Jackie Stewart sits outside the principal’s office at her daughter Mariah’s school for the fourth time since school began on August 27. It is only the end of September. A look of annoyance crosses her face as she expresses concern for her child.
“This is ridiculous, Mariah is not a troublemaker. I have never been called to her school in years past for a behavior issue. The only calls I ever got were praising her brilliance. Mariah is an impeccable student, intelligent, active in extracurriculars, I don’t know what is going on this year.” She shakes her head and says to no one in particular. “Let me change that, I know what is going on this year. It’s that teacher. She’s the only one Mariah is having a problem with and the one behind all these suspensions.”
Stewart is speaking about the challenges Mariah has been having in history, a subject she once loved and even considered studying in college. Until this year. This year, her first in high school, Mariah has been dissatisfied with the approach her history teacher has taken to explaining events in Black history.
So far, Mariah has been suspended three times for what the school defined as “disobedient and disruptive behavior.” When asked specifics about Mariah’s actions, Stewart—a history professor at a local college—calmly states, “she challenged her teacher on the tenets of white supremacy.”
Not militant, by her own admission, Stewart, as a scholar of history— specifically African-American history and culture—has spent her entire career and efforts as a parent teaching the past in context. She believes that much of what is deemed as problematic when it comes to educating Black and brown children lies in how negatively their experience is presented to them.
“Our past, as presented, is shrouded in pain,” she says. “They never discuss our triumphs as the the catalyst for change. We are only told that our people are motivated by tragedy and that is just incorrect. Our children are often taught through this distorted lens of history that bends to the myth of complacency among the oppressed. I wanted Mariah to know different, to know the truth of who she was and where she came from. I wanted Mariah to know herself. She does and she is not afraid to speak her truth. For many, particularly white female teachers, that is a scary thing —- a Black woman who knows herself.”
What Mariah challenged was very easily fact-checked in a number of sources. Her teacher allegedly proclaimed Dr. Martin Luther King initiated the modern civil rights movement. Mariah fervently disagreed and informed her teacher and her classmates what she had learned from reading countless books in her home on the subject, that the movement was organic and born out of many catalytic events leading to a groundswell of grassroots activism. Her teacher, Stewart says, like the majority of teachers of Black and brown children was a white, Ivy-league educated female who not only was unappreciative of such a public challenge, she was “unprepared for it.” Mariah was instructed that if she took issue with the lesson as it was being taught should reserve her concern for after class.
Mariah did not not back down.
She openly countered that suggestion by telling her teacher, “but you are giving us misinformation as fact.” This was the statement that got Mariah sent to the principal’s office and suspended for the first time. School had only been in session for a week.
Two similar incidents followed. One was about her teacher refusing to refer to what happened to Native Americans as genocide and challenging the notion that the only remaining Native Americans in the United States were on reservations, a fact Mariah knew to be both untrue and prejudicial. The other was in regard to a discussion on women’s suffrage where Mariah emphatically disagreed that when women were granted the right to vote it included Black women and that the the Voting Rights Acts, which came 45 years later, was made possible by white women and not the deaths of Black children.
The elder Stewart stressed how these virulent exchanges would impact Mariah’s academic future.
“I was warned that one more suspension and Mariah would be removed from that class and put into one where the teacher was better equipped to manage students with behavior issues,” she says. “Mariah doesn’t have behavior issues, she just knows better. They have issues with a Black child who knows more than they do. They don’t know how to teach her so they just try to get rid of her, get rid of the problem.”
Stewart is right.
While most of our attention as a community is focused on the predicament of Black boys in public schools and the “school-to-prison pipeline,” little focus is given to Black girls. While Black women are leading all groups in college enrollment, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, African-American girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for minor infractions such as “disobedient and disruptive behavior,” like Mariah was. This is in direct contrast to Black boys who are who are at least three times more likely to be suspended for these minor infractions than white boys for the same behavior. Such policies designated “zero tolerance” punish children of color severely and criminalize them unnecessarily, setting up this current cycle of pushing children out of school and into the criminal justice system.
For the most part, research has looked specifically at the effect of the school-to-prison pipeline on Black and Latino boys. To remedy the effect of such occurrences, programs like My Brothers Keeper, the various Black Male Engagement programs funded by the Knight Foundation and others find ways in which to demonstrate the assets Black men bring to society and foster nurturing environments through which they can find brotherhood and encouragement to overcome great obstacles. As a whole, these large umbrella programs do not exist for Black girls, yet. There is a slight indication that they may, however, in the very near future.
In his address to the Congressional Black Caucus on September 19, President Obama acknowledged the achievements and determination of Black women like his wife and daughters.
“I want them to know how much we appreciate them, how much we admire them, how much we love them,” he said.
President Obama also acknowledged the lack of policies aimed directly at improving life outcomes for Black women. He declared a need for greater focus on raising the minimum wage to help Black women, who are more likely to be relegated to low-wage jobs, to reduce health disparities, incarceration rates for Black women, and ending what he called the “sinister sexual abuse to prison pipeline.”
President Obama’s desire to close this gap is admirable but comes at a time where his influence will be duly limited. African-American women voted for President Obama at a rate of 70 percent according to the Washington Post. With less than 15 months left in his presidency, some women, like Jackie Stewart and her daughter Mariah, wonder if it is too little too late.
“I am sure his heart is in the right place, but where was the support for girls like Mariah when he pushed My Brother’s Keeper through?” she asks. “Where was My Sister’s Keeper? Who is looking out for Black girls because they are struggling, too.”
*Jackie and Mariah Stewart’s names have been changed to protect their identity