Young, Gifted and Black: On the Experience of Black Students in CMS
By Malin Curry
Most people know about the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education. A decision that ruled educational facilities exclusively for whites and Blacks, or “separate but equal spaces,” were inherently unequal. They know that 12 Black families in Topeka, Kansas got together to sue the Board of Education there. That their efforts, buoyed by the support of local NAACP chapters and other local Black coalitions ultimately helped them achieve their goal. They know that the Supreme Court sided with people of color everywhere when they made their ruling, leading to the “immediate” desegregation of the school system across the United States. Most people know this.
What most people don’t know, or rather conveniently forget, is that school desegregation didn’t just happen after that ruling. It took a lot of tries, many iterations and failed attempts by individual states to fully desegregate, and reintegrate. These state attempts collectively illustrated a resigned demurral of the Black child. “You can force us to include them, but that doesn’t mean we have to fully buy in.” And nowhere is this thinking more prevalent than in Charlotte Mecklenburg’s School System.
Let’s begin with a scenario.
You’re a kid. At age five, you’ve mastered the art of kid-dom, breezing through letters A-V on demand, pausing at “W.” You’re still working on that one, attempting to match your voice to the usual timbre of the ABC song. Usually, you just skip over it. Double you. On the playground, you become a celebrity. Your aptitude for recalling animal names, coupled with your charisma and fart-joke humor make you prime social capital. The kids in class orbit you, circling in an eternal ellipse. You are the center of the universe.
Then one day, you walk into school. Hand in hand with your mom whose eyes are so dark they remind you of the raccoons you saw on TV once. She’s been yawning all morning, her mouth affixed in a permanent O. You notice these things, and maybe even think twice about them, but when she walks you to your palace, the royal court is waiting and all that goes out the window. You prepare to ascend, and are practically skipping over to your friends, until your teacher stops you. Says she’d like to have a word with you and your mother. Says you’ve been chatty lately, fidgety, you never seem engaged, focused. You are a distraction to the class. Have you always been so active, so impetuous, so wild? Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?
That day, you sit in class and cry. The look your mother gives your teacher is one you know well. You’ve seen it every time you’re in trouble, right before the stinging flash of the belt, but after you did something you know you’ll regret. Your mother and teacher exchange words and then you know you’re next. She tells you to shape up, don’t have her coming back to this school because of you woman wanting to tell her about her child talking too much who does she think she is? Whenwegethomeiswearyouregonnagetit. You return to class different. The air around you stale, your polarity weak. Your friends can tell. They make plans to leave you. And in the following weeks, as you withdraw, falling further into yourself, they do. They travel the stars in search of a new home. Land on a distant planet named Andy. You become a dark moon, marooned and lost in the galaxy.
To be a Black student in CMS means accepting your identity as a number. To your teachers, you are one of 30 on a roster. To the administrators, you are less than one percent of the Black population of any given school. To the system itself you are a bet with no takers.
Much like Charlotte, CMS is fraught with inequities. Micro inequities that prematurely label Black children, stymie their growth and seal them up in a box, pack them away. Macro inequities that further segment an already extremely stratified city, the privileged on the right, everyone else on the left.
But, what can you expect from a school system that, after witnessing first hand how effective bussing initiatives could be, turned its back on the idea entirely? A school system that found success integrating Black students into the fold (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971)) and then banded together to limit this same progress (Milliken v. Bradley (1974)), ruling that students only had the option to be bussed to different school districts when evidence of de jure segregation was presented. As of 2020, no ruling has reversed this decision.
Instead, the system has addressed concerns of segregation by strategically placing white teachers into predominantly minority schools. And I’ve seen first hand how these solutions can backfire. How a teacher is quick to judge a Black student, turn words like “talkative, disruptive, too active, dyslexic, ADD” into shields, protecting them from the sad truth that they simply lack the faculties to deal with Black children.
You’re 13. Practically grown, but not actually. In the body of an adult, with childish machinations and fantasies. You are an enigma. But, there are certain things you’re sure of. You like school, excel in classes, but only English and History. You’re athletic, but only in basketball, other sports aren’t as easy to master. You love the Patriots, but only watch old games, the ones where Tom Brady’s in his prime. You know who you are.
You’re sitting in Math one day. Your teacher, a white woman who everyone describes as simply “nice” drones on. Your class whispers, tiny voices finding one another to rise, a crescendo. You’ve joined in the whispers of course. Why not? Suddenly, your teacher notices, she issues a warning. “Class, please settle down.” Firm, but sweet. Things don’t settle down. She tries again, this time issuing a warning with more force, but still soft. The scene plays out; your teacher stepping into the role of overwhelmed educator, your class assuming their place as unruly Black kids, “ghetto” to some.
