This is the latest in a series of blogs by partners of the Fluency work.
By Jonna Kuskey
This has been the summer of my antiracist enlightenment. That was not the plan. My only plan this summer was to master the technology needed to prepare for all COVID-19 scenarios: in-person, distance, and hybrid.
Then George Floyd was killed.
On May 25, I watched the video of Floyd dying under the knee of a public servant—listened to him beg for breath, call out for his mama . . . plead for breath, whisper for his mama . . . gasp for breath . . . one . . . last . . . shallow . . . breath . . . then . . . . . . . . . . . . he was gone.
Floyd’s death took up residence deep in my gut and in the muscles around my clenched teeth. I replayed the scene hundreds of times in my head, hoping the horrific image would change. It didn’t, but everything else did.
The world changed.
The country changed.
I thought of the Fluency Project Values
George Floyd was afforded none of those. What about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin or all those who came before?
I thought of the Fluency Project Mission
Because of Floyd’s death, my more urgent “Fluency” plan was born
I read countless adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction books, essays, speeches, poems, and articles, old and new. I’ve been watching documentaries and TEDTalks, Emmanuel Acho’s YouTube series Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America. So far, I have attended four online antiracism and social justice presentations featuring Kendi. (Shout out to Kendi for making himself available for so many conversations and Q&A sessions!)
Reconcile it with Personal Experience
My inquiry has brought me face-to-face with some sad, sobering truths.
I am a product of a whitewashed education.
During my schooling, I didn’t learn about Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, or Cynthia Wesley, about Black Wall Street, Native American boarding schools, the Tulsa or Conestoga Massacres. I read Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, Golding, Hemingway, Huxley, Orwell, Shakespeare but not Baldwin, Brooks, Ellison, Hurston, Momaday, Wright.
A conscious choice was made in our educational system to omit the unflattering details. Before entering the textbooks and the classrooms, our history was scrubbed clean of America’s mistakes, misdeeds, atrocities, and sins. How might today’s America be different if we had been given the whole story, the best, the worst, the in between?
Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In light of my own education, it may be more appropriate to say, “Those who were never taught about the past are condemned to repeat it.” And that, unfortunately, leads to my second, more sobering truth.
I have been a purveyor of a whitewashed education.
This is hard to admit and even harder to make manifest, the words staring back at me, forcing me to acknowledge my complicity and ignorance. But no longer. Consider me woke, an antiracist awakening if you will.
I once was blind, but now I see. Through a new set of eyes, I now see the need to loosen my grip on the traditional literary canon, to curate more diverse texts, to bring more diverse voices into my instruction, to welcome and empower social justice inquiry.
Ensure an Antiracist Discourse
Diverse discourse cannot happen until diversity exists within the classroom. So, it shall be. Thanks to the generosity of those who funded my first Donors Choose project, more than 50 diverse young adult authors and books will greet students when they enter my room this year, all available for independent reading and as part of our new ProjectLIT book club. The books will also be used to diversify my curriculum and instruction. (Check out my second Donors Choose project that’s also related to antiracism.)
Finally, to create and maintain a safe space for antiracist conversation and curriculum in my classroom, I have begun and will continue to learn and seek guidance. My summer journey has found me exploring issues remotely with ELA teachers from the United States and across the world through the Conference on English Leadership’s “Leading for Social Justice” series and NCTE’s Summer Sandbox, a four-week workshop on culturally sustaining pedagogy and antiracist ELA education. I am also participating in the 2020 Summit on Race Matters in West Virginia, sponsored by The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation. (Visit tgkvf.org for more information on the Summit sessions that will be held monthly, August through December.) I would be remiss if I didn’t give a huge THANK YOU to the Conference on English Leadership, the National Council of Teachers of English, and The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation for organizing these valuable seminars and providing them for free. Their work has created a ripple effect that I hope will create waves of positive change.
Best of all, I also have you, Fluency Project members who live and breathe the antiracist values of compassion, equity, authenticity, and agency. Collaborating with you has been life-affirming and sustaining. You have made me a better and braver teacher, one who had the confidence to look at herself this summer and decide she needed to be better and braver still.
Some of My Summer Reads
Elizabeth Acevedo The Poet X
Acevedo, Mahogany Browne, Olivia Gatwood Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice
Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow
Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah Homes: A Refugee Story
Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me; The Water Dancer; We Were Eight Years in Power
Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Tiffany Jewell This Book is Antiracist
Ibram X. Kendi How to Be an Antiracist, Stamped from the Beginning
Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds Stamped (YA version of Kendi’s larger work)
John Lewis Across that Bridge; March
Walter Dean Myers Monster
Trevor Noah Born a Crime
Michelle Obama Becoming
Jason Reynolds For Everyone
Colson Whitehead The Nickel Boys; The Underground Railroad
Jonna Kuskey is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches AP English Language and Composition, Seminar, and Research at John Marshall High School. She is currently a member of Cohort 4 of The Data and Technology Fluency Project with West Liberty University and the CREATE Lab (situated in Carnegie Mellon University).