In the wildly popular Harry Potter series, the pre-teen protagonists become expert in magic and metaphysics, successfully joust with supernatural beings and outsmart all the adults they encounter.
The saga demonstrates the workings of a set of pedagological phenomena described by Sylvia Wynter, the Stanford language professor, in an analysis of the Houghton-Mifflin kindergarten-eighth grade textbook series for California in the late 1980s.
It goes without saying that all of the protagonists in the Harry Potter series are white. Colors are attached to various levels of evil among the dangers of the series.
The concept of implied you describes how readers would assume that the young people were white even if there were no physical descriptions.
Empathic identification enables readers to like the characters and root for their success.
Genericity means that readers will assume that it is normal that all the characters are white.
Repressing the idea of justice ignores the question of whether the young people have the right to intrude into these arenas.
Changing the timeline of history allows the contemporary students to glide effortlessly across time in order to make the story work.
Although the Potter series is fiction, Wynter sees similar phenomena at work in the social science material made available to American students, and by extension, students around the world.
The Eritrean linguist/sociologist Asmarom Legesse posited that such shaping of literature and mythology had the effect of systematically demotivating marginalized groups of people. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week, came to the same conclusion about African-Americans and their lack of knowledge of history.
However, on the reverse side, the use of these cognitive attributes has reliably replicated hierarchies of personal and group achievement since the time of Bartolome de las Casas.
Participants in this panel have explored how to not only reverse that demotivational impact, but also to use the same phenomena proactively to give students the same quest for success of “Hushpuppy” in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie starring a young African-American girl, jousting with real day-to-day struggles for survival in the Louisiana delta that are not dissimilar to conditions faced by many of her peers.
Interestingly enough, Beasts of the Southern Wild, while winning critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for its nine-year-old star, was not popular among African-American audiences, particularly young people. So, just providing positive images, or role models, alone is insufficient to overcome a lifetme of negative conditioning.
Cohen, et.al., notes that “belonging uncertainty, doubt as to whether one will be accepted or rejected by key figures in the social environment, can prove acute if rejection is based on one’s negatively stereotyped social identity..” In structured experiments with college students, his research indicates that well-developed psycho-social interventions can lessen the threat risk for African-American students, described by Steele as stereotype anxiety.
These reactions can be engendered by stimuli which do not outwardly appear to be racially-motivated. The Harry Potter series is an example of popular culture which would appear to have no apparent link. Like most other written material, including textbooks, the book would serve to heighten resistance to reading because of the factors described by Wynter. For a black youth, there is a clear message “this is not about you.”
Carter G. Woodson found that the same description applied to the entire sweep of American and world history as presented in literature, the impetus for the creation of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History and Negro History Week, which became Black History Month 50 years later. Dates and Barlow implicate mass media as a forum for impeding the development of African-American culture. The authors suggest a “racial tug-of-war which makes young African Americans feel as if they do not have a stake in society.”
Walker describes the elaborate intervention that black families developed before and after the Civil War to protect their youth from the impact of overt discrimination. She uses the anagram REACH WISELY to lay out the strategies. Emerson shows how that supportive environment was provided through a segregated black high school in Wilmington, N.C.
Without the closed environment of segregated schools and communities in today’s multi-lingual, multi-ethnic classrooms, how do educators and parents create similar cultural scaffolding for African-American students who continue to have unique needs in the midst of competing demands for cultural recognition and the overarching public policy demand for school accountability.
Today’s panelists participated in the 1990s in a well-structured intervention provided through a consent decree entered with the San Francisco Unified School District. IRISE was developed by Michael “Chappie” Grice, a developer of the Portland baseline standards, one of the first efforts to provide a curriculum wide set of standards for African-American heritage. With administrators and teachers at more than 20 schools, IRISE was an important testbed for a variety of curriculum strategies. Despite positive gains in student outcomes, the end of the consent agreement meant the end of the IRISE program.
Woodson sought to use a combination of civic and educational structures to address what he termed the “miseducation of the Negro” in the development of ASALH and more than twenty books he wrote on African-American history. An historic gathering in Chicago in the fall of 2012 sets the stage for a similar effort designed specifically around educational improvement. A Black Educational Network seeks to connect 1,000 schools in an alliance to share best practices and content.
