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I was an eighth-grade student at Morgan Village Middle School in Camden, New Jersey, when you, my Language Arts instructor, reprimanded me in front of my classmates and uttered those malicious words in frustration.
You probably weren’t aware that your astute ability to “put me in my place” signified your own.
Your whiteness is not an inconsequential detail in this story. That you were a white teacher in a mostly black and brown urban public school in a city that was heralded in media as one of the most economically devastated U.S. cities in the post-Reagan 1990s absolutely made a difference. But this is really not about you, Mis(s)-Education.
While this letter is addressed to you, I wrote it to speak to a larger issue. You represent thousands of self-professed, self-possessed educators of various racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds who daily slaughter students’ dreams and mutilate their imaginations with calculated words. But it is also meant to address the systemic structural conditions (i.e. schools segregated by race and economic status; market-driven, neoliberal approaches to education that shape policy and misallocation of resources; curriculum and assessment protocols that dismiss the cultural/social/economic contexts of students of color; et cetera) that have impacted and continue to negatively impact the educational pursuits of black, brown, poor and working class, and immigrant youth in the U.S.
To be sure, as I write, public school educators in Chicago, the third largest school district in the U.S., are on strike because of the ways that these same structural issues continue to create the conditions for mis-education and non-success and to deteriorate the pipelines that would otherwise connect our young people to transformative and world-changing higher educational and vocational opportunities in their futures.
Interestingly, however, I also remember you doing a lot of good work in our school. You chaired the district-wide poetry contest where I, shocking myself and probably you, was selected as the winner. Yet, what impacted me the most is not the good that you’ve done, but the demeaning words you offered to a teenage black boy.
Why? I am certain that you can recall that it was within these United States that the illiteracy of non-white people was a state-authorized project of spiritual and corporeal disempowerment, and of mental and material disarmament. Reading and writing were deemed criminal acts that were thought to catalyze insurgency. For example, the General Assembly of the state of North Carolina ratified a bill in 1830 that sought to prevent all persons from teaching slaves to read and write. A portion of that legislation read:
Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state: Therefore
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any slave within this State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, Shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in the State having jurisdiction thereof…
You see, you did what you–despite your liberal desires to help the perceived underclass–were encouraged to master, namely, intellectual colonization. You learned well that when one can successfully assassinate any thought of freedom, of self-worth in the mind of another, one lessens the possibility of transformation, of forward motion, of the type of insurgency that dismantles mental and material shackles. Subconsciously, you had to have been aware that black words on white paper, like black bodies in a white-centered world, obliterate monochromatic space and ideologies. The words of long-oppressed people of color always incite social and psychic insurrections. When they appear, things change.
How dare you, Mis(s), attempt to cut my tongue that day, to metaphorically lacerate my fingers and my desire to use them to pen a new world.
Didn’t you know that writing is a revolutionary act for those bodies for whom whippings or death were the “reward” for writing and reading? Didn’t you know that in 1870, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, “black or other” people comprised a looming 79.9 percent of the Americans who were illiterate? Didn’t you know that I had no choice but to write because of the legacy of racialized violence inflicted upon the bodies and minds of my ancestors?
Yes, I am certain that you did.
Recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports show that many years after these unjust laws were formally repealed, we still have much to do to help black and brown boys and girls embrace and master the power of their own voices. Moreover, according to a report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, “Problems acquiring needed literacy skills are heightened for students who do not speak English as their first language, who have disabilities, and/or are black, Hispanic and Native American. Reading and writing performance of these groups of students on the 2007 NAEP was significantly lower than the literacy performance of students who were native English speakers, who did not have a disability, or who were white.”
And that is why I write.
Yes, I said it. You were wrong.
I am a writer.
I am a writer.
With the help of other teachers at Morgan Village, like Mrs. Dunham and Miss Harrison, and other mentors who came into my life, I have finally come to own this truth. It has taken me years outside a formal classroom—years in which my writings have been published, often to my own astonishment, always to silence the voice that told me that my words, my voice would never be good enough—to make such a bold, liberatory proclamation. As a friend recently reminded me, it takes courage to become that which we have always known ourselves to be, despite others’ attempts to suffocate our identities.
I am a writer because I know that our words matter: every word conjured in the minds of black and brown people, especially those inscribed on unadorned paper, matters. We must write to recover the words that have been snatched from our tongues, erased from America’s textbooks, or otherwise rendered worthless altogether.
So, it was never about whether I can or cannot write, Mis(s) Education. That’s what we both had wrong.
No, the fact is: I must write. Indeed, we, black and brown people, must write.
 My initial drafts actually made reference to my teacher’s real name, but after some thought (and gentle encouragement from a friend) I decided to write a response to my teacher using a fictive name. While she had no problem censuring me, I refuse to do the same to her.