In This Episode
DeRay interviews Dr. Jarvis R. Givens about “fugitive pedagogy”—a theory and practice of Black education in America. Kaya sits down with former Obama Secretary of Education Dr. John King Jr. who is running for governor of Maryland.
Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode it’s two interviews, two amazing people. One is Dr. Jarvis R Givens to talk about the history of black change within the academic setting.
He focuses only, he calls fugitive pedagogy, learned so much. It’s a great book and he is an interesting scholar. And then Kaya interviews John King to talk about the future of education. And John is also running to be the next governor of Maryland.
Here we go. My advice this week is to pay it forward. Pay it forward. do good in the world. People have done good for you, pay it forward. This whole week has been like a week where people have paid it forward in my life. I’ve been paying it forward, paying it forward.
Harvard Professor Jarvis R. Givens us here to talk about his new book “Fugitive Pedagogy; Carter G Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching” I learned so much. It’s such an incredible exploration of the history of liberation teaching through Carter G Woodson. I think you’ll love it too. Here we go.
Dr. Givens, thanks so much for joining us today on pod saved people.
GIVENS:Thank you. Happy to be here.
DERAY: So lets start out with zooming out before we zoom in to the book. Can you talk about how you became a professor while young, which is so dope. But was your path to studying education.
Why did you always want to be a professor? Did you sort of go to school and then you like took a class and it changed your life and you became a professor? What was that? How did you get to this place.
GIVENS: Yeah. That’s a great question. I actually did not go to college to be a college professor. I really had no idea what it went into being a professor. I’m a first generation high school and college graduate.
And so when I got to college, I thought I was on my way to go to law school, but I had a professor in the spring semester of my sophomore year her name was professor Yula Taylor. She’s, the historian of Black Women’s History.
And her course on African-American life during the Industrial Age, was really mind blowing educational experience and really set me on a path to consider what it was that she actually did beyond just the teaching in the classroom.
And I started to learn more about research and got into doing research on African-American history as a student in that class. And you know that opened up a new door and a new window in my mind about what was possible for my future and I decided that I wanted to abandon the idea of going to law school and decided that I wanted to get a PhD.
That’s how I decided that I wanted to become a college professors because I had an excellent college professor, who subsequently became my dissertation advisor as well when I got to graduate school at UC Berkeley. So that that’s the story was not planned and I’m still figuring it out as I go along.
DERAY: And talk to us about how you got to the book. Why a book? Like why not an essay? Or was this a series of essays that turned into a book? Was this what you did in your dissertation and it became a book? How did you get to the book? And then we’ll jump into the book itself.
GIVENS: I had questions around Black masculinity and the history of Black social movements that I wanted to explore for my dissertation. And in the second semester of my graduate program I read a book called “Their Highest Potential,” which was about a high achieving black school in the Jim Crow South in North Carolina.
And it really changed so many of my own thoughts and perspectives around the history of Black education. That books helped me to start to realize that there was more to the story of Black education prior to Brown V board than just the story of Black.
And dilapidated school buildings and those sorts of images that we tend to have in our mind when we imagine black education before Brown, before desegregation.
But in the context of this book it was the story of this very culturally rich thriving black educational community outperforming white schools in the context of North Carolina and beyond.
And that led me on a path to start looking more into the history of Black education in terms of the history and the rich traditions of Black teachers that was very central to so much of the Civil Rights struggles that we think of in the past.
Because so many of the leaders that we celebrate and that we hold up were actually products of the education in these black segregated schools. And obviously behind that was the work of these educators and teachers who have been doing very important work for generations.
But that book was important because they had a personal connection to me. I’m from Compton, California and I went to a small black parochial school in Compton in the 1990s when I was growing up.
From preschool through eighth grade and I had all Black teachers my entire life and I always had a positive relationship to school and a positive educational experience. And it wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that there were many black students who I went their entire life with one or no black teachers at all and that was very foreign to me.
When I started to think about it, I then realized that a lot of the cultural practices at the school that I had it was shaped by the teachers at the school who have been themselves a bit educated in the Jim Crow South.
And so that book that I mentioned from my first year of graduate school had resonated with me personally. Because even though it was a very different historical time period than when I grew up, there were so many resonances between the relationships between the teachers and the students.
The political ideology undergirding the education, and the kind of communal approach to education that was so central for making education meaningful for my own life, but also in the lives of the students in that book that I referenced from my first year of grad school.
And that just led me on the path to wanting to uncover more about the history of Black education for us to have a more expansive perspective about that story and what it offers to us for confronting some of the challenges we see in education today.
DERAY: Now in Fugitive Pedagogy it is a focus on Carter Woodson. He is not necessarily a guide through the book but he’s through line in so many ways. Why Woodson?
And you write about his family being educators and introducing him into– but how did you stumble? I feel like there are probably a host of ways you could have told this story, but you chose Woodson for a reason. What was that reason?
GIVENS: Yes. So Woodson I just think that his life is emblematic of the tradition that I’m trying to write about. Woodson was the child and student of formerly enslaved black people.
