Monday, October 25, 2021

The Infinite Value and “Invisible Man” (Ellison) of Failed Education Experiments

By Don Jessup Blake Long

First of a Series

There is good news today in the education world. First before sharing, let me say a little of the proclaimer. It is the famed Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), which has been a flagship model of education reform over two decades centered on overcoming the problems of intergenerational poverty that I myself have found inspiring and enjoyed the privilege of supporting in my professional work in public education policy, innovation and advocacy. It is literally an extraordinary envisioning, planning, investing, organizing and crafting of “97 blocks of endless possibilities” in the heart of Harlem. This transformed landscape seeks to form a total immersion for cradle to career healthy child development and academic achievement and continuous support at every age. In their own description, the HCZ education components include early childhood programs with parenting classes; public charter schools; academic advisors and afterschool programs for students attending regular public schools; and a support system for former HCZ students who have enrolled in college.  Health components include a fitness program; asthma management; and a nutrition program. Neighborhood services include organizing tenant associations, one-on-one counseling to families; foster care prevention programs; community centers; and an employment and technology center that teaches job-related skills to teens and adults.

A highlight of my career was going on a site visit to the school district in Oakland, California to explore their comprehensive community school model for our work at the Campaign for High School Equity, a coalition of leading civil rights organizations in Washington D.C., in working with national, state and local partners to achieve the equitable, full and effective implementation of college-, career- and civic-readiness standards for each and every student in every classroom, school and district And so I was heartened to hear the news today that HCZ announced that it is bringing its full-service community-based model of family and educational services to six other large cities.

“We believe the time is right to leverage our two decades of experience to advance cradle-to-career initiatives across the U.S.,” said Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Kwame Owusu-Kesse, who said the cities — Oakland, Calif.; Minneapolis; Chicago; Detroit; Newark; and Atlanta — were selected because they had “high-performing organizations on the ground, with a track record of success.”

As you can imagine, given this history and focus on equity and ending poverty, it has become a prominent exemplar of an entire family of similar school research-based models that transform education by transforming schools and their surrounding environments into “promise neighborhoods,” “living cities,” extensive “networked improvement communities” (NICs) and enriching learning communities, where all the cognitive, social and emotional needs and strengths of each and every student and student community are nurtured for preparing every high school graduate for success in life, school and work.  These are the comprehensive “cradle-to-career-to-grave” programs that are similarly intended to correspond with the “right stuff” of our market-based society and its optimizing of contemporary heroic individuality, as well as the primary emphasis of constitution-based liberal individual pursuits of happiness that “are the stuff dreams are made of.”

Yes, I do belie a note of disenchantment and let me say enlightened skepticism with these efforts, as I will explain later, but first a little more historical context, a brief journey back to the 1600s and the New York City of colonial New Amsterdam.

It is quite fitting that HCZ is centered in New York City and particularly Harlem, given this city’s rich heritage as a place of Black Renaissance and national leadership in the peace, labor, civil and human rights movements going back at least to the first decades of the 1900s. Interestingly, as a brief aside, this longer history of the civil rights movement is strangely forgotten in our conventional wisdom that it began in the 1950s mainly in the South, sparked by key events like the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregated education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and under the leadership primarily of Martin Luther King, Jr and his peers in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I suppose this is simply a reflection of what the great poet, James Baldwin said is still heart-achingly and eloquently true: “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

But more on this later, first let us return to the beginning of this original trading outpost and emerging colony of the Dutch. It is a testimony to the complex, various and paradoxical history of American Slavery, American Freedom, as well described of colonial Virginia by historian, Edmund Morgan in a 1975 work that still endures in relevance despite the many shifts in historiography and scholarship since.  But I found it astonishing to discover that the origins of this hideous paradox lie just as cruelly in this northern city 400 years ago and, in fact, it can be said that Jim Crow originated here among enslaved and freed Blacks and indentured and free Whites. This makes all the more remarkable the world and history that Blacks made on their own, regardless of their oppression, their heritage of cultural, economic and social life, and the ongoing story of renaissance, resistance and liberation. This is a powerful current of their leadership into the larger gathering momentum of struggle and diverse, inclusive leadership for realizing the whole promise of a democratic people.

