Howard Fuller is always good. People avoid following him in speaking rotations in forums and on panels because his deft ability to make the truth plain will demolish your fanciest talk. He’s just that deep. This was no less the case on a panel moderated by Andre Perry called “Race in Schools” at the Education Research Alliance conference in New Orleans last June. Drawing on the experience he's had in New Orleans working with leaders in the black community to gain power in the next wave of school reform, he was teaching, not just speaking.
He also drew from the heady well of Howard Thurman’s book “Jesus and The Disinherited,” Paulo Freirie, Marcus Garvey, Derrick Bell, and Marxist theory.
Quoting Thurman’s book he said “often there are things on the horizon that point logically to the transformation of society, especially for the underprivileged. But he [the disinherited] cannot cooperate with them because he is spiritually and intellectually confused. He mistakes fear for caution and caution for fear. Now if his mind is free and spirit unchained he can work courageously for a new day.’
To Fuller means test scores are important because they determine so much about schools, teachers, and students.
But the problem is if we have an education strategy whose worth is determined by test scores, and therefore the worth of our kids is determined solely by test scores. We’re going to miss the point that if our kids are not spiritually freed and unchained they are not going to be able to fight for the freedom of their people.
His call is a challenge for school reformers to create a school system that “understands the relationship between kids learning and being prepared to engage in the practice in freedom.”
We won't get there merely by building great schools led by white people. While that work is important, it doesn't the institutional power needed in the black community for us to be truly free. Race matters in this world whether we want it to or not. Our children need to see people who look like them leading in the system, and they need to see that system connected to their own empowerment.
The call to make education relevant is particularly important in economically depressed areas where children in poverty experience so few opportunities to be fully human.
The middle folks
In Fuller's view middle-class black people aren't off the hook either.
He says there once was a “national bourgeoisie” who saw their economic reality connected to the progress of the black masses. After civil rights and integration many of them became upwardly mobile. They began to individual achievement and their focus shifted from collective liberation to personal progress.
That was a gift that keeps giving.
Now, even with black people leading districts and schools we realize “Black faces in what used to be high white places does not bring freedom to the people.”
The big lesson in that?
"Neocolonialism is as destructive to the human spirit as colonialism.”
Though the black middle class in New Orleans feels disinherited, there is no future in licking wounds forever. The question is what to do about their displacement? What is the plan for an alternative future? What are the concrete action steps are they willing to commit to doing, and how will they approach the next decade of reform with more consciousness for their place in the racial hierarchy than they showed before?
“It irks me that we don’t even understand that when the constitutional convention was held after the civil war, there were 50 white men and 49 black men. It was the 49 black men that wrote the education platform that created the structure that exists in Louisiana today,” he says.
We simply do not know our power and potential.
New Orleans Reboot, again
While Fuller supports the school reform efforts that have achieved gains for students in New Orleans, he also says focusing solely on how much schools have improved ignores some of the enduring wounds in the community.
For instance, the firing of over 7,000 teachers and school staff remains a sore spot.
Reformers would love to be done with that problem. They would love to change the narrative without changing their practices, but Fuller says the next wave of school reform must seek to empower the community above all else. Ignoring that goal again will put the entire reform project in jeopardy of being rejected by the black community like a bad kidney.
When asked by Perry about the powerful and wealthy interests that drive school reform in multiple cities, Fuller focused his attention on those of us who are in the game and have access to the rooms where decisions about education reform are being made.
He said that too often the few people of color who enter those rooms fail to push back when they should. “They’re just happy” to be in the room and afraid they won’t be invited back.
"They're just happy."
In the end he wants us to know that there is one way to be in those rooms - transparent and unencumbered by the need to be accepted.
That's rare. He knows that. “There is one free negro amongst us. And it’s me.”
To see Fuller's fully glorious discussion, watch the video below.