Equity & Diversity Opinion

True Colors

By Paula Penn-Nabrit — March 01, 2003 15 min read
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How institutionalized racism prompted one African American couple to homeschool their three sons.

Because not every state keeps an official tally of its homeschoolers, estimates range from 1 million to 2 million kids nationwide, or as much as 4 percent of the school-age population. Advocates claim that the reasons for the trend—everything from religious to philosophical ones—are as numerous as the stay-at-home students. But research indicates that most homeschool families are white and better educated than their conventional counterparts.

The Nabrits, however, are black. What’s more, when Paula Penn-Nabrit and her husband, C. Madison, decided in 1991 to supervise the education of their sons— Evan and twin brothers Charles and Damon—homeschooling had yet to make headlines. The Nabrit parents themselves were products of formal schooling: prep school, then Wellesley and Dartmouth. Plus, they were running a management-consulting business from home. Why, then, break with tradition?

The title of Penn-Nabrit’s new book, Morning by Morning: How We Home- Schooled Our African-American Sons to the Ivy League (Villard), offers a clue. By fall 2000, the twins were students at Princeton University and Evan was headed to Amherst College. But going the homeschool route was not part of some grand plan; it was prompted, instead, by the boys’ expulsion from a private school. Penn-Nabrit convincingly argues that the mostly white institution, frustrated by her attempts to add minority teachers to its faculty, dismissed the boys for racial reasons. She then makes clear, as detailed in the following excerpt, that skin color had been an issue all along.

Before I went to prep school, my dad bought me a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince. He told me I could never be successful around white people without understanding the basic concepts of power as explained in that text. While I often disagree with my dad on a lot of issues, C. Madison and I did find his comments about the relevance of Machiavelli to be insightful, and so we gave copies of the book to Charles, Damon, and Evan when each of them was about 9 or 10. Understanding Machiavelli is helpful in understanding power, intrigue, and revenge, no matter what the race, gender, or ethnicity of the parties involved.

The other black families in our community in the Columbus, Ohio, area saw the expulsion of our sons—when the twins were in 6th grade, Evan in 4th—as a classic example of Machiavellian technique; and, of course, the expulsion had the anticipated ripple effect. If this could happen to a well-established, middle- class black family like ours, what did that mean for the other black families?

As we examined our own situation and tried to prepare ourselves for the new task of homeschooling, we tried to quantify the amount of time we spent at the boys’ school on a somewhat regular basis, and we tried to calculate how much time we spent at school unofficially explaining, training, educating, correcting, and observing the faculty, administration, and staff about racism in its myriad forms. We based these calculations upon a review of each academic year and the corresponding number of racial incidents. For each incident, we estimated the amount of time we spent to address the incident constructively at school and the amount of time spent explaining the incident and its implications to our sons. Our calculations indicated an average of three incidents per kid, per year. What follows are a few examples.

When Evan was in 2nd grade, there was one other black boy in his class. This child was often in trouble. Every day, Evan would come home visibly distressed about what was going on with this other kid. He kept asking me to go to school and tell the teacher to stop “picking” on this child, and I kept trying to explain to Evan that this other boy’s mommy needed to do that.

School really highlighted the fact that our kids didn’t see any line of demarcation between the Christian values we shared as a family and real life. Every time I suggested that we mind our own business, one of them would remind me that we were to be our brother’s keeper. And every time I allowed myself to be led to do the right thing, the immediate consequences were unpleasant. This situation proved to be no exception.

I scheduled an appointment with Evan’s teacher to share our concerns. Evan readily acknowledged this other boy was “very bad.” That wasn’t my concern. What concerned me was Evan’s insistence that this boy was no worse than several other boys, but that he always got into more trouble. Evan was convinced it was because this other boy was “really black.” (Translation: This was not an assimilated, middle-class, suburban black kid.) This was a very physical, very loud, and very sweet little boy. He had been at our house several times, and I didn’t have any trouble with him at all. While Evan was too young to articulate why, he saw that this boy was treated differently and he worried that the same thing could happen to him. This was my concern.

It took almost two hours before the teacher grasped the significance of the issues. At first, she could not understand the basis for my visit. After all, Evan was “adorable,” and certainly, while not academically focused at the level we would have liked, he was very well-behaved. Why the visit? How did the experience of the other black boy have an impact on Evan’s experience at school? I finally asked her if she ever had been the only white person at a group function. She had not. I then asked her if she could imagine such an occurrence. She could. I then asked her how she would feel if another white person joined the group, but was castigated continually for behavior regularly accepted when displayed by the majority members of the group. Finally, she began to understand our concerns: As long as he attended that school, Evan was a part of the community, and we would not allow him to be made to feel uncomfortable, not by actions directed at him or by actions directed at others like him.

