Category Archives: Education

ONE BOOK AWAY: THE SALVATION OF MICHAEL CLEERE

I have learned myriad lessons from my perch as an African-American studies professor enjoying the privilege of working with American youth. Probably the most encouraging of all of these lessons has been that most young people are what could be termed “one book away” from transforming a directionless life into “a life worth living.” I, along with thousands of other educators, fervently believe that the path to “a life worth living” is strewn with substantive writings that are essential to both their present and future.

I honestly hold this belief of being “one book away” as a transformative, if not a sacred lesson that every educator should believe it. My faith in this intellectual principle flows from two spaces, the first being I am a product of this mantra and the second being I have successfully applied this principle to my students.

Although I do not remember the date, I do recall being nineteen-years-old when I traveled with my mother to the University of Akron to hear Jawanza Kunjufu speak about a host of topics. I am not ashamed to relate that at that moment in my life, I was a directionless African-American male who had yet to find his way in life. The credit for this day’s impact is not attributable to Kunjufu’s lengthy presentation. My transformation occurred after the presentation when my mother introduced me to this esteemed educator, and he offered me a piece of advice that reverberates with me to this very moment. Jawanza Kunjufu looked at me sincerely and stated: “Young man, when you go back to your collegiate campus, I want you to go to the library and pick up a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I had no comprehension that this directive was my moment, my “one book away” moment that transformed my life forever.

It would be impossible to overstate the extraordinary influence that The Autobiography of Malcolm X had in my life. This book that I read from cover-to-cover five consecutive times in the course of a week instantaneously changed me. If African-American studies were a drug, I was most certainly hooked by this first hit.

As I am confident that you can imagine, this “one book away” transformation that has framed my life for the past thirty years is an educational tool that I have repeatedly applied to the young African-American males that enter my course as unanchored as I was that moment my path crossed that of Jawanza Kunjufu. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that of all the students I have instructed during the past twenty years, the individual whose transformation most closely mirrors my own, meaning as a result of their exposure to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was a young brother from Dallas, Texas, named Michael Cleere.

Trust me when I say that the moment Michael Cleere entered my course, I instantaneously made several significant judgments regarding this brother on-site; few, if any of these observations extended beyond neutral. Mr. Cleere was a young black male covered with several tattoos, sitting in the back corner of the classroom, staring off out the window, and determined to not engage me in any shape, form, or fashion; except for the tattoos, he reminded me of myself twenty years prior.

Eventually, this young man lowered his defense mechanisms and engaged the robust conversations that we had in that course. However, things took a decided turn when Michael Cleere engaged The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he not only took to it like a fish to water but also differentiated himself from his contemporaries as one of the most astute and serious-minded students I have ever encountered. Through Malcolm X’s story, Mr. Cleere had crossed an all-important threshold and would enjoy the fruits of that momentous occasion for the rest of his life.

I am certain that any, including the subject of this posting, are wondering why I chose to write about this matter. Well, the answer is fairly straightforward. During the annual homage that all revolutionary-minded African-American men must pay to Malcolm X on his birthday, Michael Cleere posted about his reverence of Brother Malcolm. I took the occasion to ask him a simple query, “Who has been more influential in your life? Me or Malcolm?” Although the question was presented in jest, the answer was humbling. Mr. Cleere responded, “Ahhhhh Doc, that’s a tough one. You know that I love Malcolm, but I also realize that without you, I would have never met Malcolm.” I could do nothing other than laugh at the politically correct answer that was carefully crafted to offend neither Malcolm nor I.

One thing is for certain; I am proud to say that I have helped so many of our people who are “One book away” find that book. Trust me when I say that it is an experience that brings truth to the saying that “It is better to give than to receive.”

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, race and Culture, 2017.

INSIDE OF A BOOK: THE PERFECT PLACE TO HIDE IMPORTANT THINGS FROM AFRICAN-AMERICAN MALES

While discussing the difficulty that I was experiencing regarding my students non-desire to read anything of substance, an acquaintance shared a remarkably sad story that verified my complaints in an unusual manner. The story went as follows, “I know a brother who recently had his house broken into. And I am telling you that these thieves ransacked the place trying to find a hidden stash of money. It would be an understatement to say that they destroyed everything in the place. Unfortunately for the thieves, they never found the stash because the brother hid his money in the least likely of places, the books on his bookshelf. Incredibly, the only thing left untouched were the bookshelves and the books that they held.” At this revelation, I mused, “I guess what they say is true, ‘If you want to hide something from black folk, put it in a book.’”

