Teachers and school leaders need to abandon teaching students to embrace “grit.” In my new book, We Want to Do More Than Survive, I spend an entire chapter explaining how these quick fixes pathologize African-American children and are inherently anti-black. I argue that the idea of grit seems harmless at face value—we can all agree that children need grit to be successful in life, regardless of how you define success—but is actually the educational equivalent of The Hunger Games.
Measuring African-American students’ grit while removing no institutional barriers, then watching to see who beats the odds makes for great Hollywood movies (i.e., “Dangerous Minds,” “The Blind Side,” “Freedom Writers”) and leaves us all feeling good because the gritty black kid made it out of the ‘hood. But we fail to acknowledge the hundreds of kids who are left behind because we are rooting for what we are told is an anomaly. However, if teachers knew how enslaved Africans made it to the United States and how we as African-Americans fight every day to matter in this country, I believe they would understand why questioning whether African-American kids have grit is not only trivial but also deeply hurtful.
Questioning whether African-American kids have grit is not only trivial but also deeply hurtful."
This year marks 400 years since the first documented Africans arrived on U.S. soil in Point Comfort, Va. When we teach about slavery, if allowed to teach it at all, we frame it as a thing that happened to Africa. There is often no mention of Africa before slavery or what enslaved Africans endured to arrive in bondage in the New Americas. To revisit that history is to tell a story of terror, trauma, labor, and, of course, grit.
My revelations about Africa and grit came when I traveled to Ghana in December, especially when I arrived at Assin Manso “Ancestral” Slave River Park (also referred to as the “Last Bath”). After walking hundreds of miles in shackles, captured Africans arrived at the Last Bath, home to the Donko Nsuo, which literally means slave river. There, they were inspected, fed, branded with hot-iron steel, and given the last bath they would receive until they arrived, months later, in the New Americas. Africans who did not survive the trip to the Last Bath were left as prey, tied to trees to be eaten alive by wild animals. Those who made it to the Last Bath were beyond strong; they were determined to live. Once they left the Last Bath, they still had to travel another 34 miles on foot in shackles to the coast of Ghana to be housed in dungeons.
There were approximately 40 dungeons in Ghana, West Africa. Though they are often referred to as castles, they are a far cry from the stuff of legends and fairy tales. I visited the Cape Coast dungeon, which stands on a site first occupied by the Portuguese in the mid-1500s. The Swedish, Dutch, and British all at one point in history controlled this site of terror, as they fought each other for the ability to profit from the sale of human bodies.
From the outside, the Cape Coast dungeon looks like a grand tourist attraction with large white walls, lush trees, and the sound of huge waves slamming into the rocks along the coastline. But that beauty is all a façade to hide some of the most hideous and unthinkable terrors of which human beings are capable.
Up to 1,000 male and 500 female enslaved Africans could be jammed into the dungeons at any given time. In dark, poorly ventilated holding cells in the pits of the Cape Coast dungeon, after walking upwards of 200 miles to get there, men and women were held captive in their own waste and served just enough food to keep them alive. The women were routinely raped.
Above the dungeon where the men were held was a church. Next to that sanctuary was a small, dark cell waiting for anyone who resisted their fate. In this hole, they would receive no food, no water, no reminder of the sun. They were simply left to die. After walking hundreds of miles and spending weeks in the dungeons, those who were still alive walked through the “Doors of No Return” to be loaded on ships as cargo. They were shackled to prevent rebellions that were, amazingly, common. After all they endured, all the attempts to weaken their bodies and their spirits, they still fought.
The African bodies that arrived in this country were superhuman. They survived diseases, starvation, beatings, and the human loss of never returning home again.
The Character Lab, founded by grit guru Angela Duckworth, defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Revising an essay repeatedly or not quitting a sport in the middle of the season, according to the Character Lab, are examples of gritty behavior.
But what if your long-term goal is fighting to live, fighting racism? Is 400 years long enough? You cannot measure this type of grit, nor should you ignore it. African-Americans are resilient and gritty because we have to be to survive, but it is misleading, naive, and dangerous to remove our history on both sides of the water from the conversation about grit.
We have rebelled, fought, confronted, pleaded with the courts, marched, protested, and boycotted all just to survive the United States of America. Grit is in our DNA. Ghana taught me that. But grit alone will not overthrow oppressive systems of power. We need teachers, school leaders, and policymakers who have grit for justice. We need educators who understand the legacy of African-Americans’ grit—that we have survived because of it, and the surviving is not enough. Black people and brown people deserve the right to use their grit to thrive, not just survive.
In 2016, Bettina L. Love, the author of this Commentary, spoke to Education Week about African-American girls and discipline. Here’s what she had to say:
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘Grit Is in Our DNA’