His first teachers were his formerly enslaved uncles. And not only is he the student and the child of former slaves, but he just runs the gamut of black educational experience. From the one room schoolhouse and the rural context of Virginia to him going on to be the second black person to receive a PhD from Harvard in 1912.
But he was also a public school teacher for nearly 30 years. He really legitimized the field of at the time what was referred to as Negro history. The study of African-American history or Black History in the Academy today.
And he did this work as an educator. He felt that there were a lot of important questions that needed to be raised in terms of our broader conceptualization of knowledge and human history overall.
And he recognized this because he was a teacher and was very attentive to the distortions about Black life in school curriculum. Curriculum that he himself encountered as a student, but also the curriculum that he was being forced to rely on and teaching students.
And so Carter Woodson is important because of the intellectual work he did to challenge what he called the miseducation of the Negro in the context of American schools.
But also because his life allowed me to trace the politics of Black education from the period of enslavement in his life right after slavery being taught by formerly enslaved people all the way through the to the ranks of the most elite universities that we think of in the US when we think about Harvard University.
He also attended the University of Chicago. And he taught also for a short period of time at Howard.
So Woodson’s life allowed me to kind of trace this tradition of what I call fugitive pedagogy through these various different facets of black educational life during the period of the 19th century and up and through the Jim Crow era.
And Woodson was my introduction to really thinking about these things deeply because when I was in graduate school writing my dissertation, I learned he started writing and publishing school textbooks that were widely used by Black teachers during the Jim Crow period.
It really just blew my mind. This idea that during this period of Jim Crow you had Black teachers engaging in this very robust and rich intellectual world, as not just consumers of knowledge, but also people who were producers of knowledge.
And this is something that I, of course, knew but to understand that Black teachers were doing this in such a systematic way was something that I felt like we had yet to appreciate.
And Woodson in creating Negro History Week which we celebrate today is Black History Month and creating these textbooks and so many other things, just allowed me to trace the genealogy and those set of practices in various different ways.
DERAY: You talk to us about the Watchman on the Wall. You write about the association and his organizing attempts and the struggles that he has with negotiating white funders and what that looks like.
And why he chooses at some points not to go to black colleges because they are beholden to white funders, which was fascinating to me. But can you talk about this concept of the Watchmen on the wall and what that means in the grand scheme.
- GIVENS: Woodson when he begins he’s a school teacher in 1915 and he you know he’s already got his PhD from Harvard, but he’s still teaching because we know that even as some black folks early in the 20th century when they received advanced degrees they were blocked out of the Academy in many ways.
So he was teaching as a high school teacher. But he created an organization called the Association for the Study of Negro life and history in 1915. 1915 is an important year for a number of reasons.
One, because we have to think about what’s happening in the world in terms of the World War that also this is the 50th anniversary of black emancipation. This same year we also know that the film, The Birth of a Nation, which was considered one of the most technologically advanced films to ever come before the nation.
Is filmed and screened at the White House and of course, we know the birth of a nation is a film that depicted black people in the most horrendous fashion. And also celebrated the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the nation.
So in 1915 Woodson created this organization that was committed to challenging dominant groups of knowledge and particularly rewriting representations of Black life in the story of human history. But also in the context of American history.
Woodson as a school teacher. So he’s very attentive to why this is important for thinking about the cultivation of leadership and development of Black students’ minds as well. So this organization that he creates.
He has to create outside of formal institutions because even to use at the time are beholden to white funders and white boards. And in many cases white faculty as well.
The same year that Woodson increase his organization a school like Howard University has a number of Black faculty. But many of those black faculty are not allowed to teach classes that explicitly engage the experiences of African-American life and history.
And in fact in 1950 of course proposal was put forward for a course on race relations that’s denied by the academic faculty. So what I’m saying is that Woodson is having to do a lot of this work outside of the traditional roots of education.
And so he creates an institution. And in order to create this institution it requires him to seek out funding from white philanthropists and white reformers during the time period who might be sympathetic to the cause that he’s trying to do, but that leads to other problems.
Oftentimes Woodson’s ideas and intellectual perspectives might have been seen as a bit more radical than what some of these white funders would have liked. We get to the point where Woodson is constantly having to navigate.
Pushing forward the agenda that he has in mind. But also trying to navigate the constraints and the pushback that he’s receiving from the people who are actually giving him the funding to do this work.
And of course, we know black folks having been just a few generations out of slavery have very little in terms of material resources to build institutions on their own without some form of interracial cooperation.
And so Woodson and his own experience of white paternalism become very frustrated. And he starts to write about this very publicly in the miseducation of the Negro, but also in terms of his leadership style.
And trying to assert autonomy over this institution that is creating to try to challenge the anti Blackness that he sees taking place in all realms of the American School system, whether it be in higher education or in the primary and secondary schools.
And he’s saying in order for us to do this work well, black scholars and black educators need to have autonomy over this work that we’re doing. And we can’t be beholden to the ideological constraint of white funders just because they’re giving us money to do this work.
