I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Today we’re joined by Philadelphia-based educator and “Learning Maximizer” Erika Saunders, to talk about the book Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Erika. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Erika: Hi! Well, first of all thank you so much for asking me to join you. My name’s Erika Sanders. I’m an educator here in Philadelphia. I’ve been working in urban environment, educating for about 17 years. I’m a special education teacher and I call myself The Learning Maximizer. Because what I do is teach children how to maximize their learning. So, I’m thrilled to talk education. And clearly, this book hold very dear place in my heart. *laughs* So, I’m excited to chat with you about it.
Jeanie: I am so excited that you’re joining me. And I also just want to say you are also on the Middle Grades Institute faculty. And we’re delighted to have you as a faculty member.
Erika: Thank you. Yes, I am. That’s a new one for me. Thank you for reminding me.
Jeanie: So, I always ask this question at the beginning because I’m a librarian at heart and I’m curious about it. But: what else are you reading? Or what other books might you recommend?
Erika: Wow, that’s an excellent question. So, sort of in general? I started We Got This: Equity, Access, and The Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. Which I’m looking at sitting right over there. I highly recommend that book. It’s accessible. And digestible. And yet has some pretty powerful pieces to it. For leisure, I am a huge young adult fiction fan — not to mention I worked with middle school students often — so a lot of what I read is sort of the middle school literature. So, if you want to relax and enjoy and just sit back, I highly recommend grabbing some of that really good juicy middle years literature that’s out there. Because it’s really gotten pretty exciting over the years.
Jeanie: I couldn’t agree more. Some of my favorite books are middle grades and young adult books, absolutely.
Jeanie: And I love Cornelius Minor’s We Got This. I think it’s so practical.
Erika: Yeah. When I picked it up I found that it was something that was also accessible. With my focus being Special Ed, sometimes when I’m looking at a book, I look at it through that lens. And whether or not even the formatting of it and how it’s presented is something that feels accessible to a lot of people? And there was something about this that had that feel. Where, especially around race where it can be very emotional and dense and sometimes academic in a way that’s unaccessible? When I looked at this I thought, wow, this is something that has lots of access points. Visually, how it’s laid out, how you can sort of digest pieces of it, and not feel overwhelmed. So, I’m very, very excited about that one too.
Jeanie: That’s a great lead in to this book: Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You. Because Ibram X. Kendi, the co-author of this book, wrote a really dense — really, really, really dense — book called Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. And I read about, I would say a third of it before finally I was like I can’t do this and be in a doctoral program too. That book’s been rewritten, or remixed as Jason Reynolds says, for young people in such a way that it’s really accessible, is what I found. Did you also find this to be very accessible?
Erika: I did. And accessible to young people too. And I love the way you mentioned it remixed. You know you’re really tapping into that young adult audience, and inviting them in, in a way that feels connected a bit to them. And I loved that about this book. Because these are important topics. And these are topics that often hit very deeply, in ways that we might not even realize? And can have the ability to divide people, especially sometimes, when you’re presenting truth that is hard to take if you are, sort of the person who’s *not* oppressed. You’re in sort of more the oppressor role in terms of your race or, how you identify. Not that you *are* that person, but that can be a hard thing.
And so, having that be accessible that way? And then also, on the flip side, because as an African American woman here, in the United States, there’s enough trauma, you know? Intergenerational and ancestral trauma that, seeing it again can tap into a lot of things. From sadness and defeat… to anger. And you separate yourself.
I read some things where honestly I needed to not — quite frankly — be around white people for a little bit. Because it’s hard not to feel that. And I felt that this particular book kind of walked that tone very nicely. Where there’s almost some humorous points to diffuse some of that. And presented in sort of these small chunks that you can kind of get to and then step back from for a minute. So, I really love the way he crafted, what I considered a work of art.
Jeanie: That’s beautifully said and I think of Ibram X. Kendi I’ve read and, I’ve also read his How to Be An Anti-Racist. And he’s a scholar, right? He’s a professor and he writes with a real scholarly tone. And Jason Reynolds changes that tone quite a bit. He adds a little bit of play and a little bit of reading space.
So, let’s start with their voices.
Jeanie: I should note that you and I both listened to the audiobook reading by Jason Reynolds which is amazingly read.
Jeanie: I also loved that Jason Reynolds starts this book, about a conversation that we, especially white folks, we feel very uncomfortable talking about: he starts it off with some deep breaths. And some: “You got this.”
Erika: Yeah, I was actually shocked in the most pleasant way when I heard him say, one: put it out there. You know: race, the R word. We know we want to run from that! And then he just says like,
“Okay, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s inhale and exhale. Race.”