The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is an important watershed. Ironically, the most important document in African-American history has been relatively obscured among African-Americans. Celebrations at the 50 year and 100 year benchmarks were muted. During 2013, ASALH, the National Archives and the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture along with the Schomberg Center for the Study of Black Life and Culture took initiatives to foster a nationwide discussion of the impact of emancipation.
In a San Francisco high school, just days before the 150th anniversary in September, a group of African-American high school seniors were asked what they knew about black slavery. Only one offered a brief description, voice trailing off with each word. When they were then asked what they knew about slavery in the Bible, all raised their hands high and exclaimed that Moses parted the REd Sea and freed the Hebrews.
One of today’s panelists was moderating the discussion, so he took advantage of the opportunity to apply a psycho-social intervention. The students were then asked if they noticed the difference in their responses. There was silence and stunned looks. It was pointed out that the answer on black slavery did not mention emancipation, while the answers on the Bible began with the liberating moment. Asked what that meant to their current frame of mind, they clearly suggested “it means we still act like we’re in slavery,” a moment of clarity which surprised even the questioner.
If, instead of being ashamed of being descendants of slaves, they saw themselves as part of a group which had overcome slavery, how would they perceive themselves. “Like we could do anything.”
The actual topic of the discussion was mathematics and the students aversion to it. In San Francisco Unified School District, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection, only 15 black students took calculus. Nationally, only 0.6 percent of black high school students took the advanced subject. For New York City, that meant fewer than 2,000 of 200,000 black high school students were taking calculus. Only one in eight took algebra.
At the beginning of the discussion, students saw a segment of the documentary A Great Day in Gaming: From Queens to Silicon Valley: The Gerald A. Lawson Story by ReUNION: Education-Arts-Heritage television network, an educational channel geared to provide psycho-social intervention for African-American students. The film is structured to address learning barriers which impede African-American student performance in mathematics and science.
The encounter with the students shows the depth of those learning barriers extending in a cross-disciplinary fashion across history, literature, language and advanced subjects. In the documentary, Gerald Anderson Lawson, a Queens public housing resident in the 1950s motivated by a clipping of George Washington Carver provided by an elementary school teacher, takes a succession of defense electronics jobs leading to a position as director of video engineering for Fairchild Semiconductor in the late 1960s in the early stages of what became known as Silicon Valley. Lawson, who designed radar systems from beer cans while in high school, had interests beyond his job so he joined the Home Brew Computer Club along with such figures as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Nolan Bushnell. At the time, Lawson was in a higher level of employment as a manager than any of the afore-mentioned.
In order to disprove a bet that computers were not powerful enough to play games, Lawson developed the Channel F, the first video game console with a removable memory cartridge and an eight-way controller. Yet, Lawson’s contribution to the global consumer economy — now a $26 billion industry — four times larger than motion pictures–was completely overlooked for more than 35 years. A Great Day in Gaming chronicles Lawson’s visit to his first Game Developers Conference in 2011, the 25th year of the event. In a meeting with the Blacks in Gaming group, many of the younger participants are openly emotional to find out that the industry pioneer was black like them. One proclaimed, “We belong!”
Another 25-year gaming veteran described meeting Lawson at the age of eight, visiting his Sunnyvale home with a DEC mainframe in the garage. It had inspired him to go into the industry.
ReUNION’s pedagogy, known as “the Learning Garage” was shaped in a Stanford School Redesign Network course in 2002 and further field tested during a biotechnology summer magnet school in 2010 called Potrero Progress. It involves using African-American history, specifically, or any cultural referent which relates to students, to prescriptively eliminate learning barriers.
Each of today’s panelists played a role in the implementation of Potrero Progress, which had a group of ten students from San Francisco’s poorest public housing development study salt for six weeks. From Salt to San Francisco General played on their proximity to the city’s main trauma center and a burgeoning biotechnology sector in nearby Mission Bay. It also addressed the implications of a book on medical experimentation on African-American subjects. By the end of the project, the students were working in concert directly with the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Their first class meeting had been a global scientific meeting on stem cells, where they were the only African-Americans in the audience.
