New Book: Growing Up & Going To School While Black

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Don’t miss out on the chance to read about poverty, and class, and most of all being a black person in modern-day America. Much of what Coates is writing about is about society at large — its treatment of black Americans, its structural issues — rather than education.

On Charlie Rose last night, Coates pushed back at the notion of personal responsibility or any individual behavior as a meaningful measure of black American’s lives bounded by structural racism. (I wonder what he would have to say about the popular notions of “grit” being taught in schools these days.)  

But there are key parts of Coates’ story that reflect on his experiences going to school: In an extended excerpt in The Atlantic, Coates describes how careful and specific he felt he had to be as a teenager growing up in West Baltimore about going to and from school:

“When I was your age, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with whom I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, whom or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.

He’s talked about what sounds like a relentlessly terrifying growing up experience during his school years in the past, such as on Bill Moyers in 2014: “Here I was, right outside my elementary school, [and] somebody’s pulling out a gun. And it was very clear that that was different.” 

In his new book, he still sounds outraged about the disconnect between Black History Month and his real life:

“Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the civil-rights movement. Our teachers urged us toward the example of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. Why are they showing this to us? Why were only our heroes nonviolent?”

And he’s clear that the experience of being a young black man is something that white Americans need to understand. On Monday’s Fresh Air, Coates mildly scolded Terry Gross for laughing when he tells her that he got upset in middle school when a teacher yelled at him in front of his classmates. 

For him, there was no “safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth.” In 2014 he wrote, “I mostly thought of school as a place one goes so as not to be eventually killed, drugged, or jailed.”

PAST WRITINGS ON EDUCATION

He’s written about education more directly in the past, including The Miseducation Of Maceo Paul Coates (2010), When School Reform And Democracy Meet (2014). 

Way back in 2010, he slammed NYC reformers (specifically Bloomberg’s appointment for schools head Cathie Black: “It’s long been said that the new reformers deeply underestimate the complexity of the challenge facing educators.

He criticized the plan to revamp Newark schools for failing to convince parents — which sounds somewhat naive to me — but also expressed misgivings about teachers having tenure. 

POSITIVE REVIEWS 

So far as I’ve seen, the reviews have been extremely strong. The New Republic loved it. Ditto for the Washington Post, and Slate. There’s a big long profile in NY Magazine. “It is hard, perhaps impossible, not to be enraptured by @tanehisicoates’ righteous and loveless indignation,” notes the Washington Post review.

The praise is not universal: NYT book reviewer Michiko Kakutani praises the book but calls Coates out for overgeneralizing & ignoring progress. It’s also criticized in the New York Observer. BuzzFeed’s Shani Hilton criticized it for focusing narrowly on black male experiences.

EDUCATORS’ REACTIONS

Educators and advocates on my Twitter feed haven’t been commenting on the book very much — yet — though Sara Goldrick-Rab is pushing for Coates to be a new New York Times columnist (he’s going to live in Paris for a year instead), and Michael Magee is excited to read the book. KIPP NJ’s Andrew Martin is watching closely, as is Pearson’s Shilpi Niyogi. Justin Cohen calls the book “a model for how we should talk to the next generation of American children about race.”

This new book seems to be one that teachers of a certain kind will be giving to students in future years, imagines this Slate reviewer:

I found myself thinking a lot about teaching and teachers while reading Between the World and Me, and not just because I’m one myself, at a university founded by one of America’s most famous slaveholders. I first read The Fire Next Time as a junior in high school; it was pushed on me by an eccentric but thrilling English teacher who told me that it was the greatest essay ever written. I still remember him vividly, because he was the kind of teacher who made me read books like that and who talked about writing in that way. 

TIDBIT FOR JOURNALISTS

Media criticism isn’t a big focus for Coates, but in 2012, he also pointed out the disconnect between the NYC DOE handing out teachers’ individual performance ratings and telling the public to be cautious – an issue that comes up in education journalism as well: “There’s also something unsavory releasing admittedly flawed data, and then lecturing the public on its need to exercise caution.”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.