And then right after that, it was like: “See? Not so bad.”
Again: giving the permission that these terms, this subject that’s so taboo, and so argumentative and so separating — especially in today’s world — doesn’t have to be. It’s not easy; there’s some difficult parts. And yet we’ve done that before in so many other areas. Yet we get to race, the issues about this country and how it’s, kind of gotten to where it is, and it becomes this, no, no, let’s not. So, again, making it the sort of accessible thing. And even saying, okay, you know what? We’re going to take a deep breath, we’re going to be okay.
Jeanie: Yeah. Yeah. It’s almost like this book is a way of inviting us in to say this is uncomfortable to talk about and yet so necessary. I really appreciate the framing, how Kendi defines racism and anti-racism. And then I also really appreciate this other framing, right on page three, it starts right away, that the authors want us to keep in mind these three words as we read, and they are:
- assimilationists, and
I also love that Kendi and Reynolds start us off with some really great definitions to frame this text. And there are three of them, so I’m going to share them. They are from pages three and four.
I love how Jason Reynolds put them in this, like you said, accessible language for kids.
Segregationists are haters. Like real haters. People who hate you for not being like them. Assimilationists are people who like you but only with quotation marks. Like… “like” you. Meaning they “like” you because you’re like them. And then there are anti-racists. They love you because you’re like you.
But it’s important to note, life can rarely be wrapped into single-word descriptions. It isn’t neat and perfectly shaped. So sometimes over the course of a lifetime (and even over the course of a day), people can take on and act out ideas represented by more than one of these three identities. Can be both,and. Just keep that in mind as we explore these folks.
And by folks, I think Jason Reynolds is really talking about, all the historical figures that we’re going to follow through this long chapters of American history.
Erika: Yeah, just again: so brilliantly put, in a simplistic way. Because these are complicated concepts that adults struggle with. And have and continue, etc. So, to kind of boil it down to its essence? And put it again in these sort of everyday terms? And again I’m feeling the unapologetically sort of, Black access points. Because that’s who he is and why not make it that way, you know? “Segregationists”, “haters”. Not that other people can understand that, but I access this book as a Black woman and I’m like: yes.
I was listening to the audiobook one day in my kitchen and honest to goodness, I felt almost like the traditional church group, you know? I put my hands up while he was speaking. And I was like: “Yes! Preach!”
Because it just felt so real and living, as opposed to sterile.
Then also feeling that connection with my life because I remember when assimilation was my goal. I might not have understood it, sort of separate from myself, but it was clear that my job was to make exactly what he says: to make you all like me. Not for who I am, but for how well I present myself. And making sure, that I was doing everything *I* needed to do to assimilate and have you all like me.
And it wasn’t until I got older — and I mean *older* — easily into my thirties, forties, before that concept of anti-racists hit me as well. *I* had to come to a point as well where *I* took an anti-racist approach with my own race. Like: no, no this is me and I want people to like me for me. Not because I’ve fit into your box. Or that I’m not, making you uncomfortable. So, I connected with that where some people might not have thought the Black community could kind of see themselves through these definitions.
Jeanie: Well, I just have so many thoughts right now. One is that I really appreciate how this moves us beyond our racist / non-racist binary. It moves us into like: we can find ourselves sliding around on this continuum a little bit. And one person that Kendi and Reynolds really talk about sliding around on this continuum is W.E.B. Du Bois, right? Who, for much of his life, spends a lot of his time as an assimilationist. Wanting Black folks to sort of… emulate white folks in order to be accepted, right? And so they really explore W.E.B. Du Bois own experience as an activist through that lens, too. Like you said: these terms can apply to all of us, right? We can, regardless of our background, find ourselves somewhere at different points on this continuum, at different times in our lives.
Erika: Absolutely. There are times every day where I *need* to slide between assimilation and anti-racist just to make it. I often try to avoid sliding all the way back to the segregation because, to me that kind of does mean the hate of myself and the natural qualities that come with me. But there are moments where if I’m going to be successful in *this* moment at *this* time, so I can make it to the next step? I have to do a little assimilation. You know? And, then, step into something else. *laughs*
Jeanie: Right, right. And I see that. I see that as a pragmatic thing. My understanding, from people of color I’ve talked to, is that you can feel the need to assimilate, in order to meet professional goals, right? To like, get ahead in the workplace. That it can feel really like, necessary maybe, to get that title behind your name or to dress in a certain way in academia, or to present in a certain way. To code-switch, if you will, in order to get your professional needs met. Because we live in a racist society. And this can often be completely invisible to white folks who don’t even see it because they swim in whiteness.