Although these events led me to shake my head, however, as an educator and writer I must tell you that this event holds far more meaning and significance than one could imagine. Experience has taught me that we should not be so quick to dismiss the age-old statement of “If you want to hide something from black folk, all you need to do is put it in a book.” I have come to understand that it is increasingly rare to meet African-Americans, particularly males, who read classic black literature; black females are not above criticism in this regard as the vast majority of them have never engaged writers such as Alice Walker or J. California Cooper, however, they are extremely familiar with Zane and the filth they call “urban fiction.”

The decline in literacy within the African-American community is a crisis that has gone largely unnoticed. The decrease in literacy, particularly among African-American males, is only the calm before the storm. The alluded to “dumbing down” of African-American male students is as pernicious a danger to their existence as AIDS, police brutality or even the Trump Presidency.

Consider for a moment the following indicators that highlight the dire straits of African-American male literacy.

  • The average African-American (male and female) 12th-grader reads at the same level as white 8th-graders.
  • The 12th-grade reading scores for African-American males were significantly lower than all other racial/ethnic groups.
  • Only 14% of African-American 8th-graders are proficient in reading.

For black males, the absence of literacy promises a future devoid of any understanding of African-Americans past struggles and extreme difficulty securing employment sufficient to take care of themselves and any offspring they may produce. There is absolutely no doubt that each of the above variables is crucial to African-American males’ maturation into adulthood. Obviously, there is no other path to satisfying the demands of African-American females possessing the desire to marry a black man than to grow them within our community via proactive socialization and the development of what can be best termed a black economy that rivals those of other groups.

A crucial aspect of every uplift effort within Black America rests upon literacy, the process of engaging information, synthesizing it, and then making logical decisions regarding how it can be best used to benefit our group. Until we get this simple process down, we will continue to experience the same frustrations that have seemingly dogged us like an ominous cloud.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

HOW A GROUP OF EIGHTH-GRADERS FROM ARNOLD MIDDLE SCHOOL REMINDED ME OF WHY I DO WHAT I DO

Like everyone else, I am susceptible to growing weary while performing the mentally straining and emotionally exhausting heavy lifting required to provide the next generation of African-Americans even a remote possibility of succeeding in a society where their inferiority is an absolute given. There are periodic moments when one’s will to continue this never-ending fight is nearly extinguished; without fail, a symphony of doubt, frustration, and questions regarding the seeming futility of the struggle appear as the weary blues. The only balm to the mental and emotional exhaustion mentioned above is the occurrence of some event that reminds you that it has not all been in vain. Unfortunately, the alluded to validation cannot be ordered on command; instead it arrives via unexpected sources at opportune moments.

Recently I was approached regarding my willingness to aid The Collegiate 100 — a subsidiary of the 100 Black Men of America — an organization of extremely impressive African-American collegians that are simultaneously positioning themselves for success while lifting others as they climb the ladder of success, via addressing a group of 8th Graders from Arnold Middle School during a scheduled campus event. Mentors selected these 8th Graders for a host of reasons. During my adolescence, they would have been labeled “at-risk youth,” a term that indicated more about environs than intellectual capabilities and prowess. I knew such a group very well as years ago I carried a similar label. I accepted the assignment without hesitation.

As usual, I arrived early to the 9:30 event and busied myself researching topics for future blog postings, however, slightly before the scheduled start time, a cadre of students, the majority of them currently enrolled in one of my History courses arrived and began their preparations for the young scholars’ arrival. Within minutes our “guests of honor” arrived, took their assigned seat, and were listening to my presentation regarding issues such as self-responsibility, planning, and the development of a familial educational legacy. Put simply; my address sought to inform these young people that they are the primary determinant of their success and the future of this entire nation was resting upon their broad and sturdy shoulders.

One of the promises that I made to myself as a student was that if ever provided the public speaking opportunities that I would never replicate the droning and draining lecture style of orators who operated out of an old authoritarian style of I lecture and you passively listen to my brillance. Put simply; such characters left no room for interaction with by the end of their address was an auditorium full of inattentive listeners. Hence, I always consider it essential that I interact with my audience via a “Question and Answer” segment.

As previously mentioned, the desperately needed jolt that re-energizes those who have grown weary of the Herculean task of uplifting Black America invariably comes at an opportune moment from unexpected sources. I am proud to relate that I received a much-needed jolt from this group of 8th Graders who dared to betray a steely silence that always accompanies persons of their age by peer pressure. To my delight, this group engaged me in an unusual manner that simultaneously displayed their brilliance, intellectual curiosity, and previous exposure to success formulas resting on personal accountability. Their mentors are to be applauded as these children demonstrated an unusual ability to answer an array of issues presented to them in a manner that betrayed their youth. Their superior intellect was displayed at every turn except when I queried “Where do you plan to be five years from now?”

After several questions regarding by background, my alma mater, the degrees I have earned and books that I have written, most were shocked to learn that I was a first-generation collegian. As expected, the conversation turned toward questions surrounding why they should attend a Historically Black College or University.

