Still Colored: Education, Evolution and the NAACP – The Feminist Wire

Still Colored: Education, Evolution and the NAACP


inspired by Pandwe Gibson

en cuba
when asked about the challenge
a godless country
he said
education is our religion

in the precinct
of schoolchildren
into budgets beds and bullets
she remembered
she prayed


A question.  What will it take for the people of the United States to be honest about the function and operation of education in this country?  Last month, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was compelled to sue the New York City Department of Education for creating a two tier system and disenfranchising parents—a 1960s soul clap in the face of those of us who would pretend to live in an era of post-racial progress.

Or as June Jordan said thirty-six years ago:

“We have remained bystanders while the compulsory public school system of Amerika proceeds to denigrate and punish the most innocent, beautiful purveyors of our Black language: our Black children. They continue to suffer an indefensible abuse that has become traditional.”*

I live in North Carolina where Tea Party elected officials in Wake County are actively re-segregating school districts.  A debased education system, in collaboration with a growing prison system, used to abuse the genius of the children in our society is a national problem and reveals the bold-faced lie of the possibility of a meritocracy, not to even mention a democracy, in this country.  As Cathy Cohen and Michael Dawson have argued through extensive studies of black political life, the profound divestment of public resources away from Black people in the United States has effectively kept the mass of the Black population disenfranchised.  Furthermore, the egregious lack of accountability of the United States public school systems, exacerbated now by the corporate model of charter schools, plays a major role in this disenfranchisement.**

I have to be honest.  Although my grandmother and her sisters were active supporters of the NAACP until the end of their lives (I even have my grandmother’s Perth Amby chapter NAACP t-shirt), I have not been enamored by the organization.  I have been critical of an organization that would distance itself from founder W.E.B. Du Bois and probably their most effective field organizer Ella Baker for being too interested in economic justice. And seriously, even though the acronym NAAAAP (National Association for the Advancement of African-American People?) might inspire sleep instead of action, why do they insist on organizing against the use of the n-word, yet continue to use the word “colored”?

But suddenly, today, it makes sense to me why the NAACP has never updated its name.  The stubborn-ness of racism, the refusal to even fund schools in a way that would offer the illusion of an honest investment in the majority of the children in our society actually means that the NAACP is perpetually fighting new versions of the exact same issues it was founded to address:  1) disenfranchisement of black people and 2) the use of segregated and unequal education to create a perpetual category of second-class pseudo-citizenship.

Photo: Life Magazine

And June Jordan would remind us that an indefensible abuse that has become traditional still has not become defensible. How can we accept the abuse of our children and the impoverishment of our collective future across all cultural lines?  How can we expect that an education system that still does not even conform to the demands that made Brown v. Board of Education necessary will be responsive to the necessary task of educating children in multiple languages for a globalized world?  Of honoring the brilliance of the children of immigrants from countries that US-designed trade agreements have actively impoverished?

Valid critiques of the relative conservatism of the organization aside, I am struck by the fact that the NAACP is not repeating the same battles, even recycling the same language it used generations ago (only) because the organization refuses to evolve. The only reason it is even possible for them to articulate their stance using the same old terms is that collectively this country refuses to evolve into a place worthy of the brains of children and the participation of the masses.

Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs talk about education in the United States along the lines of evolution.  I agree with Grace Lee Boggs when she says that the industrial function of education to create obedient workers is outdated in a post-industrial American economy and a on a planet faced with the task of creatively redefining our relationship to resources and the environment.  And while the NAACP inspired me to write this article, and I have respect for their decision to draw attention to the same old b.s. happening on a different school day, I believe that we will need a multi-facedted approach to truly honor our future and each other across generations.

On one hand, amazing work intervenes in the reproduction of public schools as usual, including the work of Darnell Moore to create the new Sakia Gunn High School for Civic Engagement in Newark.  The school provides a safe and inspiring space honoring the memory of Sakia Gunn, a young Black lesbian murdered in an act of hate, ignorance and homegrown misogyny.*** And on general principle, if education is ever to become a right instead of a privilege in the United States, the county, state and federal government units cannot continue to divest from public education for private interests.

And at the same time we who believe in freedom like Ella Baker must also put our energy towards initiatives that are transforming the meaning of education and that will not be supported by a state that has obviously and consistently shown itself to be invested in inequality, especially when it comes to people of color and poor people on this land, and which has used education specifically for aims of genocide and colonization against the original inhabitants of this land. The founders of Brotherhood SisterSol in New York, the youth media program Detroit Summer, and SpiritHouse in Durham, NC, an organization using arts education to intervene in the womb to prison pipeline, are inspired educators who understand the need for community-supported autonomous spaces designed to create accountable transformative educational systems and to intervene in the public education system in a way that honors the genius all around us.

Because, why are we expecting a system—one that has disrespected the most beautiful purveyors of our future for generations—to act justly within the very laws used to exclude our brilliance? Or to be colloquial: What I look like inviting white people to call me colored… in 2011?  Right.

Evolution towards new brave systems of love takes creative action; intervention in instruments of regression and repression requires building power. It takes intention, accountability and all of us.

*June Jordan “Towards a Survival Literature for Afrikan-Amerikan Children” (unpublished talk given at the Afro-American Writers Conference at Howard University in 1974).

**See Cathy Cohen’s most recent work based on this research in Democracy Remixed, New York, Oxford University Press, 2011.

***For more information about Sakia Gunn listen to the Sakia Gunn Birthday Podcast created through a leadership development collaboration with Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind and SpiritHouse:

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the facilitator of the upcoming Juneteenth Freedom Academy for Educators (August 8-12, Durham, NC) and the founder of the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind Community School.