In 1621, the Dutch West India Company built a settlement in New Amsterdam and began introducing African labor. First Dutch and then English merchants built the city’s local economy to supply ships for the trade in slaves and in what slaves produced – sugar, tobacco, indigo, coffee, chocolate, and ultimately, cotton. New York ship captains and merchants bought and sold slaves along the coast of Africa and in the taverns of their own city. Slaves constructed Fort Amsterdam and its successors along the Battery. With the aggressive increase in the slave trade and the expansion of the city, an official slave market opened in 1711 by the East River on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets. By 1730, 42 percent of the population owned slaves, a higher percentage than in any other city in the country except Charleston, South Carolina.

Enslaved Africans built the wall from which Wall Street gets its name. They built the roads, the docks, and most of the important buildings of the early city – the first city hall, the first Dutch and English churches, the city prison and the city hospital. According to a new exhibit, Slavery in New York, as many as 20 percent of colonial New Yorkers were enslaved Africans. “Almost every businessman in 18th-century New York had a stake, at one time or another, in the traffic in human beings.” And with this came the punitive laws and customs to enforce human bondage and segregation even if freed.

An act of the New York General Assembly, passed in 1730, provided that:

Forasmuch as the number of slaves in the cities of New York and Albany, as also within the several counties, towns and manors within this colony, doth daily increase, and that they have oftentimes been guilty of confederating together in running away, and of other ill and dangerous practices, be it therefore unlawful for above three slaves to meet together at any time, nor at any other place, than when it shall happen they meet in some servile employment for their masters’ or mistresses’ profit, and by their masters’ or mistresses’ consent, upon penalty of being whipped upon the naked back, at the discretion of any one justice of the peace, not exceeding forty lashes for each offense.

This colonial history is a stark portrait of the interlocking complicity across all the colonies in the enslavement of Africans.

To briefly carry this forward to the Civil War period, the New York City draft riots (July 13–16, 1863) are considered by historian Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, the “largest civil and most racially-charged urban disturbance in American history.” The riots began as a working-class protest among whites against the draft and in particular resentment against the rich who could afford $300 to hire a substitute. But it quickly irrupted in racist and nativist hatreds, fears and violence, including a long simmering pro-confederacy support; the death toll rising up to 2,000 persons in some estimates, including lynchings of Black men and the destruction, anarchy and chaos led by gangs in New York and from Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But the Harlem of this incandescent firmament across history that is most memorable to me is that of the 1930s, which included civil and human rights protests led by Blacks. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in these and found them inspirational of his prophetic witness for justice, peace and his own ethics founded on living the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Then after World War II, as America too quickly transitioned into global leadership in the Cold War, Harlem and New York became an epicenter of protest against this permanent war, racism and social and economic injustice. My own parents, Donald Mann and Ida Blake Long, left their worlds of elite colleges, privilege and affluence and met and fell in love and came wholly alive in the romance and revolutionary ferment of this city. Here they and countless others became what the extraordinary theologian, Quaker mystic, civil rights leader in nonviolent resistance and mentor to Dr. King, Howard Thurman, said was most needed in the world:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

They lived, marched and sang with and for others fighting for labor, peace, integration, human dignity and lifting all out of poverty into more humane and loving worlds. They knew the collective effervescence in solidarity with the “multitudes” of Walt Whitman and the chants democratic of not only praying and singing one’s faith convictions but living them with hearts, minds and souls on fire. They too joyously and sufferingly joined in this revolutionary movement and made changing the world their grand narrative, with the obscure and some famous like the great Paul Robeson, global citizen, artist and singer, whom they had the pleasure of his gracious meeting and conversing with them; my parents and all of these coming together of every background, ethnicity, history and color lived as fully as they could and then gave even more. Such is the compelling nature of Bonhoeffer’s “costly discipleship” in Christ and they each paid dearly for it. 

This picture is of Paul Robeson at a 1948 protest march with the Civil Rights Congress in support of an anti-lynching law, end to poll tax and many other critical issues then and still now.