And he’s very explicit about that and he doesn’t make very many friends among the white philanthropic community in doing that. And so by the 1930s he’s essentially ostracized from the community of white philanthropists.
And he comes to rely more heavily on a lot of smaller donations from a larger number of African-American people. And in large part black teachers. Black teachers become really the main constituency of folks who are supporting the work that he’s doing and helping to sustain the organization he created through the Depression era.
DERAY: Another part of the book you talk about the difference between the miseducation of the Negro, and the uneducation of the Negro. Can you just help explain that to people.
- GIVENS: That line that you’re referring to is mostly me trying to just make a clarification. I think a lot of people use our gesture towards what’s in the miseducation of the Negro to talk about all things that have to do with inequality and injustice in the context of school when it comes to Black folks.
And one of the things that is important is that Woodson is not– I mean he’s concerned with access to education and his book in his writings and his scholarship. But that’s not his primary concern.
His primary concern is not– it’s not just about Black people gaining more access to education of any kind. He’s concerned about the ideological parameters of the substance of the education when they did get access to it.
So for instance, he wrote an article in the early 30s that said, it took him 20 years to recover from his education at Harvard and places like the University of Chicago. Where he had professors that flat out told him that there was no such thing as Black History and culture or at least none worthy of respect.
And these were the kind of ideas and dominant schools of thought that shaped academia and curriculum during the time period that Woodson is writing in. And so Woodson is saying it doesn’t necessarily do us much service, if we are inculcating students into a knowledge system that denies their suffering. And that denies their cultural and historical achievement as a race or as a community of folks.
He’s raising questions about how that might not just distort their own image of themselves, but how it becomes an impediment for the work of freedom. For the work of pushing and advancing an agenda that in the interests of the communities that they should be serving.
And so the miseducation of the Negro is different than arguing about access and opportunity to mainstream education. Woodson is concerned with the education that is being made available because of the potential damage and harm that it causes.
Not only to individual black people, but also to the larger political project that education should be in service of. And so there’s a distinction between those things that Woodson is always clear about and that I just tried to tease out in that part of the text that you’re referring to.
DERAY: Now people should go by this book there’s so much more to talk about. But I do want to ask you, what do you think the lessons are for today? So you help us uncover the history of a pedagogy that’s rooted in freedom and liberation and Black people and that is so beautifully rooted in celebrating Blackness. What lessons can we take away for today if any?
- GIVENS: I think one of the biggest lesson that we should take away from this book is, one, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about so many of the legislative campaigns that are happening across different states to restrict how we teach about race in the history of racial inequality in this country.
And I can’t help but think about the resonance between those aspects of the current political environment and the environment that teachers like Carter do Woodson and the teachers like teaching McGee who is a central figure in the book. Who is a teacher in Louisiana who uses lots of curriculum to challenge curriculum standards through subversive pedagogical practices.
I think that there’s a lot that we need to understand as being in relationship with one another. To say that the current banning of what people are calling CRT in school is not altogether new.
It is actually a reflection of a very long history of racial politics in the context of curriculum and school policies that works to distort the history of racial injustice for the purposes of holding up a certain set of myths about the nation, but also really kind of modern human history that serves the interests of a particular group of folks over others.
Carter Woodson was very aware of this, which is why he created the organizations that he created, which is why he worked and helped organize Black teachers in the way that he did during the period of Jim Crow.
But also one of the things that I would say that why the book is important is because we see a tradition of Black educators working to navigate the constraints of the American School to seek out meaningful education for themselves and also for the students that they’re serving.
And we realize that many of the strategies that they employed in order to cultivate the minds of so many of the leaders that we love to celebrate. Whether it be Angela Davis who reflected on her black teachers in Birmingham, Alabama.
Or someone like Martin Luther King Jr or John Lewis who would say the same things about how their teachers intentionally offered them material and intellectual resources that exceeded the formal curriculum. And also that critique the formal curriculum.
Is something that should be instructive for teachers today. Is that this is a history and a tradition that they can look to as they work and strive to be critical educators or anti-racist teachers today.
And that this is not necessarily a new set of problems, but is actually the resurgence of a set of politics and surveillance practices in school that has always been there when we look to the history of African-American education.
And likewise, black educators had always been developing strategies to navigate and to contest those constraints. And that can be instructive and inspiring for teachers today who are finding themselves in such a hostile educational climate. For folks who want to teach the truth about the history of injustice and racial inequality.
That’s one of the most pressing things that I think the book offers for the contemporary moment in light of the current political climate.
DERAY: Now, one of the questions that we ask everybody is what’s a piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years has stuck with you?
- GIVENS: I think that one of the pieces of advice that I’m always constantly thinking about given the work that I do, very much so tied to the communities that I come from and the people that loved me enough to support me to do the things that I do.
I recognize the disconnect between those communities and many of the institutions that I have to navigate as a professor to do the work that I’m trying to do in terms of producing scholarship on African-American history.
