I was ten years old when I first learned that Black children don’t have the same “freedom of speech” that all American citizens are supposed to have. I had been having a bad day. In my breakout science class, someone was making noise. The teacher had her back turned, but she identified me as the noisemaker, although I was sitting silently (albeit disinterestedly) at my desk, watching my desk-mate pick his nose.
Even at the time, I recognized that she seemed to treat the Black children in the class differently. I think this was especially significant for me, since I managed to enter high school still firmly believing in colorblindness and the reign of racial equality in society generally. But in this class, Black kids always seemed to be getting in trouble.
So when Ms. A declared that I was the noisemaker and moved me to the back of the classroom, I was both indignant and hurt. Since I was no longer allowed to participate in the assignment, despite being able to hear the lesson, I busied myself writing “Ms. A. Sucks.” I wrote it all over the worksheet that I was no longer allowed to complete.
In true ten-year-old fashion, I left the class and moved on with my life, leaving my worksheet behind. Halfway through my art class, Ms. A barged through the door that connected the two classrooms. Roughly grabbing my arm, her face beet red and burning, she screamed into my face, “Did you write this?!” Standing on my tiptoes because of her grip on my arm, terrified and filled with shame, I burst into tears. I admitted that I had written the offending words. She dragged me by my arm all the way to the principal’s office.
The story ends hopefully with my parents defending my honor and rebuking the teacher in the principal’s office. Unlike many parents of marginalized students, they believed they had the right to challenge the disciplinary decisions of school staff and hold its administration responsible for behavior unbecoming a teacher. But the damage was done. I had learned to keep my ideas to myself, even when I recognized that an institution that was supposed to keep me safe was treating me unfairly. Over the years, this lesson was continually reinforced. It wasn’t until high school that I became sure, due to a preponderance of evidence, that my White peers were being taught a decidedly opposite lesson.
It is through this lens that I cannot help but understand what has happened to Marilyn Zuniga. Marilyn Zuniga, a teacher in New Jersey, has been put on paid leave and faces termination for allowing her third grade students to write “Get Well” cards to political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and having those letters delivered to the prison.
Several social commentators and activists have taken up the task of bringing attention to why Ms. Zuniga should not lose her job. Ms. Zuniga has been identified by her principal and departmental head as being an outstanding teacher. She graduated with a master’s degree from Columbia University. She maintains close relationships with parents of the students in her class and the community in which they live. The lesson was conceived with compassion for her students and their lived-in reality as poor Black and Brown children, several of which have incarcerated parents or family members.
Instead, I want to use this space to think about the ways in which Zuniga’s sanction serves as a life lesson for children of color about who can speak and who can be spoken for.
Educational institutions are not politically neutral spaces, although they are often pictured that way in the public imagination. Yet politics inform every dimension of the educational enterprise, from the way that schoolhouses are financed, to the content of textbooks, to the way educational institutions are or aren’t held accountable for outcomes.
When people think about political influence on education, they tend to think of curricular flash points like creationism versus evolution, or sex education versus abstinence-only. But while it is true that public battles over stated ideologies have huge impacts on American classrooms, this is not the full story. The real story starts with the very design of American school systems and curricular content as a racial project.
In determining K-12 educational standards, states (who largely retain autonomy in governing US education) must make choices about what to omit, what to include, and what to emphasize as most important. History offers the most straightforward example, because anyone can see that the field is too expansive to be encapsulated in a library’s worth of work, let alone a single textbook. Thus, even the selection of which events to cover in a textbook or class necessarily reflects widely held beliefs about which events should have meaning to an American student and which should not. It also reflects American cultural ideals.
Thus, events like the Trail of Tears or the Tulsa Race Riots are frequently omitted from textbooks and state standards, while The Boston Massacre retains a canonical position in the American Revolution narrative. American Presidents are largely represented as heroic visionaries; at no point during my K-12 education did I learn about the virulent racism of Woodrow Wilson, or the fondness of Lyndon Johnson for using the word “nigger.” Yet, by the eighth grade, my classmates and I knew that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had had an affair. Incidentally, we didn’t learn at all about his radical condemnation of white supremacy or his attempts to build an interracial coalition of the working poor.
The thread that connects these inclusions and omissions is structural white American hegemony. It is nigh on impossible to graduate from the American school system without understanding American history as a series of mostly positive contributions by White men with occasional minor roles for exceptional people of color.
It is in this context that we should ask why a lesson about Mumia Abu-Jamal is so offensive, but continuing to teach American students a hyper-sanitized version of Columbus’s American “discovery” is not. More to the point, we must ask how it is obvious that an activity relating to a man whose identity is in fact contested is off limits, given the many morally reprehensible figures that are American educational staples.
I contend that Abu-Jamal’s radical anti-racist politics and intellectual work, more so than his crime, are the major cause of the perceived offensiveness of this lesson. Allowing students to empathize with him as a human being and an activist undermines the lessons that Black and Brown students are supposed to be learning: 1) that to be imprisoned is incontrovertible proof of one’s guilt because the US criminal justice system is infallible; 2) that to be imprisoned is to have one’s humanity forever revoked and to render meaningless any future contributions to society; and 3) that people of color have no say in determining which version of history out of many they consume and propagate.
By suspending Marilyn Zuniga, the Orange Public School district has loudly and clearly sent the message that it is better to reproduce dominant historical and ideological narratives than to risk the real social and economic consequences of offering alternatives. Given the obstacles that racially marginalized people face in the struggle for accurate and nuanced representation, this is a damaging truth to internalize. Personally, it has taken me years to rediscover my voice after learning that the contributions of Black people, and Black women especially, hold less value than those of White men. I can only hope that the lesson of compassion that Ms. Zuniga attempted to impart is strong enough to compete against these others as her students navigate the next nine years of American primary and secondary education.