Other liberals who suported the civil rights movement in this period of McCarthyism, loyalty oaths and intollerance were somehow able to follow Christ and other faith traditions in less wholehearted radiance and more comfortable and profitable ways. They unlike my parents, and all those in this kind of Harlem Renaissance were able to cope, rationalize or evade the traumas of the world, including the “death that is poverty,” as described by Gustavo Gutierrez, The Theology of Liberation. And many of these persecuted those in the late 1940s and 1950s who felt “an international spirit abroad of peace and brotherhood” viciously and enormously or quietly and subtly. Nonetheless, those who resonate with this spirit provide the heartache and eloquent testimony to the tragic fact that the poor and peacemakers are far too often on the side of the Cross who do all the dying and sacrificing, while the rich and powerful, the complacent and conforming, are on the side of those who do all living and new creating, including those who make and are made by “just wars.” They lead or accept the corresponding “just hierarchies” that oppress and impoverish the ones who labor, feed, serve and even die for them. But it is the first who have the true courage, empathy and creativity. They righteously dissent and protest, enrich the world with their originality, poetic imagination and sensibility, their agape and romantic loves. They thereby “live lives worthy dying for,” as Jefferson aptly put the message of Jesus Christ

This incandescent firmament of Harlem and New York City is a rich legacy, a magnificent and heroic ancestry that expects great things of posterity to fulfill and surpass their efforts and to go where they could not go. It is also a complex loom of ascendant and descendant threads. It is riven with ugliness, hatred and division too. For example, as recounted in a Washington Post article in 2017:

After a decade of meetings, rallies and black parent organizing, on Feb. 3, 1964, over 460,000 students and teachers stayed out of school to protest the lack of a comprehensive desegregation plan for New York City schools — the largest civil rights demonstration of the era, far outstripping the March on Washington. But the city bowed to white parents’ pressure not to desegregate.

As that episode suggests, opposition to civil rights activism was fierce in New York. In 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in a poll conducted by the New York Times, a majority of white people in New York City said the civil rights movement had gone too far. Respondents spoke of black people receiving “everything on a silver platter” and of “reverse discrimination” against whites. Nearly half said that picketing and demonstrations hurt black people’s cause.

Civil rights opponents in New York weren’t trumpeting segregation at the schoolhouse door. Rather they laid blame for black poverty, over-policing of black communities, educational disparities and black uprisings at the foot of black people’s “cultural deprivation,” not the histories of segregation and discrimination that had shaped this city’s political, economic and social life since the 17th century. Which makes it unsurprising that a sold-out audience cheered Alabama Gov. George Wallace at Madison Square Garden, when he campaigned in New York City in 1968.

Malcolm X rightly can have the last word in my attempt to provide historical context for the good news today announced by HCZ. He once observed. “Ultraliberal New York had more integration problems than Mississippi. The North’s liberals have been for so long pointing accusing fingers at the South and getting away with it that they have fits when they are exposed as the world’s worst hypocrites.” I find Malcolm embodies this legacy of Harlem Renaissance, resistance, liberation and what I consider the “Utopian Inclusive Democracy” tradition that is dangerously vanishing in our country and the world.

As beautifully and wisely written by Maulana Karenga, “Malcolm is an Imhotepian man i.e. multidimensional; offering a series of models and messages of rich and timeless value, as a model master teacher, student, organizer, critical thinker, and revolutionary, and as a model of Black manhood in the most moral, mental, and cooperatively practice ways.” (See Karenga, “The meaning and Measure of Malcolm X: Critical Remembrance and Rightful Reading.”) And in his essay, “Malcolm and Martin,” James Baldwin concludes he was the gentlest man he knew, not a savior, but servant, of the spiritual property of the people who produced him.

“What made him unfamiliar and dangerous was not his hatred for white people but his love for blacks, his apprehension of the horror of the black condition (doubly oppressed) and the reasons for it, and his determination so to work on their hearts and minds that they would be enabled to see their condition and change it themselves.”

This reliance upon deep historical analysis and the people themselves to change it is the critical difference offered by the radical Christ of the “costly discipleship” of Bonhoeffer, Robeson, my parents and the multitudes who lead and follow in the same but differing ways. “This is to be a true revolutionary in sense of a return to a former principle and in the sense of an upheaval.” (Baldwin, Martin and Malcolm. p. 298)

And with this historical context, I will return to where I began with the good news in the education world and continue tomorrow with what has come out of this great harvest adn momentum in the past.  

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