I scored a 30, which would have seriously affected my track at school, she pulled the test aside and located my mistake and fixed it and I scored in the 98th percentile, which is where I'd always been. She gave me the benefit of the doubt, she assumed, or suspected, that I knew the answers. Often times African American students aren't given the benefit of the doubt. After that, in fact, other teachers never assumed I knew the answer, never assumed I had a bright future and because of their assumptions I became increasingly disengaged, not from learning, but from school. I was still reading and interested in ideas but there came a time when I didn't see school as the place to engage in ideas. By middle school I wasn't getting good grades, by high schools I was getting Cs and Ds and often attended summer school. I spoke Spanish fluently but got a C and it had everything to do with my disengagement.
EBONY.COM: Did you see other Black boys similarly disengaged and if so in what spaces did they feel safe exercising their intellectual muscles?
That was what was amazing. There were kids who were much more talented than me who didn’t do well in school. There was this huge gap between their performance in school and who they actually were; in school they were behavioral problems, illiterate or remedial. At home they wrote raps, books, poetry, lead church choirs, played basketball. It wasn't until they got to school that they learned who they weren't. I can't tell you how many friends I had who dropped out in ninth grade. Of course that limited their life path and options. But they didn't see the point, at the time, of staying in school, and quite frankly I don't think the schools made the case for them to stay.
EBONY.COM: You talk about Black boys being pushed out as opposed to dropping out of public school. It forces teachers and principals to not only reframe the discourse, but take a new and deeper look at their own responsibility in classroom culture. How specifically have you found Black children and perhaps boys in particular have been "pushed" out?
Quite often you see school curriculum that doesn't correlate to the students interests either personally or culturally. You see discipline policies that essentially criminalize Black students. For example Black boys are over-represented in expulsions and suspensions. We get kicked out more than anybody else. But most of the suspensions aren't based on violating a rule like bringing a weapon to school, most of the violations come from a teacher having to interpret our behavior and decide whether we're being aggressive, disrespectful or disengaged. The world has a script about who Black boys are and because 70% the teachers in urban schools are white and not from the area, they end up deciding who they think Black boys are and that ultimately leads to intensified discipline. These boys are constantly being expelled, suspended and pushed out of the classroom so they begin to ask themselves ‘Why bother even showing up if I'm only going to be kicked out.?’ Also, students need teachers who look like them, not everybody, but some, and it isn't until recently that there's been an effort to recruit Black men as teachers. In the same way I could look at Michael Eric Dyson and say 'Oh, I can be a PhD,!’ Black boys need somebody in fourth and eighth grade to say this is possible; but the only Black men they see are the janitors or bus drivers and it cools down their aspirations.
EBONY.COM: Your colleague, Columbia Professor Manning Marable's epic Malcolm X biography was released a few days after Marable died. While the book complicated Malcolm's legacy in many ways, reviews focused on his suggestion that Malcolm may have had same sex for hire when he was a hustler. You've written about this claim before. Why is this detail important and what does our community reaction to it say about our ideas of leaders and masculinity?
While I can't speak about about Malcolm's past with completely certainty, there is considerable evidence that he had some kind of sexual encounters with other men. If this is true, I don't think it tarnishes Malcolm's legacy one bit. Instead, I think it expands our notions of what masculinity looks like. After all, Malcolm X is the strongest example of Black masculinity that we've ever had. If it turns out that he was, at some point, same-gender-loving, then the possibilities for reimagining Black manhood are endless.
EBONY.COM: Obama made good on his promise to kill bin Laden. What does that mean for his presidency? His re-election? And his relationship to the region?
By killing Osama bin Laden, President Obama was able to do what two other presidents could not.