Over the weekend, I witnessed an argument between my friends about the merits of Black students attending HBCUs versus PWIs. Many of the points made brought me back to James Baldwin’s short story, “A Fly in Buttermilk,” where he talks to G and his family about the experience of attending an all-white school. Baldwin writes, “I began to suspect that the boy managed to support the extreme tension of his situation by means of nearly fanatical concentration on his schoolwork; by holding in the center of his mind the issue on which, when the deal went down, others would be forced to judge him. Pride and silence were his weapons. Pride comes naturally, and soon, to a Negro, but even his mother, i felt, was worried about G.’s silence, though she was too wise to break it. For what was all this doing to him really?”(193) While some might argue that society has progressed and that the severity of racism Black students face today cannot compare to what G experienced, there is complete merit in the observation that learning can be much more difficult when one is uncomfortable, isolated or misunderstood. While all Black students are not the same, it can be argued that being the first or the only can create a tense or difficult learning environment. When there is a lack of understanding or relatability relative to teachers, administrators, and even fellow students, it can negatively affect learning. Rather than being immersed in the subject matter, these students can be preoccupied with understanding, fitting in, and not being ridiculed. Learning environments are critical to information share and retention. While the discrepancy in education levels G saw between his two schools is much greater than the differences between HBCU’s and PWI’s, when one thinks of “elite” institutions, HBCUs are rarely included. This leads to a few questions. Is there a discrepancy in what is being taught? Can HBCUs help Black students thrive because they’ve eliminated the distraction of isolation? Should Black students explore PWIs even if there’s a tangible price to pay academically and or socially? Should the best and brightest Black students attend HBCUs to bolster these critical centers of learning? In fairness, it would seem that many of the answers are dependent on an individual’s preference. A blanket approach would underserve many. The fight should be to grow the population of college attendees—information and education seekers—above all else. These are a series of difficult choices and considerations. As we discussed in class, segregation and integration have both resulted in additional challenges for Black people in America.
During class this past week, there was a discussion about the subtle ways racism has been integrated into our society. One way is through the nursery rhyme “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe”. It was a shock to learn that the verse “catcha tiger by it’s toe” was really written as “catch a nigger by it’s toe”. I remember singing this rhyme as a kid while picking who was going to be it in tag. It’s crazy to me that innocent children are taught things like this that seem innocent, but at its roots are not. Changing a word in the song does not change the spirit of the song. It makes me wonder what other things look innocent in our society, but really has a hidden meaning or origin.
The first thing that came to mind for me was the school system in America. The majority of the great people we learn about in American history are white males. We learn about the great inventions created by white individuals, and the great impacts white men have had on society. However, the lack of black leaders, inventions, and impacts by African Americans shown in curriculum is not an accident. It is a strategy. In “A Talk to Teachers”, Baldwin writes, “…he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization” (679). The lack of teaching done on black excellence results in black youth assuming that they never have and never will do anything great. This is stunting their determination to change their society at a young age.
The way slavery is taught also causes problems. Baldwin states, “ He is assured by the republic that… his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon- eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie” (679). Slavery is taught in a watered down way that prevents the herendous truth of slavery from being told. Students, black and white, can easily walk away not realizing how terrible it was. In addition, there were many revolts that took place, however the educational system does not teach that. They do not want black youth to know that their ancestors were strong and fought back because then black youth will know that they are strong and can fight back. It seems innocent that the educational system is teaching slavery to students, and don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that we learn these things. However, the way they teach it secretly has another agenda.
Teaching majority white history may seem innocent on the surface, but there are darker tactics at work. It may seem innocent to “forget” about the black excellence in history or tell the full horror of slavery, but it is not. There are hidden origins to these tactics, and I am sure there are many other examples of false innocence in our society.