Your Knees on the Necks of Our Children

Educators must not be complicit and co-conspirators in the act of not allowing Black students to just BE their wonderfully made selves.

On the night of George Floyd’s memorial service, at about 10:23 pm, I received a text from my friend which read, “ My son…my 7 year old son…asked me if he’s going to die young ‘cause he’s Black in America…I don’t know how I didn’t fall on my knees sobbing. But am sobbing now. He’s sleeping next to me.” 

My friend is not unique. She is not the only Black mother to have heard this question. Her husband won’t be the only Black man holding his wife’s hand as they hug both of their sons over the remains of a dinner. Or a breakfast. Or slice of pizza. Or on trip to Nana’s house or Target.

Her son is a second grader. Inquisitive, curious, bounding with energy, with all of the markers of a child who knows the love and care of attentive adults, which includes his teachers. His parents made the conscious decision to place their sons in a private independent school created especially for Black children. It centers Blackness and belonging, encourages creativity, and invites reflection as a way to explore themselves, each other and the world. Their brilliance is a given. It's acknowledged and accepted without pre-existing conditions. Rarely is this the experience of Black children in public schools.

In his impassioned eulogy for George Floyd, the Reverend Al Sharpton called out America for having too long had its knee on the neck of Black people in this country, ultimately preventing us from just BEING.

The same indictment could be made of many educators of Black students. Your knees on the necks of our children have prevented them from just BEING. They have received the blame for failing schools, for the achievement gap, for persistently low test scores.  They are the reason for the low expectations teachers have of them, and the unwitting recipients of curriculum that is often historically inaccurate, uninspiring, and lacks much with respect to cultural responsiveness. Black students have been criticized for performing poorly, behaving badly, and for not being as smart or capable as their white counterparts. All knees on the necks. Your knees on their necks. Not allowing them to just BE. 

At the end of the service, Reverend Sharpton had everyone stand in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time if took for the knee to the neck of George Floyd to suffocate him, to crush the life out of his body, to kill him.

That 8 minutes and 46 seconds metaphorically happens to a Black student in this country every day a school is open. It happens in the teaching and learning, it happens in the hiring and staffing, it happens in the language of zero tolerance and harsh and spirit-killing discipline policies.

All complicit and co-conspirators in the act of not allowing Black students to just BE their wonderfully made selves. 

As we contemplate what the new school year will bring, we now all know what our commitment as educators should be. No Black child in this country should ever ask that question again because the adults in their life especially their teachers and principals – have committed to letting Black students just BE. Be loved. Be cared for. Be valued. Be seen as precious. Be given to space to make mistakes and grow. Be given room to explore. Be allowed to breathe, fully and deeply, their possibilities.



Read more of Dionne Grayman's 'See and Be Seen' Essays

Making the Call. Sometimes educators have to make hard decisions that put the needs of the many over the needs of one. Dionne tells about a wrenching choice she had to make.

Invisibilized MeDionne reflects on the experience of being "invisibilized" as a student - or adult - of color. 

When Adults Don't See Remorse, They Won't See VulnerabilityThe principal was greeting students on the steps of the school when I arrived. His normally cheerful demeanor was slightly subdued as he told me about the two major incidents that had happened the day before, each one centered around one student, Justin, in particular.

Having Heart: The Healing Power of Listening. The class had already earned a reputation for being one of the more difficult ones in a school that considers itself the last stop for young people who have spent the majority of their student careers majoring in "Disruptive" and minoring in "Challenging."

The Dance Teacher's Dilemma. Edward was a part of a cohort of teachers in a middle school that was participating in a unique project to develop a whole-school model for restorative practices.

The Day before the 20th. It is Thursday, January 19th, 2017, and I am sitting in a large, warm, aesthetically comforting office at a school that I have been sitting in every school day since Tuesday.

Rely on Human Goodness. Dionne was asked by her daughter's school to facilitate a post-election circle for parents and staff. Many who came were upset about the election. Here's what happened.