The question, poised by a brilliant young lady on the left side of the auditorium, was a particularly piercing one of “Since you have been to a white university and now work at a Historically Black University, why should we come to an H.B.C.U.?” Although I have much love for my alma mater, THE Ohio State University, to the best of my ability I explained to this attentive audience that at a place such as Prairie View A & M University “You will not only be invited into, but also joining and embraced by an esteemed tradition of black thinkers, educators, and professionals who are dedicated to aiding you in traveling down a road that they created for your success. You matter mightily at this place from the moment that you make the decision to enter and well-beyond your exit. You are going to find that we will nurture you, challenge you, and guide you every step of the way as you pursue your dreams, goals, and aspirations. At this place, we are serious about producing productive people.”

By the end of our interaction, the vast majority of these individuals had expressed their intention to become Prairie View Panthers and vowed to keep in touch during their high school tenure. As I gathered my belongings and prepared to exit the venue, one young man rushed up to me and related the following, “I thought about where I will be five years from now. I am going to be sitting in your History class right here at PVAMU.” I could do nothing other than smile at him and respond, “Sir, I’m looking forward to it. And I truly mean that.”

As I ended my exchange with this obviously brilliant young man, one of the chaperones for this youth group approached me and stated the following. “You probably don’t remember me, but I was one of your students.” I searched my mental Rolodex for him, yet came up empty. He continued, “I looked different back then. I had a big Afro and gold fronts (teeth). However, I wanted to take a moment to thank you for all that you did for me. I am assuming an Assistant Principal position next week.” I could do nothing but laugh at the fantastic news and responded, “From gold fronts to Assistant Principal?” We both shared a hearty laugh at the development.

One thing was sure, as I exited the building, I knew that these young people had made an indelible impact on me; an impact that re-charged my emotional state and simultaneously reminded me of why I do the work that I do.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

“Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?”: How Desegregation Played a Pivotal Role in Removing Black Male Teachers from the American Classroom

I have come to understand that when I teach the Civil Rights Movement, there are several things that I can expect. One of the most prominent is that the vast majority of my students believe that the desegregation of America’s schools was an undeniable positive occurrence in black education. From their myopic perspective, school desegregation provided a highly sought after route to black liberation with its infusion of better materials, facilities, and teachers. Trust me when I say that the vast majority of my students believe that the U.S. Supreme Court mandate to desegregate the schools “with all deliberate speed” was an unequivocal positive for Black America. As I am confident that you can imagine, my viewpoint conflicts with such a perspective.

The manner in which my students battle against my nuanced criticism of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision reveals a shocking emotional investment that shows a strident belief in meritocracy; the idea that if you work hard in America, success will eventually occur. Experience has taught me that the most certain way to undress school desegregation is via the following query; “How many of you had an African-American male teacher during your K-12 experience? Please do not count any teacher who was involved in school athletics in that number.” There may be a few students who indicate that they have had such an indicator by raising their hand. However, a brief survey reveals that very few students have had more than two African-American male teachers who were not attached to some athletic sport during their K – 12 educational endeavors. This unfortunate reality provides a perfect opportunity for me to query, “To what do you attribute that fact?”

As I am confident that you can imagine, there is a litany of excuses/explanations for the absence of African-American males from the teaching profession.

  • “Teaching doesn’t pay, so they refuse the work.”
  • “Being a teacher is woman’s work.”
  • “Too many of them end up in prison and not college.”

I am confident that the flawed explanations would continue into infinity if I did not stop them.

None of my students possess enough knowledge to trace the absence of African-American male teachers to the cause of this matter, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

When discussing this issue, I frequently take Malcolm X’s position and ask my charges if they are confident that it was a wise decision to abandon black schools to integrate with a hostile white community? I remind my students that they are integrating with a community that has publicly articulated a non-desire to have African-Americans anywhere near them unless it was in a subservient role that bolstered their monopoly upon limited politico-economic resources. My students are not alone in their myopic view of school desegregation. Integrationist oriented Civil Rights leaders also failed to understand that the integration of American schools would have an unconscionable impact upon not only the minds of African-American children but also ensure the disappearance of black male teachers. Malcolm X considered the decision to integrate so unwisely that he admonished his moderate Negro leaders that “Only a fool would let his enemy educate his children.”

Over sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered school desegregation, it is evident that African-American male teachers are the primary victims of desegregation. Consider for a moment that before the Brown v. Board of Education decision, educators made up over fifty percent of the black professional class; male teachers were approximately half of that population. Things have certainly changed since Brown in regards to the presence of African-American male educators. At this present moment,

  • 75% of American teachers are female
  • 83% of American teachers are white
  • Less than 2% of American teachers are black men

In hindsight, it is evident that Brown blocked a robust pipeline that consistently delivered black male educators to black schools.