And I have to always be aware of what it means to be in and not of the institutions that I work for. And the institutions that I have to navigate in order to advance the intellectual work that I’m striving to do.
So that piece of advice of being clear about what it means to be in and not of a particular institution whether that be Harvard University or whether that be a public school system that we continues to alienate students from communities that we come from.
Even as we have to work inside of these institutions in order to advance the causes that we are trying to advance. Is that we have to have the political clarity to recognize where there’s a disconnect between our own political aims and intentions. And the intentions of the institutions we’re working within.
And that’s something that we constantly have to remind ourselves of. And I know I’m constantly having to remind myself of knowing the difference about what it means to be in and out of an educational institution that may not have necessarily been built to support the work that I’m doing or the community that I come from.
DERAY: And the last question we ask everybody is, there are a lot of people as who’ve taken to the streets they’ve done all the things they emailed, protested, they shut the thing down, they ran for office, they did the things in the world hasn’t changed in the way they wanted to.
What do you say to those people? The people losing hope. The people who read your book you’d be like, OK, got to get it education has been screwed for a long time, we’re dealing with this whole critical race theory thing which looks like a step back. What do you say to the people whose hope has challenged?
- GIVENS: The will to contest injustice and the will to allow suffering to speak despite so many efforts to silence the voices and perspectives of people in our community. The ongoing struggle to do that is actually one of the most important ways that Black folks have continued to insist on their own sense of self-worth and to assert their own dignity in the world despite so many efforts to challenge and to maim that very thing.
And so I would say that the struggle that we’re continuing to engage in is essential for us to continue to pursue meaningful lives despite so many efforts to undermine Black social and political life.
There’s beauty in recognizing that insistence over the course of generations in the communities that we come from, it’s one of the most important parts of the human story in the modern world. Is the story of Black people’s will to survive and persist in struggle across generations despite ongoing retrenchment.
This is not to necessarily say that Black life is only about struggle because we know that our lives are also about small moments of beauty and our own interior experiences, whether it be in family or in community that not only about responding to injustice and to racial hostility in the world.
But there are very important lessons that we can glean from black people’s will to continue to pursue justice and to fight against inequality despite so many efforts to undermine that work. And to crush the hope in our communities.
We come from a tradition of folks who have given us resources. Cultural resources and spiritual armor to continue to cover ourselves with to continue moving forward. And I think that that’s something that’s beautiful and that’s one of the best ways that we can honor the past and the people that came before us, is to continue to operate in that tradition.
And to continue to hold up a better vision of the world than what we see forming around us. That’s one of the greatest gifts we can offer to ourselves and also to the world writ large.
DERAY: How do people stay in touch with you? How do people follow you how do people–
GIVENS: Yes I’m definitely on Facebook, but I’m also on Twitter and have nudity or I should say but you can follow me on Twitter at Jarvis R Given. It’s just my first name, middle initial and last name. @ Jarvis R Given on Twitter.
And I’ve join within the past month and a half. And found it to be a really great space to share more about the book but also to engage with an intellectual community about these ideas people who are of like mind, but also who have been pushing my thinking forward as well.
So that’s been great. But definitely on Twitter, definitely on Facebook and also available by email. They also still work. And my email address is Jarvis_given@gfe.havard.edu.
DERAY: We consider your front of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
GIVENS: Sounds good.
DERAY: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People’s coming. Pod Save the people brought to you by Hair Story. Now here’s the story of Hair Story. It was started by the founder of Bumble and Bumble with the help of a team of hair industry vets with over 50 years of experience.
They created a lot of hair products that will leave your hair clean shiny healthier than before forcing you to leave your shampoo behind. And their new wash is a sulfate detergent and shampoo free hair cleanser. The new washes it.
Its natural ingredients never strip away your hair’s protective barrier, and only remove excess oil and dirt. Not the good stuff that keeps your hair hydrated. New washer places shampoo and conditioner plus most of your other hair products like deep conditioner’s masks and detanglers.
Thousands of women who did shampoo and switch to New Wash. New washes over 6,005 star reviews, whether you’ve curly, straight, thick, thin colored or gray hair, New Wash also give you your healthiest, most touchable hair since childhood. That balance your production. So you can go longer between washes and it works in every hair type and addresses a variety of concerns.
Hair story also offers dependable minimal effort styling products. Hair balm their air drying cream gives you a polished finish without a trip to the salon or blow drying your hair. Think of hair bomb a skin care for your hair.
Check out her story at hairstory.com and use our promo code PSTP to get 15% off your first purchase. That’s h-a-i-r-s-t-o-r-y.com and use our code PSTP to get 15% off. Hairstory.com.
Pod Save the People is being brought to you by Wealthfront. Investing can be complicated. I certainly didn’t know anything about it. But whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been investing for years Wealthfront makes it easy they have the right tools are your Portfolio.
Wealthfront can create a portfolio of globally diversified low cost index funds personalized just for you eminence. No manual trades, no picking stocks, no watching stock market every day.