Erika: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. I would have assumed that no white folk even understood this is what’s going on. So, absolutely good point about code-switching. Somehow, I never liked the term. I don’t know what it is about it that sort of rubs me the wrong way and it could just be my experience. I understand it, and I understand the need for it. But I mean, sometimes it’s about your job, in order to get to that anti-racist point, you’ve got to do some assimilation, and then kind of gently move yourself around. Sometimes, you’re sick of it. And you just put it out there.
And sometimes, as we all know — and forgive me if I choke up here — you have to do it to live. It’s not even about making that job… it’s about making it home.
I have a son, and he’s an adult now, how we have those conversations about: absolutely assimilate. Don’t be threatening, because you are; you are already a threat. And, we’re back in that segregationist moment, you know? You’re already a threat, so you better assimilate, so that you can present yourself as less. So, excellent point of what you were saying. It’s situational, its moment to moment. It’s live, get home, move through your job. And for many of us, it’s something we learned so young that we navigate that world. What it does to us, on a deeper level can be — it’s trauma.
Jeanie: I just keep thinking about that survival strategy, and the survival strategy for children of The Talk, right? The real privilege as a white mother is that I don’t have to have that talk. That’s a huge privilege. That I don’t have those same worries because my son is a white kid in a white supremacist society.
One of my favorite sections of the book I think, is actually about this. And it has new language that I was unfamiliar with, and I don’t know if it was new for you. It’s Chapter Nine, page 65. I’m going to read it because I think it’s speaking to just what we’re talking about right here. It’s called Uplift Suasion. Were you familiar with that term, ‘Uplift Suasion’?
Erika: No, I was not.
Jeanie: Me neither. So, it says:
I think what’s so powerful to me about this passage is that it’s said at the beginning of the book, in the person of history. It says that around the 1790s is really where the authors start to see this emerge. And yet I would say this is still very much a reality of how we live today.
Erika: Oh, absolutely. As you’re reading it, and I’m nodding my head, and whatnot, again, it’s just, it’s my life. It’s my life of how I was brought up. It’s how I’m trying to bring up my son, you know who’s, again, a *Black* male. So, by definition, a life-threatening presence that is worthy of being put down, the way one might…
I remember talking with my nephew as well about this, like, where else, what other circumstances, would you shoot to kill?
That this threat is so significant that it’s completely understandable that you shoot to kill first… then ask questions later.
And I literally went like: grizzly bear. Like that’s all I could think of, you’re in the woods up, upright right there is such a threat that you don’t wait to see, oh, is it friendly, is it going away from me? Is it? And then as sad as it would be, everyone would understand why you felt such a threat. And this is my *child*.
An interesting thing is that I’d never heard the term “uplift suasion” — am I saying that correctly?
Erika: But the idea of “uppity”, which I believe this is. That’s the term. Oh, absolutely! Because growing up we were the uppity Negroes in my community; we were the uppity ones. We were everything you described.
So we dressed properly. And we went to church. No matter what our position was, we held it with grace. We defused. We would not do anything that was a perceived threat. And these things weren’t said out loud, explicitly, but that’s what you understood. I grew up distinctly remembering that I needed to be better than all of my white counterparts growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey.
If you know anything about that town, it’s very, very white, very upper-middle class, very privileged. Very Christian. I knew right from very early on, the need to be better than. And that was how I presented myself. That was my grades, that was my activities, that was the people I associated with. And again, as we talked about a little bit getting into that segregationists where I was clearly:
“Oh, no, no, I’m not them. No, no, no, no, I’m not *those* Black people, no, no, I’m with you on that. That’s awful. No, no, I’m here. It’s okay.”
So, again as I’m listening to it, it’s one of the first times I’ve heard this kind of depiction where I’m going: yes. That is exactly it.
Jeanie: It echoed your lived experience. Do you think that students, the students you work with, students of color, still feel that need to assimilate and fit in?
Erika: I think they definitely feel the pressure to. Because I sort of hear it in different ways. And it’s interesting because, being an educator of predominantly children of color, and seeing their experiences, and knowing in a way what they’re going to need to do to succeed, and yet realizing: these children don’t know a world where the *possibility* of a Black president isn’t there. They don’t know that world.
Yet on the flip side, they know that simply being “whatever while Black” — being at Starbucks here in Philadelphia while Black, barbecuing while Black — could end your life.
And that becomes a very difficult thing for them. As I watch them trying navigate doing what we just talked about — what you might need to do in this moment to get where you need to get — so that you can do and powerfully do all these things you’re doing.
