Black Lives Matter @ School

Posted on September 14, 2020


One of the plays I loved to teach in American Literature classes is The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee (1971). With the play, the playwrights comment on issues of their own time by reaching back into history to find a historical figure who expresses their perspective on racism, human rights, and (anti-) war. That person is Henry David Thoreau. His insistence on empowering students rather than indoctrinating them as a teacher, his stance against the Fugitive Slave Act and the war on Mexico, and his belief that community members must use advocate for human and civil rights, especially if they have privilege, resonated with the playwrights– and it resonates with me.

One of the scenes that always hits me hard is when Henry thinks he has convinced Ralph Waldo Emerson to take a public stand against slavery and the war on Mexico, but instead of a crowd-stirring speech by Emerson, he is met with an excuse brought by Emerson’s wife, explaining that he will NOT be making a public statement after all.

After his conversation with Mrs. Emerson, Henry falls asleep. The agony of disillusionment with his teacher and mentor colors his dreams. The text reads:

Henry: (Shouts) Citizens of Concord–! But he is talking to the wind. Frustrated, he casts about for some way to reach the ears of a deaf public. He sees the dangling bell-rope, leaps up to ring it –and though he swings on it with the weight of his whole body, there is no sound whatsoever! The bell does not ring! Stunned, he pulls more frantically. Nothing.

How do we make a sound? How do we break the silence?

The light falls away on the discouraged and disheartened Henry. The bell-rope vanishes in the flies. He throws himself on his cot in the cell.

As his nightmare continues, he sees soldiers marching. They chant:

Forward to Mexico… March! Hate 2-3-4!

The general commands:

Learn to kill! Learn to kill! Learn to kill!

So you won’t be killed!

Then, in his dream, Henry is attacked by community members who call him names:

Coward! Slacker! Trader! Deserter! Heathen! Vagrant!

I always explained to students that the reason for writing in the present tense for literary analysis pieces was that “whenever we read something, it’s happening now.”

When I read this scene in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, it is happening now, in the literary way that I explained to my students. But also, it is happening now in that I feel exactly how Henry feels.

I, too, am suffering the pain of disillusionment in people I recently admired, people who I thought shared my values and my passion to advocate for full human and civil rights for all people–as Educators in the United States.

Like Henry, I struggle with the reality that educators I respected and/or admired will not take a public stand for the civil and human rights of the people in the communities they serve.

After a quarter-century of using anti-racist pedagogy in my high school English classes, I am disappointed and frustrated with white colleagues who will not support their Black students by publicly proclaiming “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

From a parent’s perspective, I would not want my child in the classroom of a teacher who cannot say, “BLACK LIVES MATTER.”

Michigan’s Governor Whitmer declared racism a public health crisis at the beginning of August. Since then, I’ve waited for my White colleagues in education, at Adrian Public Schools, and in my various professional organizations to acknowledge this reality and take steps toward anti-racism. A few have. Very few.

I’m still waiting. And watching. And, like Thoreau, seeing colleagues–even those I’ve worked with for decades, who, like Emerson–refuse to take a public stand gives me nightmares.

Racism in a variety of policies, practices, and pedagogy at school is a waking nightmare for far too many Black students and their families.

What will it take to convince educators that there is no more time to wait?

I wish I knew.

Racism is a public health crisis, and if you, as an educator, are not actively embracing and embodying anti-racism, you are worsening the suffering of our Black community members. There is no such thing as “not racist;” one is either perpetuating the white supremacy baked into educational and other institutions, or one is anti-racist.

Like Thoreau, I call on educators to take a public stand NOW against racism. Say it with me:


I fear I’m talking to the wind.

lisa eddy is a writer-for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

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