They automatically handle all the investing based on preferences that you control. Wealthfront can even if you lower the taxes you pay as you invest for the average client their tax loss harvesting, can more than cover the low annual 0.25% advisory fee. Best of all, it’s automatic.
Wealthfront is trusted with over $20 billion of assets and you can get your first $5,000 manager for you by going to Wealthfront.com/pstp. All you need is $500 to get started. Grow your wealth the easy way and that Wealthfront do the work for you.
To get your first $5,000 manager free for life go to Wealthfront.com/pstp. That’s W-E-A-L-T-H-F-R-O-N-T.com/pstp. To start growing your savings. Go to Wealthfront.com/pstp and get started today.
And today we got Kaya interviewing John King Jr to talk about education and his current run for the governor of Maryland. Let’s do it.
KAYA: Hello Pod Save the people family. This is Kaya and I am super excited to be interviewing one of I think America’s greatest treasures Dr. John King Jr. And more than that he is my friend.
John is an educator, John is a paragon of aspiration and I am excited for him to share a little bit about himself in a little bit of a deeper way. Some of John as the former Secretary of Education under President Obama.
Some of John as the former CEO of the Education Trust. You may know him in his principal ships in Boston or in his teaching in Puerto Rico or you just may have heard him speak somewhere in the most inspiring and compelling way that many folks have experienced. And so I want to welcome my friend John King to Pod Save the people. Welcome John.
JOHN: Thanks so much Kaya. It’s fun to get to catch up with you.
KAYA: So let’s start with the education piece because that’s how most people know you. And I want you to share with our folks why you got into education. It’s an important story.
JOHN: You know I grew up as a kid, the son of two public school educators. My father was African-American. Spent his whole career in education. My mother was born in Puerto Rico came to New York as a kid. Learned English in the New York City public schools and became a teacher and a school counselor.
KAYA: Whoop, whoop. Shout out to the teachers kids.
JOHN: Education was very much a part of their lives. But they both passed away when I was a kid. My mom passed when I was 8. She had a heart attack October 4th grade, and then my dad passed away when I was 12.
And during the period in between was just my dad and me. My dad was struggling with undiagnosed Alzheimer’s. So it was really hard inconsistent, unstable, scary a lot of the time.
And the thing that saved me was teachers. Great public school teachers who made school a place that was safe and engaging, and compelling, interesting, and later in life I decided to become a teacher really to try to do for other kids what teachers had done for me. And that’s really driven my whole career and education and public service.
KAYA: The idea of school being a place that is safe and engaging and compelling to kids who are having trouble at home but to all kids I think is what we all of us in education field aspire to create. And you’ve had a long and storied career in education. What are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished in your work in education?
JOHN: I always go back to the kids that I worked with as a teacher and principal and when you’re at the classroom or school level, you can just see your impact so directly and I’m still in touch with a lot of my former students and hear about their lives.
One of my former students is actually in the Massachusetts State legislature representing that community where she grew up and where our school. So the best private part of my career I think back on.
The most that direct impact but then of course on the policy side we worked really hard when I was secretary to focus the National conversation about education on issues of equity.
Addressing racial disparities in school discipline, diversifying our teaching profession really tackling the obstacles to post-secondary success for low income students and students of color.
And we did really important work on trying to begin the process of restoring access to Pell grants for incarcerated students so that they can pursue higher education, while incarcerated.
And that was a multi-year process I continued working on the Education Trust and fortunately the law changed just this past year to restore Pell Grant access for incarcerated students. It’s the tangible steps that you take that hopefully expand opportunity that remember and are proud of.
KAYA: And we still have a long way to go, especially when we are now trying to recover from a global pandemic, which rocked our public education system in ways that we had never imagined.
In some cases really bringing to the forefront some of those equity issues in ways that a lot of America just wasn’t aware of. So when you think about the education system one that many families deeply distrust, now even more than before because we weren’t able to meet the needs of so many young people during this pandemic. Where do we go from here?
JOHN: And I mean what you’re saying is so important in COVID really was an equity disaster. On top of a deeply inequitable system. We’re talking about an academic impact that was severe.
Some estimates are that for students of color and low-income students. You’re talking about 6 to 12 months of what we would call unfinished learning. Learning opportunities students didn’t have because school was either just online or hybrid.
But more than the academic impact there’s the social emotional impact. Kids who experience the trauma of losing loved ones, kids who experience their families in economic crisis with jobs, losing housing, kids who are just isolated from peers and those important relationships with peers and teachers that are so critical for kids social emotional well-being and mental health.
So we have a lot to make up for– I think we have to tackle the academic consequences. I’d love to see us mobilize a national tutoring Corps. Young people have recently graduated from college, retired teachers, other retired professionals.
How do we get students working one on one, two on one with a tutor who’s well trained with high quality materials helping them accelerate their learning. I think we’re in need more time.
We should be thinking about summer and after school and weekends and vacation acceleration academies, but those all have to be fun to find ways to blend the academic work with stem robotics or sports or arts so that kids want to be there for that additional time.
