How Learning About Black History Changed My Future
February 08, 2017
J. Gabriel Ware, Graduate Student Western Michigan University
In honor of Black History Month, a former teaching assistant reflects on the role that courses and films on African American history played in shaping his outlook on education.
This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English language learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.
“I’m not even supposed to be here,” a student said to me last semester, when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Western Michigan University. She meant that, because she was a poor black girl from the Detroit, it was unlikely that she would’ve made it to college.
Not long ago, I had those same feelings. In 2007, I graduated with an abysmal grade point average from the Detroit Public School system, certain I was forever done with formal education.
However, five years in limbo and working a minimum wage job convinced me I needed a college education to support my future wife and children. When I finally enrolled in college, I felt like a trespasser with inferior intelligence.
The more I learned about African American history, the more those insecurities faded away.
Eyes on the Prize
My first semester in college, my American government professor showed us a documentary that highlighted African Americans’ nonviolent resistance to segregation and the brutal realities of the Jim Crow South, “Eyes on the Prize: The Awakenings.”
I had learned about civil rights in elementary school—not so much in middle school and high school—but now my mind was mature enough to understand key concepts such as de jure and de facto segregation and redlining, which all shined lights on the elaborate, systematic, legal, and social process to keep African Americans living in destitute neighborhoods with inferior resources.
Not only did I begin to see myself as a product of a segregated and unequal public school system, but I also began to detest the very neighborhood where I was born, raised, and once loved and embraced. I had never paid more attention to the vacant lots, the dirty streets and the abandoned, dilapidated homes—including my own.
I no longer saw a college education as simply a pathway to a better job. Instead, I viewed it as a means to moving out of the ‘hood so I could defy a system that had pigeonholed members of my family for generations, one that threatened to do the same to me.
The Black Experience
In a course called “The Black Experience,” another professor showed me and my classmates a documentary called “Ethnic Notions.” The film discussed the origins of the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and how these stereotypes were perpetuated in even the earliest forms of media, especially the notion that African Americans were animalistic, incompetent, and intellectually inferior. The documentary argued that the media still perpetuate these stereotypes today.
My mind wandered back to my failures in grade school. I questioned whether I had been a product of these stereotypes, if I had subconsciously internalized these them, which in part negatively affected my educational outcomes and views toward school. To reconcile this uncertainty, I once again changed my motivation for getting through college. Now I would use college to disprove those stereotypes for myself. Instead of just using college to get a job and to resist living in the improvised conditions that the system had arranged for me, I could excel in all my classes to prove to myself that I’m just as intellectually capable as anybody else.
You Are Supposed to Be Here
After graduation, I went back to the block where I grew up and took pictures of myself in my cap and gown, donning all of my honor cords, stoles, and accessories, and I posted them on my social media accounts. My message was clear: I had graduated from college with the highest honors—and I wasn’t “even supposed to be here.”
I’ve regained my pride in growing up in my old neighborhood in Detroit as well, though I still resist the notion that black people should be relegated to such a neighborhood. But I now understand that that neighborhood helped me become the resilient and resourceful person I am today and will always be a part of who I am. Identical neighborhoods across the nation are a part of African American history, and understanding their origins and how they connect to negative stereotypes associated with African Americans, has had positive effects on my self-confidence and education experience.
“You are supposed to be here,” I said to my student. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you don’t.”
Join the GradNation Learning Community To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to Krista O’Connell with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.
Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:
J. Gabriel was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a journalism degree from Western Michigan University in 2016 and is currently in Western Michigan University’s communication master’s program and working as a reporting and editing intern at Yes! Magazine.
“You should think about becoming a high school teacher.
That’s what a Western Michigan University professor said to me—his graduate teaching assistant—after a group of students who failed the first exam handed in their second exam of the semester.