The phrase “now more than ever” has been on a lot of people’s lips at this year’s Reimagining Education Summer Institute, but perhaps no one has underscored that sense of urgency more vividly than Jamila Lyiscott.
“Right now, our world is on fire, so what it means to reimagine education in this moment is something very different,” said Lyiscott (Ph.D. ’15), Assistant Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Senior Research Fellow at TC’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), in a talk she delivered on the Institute’s opening morning. “School is closed but education is not. Reimagining has been forced upon us. Two pandemics are upon us. What does it mean to engage in racial justice work in our society in this moment?”
The Racial Politics of Pandemic Pedagogy: Jamila Lyiscott
Lyiscott, author of Black Appetite, White Food: Issues of Race, Voice and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom (Routledge 2019), called for “a pandemic pedagogy” that applies two lenses to understand America in a time defined by COVID and the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed black people.
First, she said, “We need an independent autopsy.
“The world watched the murder of George Floyd on camera, but we knew the narrative would be reframed. The autopsy report contained no details supporting strangulation, even though we all watched it. I wasn’t surprised at all. What I thought about was that his family and his lawyer had to conduct an independent autopsy to find that it was asphyxia.”
School is closed but education is not. Reimagining has been forced upon us. Two pandemics are upon us. What does it mean to engage in racial justice work in our society in this moment?
Worse still than omission of the obvious, Lyiscott said, was the attempt to smear Floyd by implication.
“‘Any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death,’” she intoned, quoting an actual phrase from Floyd’s autopsy and pausing to let the words resonate. “If we’re not conducting our own independent autopsies and cultivating a lens for what’s really happening, we’ll miss those ideological evils. Because what does it mean to blame an unarmed black man for his death — and then assume society would believe a black man has intoxicants in his system?”
But Lyiscott’s ultimate focus was education.
So what would happen, if we conducted an independent autopsy of our schools? On the disparate attendance and achievement rates? What would we find and who would be responsible?
“So what would happen,” she asked, “if we conducted an independent autopsy of our schools? On the disparate attendance and achievement rates? What would we find and who would be responsible? I circle back to the Fugitive Action Framework for my book. Not falling back on the master’s truth and how white middle class tools make people of color responsible for their own destruction. Any pandemic pedagogy must have a lens committed to and capable of conducting an independent autopsy to catch toxic ideologies like this and what institutional factors are at work to even create an analysis that would justify this.”
[Read Lyiscott’s description of her Fugitive Action Framework, an approach inspired by the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.]
That framework is “a tool for analysis,” Lyiscott said — a way of asking, Wait a minute — what does it mean to look at the narrative that’s been put before me.
“Think about the ideological, interpersonal institutional and internal. Use them as a lens of analysis. What ideologies are at work? What stereotypes? What institutional policies and practices? What internal landscape at schools of privilege and what oppressive functions?”
The second lens described by Lyiscott was one she called upon white Americans to use.
“Yo, call us by our names,” she said. “Warsan Shire says, ‘Give your daughters difficult names — my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.’ [Shire is a British poet and teacher who said, “Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn't allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”] This is an indictment of a society that has asked us to erase our identities with white middle class names. No — now you’re gonna say our names. I don’t trust institutions that cannot do that. Yo, this is real, what does it mean when you can’t pronounce ‘Black Lives Matter’? Some institutions are only pronouncing it for vested interests — but some can’t even get it out of their mouths.”
Lyiscott said that “in the throes of the first pandemic, when the school bell and four walls were no longer a factor constricting the genius of black and brown children,” Shire’s words prompted her to “think about how distance learning pushed us to reimagine education in ways long needed.” The “second pandemic” brought that question into still sharper focus.
“We’ve been advocating that every educator show up knowing that every child matters and is fully genius — but now that they’re hitting the streets in protest, we cannot continue to ignore the heritages, identities, histories and social realities of these young people. Because how are you gonna educate me in my ‘hood at home, with my own people, and not see me?”
We’ve been advocating that every educator show up knowing that every child matters and is fully genius — but now that they’re hitting the streets in protest, we cannot continue to ignore the heritages, identities, histories and social realities of these young people. Because how are you gonna educate me in my ‘hood at home, with my own people, and not see me?
Lyiscott concluded her remarks by talking about Cyphers for Justice, a youth and educator development program she cofounded that is housed within IUME and College Now at Queens College. Teens from the program, which apprentices New York City high school students to serve as critical researchers through the use of hip hop, spoken word, digital literacy, and critical social research methods, were slated to perform later in the Reimagining Institute’s schedule.
“The concept for the Cypher is for to students to show what it would look like to call us by our names,” she said. “To be invested in our ways of knowing, our heritage, practices, our histories, our community practices that exist organically in our communities.”
Cypher is rooted in African traditions, Lyiscott said, and draws on indigenous practices, including hip hop itself.
“You’re gonna learn what it means to speak the language of the cypher and hip hop in ways that might shift you,” she said. “Because when we are in school, we’re asked to wrap our tongues around white language and practices.”
[Watch Lyiscott’s TED Talk, “3 Ways to Speak English.”]
The latter reality, she said, is yet one more example of how “the politics of race woven into the very fabric of our nation.
“Think about that,” she said in closing. “And if you are truly committed to reimagining education, think about what it means to be accountable for an independent autopsy that tells us the truth. And call our young people by their true genius names.”
[Read about an opinion piece in The Atlantic by TC Associate Professor of Science Education Christopher Emdin about the need for “reality pedagogy.”]