When Damon was a 4th grader, several white boys began teasing him about his color. (Damon and Charles are fraternal twins. Of our three sons, Charles has the least melanin, while Damon has the most. Interestingly, the difference in their coloring has always been a topic of conversation and fascination for many people. I am always intrigued by people for whom color is everything. These are the folks who say things like “I can’t believe they’re even brothers— they don’t look anything alike!” Even more amazing are the folks who have announced, “Oh, I like the light one!”) For several days at recess, these schoolboys would surround Damon in a circle and tease him, calling him “blacky” and “dukey.” Damon and Charles both told the boys to stop, and both complained to the teachers on duty. Moreover, they asked us to let them handle it. We agreed.

Our sons were not at school to be assimilated, abused, ignored, or reinvented as white boys.

On the fourth day of this open and notorious bullying, Damon beat up three of the boys involved. Promptly, he was sent to the office. Charles and Evan went with him and refused to return to their classrooms. We were called. When we arrived, the school’s policy against violence was reviewed with our sons and us. While we certainly understood the policy and agreed with it in principle, we felt its application needed to be consistent. Consistency demanded that the school oppose verbal violence with the same degree of aggression with which it opposed physical violence. We felt the school’s lack of consistent compliance with its own policy was the reason the situation had escalated.

Initially, our point seemed lost on the school administrators. When we explained the reality of verbal violence, the school asserted that “teasing” was a natural occurrence with which boys must learn to deal. We responded that fighting also is a natural occurrence, and that it appeared that all the boys had learned a valuable lesson. There was no acknowledgment of the racial overtones of the “teasing.” There was no acknowledgment of responsibility for not responding when Damon and Charles initially brought the incident to their attention. There was no acknowledgment of natural, familial bonding.

It took more than an hour for us to reach an agreement on the racial implications of this incident and its negative impact on all the boys involved. We also spent a great deal of time discussing the school’s concern over what they considered the unusual closeness of our boys. The school felt the boys’ closeness inhibited their eagerness to develop friendships with the other boys in their respective classes.

This was one of the initial reasons for separating Charles and Damon when they enrolled. While we went along with the classroom separation, we did not think it was necessary. Charles, Damon, and Evan have always been highly social children who engage and interact eagerly with other children. The fact that they do not exclude one another was not a problem in our opinion. It was also not a problem to us that they sought one another’s company during recess and at lunch; this seemed natural and healthy, even if somewhat uncommon. What appeared to be more common at school was for siblings to bicker and avoid one another whenever possible. We concluded our discussion by explaining that in the black community there is no such thing as siblings who are too close.

True to form, we did not reach consensus on this issue. The school’s position was not only that Damon was wrong for fighting, but that Charles and Evan were wrong for supporting him on the playground, for accompanying him to the office, and for refusing to leave until we arrived. We acknowledged that Charles and Evan were wrong for being disobedient; and should the school wish to impose reasonable sanctions for their disobedience, we would understand that. However, it was important to us that the school understand that the boys were more than siblings, they were close friends, and so supporting one another seemed natural and appropriate to them.

We further felt it was important for the school to explore why Charles and Evan felt they needed to wait with Damon for our arrival. What messages were they picking up about the school that made them feel they needed to sit and wait? Why did they think they needed to protect Damon? Perhaps if the school had responded initially to the teasing directed at Damon, his brothers would have felt comfortable allowing Damon to sit outside the office alone.

We openly congratulated Damon for attempting to work through the process and for handling the situation himself when the school was unable or unwilling to do so. C. Madison expressly commended Damon for kicking butt and commended Charles and Evan for watching Damon’s back. We explained, again, that Charles, Damon, and Evan were at this school to receive an academic education. They were not there to be assimilated, abused, ignored, or reinvented as white boys.

In another instance, Charles turned in a research paper, and it was returned at the end of the week with the comment, “Be careful of plagiarism.” Charles, who is nothing if not self-confident, was livid, and asked me to come with him to discuss the comment with his teacher first thing Monday morning. I consented, on the condition that he begin by asking what the teacher meant rather than assuming the worst. He agreed.

On Monday, Charles, his teacher, and I sat down in the library, and Charles asked for an explanation. She said his use of vocabulary was not typical of a 10-year-old in 4th grade. Charles explained that he knew every word he used, that he was 9, not 10, and that he was not “typical"; he further stated that he was certain he was “the smartest boy in the 4th grade, except for my brother.”

Charles’ teacher demonstrated a commendable willingness to allow him to express himself and to defend his work. Her openness prompted me to ask her privately whether she would have assumed plagiarism if Charles had been a white child. She admitted that she probably would not have been as surprised at the level of the work if Charles had not been black. While I appreciated her candor, it did not make me feel better about my sons’ academic future at the school.

When Evan was a 3rd grader, he was only slightly more focused than he had been as a 2nd grader—not a good thing. His teacher, who was convinced that he simply was not trying, used yelling and intimidation as tactics to get better results.

I went to school and explained that we expect Evan to do his best, that we expect Evan to complete assignments on time, and that if those things don’t occur, then he should be disciplined. What was not expected was for Evan to be subjected to any form of verbal abuse. Evan’s teacher told me he knew Evan was uncomfortable with his teaching style, probably because Evan had “no male role model at home.”