Earlier lessons from IRISE were inculcated. The watershed of the Learning Garage was to move from analyzing the demotivational impact of mainstream curriculum and mass media to asking the question of how African-Americans succeed, a process fueled by the stories of the 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology since 1999. For six weeks, the Potrero Progress students spent all day looking at pictures of the 50 Most, were in sessions with local members on a daily basis and had to write profiles.
The formative evaluation after the session had students describe the experience as “a dream come true.” In addition to the science immersion, they took daily tours of African-American historic sites in downtown San Francisco. As one young lady blurted out while standing at a little-known tribute to Maya Angelou, “This is interesting. I would actually go to school for this.”
Because the findings indicated that the creation of that sense of belonging is the predicate to achieving a sense of normality for African-American youth, ReUNION: Education-Arts-Heritage was created to provide this content by online video, in a channel developed by an African-American female “rocket scientist” Mary Spio, developer of digital satellite motion pictures at the age of 26.
Personal authenticity describes the utilization of the techniques described by Wynter to create a sense of belonging for African-American students. In the 1300s, the dominant genre of literature were epics about black women warriors, as Hendricks points out. Las Serges de Esplandian by Garcia Ordonez Montalvo was one of those epics, written in 1510. It is the first print reference to the word California, which is describes as an island on the Pacific coast of North America populated solely by black women mariners and described as the “most powerful on earth.” Although the epic is allegorical, it prompts Cortez to seek it out, with more than 300 black conquistadors in the 1530s.
When one of today’s panelists published an anthology on California’s African-American history featuring the passage in 1991, educators found that it produced a two-grade point average increase for African-American students. The IRISE program was one of the schools which saw those results.
Like today’s Harry Potter, Queen Califia gave a sense of authenticity to those who saw themselves in her account of female empowerment. Restoring that legacy through literature and television is just as important as reconnecting with Tierra de Esteban Gomes, the term Spanish maps of the 1500s gave to what is now New England. Esteban Gomes was a Portuguese sailor of African ancestry who was the first to reach what is now the United States Atlantic coast.
In the 16th century, both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were christened for black historic figures.
These formative images are part of reinterpreting the meaning of Emancipation, not just as the liberation from slavery, but as the rediscovery of a sense of normal development which is rooted in the history which preceeded the Middle Passage. As the experience in the San Francisco classroom indicates, this grounding is important to the success of efforts to instil seemingly unrelated mathematics and science subjects.
As we note in the example of Beasts of the Southern Wild, merely presenting cultural referents is not enough.
Because of the paucity of reinforcement in the broader society, Potrero Progress explored another dimension — perceived chance of success. Walker postulated that black youth were only interested in arenas where they feel they can excel. Society has focused on athletics and entertainment as such arenas, leading to a great majority of black youth who expect to play professional sports or become rap millionaires. Although the odds of either event are more than 5,000 to 1, the constant media exposure feeds that desire.
In contrast, 600,000 African-Americans work in high technology jobs like that of Lawson, a 100,000 to 1 ratio over the number of professional athletes. Yet they are almost never seen in media. In fact, 24 percent of all federal technology workers are African-American, including more than a dozen agency CIOS and deputy CIOS, some who are graduates of historically-black colleges and universities.
Like the history of Las Serges de Esplandian, there is an asymetry between the portrait presented to African-American youth and the actual scientific evidence.
Using those current day figures as the medium to teach subjects is the phenomenon that gives motive force to the sense of belonging. Such programs as ARTSI and the Spelbots, a robotics team created by former Spelman College professor Dr. Andrew Williams, demonstrate how quickly students take to the clearly relevant applications of advanced subjects. As Presidential honoree Dr. Juan Williams notes, the ability to intervene in the problems they face individually and in communities, gives students the same sense of personal authenticity conveyed in the novels of Rowling.
John William Templeton is founder of ReUNION: Education-Arts-Heritage and editor of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4 and Do Not Call Us Negros: How Multicultural Textbooks Perpetuate Racism by Sylvia Wynter.