Education Opinion

Bars, Boxes, and Bridges: Reality for Black Boys

By Josh Parker — November 30, 2017 5 min read
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I know why the caged bird beats its wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
-Paul Laurence Dunbar

An image arrested me yesterday. It was of a police officer saluting the body of slain Baltimore police officer Sean Suiter as it was carried by a hearse. It was majestic—a ‘hero’ of Baltimore was a Black man. Only, he was not alive to witness his appreciation. He joined the force to keep men and boys like him safe, only to meet this fate. He could not escape the bars of death despite a life of service spent ensuring the freedom of people in his community. The bars.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this tragedy, it is that the lives of too many Black males are subject to being taken suddenly and without warning. This is not just the reality of inner-city students, but it also spreads to the suburbs of cities throughout this country. What are the impacts of this out-of-school possibility on minority students? Many.

Students bring their world into the school and if the teachers are not prepared or knowlegdeable about their world—there will always be a disconnect that begins with a lesson plan and ends in stagnant scores. The trajectory of Black male bodies oftentimes goes from bars through boxes and hopefully with the help of bridges, into breakthroughs.

Too many black male students must first confront the bars of society. The bars symbolize the harsh, institutional barriers to their success; namely the criminal justice system, economic disadvantages and unfortunately, the educational system. Each of these institutions have practitioners who are fighting for true equity and service to these students; but many are not. And for those young men who have suffered at the hands of one or all of these institutions, there are scars that remain.

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

Unprocessed trauma (both historical and present-day) impacts Black male students (and Black males) in ways that still have not been researched or appreciated in a significant way by many, much less the boxes that are placed around these men of promise. There are many boxes, but a few deserve our acute attention: the box of media images that weaponizes Blackness; the box of aspects of hip-hop culture that elevate the worst parts of Black masculinity; the box of acceptable male emotions in public and the box of low expectations that too many educators and administrators have. These boxes are almost more constricting than the bars for at least three reasons: Black boys and males internalize these restrictive ideas, institutions carry on the framework of these boxes in their policies and these boxes continue to be constructed daily, with no comment, no restriction and no penalty. Our boys yearn to be free of these boxes.

When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

In addition to evidence-based responses and works cited pages, our boys have songs to sing! They have stories to tell. They have lives to live that are beyond the bars and boxes that are imposed on them. That is where we come in to be the bridge that they need. Do not misunderstand me; they are fully capable and brilliant enough to innovate and create products and services that elevate the world. (They have already been doing that since the founding of our world). However, they need sponsors and people that are on the ‘inside’ of these institutions to help them navigate through bars and tear through boxes to experience lives that are fully lived, fully loved and fully lauded. Not just on a bridge above a hearse; but at a post-doctoral graduation party. Or a teacher of the year ceremony. Or a post-election celebration.

In order to be the bridge for our Black males, we need to become aware of the bars we are imprisoned by and the boxes we place around our own capacity and potential. The bridge for us is professional development that takes into account our need to build subject matter expertise and student expertise. Both matter.

An image arrested me last week. I saw a student at my school writhing on the sidewalk between the busy main street and the edge of our school. He was grasping his thigh. A thigh that was cut through with a bullet only minutes before I, and several of his crowding peers, had passed by. As I waved over our nearby School Resource Office and other school personnel, I was again reminded that when some of our Black males leave the school building, they have to elude the bars, boxes and bullets of an environment where too many bridges have been utterly destroyed. Be the bridge to a boy of color today. Let’s go to work:

Classroom Instruction Principle

Content expertise helps students grasp the skills they need to be successful in our world and economy; student expertise helps you to make the content relevant to the lives of chronically under-served students.

Three Actions/Strategies to Implement Today

1. Become an expert in the standards, subject(s) and students that you teach by engaging in the material as a learner (complete the lesson yourself before implementing the lesson to students); establish a clear vision for what the standards look like when mastered; and keep a running tab (or binder) where you write down specific characteristics of the Black males in your classroom. What do they like? When are they most engaged?

2. Invest your time and attention to at least two Black males a day. Take time to get to know them by name and by interest. Two Black males a day for at least five minutes. As you conclude your conversation, ask them ‘Is there anything else I can do to help you win here or outside of here?’

3. Help Black boys establish an academic identity. Posting exemplary work by Black males on classroom bulletin boards is a great start—but push it. Put their work on walls in the front office and throughout the hallways with their names and faces on it—preferably in color. Additionally, teachers can use the exemplary work of their Black male students as guides for all of the other students in the classroom when they are starting their own work. How empowering would it be to have a Black male student leading in a study of an exemplar of a text that he composed?!

Two Resources for Further Study

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence by Geoffrey Canada (Book)

Reading for their Life: (Re)Building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males by Dr. Alfred Tatum (Book)

One Inspirational Quote/Video

Malcolm London - Training Ground

Bonus Video - Black Gold by Esperanza Spalding


“For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become.” -James Baldwin

The opinions expressed in Everyday Equity in the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.