Jeanie: Well, I’m just so aware of all of the times that the double standard continues to exist. In this current moment, I’ve been thinking about two things. One is wearing a mask in public, and the acceptability of that being very dependent on race and racist attitudes, right? And how you’re perceived if you’re wearing a face covering.
The other is that I’ve been really wondering, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, what would be happening right now if the people protesting at Statehouses about opening up the economy, were Black instead of white? And thinking about what those protests look like as opposed to what the Black Lives Matter protests looked like, right? Those were like just two really present current-day examples of sort of the way racism plays out in action.
Tamir Rice was 12 years old, playing with a toy gun when police rolled up on him and killed him within two seconds.
These white nationalist terrorists storm the Michigan State House with real weapons and they go home to their families tonight.
What's the difference? White skin. https://t.co/65OHVHaCR6
— Kevin Bailey (@KevBaile) April 30, 2020
Erika: And what I was going to say is that these are discussions that definitely happen in Black homes, in Black communities, among Black folk. Again, that word, I know in the African American community, especially here in America, you know that “folk” means something. It means lots of things. It oftentimes means your people, but it can be used in both ways, right? Like: “Folk meeting us”, and “Stay away from those folks, over there”. And I think about different terms in different communities and how it can take on multiple meanings.
But I mean absolutely. We have those conversations literally all the time. Here in Philadelphia when there was the celebration of the Eagles, finally, winning a Super Bowl which we all celebrated, although it was still during Colin Kaepernick protesting. Everything is such a dichotomy sometimes, right? But me sitting there watching people on TV climb up lampposts, destroying cars, etcetera, etcetera. And you know, my son and I looking at each other like, they would have shot us by now. As almost an offhand — and yet knowing we mean that wholeheartedly.
Jeanie: That’s a hard truth to carry.
Erika: Exactly and carried every day. I think that’s the other thing.
Jeanie: So, what that makes me think about is that this book really chronicles this idea that racist ideas were used to justify slavery and genocide *as* we colonized the nation that we now call America, right? Like, as we colonized other peoples land, racism came with us. And helped us be able to do these like, morally dodgy things: enslave people, commit mass murder. And that’s not usually how we teach the founding of this country. At all. And it’s not really what I learned in the social studies classroom, right?
So, this book kind of turns it on its head. I’m trying to think about my own experience, my own lived experience, and I would say that I think the way we often framed racism is to say, “Oh, racism comes because of slavery.”
Instead of thinking that slavery that racism came here and justified slavery. And was encoded into laws in order to do that.
Erika: I would even go a step further to say it didn’t just do it to justify. This country couldn’t work — not then, not now — without it.
I was in college before I saw a diagram of a slave ship. And how they transported slaves. As horrific as I understood it to be — Roots was just mind-blowing in my life, when I was younger — I assumed they sat up. In chairs, or not really in chairs, but with planks. Chained to each other, which was a horrendous thing in the first place, but sitting up, next to one another, and that’s how they were transported. Isn’t that horrible? They were in the bowels of the ship and all of that. But of course they were sitting up.
And to see a diagram where the idea of that packing? Literally on top of those, crushing those underneath. It’s the way you would do with any other… commodity.
Jeanie: So, that really interests me in several ways.
One is: I’m really wondering about how we need to prepare teachers, or what teachers need to do to prepare themselves, to teach hard history.
And then this concern that if we only teach slavery, like if we only teach Black History where it’s only about the trauma and the pain, and where there isn’t a real sense of agency for Black and brown folks, that’s also problematic. So I guess, I think that Teaching Tolerance talks a lot about that as curriculum violence. What do you think teachers need to be aware of if they’re going to have frank conversations about race in history and racism in history in their classrooms?
Erika: The harsh reality is, until you understand, until you really *understand* how your very life benefits, from this thing called race and oppression, how do you have that conversation?
One of the things that scares me the most, in terms of the damage that could be done to our young people of color is a “woke” liberal white female teacher. That to me is this.
Jeanie: Are you looking at me, Erika? It’s okay.
Erika: As a group! As a whole group! You know, you’re asking the right questions. And yet, we’re all going to make mistakes. We’re all going to trip in our way here. Sometimes — again, I come very harsh from the old school — sometimes I see how that can emasculate our young men. And yet, here I am, you know, preaching that for their survival. So it becomes a very difficult, tricky thing think that I sometimes wonder what is the answer. And it’s hard because, again: starting at slavery, means we start from a point of we were always oppressed. Imagine. Imagine if we taught in this country, that we started history coming from the origin of humanity. Kings. Queens. Richest person in the world, technology, agriculture, architecture, all of the things that we admire in this world, originated, came from, was stolen from, people of color.