The teacher admitted that she probably would not have been as surprised at the high level of Charles’ work if he had not been black.

Once I recovered from the shock caused by such an ignorant, racist, and insulting comment, I explained the dangers of race-based assumptions and asked what he thought was listed on Evan’s birth certificate under “father": “We the People”? I fantasized about pausing the conversation just long enough to call C. Madison so Evan’s teacher could see an ABM (Angry Black Man) in action and experience Evan’s male role model for himself.

As tempting as that thought was, I knew it would have been irresponsible for me to share something guaranteed to incite C. Madison just for the purpose of teaching this guy a lesson, so I let it go. Not aware that his life had been spared, he went on to explain that Evan did not seem capable of doing the challenging level of work required in a private school. He recommended that Evan visit with the school’s psychologist for testing.

Knowing how much Evan did not enjoy his classroom experience with this particular teacher, I felt any break would be appreciated—even a trip to the school psychologist. So Evan began his round of sessions with a professional psychologist. While he certainly never described it as fun, he definitely enjoyed it more than being in class.

In late spring, after months of visits, the psychologist met with C. Madison and me, Evan’s teacher, and the headmaster to go over his report about and assessment of Evan. In a nutshell, we were told that Evan was gifted, the pedagogy in place in the classroom had been inadequate, a number of mistakes had been made, and consequently, the school year had been a complete wash. Everyone from the school apologized, including the teacher.

Although C. Madison did not share my sentiments, I admired the teacher’s willingness to admit that he had erred in both his assessment and his approach. (I think that anytime someone acknowledges a mistake and sincerely apologizes, that act should be recognized.)

I think it took a lot for this teacher to admit his mistake in front of us, but C. Madison was not nearly as amenable to taking the high road. He felt that the teacher’s and the school’s apologies were wholly inadequate in the face of the negative behaviors and assumptions directed at Evan all year. Given the enormously high level of respect C. Madison has always afforded our sons, he was outraged that the apologies were being proffered to us instead of to Evan.

Once more, in defense of the teacher and the headmaster, I doubt that either would have considered apologizing to a 3rd grader about anything. As with many adults I know, the concept of respect tends to be most clearly defined unilaterally; in other words, there is a nonnegotiable requirement for children to engage adults respectfully, but there is no corresponding duty on the part of adults in their dealings with children.

Ultimately, the teacher did apologize to Evan, and Evan, in the way of a 3rd grader at the end of a long and difficult school year, really couldn’t have cared less. I think the final insult to C. Madison was that in spite of the school’s own description of the year as a “complete wash,” no refund of our $6,000, wasted-year’s tuition was offered. C. Madison is still annoyed.

In another episode that same year, Charles and Damon’s social studies teacher called us to arrange a conference. She was concerned about the boys’ self- esteem. She said they had been lying in class.

At the conference, she explained the context of the lies. The students had been creating family trees, and they were to place items that best reflected their families on each tree.

Many of the children were from families made wealthy either through professional and corporate earnings, the more genteel process of inheritance, or a combination of the two (the best of all possible worlds!). In any event, the items placed on such children’s trees (large houses, fancy cars, office buildings) were deemed to be an accurate reflection of their families.

Charles and Damon had not actively involved us in this project other than with the usual requests of “How do you spell that?” or “What was Mama Hattie’s real name?” They decided what aspects of their family history they wanted to share, and after the teacher saw their trees, she called us.

In light of all the racist incidents we had to deal with at school, it didn’t seem like homeschooling could be any more time-consuming or stressful.

She was concerned and confused. Why did they say their great-grandfather, Dr. James Nabrit, was one of the first presidents of American Baptist College? Why did they claim that their maternal great-great-grandmother, Mrs. Hattie Edwards, was a student at Bluefield State Teachers College before migrating to Columbus in the 1890s? Why did they say their great-uncle, Dr. Samuel Nabrit, received a PhD from Brown University in 1932 and went on to serve on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission? Why did they claim that their other great-uncle, James Nabrit, had been the dean of the law school at, and later president of, Howard University? She knew we would appreciate and share her concern.

We looked at the boys’ work and, of course, validated everything on the tree. We asked the teacher if she had confirmed the items on the other boys’ work; but, as it turned out, none of the other work seemed “false” to her. She did not, however, see this as a “race thing.”

It was a “race thing,” and it took another hour or so to clarify that reality for her. I doubt that the issue was truly clarified: It felt to us that she conceded her point rather than spend a moment longer in our presence.

There were several other incidents like that, and I would bet that most black families have had similar experiences with a fairly similar rate of occurrence. When we send our children to predominantly white schools, we know we are making a severe time commitment to our kids and to the school. In light of our calculations, it didn’t seem that homeschooling would be that much more time- consuming, and it certainly couldn’t be more stressful.

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