After Brown, white school administrators efficiently replaced black male teachers with white women. The alluded to occupational displacement was motivated by an extreme desire by white managers to avoid an agreed upon racial taboo that forbid the placement of African-American men in positions of authority over any white, most notably a white female. An irrational paranoia that reduced African-American males to a monolithic population whose greatest desire was sexual contact with any white woman motivated this decision. Put simply, the pipeline that routinely produced black male educators before Brown was not only halted but also deconstructed by the Supreme Court order.

It is this historical reality that has forced a consortium of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Southern University, Tuskegee University, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Alcorn State University and Claflin University) to join in an endeavor that is ironically being called Project Pipeline Repair: Restoring Minority Male Participation and Persistence in Educator Preparation Programs (Project PR).

Project PR, supported by a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is seeking to “eliminate social and economic barriers” that preclude the presence of African-American male teachers in today’s classrooms.

I hope that Project PR is a resounding success as we are in dire need for African-American male teachers who could serve as educators and mentors to the next generation of American youth, regardless of their race, gender, or ethnicity. However, as an individual who has studied Race in America for the better portion of his life, I am slightly perturbed that this movement to restock this nation’s schools with African-American male educators is occurring without any discussion regarding why there are so few of them at this present moment. The historical record shows that their absence is not due to social dysfunction or personal flaws, rather it results from white school administrators discriminatory hiring practices in the wake of Brown. It was their dastardly decision that facilitated the disappearance of black male educators from American schools and the subsequent decline of a quality education for African-American students.

The historical record definitively proves this matter. Until this nation places this conversation within its proper historical context, it is not only doing itself a severe disservice but also extending one of its greatest traditions of conveniently excluding significant aspects of its storied tradition of discrimination and racism. Until we tell the truth about American racial matters, this nation will continue to be haunted by this demonic spirit.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

The Failure to Prioritize: An Essential Ingredient in the Extension of Black America’s Oppression

There is probably no more frustrating quality found among African-Americans today than their inability to evaluate current events and then prioritize. Trust me when I say that it is our failure to prioritize matters affecting our collective well-being that not only extends African-American suffering but also makes us accessories to our oppression.

The lack of a significant response from Black America regarding Trump’s decision to repeal the Affordable Care Act speaks volumes about the average African-American’s inability to monitor, prioritize, and respond accordingly to pressing political matters. Instead of addressing the looming curtailing of reasonable access to health care, Black America has preoccupied itself with relatively mundane issues such as a proposed Atlanta Orgy, the 20th Anniversary of the Notorious B.I.G.’s murder, or some other brain draining social media topic such as Remy Ma’s ‘Shether.’

Considering the disproportionate amount of time that African-Americans spend upon topics that can be efficiently termed “mental masturbation” exercises, one could be fooled into believing that their community is not lagging behind other groups in every single political, economic, and educational measurable. A critical mass of African-Americans decision to bury their head in the sand regarding our contemporary politico-economic blight that paves the way for African-Americans to behave as if they do not have a single care in the world, put simply, so many within our community behave like “good time Charlie’s.”

Although I would never deny the pernicious effects of discrimination and institutionalized racism, the failure to take life seriously also severely compromises African-American progress at every turn. Black students across a wide-swath of educational levels often behave as if they have absolutely no interest in learning anything of utility during their educational experience. Anyone who has dealt with our people will tell you that the following variables exist. There is a segment of African-American males of varying ages and socioeconomic classes proudly flaunt their immoral ability to skirt responsibility for their offspring. Many females within our midst busy themselves executing voluminous amounts of unnecessary mischief that invariably facilitates the arrival of a small mindedness that serves as the primary socializing agent in their children’s lives.

Make no mistake about it, until politicization becomes the standard mindset of Black America, these issues will not only remain but also serve as a reliable point for our individual and collective exploitation.

This issue should be considered an absolute blessing and curse. The blessing is that the development of a politicized mind and the ability to prioritize continually shifting political issues is achievable via a voracious regimen of study dedicated to Black life. The curse is that the most reliable agent in black activism is an outrageous offense from whites. Until the African-American community abandons its usual reactionary position and begins to understand that pressing political matters such as the repealing of the Affordable Care Act are markedly more important than the anniversary of the death of the Notorious B.I.G., ‘Shether’, or an event such as the “ATL Orgy” that definitively proves the comprehensive nature of the social dysfunction enveloping far too many members of our community, liberation will continue to elude Black America. The addressing of this matter requires an abandonment of reactionary politics. It can be done. However, it is solely up to Black America, and there is “the blessing and the curse” that continually haunts our collective liberation.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2017.