This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the first national gathering of Black Male Educators Convenings (BMEC) in Philadelphia. I was both inspired and challenged. In sacred spaces like the convening, where Black men are often coming from schools and places that are predominately female and White, I try to think carefully about my presence, both in simply being there but also in asserting questions and responses. I also asked myself, other than the wonder of being in a space with hundreds of brilliant Black educators, what am I to carry with me?
The Floating Freedom School
During Saturday’s final session, a panelist talked about John Berry Meachum, born a slave in 1789. Meachum earned enough to purchase his freedom, his father’s freedom, and his wife’s freedom. He also bought the freedom of numerous slaves. But there was something else about his legacy that has held my attention since this weekend.
In 1847, Missouri banned all education for blacks. Meachum responded by equipping a steamboat with a library, desks, and chairs and opened the “Floating Freedom School” on the Mississippi River beyond the reach of Missouri officials.
In education and business, we speak a great deal about leadership and leadership development, which Meachum’s life personifies. I can only imagine the challenges Meachum faced when creating the Floating Freedom School—fear, finances, labor, death, faith—yet still he did it. And because of his work, he
left a lasting impact on St. Louis. His school educated hundreds of free blacks and slaves including James Milton Turner who after the Civil War would found Lincoln Institute, the first school of higher education for blacks in Missouri.
This man, born a slave, did all of this, which begs the question, “What more can I do?”
Schools are designed to be efficient engines of wealth transfer.
On this same panel, another guest said that schools are designed to be “efficient engines of wealth transfer, particularly from Black boys” to other people and entities. I had definitely considered that schools are designed for compliance and financial gain for someone other than the student of color, but seeing schools as “efficient engines of wealth transfer,” was a startling image. The first level of wealth transfer, I imagine, is the funds associated with school enrollment that pay salaries. Then, when Black boys are under educated and lack opportunities, it increases their chances of prison where they are again “efficient engines of wealth transfer” to the prison industry and companies that benefit from prison slave labor.
Since the convening, I learned that
today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day. Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives approximately 53 percent of its sales.
For some of us, I think it’s difficult to imagine that a classroom can pave the way to prison for students. But we already know that special education leads to jail for too many American children. We know that at least 73% of young people with emotional disabilities who drop out of school are arrested within five years. And we know that 80% of all special education students are Black and Latino males.
I imagine that no educator wants to believe that they are at all a part of what has helped to establish the 21st-Century Slave in America. It’s really a horrible thought isn’t it? Slavery. It being illegal to learn to read and for one’s marriage to be regarded as illegitimate. To know that your children, your wife, your husband could be taken from you at any moment. And America continues to have yet another legal form of slavery, in some ways, branching directly from the seats of American classrooms.
But there is hope.
The possibility that lived in John Berry Meachum teaches us that there is a way out of 21st Century Slavery, that even when the law allows for the oppression of one group or another, there are ways to build around it, float above it and profoundly and positively impact generations to come. And that not only is it possible, it is our responsibility.
The thing is, I know the frustration of wanting an answer–how to achieve the possible when it seems so impossible. As a school leader, I’d heard lots of inspirational anecdotes and outrageous directives. I’d faced the perennial challenge from my supervisor to improve staff retention while my personal convictions directed me to affirm student perspectives. These two outcomes were sometimes in conflict.
Yet there is still an answer.
What I am continuing to learn is that revolutionaries like Meachum didn’t necessarily know the answer. And if he did have a solution, he didn’t know what the outcome would be or the cost he might pay in the long run. But as with anyone who makes steady progress on anything, I imagine that he was clear on his next step, and then he took the next, and the next.
Meachum teaches us that leadership, as it seems to me, is about the belief in what is possible and why it matters, the clarity about what is in our hands to do, and the courageous discipline to do it, all for the sake of lifting up others, especially the most oppressed.
I am thankful to have had the opportunity to reflect on all of this at the first national gathering of Black Male Educators Convenings (BMEC) in Philadelphia. And now I ask myself, “What is in my hands to do for the sake of lifting up someone else, especially the most oppressed?”
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