Toni Morrison calls it required reading. For school leaders, especially those of us in urban settings, I’d even go further. For the leader, pushing themselves towards cultural competence, I’d go further than that. And for those of us raising black sons in America, I’d go further still.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is beyond required reading. Here’s why:
- Your limited perspective will grow. Chances are, African American students and families are among the diverse population you serve. And like me, perhaps you aren’t African American. So you are limited in your perspective. Perhaps you never had to navigate mean streets and urban schools. I didn’t. But this is where I gladly live and lead now. Comparing both spaces, Coates shares, “I suffered at the hands of of both [streets and schools] but I resent the schools more.” How could this be? Read on.
- You’ll get a nuanced, passionate, unbridled perspective of a black parent. One reason the book is so compelling, is because it is a letter written by Coates, to his son. The worries and convictions and conclusions he shares approximate those of parents we likely know and respect. He is adamant, for example, that, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. [They] are all we have, and they come to us endangered” (82). He also goes on to share that black parents, “tell their black boys and black girls to be ‘twice as good’ which is to say, ‘accept half as much'”(90). I recoil when Coates shares with his son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels” (107). While this shouldn’t be, it probably is. And while Coates is one of 40 million black voices in our country*, we, as educators, should still take pause.
- You’ll wonder if our structures are too restrictive. Perhaps our educational structures and approaches are too inflexible and impersonal. We, myself included, expect our students to behave and fit into our school cultures. Sure, we prioritize their learning. But many of our students struggle with being quiet, staying glued to their seats, and being led through pre-scripted learning activities. Coates interpreted his K-12 journey the following way, “To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly.” He shares, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance”(26). We have to wonder how many bright lights are being dimmed by worksheets and uniform classroom expectations.
- You’ll be reminded that establishing relevance for learning is critical. As educators, we have a duty to answer the “why” for our students. One of my professors, Dr. Douglas Fisher, calls it a justice issue. Students have a right to know why they are learning what they are learning because we will stand in judgement of them down the road. Coates shares a frustration about disconnection between learning and relevance. “I remember sitting in my seventh-grade French class and not having any idea of why I was there. I did not know any French people, and nothing around me suggested I ever would” (26). What would our classrooms look like if all students were convinced that their learning had future relevance?
- You’ll witness how a thirst to learn can transform a man. While Coates plodded through his early education, his college experience proved transformational. At Howard University, which he affectionately calls the Mecca, “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books.” Burning questions pushed Coates well beyond required reading. Writers and thinkers throughout the ages confirmed some beliefs and debunked others. They incited further questioning. His thirst to learn is clear in the statement, “I was made for the library, not the classroom.” What if this thirst to learn were adequately engaged in his early educational experience?
- You will be a better, more culturally competent, leader. Cultural competence is a non-negotiable for urban school leaders today. We lead students and families with unique histories, stories, passions and wounds. Between the World and Me reminds us that realizing student achievement and meaningfully engaging parents will take a whole lot more than freshly published curriculum and morning ‘Coffee with the Principal’ meetings. We’re going to have to spend time with families, listen well, and sit with their critiques. A good start may be to assent that many families, many kids are ‘up against’ more. We should honor student interests, fan the flames of their curiosity, and push for more flexible school structures. If we dare to make some drastic changes, we are more likely to end up with more brilliant minds, like Ta-Nehisi Coates.
*Statistic cited by Eugene Robinson on Morning Joe on 2/13/2016.