Education for Liberation
I was in first grade in the late 1950’s — five-years-old, 1958. In those days we started school at an earlier age than today. My father was integrating the neighborhood — back then it was looked at as a general thing — a Black man and his family into an all-White neighborhood. Today, the distinction needs to be made — he was integrating a White upper middle class neighborhood. It was the class nature of the neighborhood that made it appear to him as a mission.
The elementary school was more of a mix of middle class and working class. But they were all White — I was the only Black child.
At one point my first grade friends came to me as a group — they had to know: “How come you’re Black?” At such a young age (they were each six years old) they had already been inured in enough American culture to know that there was “something wrong” with me. I don’t know what specifically each of them was taught, but they were taught enough to be sympathetic, to the extent that they considered me one of their friends; they wanted to sympathize with me, that’s why they asked. I was in the same place in my cultural understanding of my situation, so I accepted their sympathy and told them: “I’m Black ‘cause… my mother is White… and my father’s Black.”
I had defended myself, and included myself — though I looked “black,” in my little five-year-old mind, “really” I was White…too, like them.
I went home and told my mother of the exchange. I was proud of the response I gave to my friends. My mother scolded me: “Alexander, you’re Black because you were born that way. And it’s really fine…”
Your level of experience with white supremacist culture will determine the degree to which you identify with my mother’s positions on these subjects. In the 1950’s my mother was teaching me that it was beautiful to be Black, ten years before Folks came together and emblazoned this sentiment all over the sky above America — “Black is beautiful!”
This sense from her, and from Folks, was well beyond physical beauty, and blew apart Madison Avenue’s effort to make human beauty something that could be put in a box, bought and sold. In the 1950’s my mother was not bucking merely open racism, but the liberal trend as well. Our family was looked upon as mongrels: “mixed” was the common expression. “Mixed with what?” I used to wonder. Today, it is clear that only Nazis and Zionists are committed to inbreeding. Everyone else on the planet is “mixed” …
Again, beyond that, my mother insisted that I was Black — that’s with a capital letter. In other words, I was a member of a definite people — in the United Nations’ sense of the term. In other words, by 1960 International Law was being written by the large majority of nations and peoples of the world, many of whom had just gained independence through wars of national liberation from European and United States imperialism. According to the laws regarding the rights of nations and peoples which this body (the United Nations by 1960) had crafted, African Americans were a people, a nationality with the right to self-determination and the right to not be dominated by another nation. Again, this designation as a people or nationality (the two terms are identical in International Law) is a social, not biological, designation. In other words, a nation is made by people, not by geography, and is not determined principally by blood, biology, heritage, etc. It is determined by what these people do together — their culture, their language, their economic ways, where and how they live together.
Even the White radicals of the time, and I’ve heard this all my life — they talk about “ethnicities” when they are referring to Folks, to People of Color. The terms race and ethnicity are entirely Eurocentric concepts designed to “other” People of Color. They are another way of saying “non-White.”
My mother is an Italian American whose life was devoted to supporting the African American People’s Liberation Movement. She was also deeply involved in the Puerto Rican Independentista movement. The good fathers of our suburban neighborhood in which I grew up used to call her Puerto Rican as a way of disparaging her. She did not take “being Puerto Rican” as anything less than being Italian American. She also had no shame associated with being Italian American, and she deeply understood the ignorance of her detractors. She was proud of her heritage.
She taught me to be proud of being Black, while knowing better than anyone that “half of my blood” was “White.” My mother was aware of race theory, and she made the distinction between biological categories, on one hand, and social categories on the other.
The way the liberal trend affected children was that when I was called “nigger” by one of the fellas, my middle class White friends would look at each other and shrug their shoulders. They had never been told how to have their friend’s back. Not so with my friends from the trailer park — these were “hillbillies” who had migrated to a suburb north of New York City from the Appalachian mountains. When I was with one of these friends of mine and someone would call me a racial term a fight was automatically on — their friend was being disrespected, so they were being disrespected. This was a children’s form of internationalism.
