• Sonja Cherry-Paul

Becoming the Architects of School: Building for Liberation

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.”


Harriet Tubman was not alone in having dreams of building a better life for her people. As Black people emerged from slavery, their greatest goal was to educate themselves and their children. But, the architects of school had visions of their own and sketched white supremacy into their blueprint of education for Black people.


As he pontificated on the Black race, Samuel Armstrong focused on ways to control education for Black people and adapt it to the social structure of the South. As founder of one of the early schools for Black people in 1868, he established the institutional motto: Education for Life. To him, preparing Black people for life meant white supremacists named their purpose, place, and value in the world. He reified the racial hierarchy rooted throughout slavery by praising dull plodders as opposed to Black scholars and emphasizing a respect for White authority and acceptance of subordinate status for Black people. The goal of education? To prepare Black people for a life of toil, nominal pay, and harsh discipline unlike that of White people. Black people therefore, only needed access to core academics. And vocational training would be mandated, thereby sustaining the economic viability of White people and maintaining white supremacy.


The architects of school were not just White men. Booker T. Washington, schooled under the Armstrong approach, embraced these ideas about education for Black people and implemented them in his Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881. He too believed the path forward for Black people to be accepted in White American society was segregation. And he believed that the purpose of education for Black people was to teach them trades “to dignify and glorify common labor,” as he asserted in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech given to assuage the fears of his predominantly White audience. Washington’s rival, however, had a different idea.


Although W.E.B. DuBois’ philosophy would later evolve, he also espoused limitations on access to knowledge. His “Education for Life” orientation included the elevation to elite status of the best and most capable Black people by allocating resources in the community toward the education of this tenth of the group. In his influential essay published in 1903, The Talented Tenth, he argued that “Education must not simply teach work - it must teach Life.” Dubois’ beliefs rubbed against the grain of the social, economic and political climate of the South. Contrary to Armstrong and Washington, DuBois sought to establish clearly defined social classes within the Black community, where highly educated, cultured, Black leaders would organize and fortify their community.


The next century is filled with the builders of educational systems determining the nature of, and often erecting scaffolding for “better” school systems for IBPOC. But rarely have they invested in and actually laid the bricks down for a liberatory education, and NOT built upon a foundation of segregationist and assimilationist ideas.


In my grandfather’s adolescence, overcrowded, dilapidated, under-resourced buildings were the norm for Black children in Georgia. As the nation survived depression and war not much had changed when my mother and father passed through the schools. Even when I grew up in New York City many years after civil rights changed our nation, the pressure to be selected in one of a few specialized schools overwhelmed many families hoping to find the kind of education available to those who can afford private school.


You might be wondering why I’m writing about education during the past 150 years, as our nation works to comprehend what it means to educate and school in the wake of COVID-19. This is precisely why I am.


Because right now, the architects of school are (re)building and although there have been varying and conflicting paradigms, they’ve always had a clear vision about the purpose of, and access to, education for Black and Brown children.


They are (re)imagining what will be taught, how to teach it, and essentially who education is for. And history shows us that their design will undoubtedly branch back to authoritative and oppressive approaches to education from the past. The polarization of Black and White youth along with a Eurocentric approach to curriculum and teaching has been the sturdy foundation from which the institution of schooling has been built. When the curtain lifts to reveal the sparkly “new” structure for K-12 students this fall, we can expect more inequitable assessments; more limitations on learning that do not mirror White, middle-class standards; more antiblack policies and practices.


Unless…


We, a strategic coalition of antiracist educators, caregivers, students, scholars, authors, artists, and community activists heed Harriet’s call. “Stop searching for happiness in the same place you lost it. Change is not dismantling the old, it’s building the new.”


We become the architects of schools; and we build for the collective.


We build a transformative approach to education that is informed by the past, and reconstructs our educational system into one that is socially just.


We build by listening to those who have been silenced, traditionally marginalized, and denied the spaces in schools to make sense of, and build upon lived experiences.


We build by eradicating the imposition and deposition of hegemonic ideas and dismantle authoritative educational approaches that privilege a singular worldview.


We build by valuing and centering the stories, knowledge, and experiences of students.


We build by desegregating curriculum and pedagogical approaches and providing students with the tools they need to become agents of change.


We build for emancipatory outcomes by raising the critical and racial consciousness of society.


If we do not become the new architects of school, if we stand by and watch, we risk allowing the old regime to continue to build. And we’ve seen their blueprint. We can count on them to continue to construct oppressive educational systems that perpetuate historic, systemic, racist policies and practices. We should use history not to, as Paulo Freire once said, “emerge normalized and well-behaved,” but as a catalyst for change.


What is the purpose of education? For whom is education? What constitutes knowledge and who decides? As long as white supremacy is the cement that is poured into the mold of the schools that are built, the answers to these questions are resoundingly clear.


The work isn't easy. We’ll draw from the wisdom, fortitude, and resilience of antiracist leaders past and present. The well is deep. As we organize, join established groups such as school boards, PTSA’s, vote out ineffective leaders at all levels, and form new grassroots committees, we will be tested. But Harriet said, “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”


Yes, we become the architects, and we build for liberation.





This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Nessa Perez (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).





Educator. Author. Racial Literacy Advocate.

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