Jeanie: It’s like our colonialist lens run so deep that we can’t even see — gosh, I hate using the “we”. The American colonialist perspective runs so deep that it’s hard for us to see or acknowledge all of the other ways of knowing and being in the world that are of value. So, you see through this really narrow lens. And that narrow lens which came across the Atlantic with us, prescribes history in this really narrow way. And then, I think that Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds point out that our first educational institution, Harvard University, is steeped in that. Is steeped in that perspective.
So, it makes me think of all the work.
And I think what you’re calling out, and I agree, about woke white women educators is that there’s a lot of work that has to be done personally to understand our own privilege in order to be even able to have these kinds of conversations. It makes me think when I was a school librarian at a middle and high school, often, this issue would come up with students where they would be talking about race and racism, and students would often say,
“Well, my family didn’t own slaves. This has nothing to do with me.”
And I wish I had had this book at that time to help me better have language. Or help me help them understand the way it’s all connected. The way that their history, their family genealogy is connected.
Erika: And I think that’s a good point about this book and the accessibility of it. Because again, it does sort of give language that’s… more easily understood. More easily consumed, more easily brought in these smaller pieces. Because even as I’m talking to you, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and, you’re sort of back to: “What do you do?”
And I never want to get to that point, because obviously there are things we can do. How brilliant of these two gentlemen to come up with, you know a book like this. That’s not my forte. And yet, both you and I can use this in different ways.
It’s funny you said, “understanding privilege”. I was talking to someone about even that term and again we needed something to understand how, just sort of whiteness allows things to happen. And I was sitting there going, well, we use this term “privilege”; even that puts that perspective in a superior position. Even the word “privileged”, we tried to evolve to sort of White Frailty to kind of understand that. Actually, this is a disadvantage because the privilege that we’re talking about is a disadvantage.
Jeanie: Yeah. That’s such a good point. I wonder what it would look like if we talked about how our systems privileged people instead of calling people privileged, right? Because that’s the point.
One of the things that I think is brought up in this book is redlining, right?
And so, after World War II, veterans were given money. My grandfather, for example, was given enough money to build a house, even though he had like a middle school education. He wasn’t an educated man; I come from a really working class people. But he bought 10 acres in Pennsylvania and built a house and was allowed to sort of settle in a certain part of town. And this is in Washington, Pennsylvania where I grew up.
That wasn’t allowed for everybody, right? Like people of color were pushed into apartments in cities and towns. And like redlining was a part of that. And it’s still something that’s ongoing. in terms We don’t call it redlining anymore, right? But there’s still systems in place that make it easier that privilege white folks for buying houses, especially in specific areas.
And so, instead of thinking of my grandfather as a privileged human, I think about the systems and how the systems disproportionately privilege some folks over others. some racial groups over other racial groups. And I think Ibram Kendi really asks us to look beyond intent to impact and to say: something is racist if it has racist implications on the population, right?
Like if the outcomes are racist. If you can look at that and see this proportionality than that policy, regardless of its intent, is racist. I’m just playing with that idea because we use that word, “privilege”. We’ve been using that word a lot. I use that word a lot; I think about that word a lot. But I really hear what you’re saying and it’s not that white folks are privileged folks, but that the systems privileges them.
Erika: Yeah. I mean, I think we get to the term sometimes where language matters. A lot of things I see in social media groups I’m a part of as a Black person, is where we say things like “Representation matters. Being able to see yourself matters. ” Words matter too. Imagine, just imagine if we flipped it, again, the way they did in this book to say: “No, no, that’s oppression. That’s what that is. It’s oppression. Oppressive systems, put in place to keep people oppressed.
And the privilege that you have is simply you’re part of the oppressors.
Jeanie: Yes. I benefit from an oppressive system.
Erika: Exactly. You benefit from the oppression of others, the system that oppresses. Imagine that. Imagine that’s the language that’s used almost the way. Again, they sort of flip the script in terms of how things are done. And not intentionally to make everyone feel bad badly. But this is kind of what’s going on.
So, I think one of the things that I’m thinking about now when you asked me what would it take? I do get very encouraged by the young people. By young people as they come up, being exposed to this book. Because I think it will take sort of this generational push coming from the ground up, of young group understanding more and more. Seeing it in a different way. Being educated about it in a different way. Approaching it a different way, hopefully kind of would move to a point where more people understand that this can’t work this way.
