Southwestern Regional Forum 2018: Historical Context and Conversations We Need to Have
Southwestern Regional Forum 2018: Historical Context and Conversations We Need to HaveMichael Preston, Associate Director, Professional Communications
Despite the early hour, the Southwestern Regional Forum got off to a rousing start in Dallas with a medley of songs from The Lion King soundtrack performed by students from Harpool Middle School in the Denton (TX) ISD.
Following the performance, Clint Smith, a writer, teacher, poet, and doctoral candidate in education at Harvard University, tapped into the spirit in the room by bringing energy, lyricism, and empathy to a weighty topic facing many educators today: understanding the historical and societal challenges facing underrepresented students and helping them find ways make their voices part of our national conversation.
At an early age, Smith was afforded an idyllic view of what life in America could look like through growing up in a racially and economically mixed neighborhood in New Orleans.
"I had white friends, black friends, Asian friends. It looked like the Disney Channel, it was great," he said. "We would ride our bikes, the theme music was playing in the background, our hair was blowing in the wind...well, clearly their hair and not my hair."
But despite that harmonious veneer, Smith's parents were forced to engage in what he calls the "pedagogy of black parenting," which was an effort to make him understand that how he was seen by his family might not be the way he was seen by the larger world.
Smith recalls his father saying, "You have to understand that the implications of the decisions that you make might be very different for you than they are for your other friends."
He said that notion remained an abstract concept for him until the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was shot and killed by police officers in Cleveland in 2014. The incident made national headlines and drove home concerns that many black and brown parents face when it comes to how they tell their children to navigate the world.
"That led to me experiencing this marathon of cognitive dissonance about what it is to grow up in a world where, as a young black child, you can grow up in a home where you feel loved, affirmed, and celebrated, and then you go out into a world that constantly renders you a caricature of someone else's fears," he said. "The world gets the opportunity to define who you are before you have the opportunity to define that for yourself."
Smith illustrated that point by reciting his poem, "Counterfactual," in which he recounts his father's reaction to discovering Clint playing outside with water guns. It concludes with the lines:
"Told me I couldn’t be out here
acting the same as these white boys—
can’t be pretending to shoot guns
can’t be running in the dark
can’t be hiding behind anything
other than your own teeth.
I know now how scared
he must have been,
how easily I could have fallen
into the obsolescence of the night.
That some man would mistake
this water for a good reason
to wash all of this away."
As a new parent, Smith said he's acutely aware that this is an intergenerational conversation, and he knows that he'll be telling his son some of the same things his grandfather told his dad.
"How do you move in a country that is taught to fear you every single day of your life?" he said. "How do you find that balance between teaching a young person the realities of the world without somehow convincing them or making them think that they've somehow done something themselves to deserve that?"
That leads to the balancing act that many educators have to strike, Smith said.
"We are working in diverse classrooms and working with a range of students and we have to recognize that all of those students are coming in with very different sets of life experiences and we have to attend to those different life experiences," he said." We have to attend to the fact that people will experience different things happening in the world in very different ways that are animated by their own life experiences, by their own backgrounds, by their own identities."
Smith acknowledges that having conversations about race, and identity, and topics like income inequality can be scary and loaded, but that one way we can all make the conversations better is by making an effort to really grapple with and understand our shared history.
"People talk about slavery as if it was something that happened a long, long time ago, that it has nothing to do with what we're seeing today," he said. "So I think about this timeline because it's really important. The first slaves came here in 1619. The Emancipation Proclamation happens in 1863. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965. So it's only been about 50 years in which black people in this country have even had a semblance of legal and legislative freedom. For 350 years prior to that, it was fundamentally legal to discriminate against, dehumanize, disenfranchise, and delegitimize the lives of black people."
Being aware of that history, Smith says, can help us contextualize why certain groups may not have made the same kind of socio-economic strides in the present that other groups have. By honestly reckoning with the complex and often contradictory views of the founding fathers, or looking at how certain segments of the population were denied the benefits of government programs like the post-World War II G.I. Bill, Smith argues that we can prevent ourselves from allowing certain assumptions about our students from taking hold.
"If you leave with one thing, I hope you leave thinking about that - thinking about the way we think about the disparities we see in our districts and the educational inequalities that exist."