And then we’ve really got a center of relationships. And I think about this particularly for some of our high school students who’ve gotten disconnected from school during this period.
We’ve got to make sure every kid has a strong positive relationship with an adult at school or in their broader school community could be someone after school program, the summer program big brother, big sister. But some adult in their lives who’s going to help them feel connected, feel seen, and get back on track.
So we’ve got a lot of work to do. There’s federal money coming that will be very helpful. But this is going to require real leadership on the part of superintendents principals classroom teachers.
KAYA: Absolutely. And the community. I mean you called for a national tutor Corps I think both you and I are engaged with the get ready set dot org campaign, which is a campaign to mobilize Americans to support students and their return to school by providing opportunities for people to tutor or to mentor or to serve in other ways.
So if you’re interested in heeding the call and helping our young people get back on track, be a part of America student support network at ready set. Getreadyset.org. That’s G-E-T-R-E-A-D-Y-S-E-T.org. Getreadyset.org and join the movement to support America’s young people.
This idea of not just attending to their academic needs but to the social and emotional needs to engagement, to motivation. I think this opens up a broader opportunity for us to redefine what success looks like.
Success is no longer just math and reading scores. Success is about happiness, success is about the ability to access post-secondary opportunity. Success is about a whole new set of things and we’re finally having that conversation. So I’m excited about that.
A lot of your work we’ve talked a little bit about your family history in terms of why you became an educator, but your broader work is deeply informed by your family history and you have been generous with your journey around understanding your family’s history of enslavement. And so I wanted to ask you to share a little bit with us about what you’ve learned.
JOHN: Well, I’m sitting in Silver Spring, Maryland, where I live and that is about 25 miles from where my great grandfather was enslaved in Gaithersburg, Maryland. And the property where he was inside is actually still owned by a family that our direct line descendants of family that owned my family.
And they’ve maintained the property much like it was in 1863. The main house is still in the main house it was built in the hundreds and the cabin where my great grandfather and his family lived is enslaved people is still standing on the property.
So we’ve had the opportunity in our family to get to know the family that own the property to stand in that cabin, to walk the grounds including seeing where there’s an unmarked burial ground for enslaved people farm prior generations of my family.
It’s been a fascinating journey for a few reasons. One is you really get a sense of the profound intimacy and cruelty of the institution of slavery. The cabin is not 30 yards from the main house.
This is two families living in the same physical space, where one family owned the other family. You also get a sense of how much work we have to do as a country to grapple with this institution.
The family’s been very welcoming and gracious as it had become friends. But I will say that I think for them it’s been a journey of really thinking about the significance of the institution of slavery differently. Even though they grew up on a plantation, it wasn’t central in their educational experience to understand what slavery was how it worked.
So that’s been a journey. The other thing that’s really profound is in 3 generations my family went from enslaved in that cabin to serving in the cabinet of the first Black president. I’m very hopeful about that. That shows what is possible if we give have the opportunity.
KAYA: Yeah. I mean I gosh there’s so much in this story. I’ve come to grapple with this idea of the intimacy of slavery. I visited the Whitney plantation in Louisiana. And was stunned to see how closely these people lived together. The owners of the plantation and the enslaved and how much they are day to day interactions were so close and so intimate.
And I don’t think that I realized that until I was in the physical space to see how close the houses were to understand how much the enslavers relied on the slaves not just for work in the farm in the fields, but to cook their food, to take care of their children.
This was a very intimate arrangement that I think forces us to definitely examine the institution in very different ways. And this is hard stuff. It’s hard stuff for descendants of the enslaved. It’s hard stuff for descendants of the enslavers. Talk a little bit more about how you became friends. Because there’s a whole lot of folks out here who would not want to be friends with those folks.
JOHN: They really welcomed us into the paper. I mean know we just showed up. My cousin just showed up one day, knocked on the door and said, our family was enslaved here. And I think there are a lot of folks who wouldn’t have been open to the conversation and to building a relationship.
And they really have been they were using the cabin as a storage shed before they met us and now having met us they cleaned it out and now are thinking about it as a question of preserving understanding our history.
They really engaged us in conversation to try to understand more about our perspective and more about the history. So that they stop saying slaves and now say as we do enslaved people.
And I think it’s helped them explore what their history means. Their ancestors actually served in the Confederacy and it’s one of the things that people don’t always realize about Marilyn. Even though Marilyn was on the side of the Union.
A lot of Marylanders went to fight for the Confederacy. That’s complicated. I mean that illustrates a belief in and conviction around the institution of slavery and preserving that institution.
But I think folks don’t always attribute to Maryland but it was very much a part of the state’s history just as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were very much a part of the state’s history.
KAYA: Well, and this is what we don’t teach in school. But we’ll get to that soon. Go ahead.
JOHN: No that’s right. That’s right. The other thing is I think they have started to explore for themselves how do they reconcile their values with the reality of their family history.
That’s something that we just haven’t done well as a country. We try to act like this stuff never happened. Or that was so long ago that we don’t need to talk about it, think about it. It’s very different from maybe let’s say how Germany have approached as a country grappling with the history of the Holocaust.