Jeanie: I appreciate you pushing me on that language because it’s really making me think. I think our country pushes this narrative of the meritocracy. That people who are rich deserve to be rich. This whole idea of bootstraps and pulling yourself up by your boot-straps is a part of the fabric of our nation. And I think that it’s one of the narratives that makes it hard for white folks to see when they’ve benefited from the oppression of others. Because we like to think of ourselves as — and I’m going to use the language, even though it’s sexist — as self-made men, right? We want to think of ourselves as self-made men.
And I think what that does, I think it does two things.
I think it erases a lot of stories, right? Like, the stories of people work really hard and the system doesn’t benefit them, and so they still have less.
And then I think it also whitewashes folks, and I notice this in the narrative. These sort of American heroes that history whitewashes in that way. So I’m thinking not just of Thomas Jefferson; we know Jefferson was problematic, that he owned slaves, that he had children with one of his slaves, right? But also Abraham Lincoln, who we think of as American Hero, who held a lot of really racist ideas. And in many ways was still not even an assimilationist but a segregationist in his policies, even as he ended slavery.
Erika: Absolutely. Again, I grew up the same way in terms of understanding these heroes, including Abraham Lincoln among Black folk. I mean, come on, he freed the slaves, right? Like, that’s the narrative. And it wasn’t until, again, I’m certain I was out of grade school, that I understood what the Emancipation Proclamation did. Who it freed, the political strategy of why that happened. And actually, a surprising person helped me understand this: my sister’s then-husband, from Texas.
And Texas very much celebrates Juneteenth, and had in history. He’s the one who sort of helped me understand that there was something else. I was like, what are you talking about? Again: uppity, educated. And he’s like, “Wow, y’all are so ignorant up here.” I’m thinking, I’m ignorant, really? But again, because as educated folk, you start to understand these things.
I went to Monticello and I got that tour, not so long ago. And I was heartbroken in the way slaves were presented. But I was told this was a big deal. Not by the tour guides but by my cousin who lived there, because before they didn’t even mention slaves.
It wasn’t even mentioned.
And the fact now that it was mentioned was such a big deal, with this smiling glee… And they took you down to the slave quarters and they pumped in the music, and I’m just sitting there — of course the only Black person there. I was just like looking around like I might be in The Twilight zone and they had just uncovered what they felt was a slave graveyard. But again, sort of starting to understand this and even, and bringing it forward and, telling it from a different standpoint.
Jeanie: I think this book reminded me to a year or two ago, I read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which is a history of the Great Migration. And so I think that there’s this common narrative, at least in school social studies, which is like: we had slaves and then the Civil War came and then we ended slavery and all is good, right? And then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights begin, right?
Jim Crow happened too, but I think The Warmth of Other Suns really illuminated for me, again, not a history person, the ways in which we ended slavery only for slavery to continue in other forms. In the form of sharecropping, in the form of imprisoning people for no reason and forcing them into labor camps. Right? That Black folks, right after the Civil War, in the years following the Civil War, couldn’t change jobs. Like, in order to migrate to Chicago, they had to leave at dark, and sneak away from their jobs. That’s not freedom. That’s still slavery.
And then thinking about Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi do such a good job of bringing up, bringing Angela Davis into their story, which brings really this modern version of slavery, which is mass incarceration. We’ve still got so much work to do.
Erika: So much!
Jeanie: So much.
Erika: So much.
Jeanie: So, I wondered how you might use this book with students.
Erika: It’s one of those books that I feel would be most, almost most effective cross-curricular.
Jeanie: Oh, I completely agree.
Erika: Right? Because everything about race is cross-curricular, you know. As you were just saying: the economics of it, the math, the mathematics of it, the socialization of it, the science, right? Come on, we were 3/5th of a person, you know. And then, even the modern science of it. How effective and how powerful would this be if teens really did understand that this almost became a *theme* book that sort of helps be the essential questions if you will, of other things that you’re teaching, for a time. That this is a unit where this becomes the fabric through which we channel everything.
You know what I mean? And really connect that. So that it can be seen because I think there is a danger I certainly experienced it, right? The danger of the sort of isolated social studies lesson of exactly what you said, right? There was slavery… and then Lincoln, yay! Slavery was over! Then we had some Civil Rights, good, way to go Rosa and Martin — never mentioning Malcolm X, of course. And then woo-woo, if you are lucky enough to be young and then Obama. It all works. See how it all worked! A direct line!
Jeanie: Right. And so there’s no racism anymore because we had Obama!
Erika: Yeah. And yet, we know how dangerous that is, you know. So imagine this being a cross-curricular embedded in everything that’s done.
