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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Columbus Day and African American Education

By Marilyn Rhames — October 12, 2011 4 min read
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On Monday, we closed our schools in honor of Christopher Columbus Day. I love always having a long weekend to celebrate my Oct. 9 birthday. But it annoys me that we celebrate a man whose exploratory ambitions led to the demise of millions of indigenous people in the Caribbean and opened the Atlantic to the Africa slave trade. And Columbus’ legacy continues to reverberate in the African American educational experience.

My ancestors were slaves in America, in generations not far removed from mine. My maternal grandparents were sharecroppers in Shaw, Mississippi, which basically meant that they managed a white man’s farm in exchange for food and a place to stay. They lived on a cotton plantation, in a wooden shack with my young mother and her younger siblings. No indoor bathroom, no electricity, no running water. Every piece of meat they ate, they both raised and slaughtered. Every vegetable they ate, they both planted and hand-picked. Before my grandmother died in 2007, she told me that the worst part about working in the fields was the snakes that would slink around her bare ankles. She learned how snatch the snakes in a way that would kill them instantly. But to protect my mother, my grandmother would wrap the straps of her cotton sack around her chest and drag the sack with mother sitting on it, all while picking cotton. My grandfather left the fields on Saturday to work as a barber in town. The money he earned cutting hair was his to keep.

Armed with a 3rd and 5th grade education, my grandmother and grandfather moved the family to Indiana when my mother was 9. My mother traded her one-room schoolhouse for a traditional school, though she was put back two grade levels. She later dropped out of high school to work in Chicago, sending most of her money back home. Meanwhile, she took an at-home course and received her diploma by mail.

My father’s upbringing was not much different. He was from Minter City, Mississippi—just a stone’s throw from Money, Mississippi where 14-year-old Chicago native Emmett Till was kidnapped and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. My dad grew up with the constant fear of being lynched in the Jim Crow South. He dropped out of high school to find a better life in Chicago around 1960. He found work as an auto mechanic and truck driver and never earned a diploma.

My parents got married and had eight children. We were poor: Food stamps, government cheese, and charity Christmas gifts. But we had God. We had values. We had love.

This is my heritage in America. It’s one that brings me to tears if I think too long about it. But it is also a source of enormous pride. The fact that I went to college and earned masters degrees despite my impoverished upbringing is a badge of honor. Like my parents and grandparents, I wanted more out of life than what life was offering me. My education has allowed me to study abroad in Europe, study Spanish in Guatemala, earn an Ivy League degree from Columbia University, and interview Hollywood celebrities.

But my heart breaks when I consider the plight of education for black children in America today. It’s well-documented that schools in minority neighborhoods are severely under-resourced as compared to our white counterparts. From slavery to Jim Crow to the continual fight for our civil rights, nothing for us has ever come easy. The caste system that slave traders established in North and Central America still affects blacks and other minorities today. Just last Friday during recess, a Mexican boy in my daughter’s kindergarten class told her “I don’t want to play with you because you’re a black girl.” Thanks, Columbus and all who keep his world view alive.

But the solution to the racism blacks face is within our reach. We must also do more to help ourselves. More African American parents have to become involved in their children’s education. More African American students have to come to school with a mindset to learn. I am not afraid to say this; I’ve taught in all poor, all black schools and I know the school atmosphere can be challenging. Sometimes such speech causes a backlash: Blacks who have a measure of success are often called “sell-outs” or “uppity” for providing constructive criticism to our struggling brothers and sisters. I don’t care. I am a living witness that poverty is not a legitimate explanation for why so many black children are not attaining a good education. It is certainly true that a good education is required if black children have any hope of getting out poverty. Escaping poverty is why my grandparents left the South. It’s why my parents moved to Chicago. It’s why I was determined to graduate from college.

I think the black youth of today are so far removed from the struggles of their ancestors that they would benefit from working in the scorched fields of Mississippi for a few weeks. They need to get in touch with the pain and sacrifice of their ancestors to fully understand how far we have come as a people and decide for themselves in which direction they want to travel. At the very least, teachers must believe in them and do their best to educate them. Teaching black history in the classroom is a great way to start.

I am writing this in remembrance of Christopher Columbus—hero to some, genocidal villain to others. Love him or hate him, Columbus is undoubtedly still impacting American culture and how we as a country do education.

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