Teaching Profession Opinion

The Secret Lives of Black Teachers

By Marilyn Rhames — June 06, 2012 3 min read
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This weekend, I am hosting a spiritual conference for teachers of all pedagogical preferences, political persuasions, and ethnicities. It is designed to allow educators of like faith to pray together and to encourage us to express an aspect of our personality that we often conceal from our peers at work. Like everyone else, teachers hold secrets—some so painful, some so joyous it’s hard to contain.

Just last Sunday, a Jewish colleague of mine came to visit my church, a predominately African American congregation. She wanted to hear the soulful sounds of a gospel choir. She wanted to sit with me in my women’s Sunday School class. She wanted to have an authentic African American worship experience.

The love, strength, and exuberance she witnessed left her pensive and deeply moved. Borrowing from the words of the sermon, she said she had “a God moment.”

She saw a black male teenager in a black hoodie and cornrows do a tribute to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black 17-year-old who was fatally shot in Florida by an over-zealous Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer. Darius Malone, also 17, did a touching tribute without saying a word. Instead, he danced. He danced ballet up and down the altar. And in two weeks, Darius will join Ballet Austin, a dance company in Texas, for a tuition-paid summer intensive training which could lead to a permanent position in the company.*

My white friend heard an extremely talented band play and watched a large choir dressed in white end a song and start it back up again just because they felt like it.

She got to meet black university professors, lawyers, businessmen, and fellow teachers who live in the community of the church.

She watched how black mothers and black fathers worshiped together and doted on their children.

She wanted to know why aren’t these images—images of successful African American people who are joyful and prosperous—routinely displayed in the media, especially on the local news.

I told her that racial stereotypes are sexy, and sex sells. Just like a car wreck: People know it’s horrible but they are still compelled to watch. And the lack of diversity in the upper management of the newsrooms keeps the status quo.

My friend’s visit made me realize that success in the African American community is almost like a secret. And many of us black teachers seem to have secret lives outside of work. At the end of the day, most of us go home to “our” community, and everybody else goes home to “their” community. What makes it hard is that “our” community is the one many other people look down on and want to avoid.

When I have invited members of my school staff to my house for parties, for example, people don’t come. But when I am invited to “their” community for parties, I see everyone there having a great time. I don’t take it personal; where I live, though in the same city, is foreign and perceived to be unsafe.

I live in a charged city. Chicago. It’s racially charged. It’s politically charged. People here are over-taxed—both literally and figuratively. And no one feels it more than the police and teachers.

But feeling misunderstood and keeping secrets only add to the pressure. While tragic stories like the killing of Trayvon Martin deserve abundant media attention, there are many other inspiring stories about the black community that will never get told in the press.

How about that hoodie-wearing, cornrows-wearing, Darius Malone who can twirl and leap across the floor in a jaw-dropping dance of ballet? He’s a typical kid from the neighborhood whose mom sings in the church choir.

Now that’s a secret worth telling on the local news!

*Corrected information about Darius intentions in Texas.

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