My first grade teacher Ms. Bach, of German extraction, used to physically abuse me at the front of the class. When she would get exasperated with whatever may have been going on in the class she would call me up to the front and grab me by the arm and swing me around in a circle until she smashed my little body against the wall underneath the blackboard. Ultimately, it was the insult of having to teach the only nigger kid in the school which overcame her otherwise good manners.
My mother would be “down the school,” fighting for me. My mother was five feet tall and had a physical disability, but she was not afraid to fight. She understood these people — they were capable of abusing a five year old because of the color of his skin.
My mother was down the school all the time. Not all of my teachers were racists. But for those that were my mother would battle. By eleventh grade my mother had gotten across to me the idea that I would have little chance “out there” if I didn’t go to college. I did not have any outstanding skills or talents — I hadn’t the discipline to develop any through my childhood years. And my performance in school was forever tainted by my first grade introduction to education — I routinely got “C’s” and “D’s”. At the same time as my mother’s admonitions were becoming more urgent (1967–68), the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) was on. Black Power, Power to the People — it was on, and I was becoming conscious of the fact that I was Black — something my mother had suggested early on.
When eleventh grade began, I combined my mother’s sense of imminent doom for me if I didn’t “get my stuff together,” with that of the BLM, and I entered Advanced Placement European History, and Advanced Placement English. I walked in without portfolio. I did not have the grades requisite to be in these classes. My mother told me to get serious. And the Black Liberation Movement told me that I had a right. So I just walked in and assumed my place in a chair in front of a desk in each of these two classes. The AP History teacher was a Jewish liberal who allowed me to do this. I believe he understood the BLM in similar terms to my understanding — he saw that I was “taking my right,” and he allowed/supported it.
Not so with my English teacher, Ms. McCauley, an Irish grammarian. She had the same attitude as Ms. Bach from first grade. She told me point blank that I was “not intelligent enough” to be in her class. I persevered and stayed — it was a sit-in/sit down strike planned to last one year. There was back-and-forth wrangling between my mother and the administration. I was temporarily allowed to stay pending my performance.
I was not getting very good grades in this class when Ms. McCauley returned to us an essay which I thought was the best essay I had ever written. At this young age I expected fair treatment. I got a “C” on the paper. As she came around and gathered the papers back up and returned to her desk at the front of the room, my blood began boiling over. The spirit of the BLM molted in my breast, I was on fire. I had smoke coming out of my ears. I rose out of my chair in a trance — literally, I didn’t really feel anything — it was as if I was levitating. From my seat in the back of the class I floated up to her desk (as if I was not touching the ground), grabbed my paper off of the top of the pile (this paper was my evidence) and I floated out of the classroom as a fuselage of profanity vomited from my mouth.
The next day we were in the vice principal’s office, my mother and I. This is now 1968, so we have a Black vice principal. How did you get to be a Black vice principal in a suburban school in 1968? First, my closest friend Arnold Wilson and I had by that time led two student shut downs of the school — yeah, student walk-outs in 1968 in support of Black Liberation and against the war then being waged by the US against the people of Vietnam closed the school twice that year. In response, the school administration hired this guy who must have been the most “Tommish” groveling idiot never to be portrayed in a minstrel show. My mother lit into him with the same zeal which she levied against the White racists — she did everything but call him a Tom to his face. But, his white socks notwithstanding, the man held “his ground,” and refused to allow me to return to AP English. It wasn’t because I was not intelligent enough; it was because I didn’t know how to behave…
The lesson I got at that young age was a combination of that being taught by the Black Liberation Movement — for me it was a bit abstract since I lived in the ‘burbs — and the fighting spirit of my mother. My mother was “down the school” throughout my entire school years. Being thrown out of the class was not an ultimate defeat. There was an ultimate victory — my mother looked at it this way, and made certain that I at least understood this perspective: That we fought to the maximum, that we never bowed our heads, that we knew they were wrong, and that we had a cause that we were part of; we were not victims, we were participants in a world-wide struggle of the oppressed against the oppressors.
Internationalism is the spiritual disposition of the working class movement worldwide. My mother’s internationalism had the same practical essence as that of my poor White friends from the trailer park. My mother taught me that internationalism was not some liberal tolerance of differences, but that it was a commitment to fight for our liberation, and that in this fight we need allies, and that we need to support our allies as passionately as we fought for ourselves.