Author, professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education
“I take the long view.”
She is known for her groundbreaking work in the fields of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Critical Race Theory. She is the author The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children , Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education; Crossing over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms.
We talk in her office a UWM. Behind her desk is an electronic keyboard, and I ask about it. “I started a couple years ago,” she tells me. “There were two things that I promised myself after I got tenure that I would do. One was that I would go back to the piano. I bought that piano right away, just didn’t take the lessons, because I’m always on the road. I have tried to discipline myself, and I found a teacher who’s very understanding of my crazy schedule. But when I became the chair, I said, I got to do something like this or I’m going to hurt somebody.”
Gloria talks here about her early teaching experience, what she sees as our most pressing concerns, today, and offers a unique frame of mind for navigating these contentious and difficult times.
I’m not going to lie to you. I didn’t want to be a teacher. You hear people say, “Oh, I always wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a little girl. I lined up my little dolls and…” Please. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I knew I didn’t want to work hard like my parents. My father was a laborer. He worked in a big laundry that served the entire city of Philadelphia and suburban areas. Thirty years of his work life. As big as it was, it was kind of a mom and pop operation, because the workers got paid in cash. It was very plantation-like in that almost all the houses on the street where the laundry was were owned by the laundry. Many of the workers lived in those houses, so they got those little pay envelopes on Friday and turned around on Saturday and paid that man the money back. His wife was a realtor. Even as a young kid, I could see there’s something desperately wrong with this. My dad took us there because he wanted us to see what it was he did, and he said, “You don’t want to be doing this. And he was right.”
I was thinking about this this morning when someone was saying something about growing up poor. I said “Well, I don’t know that we grew up poor.” To me, poor was, you didn’t have anything to eat or you didn’t have anywhere to sleep or you had absolutely no clothes. We had all those things; we just didn’t have any money.
My mom is the eternal optimist. “It’s going to be better, it’s going to be okay, don’t worry, sweetie, it’ll be just fine.” So I had the two perspectives.
What did you want to do with your life?
Well, I didn’t know. That was the problem. One of the people who inspired me was a man who was an intern to my church. He was attending Crozer Theological Seminary. Crozer is right outside of Philadelphia, the seminary that Martin Luther King went to. So this man was in the cauldron of the 60’s, had done a degree in history with an emphasis on black history. He decided that we weren’t going to just sit around and read Bible stories. So we read James Baldwin, and we read Richard Wright.
I told him a struggle I was having in my eleventh grade history class where they would say certain things about slavery or the lives of black folks coming to this country, and I would say, “Wait, that’s not right.” We’re all sitting there reading about triangular trade and rum and sugar and mercantilism as if there aren’t some people in the middle of this. We kind of teach it as if there’s something wrong with these people in Africa. Like, obviously if somebody could just get caught and be carted away, something’s wrong with them. And the fundamental question that emerges, that never gets asked in most teaching of U.S. history about this topic is what I think is the fundamental question: What were the Europeans doing in Africa? What was it about European culture that made people think it was okay to do this?
He said, “You need to go to New York and go into the Schomberg Library. It’s the collection dedicated to the lives of African and African-Americans. So I got on the train, and I went to New York, and just…. My mind was blown! I remember writing my final history paper on the Atlantic slave trade, which was deeply influenced by W.E.B. Dubois’s graduate thesis. It was a different interpretation of what was happening. I realized that my teacher hated what I said, but it was well documented.
Was he white?
Uh-huh. I never got my paper back, incidentally. Never got it back. Everybody got their paper back. I asked about it, and he says, “I don’t know; I’ve misplaced it. I’ll have to look for it.” So I got a B. But I was so psyched about history. Even though that particular teacher didn’t encourage me, I knew I wanted to study history. And I knew I liked writing, so those were my two things. But remember, I come from these working class parents, so I couldn’t come home after these people had put every dime they had into getting me an education and say, “Oh, okay. I’m a writer now. I’m going upstairs and think great thoughts.” My family is What day is pay day and where’s your insurance? So the logical thing to do was teach. I just kind of fell into it. I came into teaching in the late 60’s. That was a time of shortage. It was easy to get a job. It was very clear they were looking hard for teachers.
What were those first years like for you as a teacher?
I was still probably too young to be anybody’s teacher. Because I went to college really early. I’d just turned seventeen when I went to college. And I finished college in three and a half years. I just was a baby. [Laughs] I was going through some pictures the other day, and I saw a picture of myself from that first year. I said, “Gosh. Who would let this person teach their children?”
I was teaching white ethnic working class students whose parents hated my guts; who called me n-word to my face. There were kids bussed from the neighborhood I grew up in, because they were being integrated. But it wasn’t like you were sending these black kids to a really good white school. They’re going to a bad white school. So most of my kids were working class. I would say 99% of my white students started out at Catholic school and they got kicked out, so here I had these middle school-aged kids who had already experienced failure in the schools that their parents wanted them to be in.