I think Germans understand that it is very much a part of their story as Germans and that they have to continuously grapple with that history and think about how they prepare in whatever ways they can. The extraordinary horror of the Holocaust. And we just we haven’t done that around slavery. At the individual level or the level of a state or country.
KAYA: And yet it seems like such a logical process to follow, yet here we are enmeshed in the middle of culture wars trying to figure out what a racial reckoning means for our country.
We are debating what history can and should be taught in classrooms and whether it is culturally responsive pedagogy or critical race theory, or even the conversation around police brutality, incarceration.
All of these things are swirling right now. And so what can we learn from Germany? What can we learn from your family’s experience that will help us think about this particular moment in time?
JOHN: We have to tell the whole story. That we have to prepare young people to solve today’s problems by understanding where we’ve been. And that means yes of course, celebrating the beauty of the Declaration of Independence or the incredible aspirations of America’s promise of equality and opportunity.
But we also have to reckon with the institution of slavery that has been with us from before we even became a country. We have to reckon with Jim Crow and segregation and how those systems were used to try to maintain a caste system.
We have to reckon with Japanese-American internment. We have to reckon with the horrible treatment of Native Americans. We can’t be serious about today’s problems if we don’t understand all of that history because the echoes are so profound. That echoes of slavery are in our gaps today in health and in wealth.
The echoes of the anti-immigrant sentiment that allowed us to imprison Japanese-Americans during World War two. That there are echoes of that in the so-called Muslim ban that President Trump tried to put in place.
There’s we have a history of anti-immigrant sentiment and violating human rights of immigrant communities. We have to equip young people with that knowledge so that they can navigate.
We also have to expose all young people. Young people of color, but also white young people two examples of Black excellence, Latino excellence, Asian-American excellence, Native American excellence. Everybody should be reading Tony Morris.
JOHN: To be well read. And so that also has to be a part of how we think about the role of schools to prepare all young people for a diverse post-secondary world, the diverse career, and civic participation in diverse society.
KAYA: I mean you know that I firmly and fundamentally believe that and have thrown my whole entire self into this project called reconstruction which seeks to illuminate black excellence, black resilience, black innovation, black joy, and an unapologetically black education, because the American public system doesn’t tell our stories.
Talk to me about what it felt like to see yourself in the books that you were reading. Or the curriculum that you were exposed to in school.
JOHN: I mean I remember so vividly the first time I read down these mean streets by Bettie Thomas, a Puerto Rican Afro Latino author and had that moment of thinking, Oh, I see me in this. His experience is like my experience.
There was so validating. I remember reading Manchild in the Promised Land. And have that same sense, Oh, I see myself in these text. And it was affirming. Particularly during a time in my life when home was incredibly difficult, it was so important to have that access point.
And I really worry for young people who don’t get that. Who don’t get to see them because it really can cause you to doubt yourself to feel a direct. And we just have to be vigilant as educators and as a community about making sure that all kids have that experience of what I would call windows and mirrors.
Opportunities to see themselves reflected. To feel validated and seen, but also opportunities to see worlds beyond their own and to explore new worlds and new experiences, and to have that experience of seeing the world from someone else’s perspective that you get through literature.
But we have to really be systematic about those windows and mirrors. And the truth is as a country we haven’t been.
KAYA: And in fact, we are watching state legislatures across the country prevent teachers from teaching the full history. Preventing school districts from presenting curricula that shows those windows and mirrors you say in your recent op Ed in the Washington Post.
This is all part of a calculated ploy to draw America’s classrooms into culture wars for political advantage and fear mongering. Say a little bit more about that.
JOHN: Yeah. Well, you have this kind of coordinated strategy across right wing media in particular, to generate fear and anxiety about what they refer to as critical race. Or critical race there is a body of legal scholarship about how systems can operate to oppress people of color. There’s no first grade teacher who’s teaching critical race theory. In her mind–
KAYA: Come on. Say that again. Say that again.
JOHN: And there’s no teacher that it’s a ploy to put out that phrase to try to make people anxious and nervous and look is every teacher well prepared to grapple with issues of race in thoughtful nuanced ways in their classroom.
No we have work to do on teacher training and professional development of course and it won’t go right in every classroom. But at the end of the day, we are lying to ourselves if we tell an Incomplete History.
And this right wing effort is really an effort at a national self-deception. Similar in many ways to the folks who are trying to pretend like on January 6 it was just tourists in the Capitol, and not an armed insurrection.
On the one hand it’s almost absurd because it’s such an obvious attempt to use division for political advantage, but it’s deadly serious. And it’s already changing the law in states and it’s already having a chilling effect on teachers’ practices.
KAYA: Absolutely. I mean it is both laughable and it is deadly serious. And it is I think a last ditch attempt to preserve power. Literally don’t believe your eyes. You saw what happened but that’s not exactly what happened.
