is a movie that everyone must watch. James Baldwin is able to strike right to the heart of what is wrong with America and its history of race. There are numerous clips that show the level of his oratory skills. His words punctuate to the heart of how we have harmed People of Color in this country. It is worth watching the movie for those scenes alone.

Some of you may be wondering when will I stop bringing up race, gender, religion, and every other characteristic that separates people. My answer to you is never. Once we are aware that humans are being harmed how can we simply ignore it? As educators, we have a duty to foster empathy and caring within our students. This can only occur when we identify the differences between them and celebrate them. How can we do that if we are stuck worrying only about how to best present multiplication, writing, or movement to our students? We have to continue to learn about ourselves, our country, and our students. This means getting comfortable being uncomfortable. We need to be more like Andy. Become a knowledgeable witness first before becoming an actor.

Again read Andy’s reflection about the movie here.


2 thoughts on “I Am Not Your Negro

  1. iamvlewis

    This was a very good post Justin! Thank you for sharing. I have not seen the movie but am familiar with the work of those you mentioned in this post. The work must continue and we can never become comfortable as long as others are being treated unfairly. Continue to amplify your voice!


  2. Pingback: Am I A Witness? – #slowchathealth

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