Jeanie: I love that idea, Erika. And then one of the things I’ve been thinking about, having read this, is that reading it in a big chunk, like reading the whole thing, listening to the whole thing: it’s a lot, right? You cover a lot of history. And one of the things I wondered about is using chunks of this text along with other texts and ideas. And so, thinking about incorporating John Lewis’s March series, with section four, right? Which is through 1963, and home is where the hatred is. And then into Section 5 where Martin Luther King is assassinated, right? So really thinking about those pieces together.
And then also, I was thinking about science and what you said, and there’s a lot about the human genome that comes in in this book towards the end. So thinking about what it would look like to do a little study of this along with Henrietta Lacks. And by that, I mean, let’s look about the way her cells were used without her permission or family’s permission. And are still used in most of our cancer research!
So, thinking about how that could be cross-curricular around race and justice in science, and in social studies, and combining with language arts and reading part of that great Henrietta Lacks book. Or even thinking about their sections of this book that reminded me of Katherine Johnson and that fabulous book and movie Hidden Figures, right? And I thought a lot about that book and movie in certain sections of this text as well, and how those things could sort of give kids a better understanding of the way that race plays out across our disciplines in society. I really love that.
Erika: Yeah, absolutely. And I know this is sort of a, I don’t know, I want to say pipe dream. But: I’ve seen it where I teach, where we serve by far the large percentage of African-American students, particularly students of color, where the proportion is clear that we are the majority at our school — and yet, we still do not present texts, literatures, ideas, even haven’t forbid 50/50, in terms of an African-American perspective or person of color perspective.
And imagine if what we’re doing in schools is flipping that narrative, so that that perspective is the forefront and that other texts are supporting that in either different views or things like that. The way we’ve taught up until this point, right? A very white perspective that we kind of filter, and attached and maybe sprinkle a little seasoning on top of which has been our understanding.
And imagine again just to try to get things sort of in the equilibrium is flipping that. Swinging that pendulum over to the side. Even trying to spend a year where the main texts, and things that we understand things, *come* from that perspective, as being the perspective, we look through. And then, okay, now understanding that, yes, of course there are others. How do they play in, and what does that do?
Imagine the powerful generations that would come through with that.
Everyone is a better person when you can have more vast experiences. When you can step into the shoes of someone else, when you can begin to understand someone else’s perspective. And the way this country is designed, it has been that something that we as Black people have always had to do. We *have to* understand your world. We have to understand the nuances and whatnot if we are going to succeed.
Jeanie: It just makes me think as a librarian, and I think especially as a school librarian, I think over the years there’s this narrative. In Vermont there’s a narrative that’s like, well, most of our students are white, so we don’t have to deal with this. And it makes, it makes you ask the question like
“What kind of white people do you want to raise? Like, what kind of white people do you want in the world?”
And then also thinking about the many years that teachers, maybe not just teachers but that folks assume that boys won’t read books that have a girl main character, right? Yet we assume girls won’t read books that feature boys all the time.
Then thinking about like the same thing with race, right?
Like with any kind of difference really. We are so used to seeing ourselves centered as white folks that it can be jarring at first when we start reading books that center folks that are different than us. And that’s exactly what we need, right?
Erika: When I think about what would be ideal, especially from a woman of color’s perspective — which is the only perspective I’ve had — it’s my lived experience. I oftentimes think about what an amazing educational system, from a librarian standpoint, it wasn’t: fiction… and African-American fiction.
Jeanie: Yes! Yes.
Erika: If it wasn’t history… and African-American history. If it was simply history.
And I mean, that’s the world I hope for, which is a hard one to imagine. But I hope that we make these type of realizations, like these conversations between us. Books like Stamped. You know things that start to help us. And I mean, that’s the Royal we, right? To help us to understand how upside-down things are, because that’s what I feel like it is. We are upside down. It’s sprinkling and isn’t going to work. We have to go through the work and the hard, agonizing, exhausting almost never-ending work of even starting to turn this, right side up.
Jeanie: You’re making me think a lot about Rudine Sims Bishop. And she’s the person who coined this idea of books as Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Doors? This idea about representation. That all kids deserve to see themselves in literature, and that books can also be this window where we can see the lives of others. And then sliding doors where we can find the commonality, right?
And I’m thinking about we use that a lot in literature. We think about that a lot in literature. And I love the idea of using that in history as well. We all deserve to see ourselves *with agency* in history. Not just as victims of history. Some of us get to see ourselves in history that way regularly, right? But like, where do we get to portray folks in their brilliance and their agency and their power as empowered in history as changemakers, right?
You’ve got me really thinking about that. And in science and in all disciplines like, what does that look like? It feels like an important part of that conversation.
