What does it mean to be an American Black woman in the teaching field?
It’s impossible to tell a single story of a group of people and have that story be the truth for all those within that group. I gathered snippets from my grandmother, mother, and some from my own telling life as an educator. The three differ, being three different generations, but have an interwoven idea of hope, resilience, and a building of a better future. I went into this process with the idea of learning the culture of what it meant to be a teacher and then added how being a woman of color had influenced the experience. After looking over my notes I realized that in the world we live in a person's race and gender is never put on the backburner; never a second thought and is the first thing we see about each other. So it would be impossible to tell of their experience without these real details, ones that greatly make each of our experiences unique.
As I sat down separately with my mother and grandmother I came to learn that teaching was much more than a job for them, it was their lives. When they came home from work they were never able to fully decompress and relieve themselves of the stresses of a day's work. Everyday they took home the frustration, intense criticism, and challenges from both students and parents alike. With that being said, there were many stories told to me within these past few days, some that I’d heard before, some that were eye opening. So many stories I won’t be able to fit into one article today, I will have to do the hard job of condensing pieces of their life’s work, giving a voice to a community that has been muted and in the background.
My grandmother, Betty Jo Thomas, was born in the year 1939 in Shreveport, Louisiana in the middle of the harsh Jim Crow era in the American South. When asking her about her experience in school, she talked about the way white kids on the school buses would throw rocks at them as they all walked to school. Her father was murdered by a white man when she was young and her mother’s bar was burned down three times. These are just some examples of what it meant to be a black person in this part of the world at that time. We can’t avoid the context in which she lives in, these everyday struggles shape a person's perspective in how they understand the world.
In the 1960s there weren’t as many options for women in terms of a career, but she found one that was just right for her. With this understanding, I asked her why become a teacher? What inspired her to dedicate her life for other people? “I had teachers that believed in me as a student, they took time with me. I had a good teacher and wanted to be like her, wanted to be a good person.” She grew up always reading, with the curiosity of the words on a page; this caused her to minor in library and information science to become a librarian, later on majored in English to become a teacher.
Even though the outside world may seem to be against people like her, she was a part of a strong community that had each other's back. She told me that, “back then we didn’t have new books, only old ones from white schools. We didn’t have what they had but made due. In high school I had all black teachers, it was instilled that we were just as good as everyone else”.
Community became an important aspect of her adult life after moving to Seattle, Washington. Here she faced a whole different set of criticism, one that the Northwest is known for in the style of passive aggression. Being the only black teacher in white schools many parents were malicious, while their children would regularly go home and tell lies about her, causing more anger. Things got so bad that there were a few times where she had to go to the legal department. She’s a strong woman, one who does what she has to for the greater good, thinking greater than herself to give hope for her family and those within her community.
The idea of desegregation was to provide an equal opportunity for all, no matter their race, to allow people to learn amongst a diverse group of peers. This wasn’t much of a positive
experience for my grandma and many Black people who had to face the first waves of prejudice, “desegregation messed up the school system, Black students were not treated right”. When having all Black schools it provided a safe space for Black students to feel comfortable in their own skin; it was where communities and lifelong friendships were made, “desegregation took away our culture”. As we reflected I had to ask how these events of cultural dispersal affects Black students today. Because she has been retired for 20 years, she is able to view these effects as the outside looking in, “Black students are behind with behavioral issues; these teachers don’t understand and care for these kids”. I ask this because I didn’t have the luxury of having any teachers during my higher educational years look like me, how would that change me as a student? How would that affect my self esteem? I’ve just learned what it truly means to be a teacher in the American school system; that it takes strength, compassion, a sense of humanity and familiarity.
My mother, Kim, had a very different experience than her mother; being the product of when she moved to Seattle in the early 1960s. That was a time of change and resistance throughout the United States, Mom was the product of the sacrifice of the generation before. My mother had a first hand experience in the effects of desegregation in the second grade. She was transferred to a mostly all white school and was bullied; even though she may have only been eight years old at the time, it still haunts her to this day. Her primary reason for such strong feelings for this monumental change is that it only affected the children of color; white children didn’t have to get displaced to the schools in which students of color already resided. It was the students of color that had to sacrifice their time, energy, and safety for a prejudice filled education.
