Trials of a Hip Hop Educator: Promoting Proper Education in Our Communities
By Bro. Tony Muhammad
Now let me tell you folks just exactly what I mean
The way they try to lower, the black man’s self esteem
Put us in their schools and I call em mental graves
When they teach us bout ourselves, all we learn that we were slaves
It amazes me that it was almost 18 years ago that Grand Puba of the legendary Hip Hop group Brand Nubian uttered these lyrics in the song Proper Education. Despite the growth in the development of Black, Latino, Native American, Asian and other cultural history curricula throughout the country, if we take a look at the current state of education and how it affects our youth, we can safely say that we are in the same state that we were back then, if not worse. Yes, there are now classes in high schools all throughout the country that have been developed specifically for the instruction of African and African American History, Latin American History, etc. Yet, we have truly not experienced significant advances in the overall consciousness of our communities. The youth and hence grown adults continue to confuse or lack even the vague notions of critical recent events in our history (i.e. Confusing The Civil Rights Movement and The Civil War because they both contain the word “civil” and The March on Washington with The Million Man March because they both took place in the nation’s capital). In truth, those of us that are most aware of this problem are no longer in a position where we can simply blame the system for not properly teaching our true history in a public school setting because we have even taken for granted the value of teaching our history itself. The process very intricately involves the cultivation and nourishment of the self-esteem of our youth of color, but it is not merely limited to this. KRS-One put it best 22 years ago in the song You Must Learn:
I believe that if you’re teaching history
Filled with straight up facts no mystery
Teach the student what needs to be taught
‘Cause Black and White kids both take shorts
When one doesn’t know about the other ones’ culture
Ignorance swoops down like a vulture
Emphatically, as a Social Studies educator who has made the decision to play a role in shaping young minds in an inner-city public high school for over 10 years, I will say that we can no longer expect the system to do for us what we can do for ourselves and our local communities. Signs of this critical hour are found in the manner in which cultural curricula is treated in two principle states that play a strong role in the development of textbooks; Texas and Florida.
Hiphopdx.com (and a host of other websites) recently ran an article entitled “Texas Board Of Education Declare Hip Hop Is Not A Cultural Movement.” In the article it states that Members of the Texas State Board of Education have given preliminary approval to eliminate significant areas of the curriculum pertaining to Civil Rights and global politics and replace them with “conservative historical figures and beliefs.” These conservative forces also “approved to have a sociological focus on institutional racism and its presence in American society banned from the books,” in addition to removing references to important Latino contributions throughout history – this is in a state that contains over 8.9 million Latinos (roughly 37% of the population). In addition, Hip Hop History which is filled with many stories of personalities playing integral roles in working to eliminate violence in communities by way of the arts will also be deleted from the curriculum. A final vote on this measure will take place sometime in May after conscientious voices in the community have had the opportunity to voice their opinions. What I will say in short about this is that what the Texas School Board is attempting to do is eliminate any ray of light from the past that may serve to inspire the hope for change in the lives of poor Black, Latino and even White youth. By eliminating such critical elements of history from the curriculum is contributing to factors that will land more of our youth in Texas in prison.
In Florida, African and African American History is a state mandate which requires school systems throughout the state to implement it throughout the curriculum. While it has been a state law since the early 1990s, the mandate and the seat that oversees its implementation has continued to be unfunded by the state and it has been proven time and time again that there is no true penalty for school systems that are not in accords with its guidelines. In February I had the opportunity to be the only educator present at a meeting between curriculum specialists representing three of the largest school districts in Florida, which are regarded as “exemplary” in their implementation of African and African American History; Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. I was invited because of my work in reforming the African American Voices Curriculum for Miami-Dade County. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how the three school districts can work together so that we can more successfully educate students in the area of African and African American History. While engaged in this dialogue, there was an attempt on the part of two White curriculum specialists from Broward to derail the focus of the meeting and turn it into a plead for more funding from the state for the purpose of increasing professional development for teachers. I commented in response that while more funding is definitely needed, ultimately “Enthusiasm is not determined by funding.” I said in the presence of a state education official in that very room that if the state has not adequately funded the African and African American History mandate as of yet, it is not going to be doing it in these troubled economic times. The state of Florida has proven that it does not really consider the African and African American History mandate a priority, but rather keeps it as a law as an attempt to keep conscientious voices quiet. I proposed as a strategy instead to scope out enthusiastic teachers in schools throughout the three counties to become advocates not just to teach classes in Black History, but to transform the whole school culture through programs oriented in Black History. The two White curriculum specialists interrupted me and accused me of proposing a “pep rallying” agenda. I closed the meeting by saying that the need for proper implementation of Black History goes far beyond teaching a class and goes far beyond mere pep rallying around its content, but in essence, it is about instilling a sense of responsibility in the hearts and minds of the youth that it is being taught to so that they can become effective community leaders when they grow up and are in a position to give back and serve the community. In truth, it has been Black people in the history of this country (and I will also say this world) that have been the prime catalysts for change and inspiring change whenever it has been deemed necessary for a change to take place. If Black History (and really any history) is not taken and put to heart in this manner, we end up ineffective in what we seek to accomplish educationally.
As educators that hold certified degrees in the field as well as those among us that do not hold certified degrees in the field, the solution does not lie fully in state educational mandates, but in the level of responsibility that we are willing to fill our hearts with and the level of sacrifice we are willing to commit to in providing service to our communities, especially in respects to the next generations that are coming up under us. The process must involve proper role modeling and a thorough teaching of our true history, for, as Marcus Garvey put it himself “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” In truth, no school systems have any real power to determine what knowledge is best for our youth to learn for their growth and development. As conscientious communities we hold that right!
As a note, while the work that will be required to impact a significant change in consciousness a reality may entail much volunteerism, let us bear in mind that no good work is ever left unrewarded. Our first reward comes in the form of us actually witnessing the transformative effect of our work. If worked in a proper way through networking and the pooling of our resources, it will guarantee opportunities that will garner further success for many of us.
More discussion on this very soon through the will of God!
Tony Muhammad teaches Social Studies at an inner-city high school in Miami and is currently involved in The MIA (Music Is Alive) Campaign for the development of the National Hip Hop Day of Service on August 11th . Tony is most noted for his work as publisher of Urban America Newspaper (2003 – 2007) and co-organizer of the Organic Hip Hop Conference. He is also a member of Difference Makers, Inc. and FLASC (Florida Africana Studies Consortium).