Nearly one year after the violent murder of George Floyd in broad daylight, the police officer charged with his death has been found guilty, and our country — and classrooms — are once again talking about Black lives.
My former high school students in rural Arkansas now teach at the schools they attended during their childhoods, in the same political conditions of Blackness in which I taught them in my civics class in 2014, as they tried to process the Ferguson, Missouri, police killing of Mike Brown, a man they had never met but who looked like them.
They are helping their own students mourn Floyd in the same way.
In January, when the country watched a violent mob of white supremacists sack the U.S. Capitol, my former students helped their own classes process how white supremacists desecrated the seat of our government, waving the Confederate flag and demanding that millions of Black votes be tossed out.
As Christina Sharpe, author of “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being,” would say, my former students are educating the next generation of Black people within the climate of white supremacy, just as I educated them.
Sharpe argues that “slavery was not singular; it was, rather, a singularity — a weather event or phenomenon. … Emancipation did not make free Black life free; it continues to hold us in that singularity.” White supremacy in all of its weather patterns — slavery, segregation, redlining and mass incarceration — has been the gray cloud that menacingly hovers over Black children and the adults who seek to protect and educate them.
Though we cannot change the weather ourselves, there are consequences for not being able to discuss its impact honestly. The same is true in classrooms across the country that must teach about race.
I first encountered the singularity in that civics classroom in 2014 in the rural town of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, when my months of careful lesson planning filled with Black historical texts weren’t enough for my bereft students the day after Brown’s death.
They were disgruntled about my standard lesson on the Bill of Rights. They were full of questions — angry and fearful questions — about the political moment they were experiencing. My students were living in the singularity, which stretches from the past to the present and into the future, hearing nothing but revenant echoes.
My grandmother and mother have lived and loved in that singularity. I have grown up in that singularity. And my newborn baby will soon have to experience it as well. Black male educators, a mere 2% of our nation’s teaching force — including my former students — will soon have children like my son in their classrooms.
When they teach about these needless deaths and the insurrection at the Capitol within the singularity, they are teaching students how to respond to this nation’s most vexing question: How do Black people live and love in the West, a civilization that did not have their living and loving in mind when white people created it through the triangle trade and slavery?
My former students have answered that question in myriad ways. In 2020, when the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others rocked the nation, they joined the nation’s Black Lives Matter movement and led a protest march in downtown Helena.
They formed an organization, Helena West-Helena 4 Change, to gather support and exercise their First Amendment right to assemble. They challenged the conditions that exist in our town that could easily lead to another killing of a George Floyd — or a Breonna Taylor, or a Sandra Bland, or a Mike Brown — on our streets.
Now, after a year of mass Covid deaths and political insurrection, they are reaching out to their students through Google Chromebook screens.
One of them, a fourth-grade teacher, led a group debate with her class and showed clips to contrast the Black Lives Matter protests with the Capitol insurrection.
Her students quickly grasped the singularity and wondered why largely peaceful Black protesters were treated more harshly than violent white rioters.
Another former student, a high school English teacher, saw her students further contextualize the riots and the murder of George Floyd. “This is coming from descendants of those who named us three-fifths of a person,” one of her students said. “They will always see us as less. It was a joke to them. A superiority complex that I just can’t untangle now.”
The descendants the student mentioned are a part of the singularity — the white supremacist historical climate that is pervasive and unyielding.
Sharpe referred to this singularity as weather. Though we cannot change the weather ourselves, there are consequences for not being able to discuss its impact honestly. The same is true in classrooms across the country that must teach about race. The students we serve are counting on us as educators to prepare them to change the world.
With only 11% of our nation’s schools led by Black principals, such as I used to be, the task is to train and support more instructional leaders who will teach about the singularity. My work at New Leaders, an organization dedicated to supporting diverse school leaders, is to provide the training, coaching and support these teachers will need to be successful and enduring.
Educators and leaders need to contend with the revenant echoes that our Black students hear in their communities by letting them know that the insurrection is a new permutation of American heritage — a new weather pattern of the singularity. Providing instruction not just on history, but on the urgency of the political moment we live in, will ultimately empower students to change the world on their own terms.
Hal Harris, a former civics teacher and school principal, is senior director, program implementation and adjunct trainer corps, at New Leaders, a national education nonprofit that equips school leaders to be powerful and positive forces for change.
This story about the aftermath of the Derek Chauvin verdict was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.