My sixth grade teacher was the only Black male educator in our entire school system when I had him as an eleven year old. In my racially and economically diverse elementary school, virtually all the Black children in each grade were put into his class every year–a fact which as a young student upset me. Once I was placed in his class, however, I immediately saw the profound power and unique value of having a dedicated, veteran teacher who shared my racial and cultural identity. While I do not believe that Brown teachers are inherently better suited to teach Brown students, I do believe that the mark of a good educator is an awareness of the skills and experiences which they can and cannot bring to the communities with which they educate, and how to make both relevant to the lessons they teach. My sixth grade teacher exemplified this.
The most powerful knowledge he invested us with was always delivered outside of the prewritten lessons—during breaks before recess or while we were eating lunch in the classroom. While he was an expert math, reading and writing instructor, what I remember more than anything else were the informal lessons he taught us on Black slang. During open moments in the daily schedule, he would stand at the board and write down words from his own vocabulary, or words that he had heard members of our classroom community using, and ask those who knew to define them. He would speak at length about the slang of his generation as compared to ours, drawing links between the evolution of different words and phrases over time and geography. This seemingly offhanded exercise was extremely changing for me, not only because it taught me the scope and power of the language of my people, but even more so because as a middle class Black person, much of the slang we discussed was new to me. I did not know many of the dialects my peers spoke, and was often teased for being outside of the cult of true Blackness. Learning slang gave me a new way to relate to and communicate with my friends, and taught me solidarity with other people of color from classes different than my own.
Most of the debates in education circles about the use of vernacular language in classrooms focus on whether or not its use helps students learn traditional subjects better. From bilingual to hip hop education, the discussion often seems to boil down to the question of whether teaching Black students math in Black slang makes them do better in math, or whether teaching immigrant students in their original languages helps them grasp the basic concepts which all students in an industrial learning model are expected to grasp. It is only the most radical educators, I have found, who use slang pedagogically to ask deeper questions: Is the power of slang not to trick young people into learning what the school system originally wanted them to learn, but to point to the barrenness and irrelevance of traditional learning to their lives as oppressed people? Can we use the languages of our communities not to bolster traditional subjects, but to break them down, reveal them as disjointed both from one other and from our own experiences of the world?
These questions can be linked to a host of other debates and dilemmas in the field of education. The fact that my sixth grade teacher taught us these lessons literally outside of the traditional curriculum may have been because he had a few extra minutes he needed to fill, or because he wanted to make his classroom unique and exciting, and had found a “culturally relevant” way of doing so. Yet what he had learned to do as a teacher within the larger system of schooling is exactly what all our vernacular traditions do–find spaces in the structures we are forced to inhabit, made to rely on to communicate and engage one another, and embellish them, fill them with our own ideas, passions and needs, until those structures are not merely undermined, but transformed into something almost unrecognizable. Trusting these traditions, and making them an integral part of our learning communities is not culturally relevant but culturally empowering learning, and a means of dismantling traditional education. It reminds us that the most valuable lessons cannot be guaranteed to take place at a certain time, in a certain space, or resulting in the accomplishing of a predetermined skill. It teaches us that we alone determine what matters most to us, what we need to learn, and that no matter what demands are made of us, we have the power and creativity to implement it.