I remember an important moment. One of my kid’s father died. Mr. Doherty. I collected money among my homeroom; I think we ended up with $14 and something, and I rounded it out to $15, put it in a card. Awful lot of money in 1968, because I was making a grand total of $7,600 a year. I was rich! I put the $15 in a card, and I took it to the Doherty’s house. They were having a traditional Irish wake! Mr. Doherty was stretched out right there in the living room. I don’t know if you know black culture, but we do not take ourselves around dead bodies on purpose. Like, oh man.
I was young, but something said, You just have to stay here. And I stayed. I stayed for the whole wake. They told stories about Mr. Doherty; they drank Irish whiskey; they sang songs. That decision to stay turned the community. The word got out: she cares about us; she honored us in this way.
When you look at the state of education, today, what worries you most?
I guess I’m most concerned about our inability to see the sheer brilliance of this generation. This is the smartest, most creative, most innovative kids the world has ever seen, and we don’t recognize it. What they do with technology, what they do with the English language, the way in which they envision things. It blows me away. It absolutely blows me away. They are pushing against the boundaries of knowledge in ways that I don’t think my generation did. My generation was out there in the streets, but we were trying to get at what is. “Let me in that school. Let me have that job.” This generation is, “Let me show you a job I’m making. Let me show you a form of music and dance and self-presentation that’s never been seen before. Watch this.” I’m afraid we’re missing all of that because we want to push them back into a very conservative constrained vision of what it means to be learning, what it means to be creative, what it means to be artistic.
I know my generation has sort of prided itself with being the politically astute one. I think that the so-called Generation X-ers, which are my older kids, were seen as more apathetic. They were the Reaganites who, Gordon Gecko probably was their icon, get out there and make some money, that’s all they heard. They were less politically engaged. But I think this next generation of which my younger daughter is part, because she’s much younger than her siblings, I think they’re back in the political mix. They’re asking hard questions. They have specialized interests, but is that so terrible? Some of them are just radical environmentalists, and I don’t mean radical as in irrational. Others are more concerned about issues of civil rights, which may include issues of sexuality. They’re not as bothered by difference.
My daughter is very geeky, very techno; she’s very sharp. So she’s always talking to these people who I never heard of. I haven’t heard of them because they’re on the other side of the world. A package will come, and I’m like, “Where did you get that from?” “My friend in China.” “You have friends in China?” I find this amazing. I’m distressed that some kids, because of poverty, are not able to connect up with this energy that I see flowing through youth culture
Can you describe for me your vision what school has to become?
It has to become the incubator for democracy. It just has to be. That was the original intent. I think we have moved away from that. We have decided it was going to be the incubator and the farm team for General Motors and IBM. That’s not what it’s supposed to be. Yes, you should be equipped to work, you should have some economic skills, but that’s not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is the development of democrats, small “d”, right? You leave here able to make good, well-informed decisions, so that you can walk into voting booths and say, “You know what? I’m picking this person, not because they look like me, not because they’re from my state, but because of this person’s ideas about something I care deeply about, and I actually understand this thing.” You have to be able to be in the discussion. You have to be a part of the debate.
I think one of the biggest disservices that we do to kids is we make their entire school life about their future. They’re living their life right now, at this moment. One of the reasons they don’t pay attention to us or believe us is because we keep telling them, “You’re going to need this one day. This is going to be important down the road.” Okay, but I’m twelve right now. What do I need right now and what’s going to be important right now? There is a “right now” moment in which we can engage kids, in which we can open their vistas, in which we can listen to them about how to teach them, and I don’t think you wait for reform. I think you reform yourself in the moment.
In 1994, in Dreamkeepers, you say, “No challenge has been more daunting than that of improving the academic achievement of African American students.” Do you still feel that way?
I take the long view. I used to teach history, so I always look back as well as look forward. While I have argued that the challenge we face is daunting, it’s not harder than other challenges that we have faced. When we’ve looked at the data and people are somewhat overwhelmed by how bad things are and everybody’s pointing fingers in every direction, I remind them that every generation has a task and this is ours. Our task is not harder than the task of generations before. I remind people that I am a mere four generations out of chattel slavery, three generations out of sharecropping, two generations out of legal Apartheid, segregation. So helping kids succeed in school is not harder than any of those tasks, they just happen to be the tasks of this generation.
Are we up to it?
We don’t have a choice. I’ll go back those four generations. Derrick Bell has this wonderful statement that says, “Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”
We’re not called to success; we are called to struggle. That’s our job. I struggled from the beginning. I saw my parents struggle; that’s what you do. You don’t actually love your work; you do the work because it’s part of the struggle that you’re participating in. Now, I have the luxury of loving my work so then I have to figure out, what’s the thing I want to struggle with?
In my book I call Beyond the Big House, Joyce King says, “You go out every day and you push the elephant, and the elephant has no inclination to move. The elephant has no need to move. But some days you get that elephant to move just a little bit, and it’s that day that you can sort of rejoice and be satisfied that you’ve done a good day’s work. But be mindful. When you go back the next day, the elephant may have moved right back the way it was. So you push it again.”
You have to struggle…
You have to struggle; you have to participate. Because at some point, even when systems don’t change, people grow strong from struggle.