And suddenly, curtain call. The teacher throws her pen at the wall. Gone is the nice woman, in her place a beast with flames for hair, a serpent tongue. She is an indomitable force as she screams at the class, reprimanding all of you for your rudeness, your utter disrespect, your lack of deference. Her tirade is over just as soon as it begins, quieting the room. In a moment, you look around, the faces of your classmates reflecting back the shock you feel. Someone’s laughing then. A silent chuckle blossoms, starting at a dull register until it grows into a full on raucous howl. It’s contagious, jumping from student to student and forcing them into a coughing fit. Your teacher tears up, gathering her things before she exits stage left. You can’t stop laughing, you won’t stop until someone else does. End scene.
Studies show that many white teachers feel unequipped to command classrooms predominantly filled with minorities. So why is it that CMS, and so many other school systems choose placing white teachers into majority minority classrooms as their weapon of choice in the fight against educational inequality?
We should be able to depend on the education system and schools by extension to deliver on their promise of leaving no child behind. School grounds, especially ones situated in areas predominantly occupied by BIPOC should be sanctified, become plots of land abounding with opportunity and promise, and administrators should treat them as such. Our system consistently fails to acknowledge that the foundation of education in Charlotte is one tainted with the stain of segregation, prejudice, racism. And that, in order to remove this stain, they’ll have to get dirty. It has to start with diverting more than just white teachers to failing schools, and instead pouring resources into burgeoning minority communities and schools that just need some sun to bloom.
Of course, the school system can’t solve all the problems that may exist in one community, but they can give students opportunities that might just change the trajectory of their lives. And sometimes they do. Black students often choose to enroll in magnet schools and participate in special programs as they matriculate through the education system in CMS. The idea being that the accolades and special certifications that come with degrees from these programs might buoy their chances at higher education, a lifeline.
But, what happens to the Black student who dares to dream? A final scenario.
You are a senior. Your last year at a high performing magnet school is marked with many “firsts.” Your first job, coaching kids in soccer at your local gym. Your first car, a hand me down, but steady enough to get you from place to place. Your first prom, the only event where you trade in your traditional athleisure for formal wear. But, most important (to you at least) is your first college acceptance. A hefty package comes in, creased down the middle and decorated with a large water spot. You don’t care. The package disappears, first the ripped envelope, then the letter and even the words fall away. “We are pleased to inform you…” is all that remains.
And when you head to school the next day, that’s all you can think about. After all the work you’ve put in, the long nights, the many sacrifices, you’ve made it. You’ve been given an opportunity. No, the opportunity of a lifetime. So of course you beam when your friend finally asks what’s got you in such a good mood. Of course you speak ardently, gesturing with your entire body to express your passion, excitement, joy at this admission to anyone who will hear it. And of course you don’t expect what comes next.
Because what comes next is this. “You probably only got in because you’re Black.” “Definitely has to be a diversity thing, your test scores aren’t even as high as mine.” “Seriously? Well, you’re not gonna go right? I mean, like, do you think that’s a school for people like you?” You are Icarus, fervently flapping your wings to the sun. You fall from the sky, just as quickly. You should have known. You think to yourself, surely I am more than just a number, and surely I have worked hard enough to be deserving. You seek validation from your teachers, not all of them, just the ones who have nursed your potential, and helped you realize your full self. “Congratulations. Never thought this would happen for you, but here you are.” “You sure did aim high. Who would have thought? I know a few black students there, maybe all of you should connect if you’re thinking of going.” You forget what it means to celebrate.
It’s not the physical location or the districting that separates white students from Black ones. It’s comments like these. Comments that become knives, severing all the hopes and dreams of the Black child. They are weapons to alienate, demean, and exclude the Black child who dares to dream in a system constructed to destroy them.
In 1958, Nina Simone released her single “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” In it, she exults the Black child, while lamenting her own childhood, thereby producing a complicated song that’s well before its time. Simone’s song went on to inspire many Black children then, and even now still manages to attract the attention of the public via rendentions and covers by some famous artists. But it’s Simone’s lines: “We must begin to tell our young/ There’s a world waiting for you/ This is a quest that’s just begun” that stick out to me.
But I wonder, when will we begin to treat the Black child as the young and gifted individuals they are? With so many institutional barriers to break down, not only in CMS, but society at large, it would seem we have a long way to go. The fight continues.