Erika: Absolutely. I think it, again, as we’ve said before that it makes it accessible and it gives a sort of entry point to have those difficult conversations, you know. And talk about representation where, I had this discussion even at my own school, where, as a person of color, as a Black woman, I see your array of books that’s very diverse on your end and I’m looking and I’m like:
“Yeah. Why is the only book that has a Black male leader about a gang member who ends up killing two people and dies himself and he’s ten. Where is that equivalent in white literature?”
Jeanie: Yes, yes, yes.
Erika: Where’s your YA book for Jeffrey Dahmer? And it’s a true story by the way up. That book is a true story of a young man. And again: not that it’s not a powerful, wonderful piece of literature to include. But how is that the only representation? What messages are we sending? If I manage to find, a YA whatever. Jeffrey Dahmer, whoever, pick a person, but where the center person was white, troubled, killed people, and then killed himself, and then presenting that? What would that pushback look like? And yet that’s acceptable.
Jeanie: Yes, I completely agree. Not every book about Black folks need to be issue- or social justice-oriented, right? Like sometimes we just want fantasy where the main character is Black, for crying out loud.
Erika: Just a story!
Jeanie: I just want a story, yeah.
Erika: I just want a story.
Jeanie: Totally hear that. So, I feel like we should wrap this up and I wanted to end with just a little bit of the Afterward because I think it’s a nice way to close and put a, sort of the book ends on our conversation because we started with the beginning. I’m going to read a little bit of it, and then maybe we can hear some final thoughts.
I love that it ends this way with this sentence.
How do you feel? I mean, I hope after reading this not history, history book, you’re left with some answers. I hope it’s clear how the construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically, how it is always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet, to keep the ball of white and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to. And believe is truth.
Laws that have kept Black people from freedom, from voting, from education, from insurance, from housing, from government assistance, from healthcare, from shopping, from walking, from driving, from breathing. Laws that treat Black human beings like nothing.
I think that was really important for me as a learner to realize that legislation is racist, and creates racist conditions.
And I wondered if you had any last thoughts on that or on the book in general.
Erika: I mean, do I have thoughts? Of course. It’s sort of like there’s so much, right to swirl in. I think, and kind of closing and wrapping up our discussion around this book: I want to extend gratitude. Because it takes, the saying is, it takes a village to raise a child. It takes more than a village to push against this enormous beast, if you will, of racism. It takes varied voices, and approaches. And it takes those who have been doing it for a while to be able to step back and take a breath. Because this is hard, exhausting work and have someone else, step in.
It takes people from all views, approaches, races — to have a turn in this work. And my gratitude for someone like the authors… Jason Reynolds, particularly for his young people approach. To take up that mantle and say: hey, you know what? Here’s something we can look at.
And knowing that myself, for instance — not putting myself on their level — but, who does the work in a different way has that resource.
The gratitude of these type of different perspectives that are coming in, that are taking up the mantle that are bringing a fresh approach or, bringing a different group in? That gives me hope. Because there was a time not that long ago, that I was tired. And I was seeing the enormity of this. I had seen the changes that had happened and yet everything still being the same. And got to a point where I’m like: forget it. We’re never going to do this. How are we going to do this? We’re never going to do this.
And thankfully there are those who not only come before us, but also come after us, to say: It’s okay. It’s all right. You rest. You rest for a bit. I got this. I’m going to bring this book in. And that’s going to allow you to have a second wind.
That’s what it’s going to take. So, I have hope and meeting people like yourself who are asking the questions, at least.
I went through generations of, you wouldn’t even ask the question. People who understand this more that they don’t know then what they know. I think that’s, so important. So, the gratitude for you to be willing to have a conversation with a Black woman on a topic like this. This wouldn’t have happened — it’s never happened to me if I’m being honest.
I live in a very urban, environment and yet, so, seeing people like you where you’re saying:
“No, no, please help me understand. I know my perspective is limited. I know that I’m going to say this maybe, not in quite the way I mean it, because I have this perspective, please come.”
That gives me gratitude. Such gratitude.
Jeanie: Well, I’m so grateful for you for sharing your perspective. Your lived experience, your experience as an educator. Because I think this book is important, because once we know all of the ways in which race is used to uphold power and privilege and economic and political gain for some, and not for others? Then we can do something about it. Until we know, we can’t really do anything about it. So, I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me about this fabulous book. I can’t wait to hear how teachers start using it and young people to start experiencing it.
Jeanie: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time, Erika. I’m so grateful.
Erika: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. It really has. And I appreciate it all.