This experience is hers, but reflects many throughout the country at this time. My mothers’ teaching journey was very different from my grandmothers; hers was more of a spiritual calling that she greatly tried to ignore. She attempted the medical field until she realized she couldn’t get past the most crucial part, the blood. When that fell through she eventually received her degree in Zoology, a degree she continues to be proud of today. When only searching for a temporary job she became an Instructional Assistant at an elementary school, when being told she did well at the job she was encouraged to apply as a full time teacher.
In the interview it was between her, someone who had a passion and a degree in science, and a white woman who merely had a slight interest in the subject. My mother got the job but it was the first of many obstacles that were put in her way in trying to do what she turned into a 20 year career. Being a teacher it forced her to think differently in every aspect of her life, understanding that “you're given the opportunity to be a role model...you have the chance to influence these students”. There were constant battles for her, even within the subject itself, “the science field was dominated by white men...always being the odd one out”. But what makes it all worth it is when the vision for a greater future becomes a reality. My mother was once at the hospital with her sister when one of the doctors recognized her, remembering how she inspired her to become a doctor, “it’s rewarding when previous students of color end up pursuing math and science because of me”. The pain and sacrifice of the past has the strength to spark hope for the future.
I, like my grandma, went to an all Black school, my experience sadly only lasted throughout elementary school. At the moment I didn’t notice how my schooling experience was any different from anyone else. I went to Leschi Elementary in the heart of Seattle, Washington with mostly Black teachers and 90% of my classmates looked like me. It was a comfort I took advantage of and still miss. The lack of racial diversity was not due to anything as segregation, just from over decades of a profuse Black community. Even though I had no longer lived in Seattle, my parents were willing to have me commute from 35 minutes away to have a quality education. There was a certain level of comfort Leschi had, there was a sense of familiarity, so it felt like family; students were disciplined as such too. Everything came from a place of love. Black history month was every month and we were always properly fed.
Like mother, like daughter, I didn’t feel as though teaching was my path, it still may not be, but I’ve experienced the great feeling of compassion and responsibility. I currently work as a Teaching Artist, instructing 4th and 5th graders how to play the flute, a difficult instrument to grasp at any age. My students have taught me the meaning of patience and how as humans we won’t be able to grasp what we want through anger. Though I haven’t experienced the same blunt racism as my grandmother and mother, I learn empathy through the actions of others. My feeling of belonging at a young age and now losing that community the older I get only drives me to be there for others, especially for those who look like me. I’ve come to realize that teaching is scary, it’s building a foundation for another being’s future. The ideas that I bring have a level of influence on their lives.
What does it mean to be an American Black woman in the teaching field?
To be a face of comfort, hope, and resilience. As I sit here trying to put into words what teaching culture is I become stumped. I learned that culture differs over time and is ever-changing as the world changes around us, we do what we need to survive in the context of our day. As teachers of color, we must be willing to jump through hoops to reach the next step, we must give our students our everything because they are our future. This one aspect of our lives plays an intricate role in each of our own personal cultures. How and when we are raised defines how we see the world, we must be willing to open our eyes to see it for its beauty and raw truths. I came into this experience with the idea that it would be a positive, inspiring story of teaching culture, I neglected to remember how these women got to where they are today. They both had to challenge authority at some point in their careers, they were courageous and willing to be the faces the majority weren’t used to seeing. Something we can all take away from this is to appreciate and understand where we came from and what we are doing to have a stronger future.
Asha Noble is an outgoing writer, musician, and traveler. She graduated from Seattle Central College with her Associates in Arts with an Emphasis in Global Studies and Communication. She is currently attending University of Washington Tacoma for her Bachelors in Arts Media and Culture.