And so we have to do something very different. And that takes leadership. And you are actually running for– running to be the governor of Maryland. Running to be the next governor of Maryland. My next door neighbor State. Except we’re not exactly a state.
Hopefully, when you get to be governor you’ll help us address that for us Washingtonians who have folks who desire who desire statehood. We just want to be free like everybody else. So why are you running for governor of Maryland?
JOHN: The same things that drove me to become a teacher and the conviction that public institutions can be a force for good in people’s lives. And governors are uniquely positioned to work across the silos to see the intersection between education policy and housing policy.
The intersection between health care policy and the environment. And governors can actually mobilize all the resources of their state to improve the quality of people. And took that opportunity to have impact that drives me to run.
KAYA: And there is a crowded Democratic field with lots of candidates who are also convicted and see the opportunity for intersection and more. What makes you different? What makes you uniquely qualified to do this job?
JOHN: Well, look we are fortunate in Maryland to have a lot of talented folks who want to lead and contribute that’s a good thing. I think I bring a unique combination of elliptic experience of really understanding the difference that government can make because public schools saved my life.
A unique experience as an educator thinking about as I know you did as superintendent, but also throughout your career in education, thinking about kids as whole people. I think about the whole child. The intersection in their lives of these different forces.
I think as an educator I’ll bring that to the role of Governor. Thinking about our people in Maryland as whole people and seeing that if you don’t have the opportunity to have paid family leave, then you can’t take care of your loved one who’s struggling with illness. And so then maybe you have to leave your job and that hurts all of us.
That when we’re losing farmland on the Eastern shore to saltwater intrusion because we haven’t taken enough action on climate. That has implications for people’s ability to earn a livelihood and support their families.
So we can’t think in siloed policy terms, I get that as an educator. And I’ve had leadership experience in government making government work for folks. The budget of the US education department is billions of dollars bigger than the budget of the state of Maryland and run big things and made them work for the good of the public.
KAYA: I’ve run big things. I love it. Let’s close with another cool family story of yours. Tell us about your uncle Hal.
JOHN: Yeah. He was an extraordinary person. And I think his life exhibits a lot of how I think about our country. So he grew up in a segregated New York City as a kid and chose to go to Tuskegee Alabama even more deeply segregated place to train to be among the nation’s first black pilots in the US military.
And he became a Tuskegee airmen served during World War two. When he came home, he had been trained as an accountant to get a job as an accountant. Couldn’t because of his race and so he chose to become a firefighter.
Even though he had to overcome discrimination at Tuskegee airmen and met discrimination upon returning from the service, he still chose a career where he would spend his time trying to save other people’s lives. People who sometimes didn’t see his full human.
Then he went back into the military and became a career Air Force officer. And then when he left the military. He retired from the military he continued to work in public service and health care and so forth.
He was patriotic throughout his whole life. I remember him putting out the American flag in front of a house each day even though he had experienced extraordinary discrimination and frustration with the pace of change in the country.
And when he passed away he wanted to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery he would have been totally justified to be bitter about the way the Tuskegee airmen were treated. The way society treated black people.
The fact that he was asked to serve at a time when Black people’s legal rights were less than those of white people and their ability to vote was regularly denied. But he didn’t come away from that bitter.
I think he came away resolute that even though America wasn’t still, even at the end of his life living up fully to the principles of equality and opportunity it could and should that’s in the process of becoming more true to those values.
And I just draw a lot of inspiration from his patriotism. Because it wasn’t some blind patriotism that ignores the blemishes, the failures. It was engaged patriotism that acknowledges those and then says we all have a role to play and work in a to get better.
And he made a huge difference in my life after I actually got kicked out of high school. As a kid, very angry because of the trauma I’ve experienced and got in a lot of trouble I got kicked out. And actually went to live with my other uncle. And he played a pivotal role in my life and helping me really take responsibility.
I remember the conversation where he told me neither you nor I can change the things that happened to you as a kid, but you decide now the kind of man you want to be in the kind of life you want to have. And that was a really important moment for me then. They shaped my trajectory in profound ways and his example inspires me every day.
KAYA: John thank you for sharing that. I was moved when I read about your uncle Hal. And I just thought it was a fitting way to wrap up. The point of this conversation, which is this idea of true patriotism.
In fact you say in your piece true patriotism requires naming where we have fallen short and recognizing how far we have to go in the pursuit of freedom. I am thrilled to call you a comrade and a friend in this pursuit of freedom, in this pursuit of making America live up to the country that we all know it can and should be.
I appreciate your leadership, your willingness to step into the gubernatorial race. Oh my gosh. I think you’re a little crazy. But as good crazy. And so I’m supportive of it and I’m excited about what you will continue to bring to families and communities across Maryland and frankly, across the United States with your service. Thank you for being on board save the people.
JOHN: Thanks Kaya. Proud to be your friend and always an admirer of the great work you did in D.C and that you’re doing that reconstruction.
DERAY: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in the Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts. With it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else and we’ll see you next week.
To be was a production of Crooked Media it’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Executive producer Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special Thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Sam Sinyangwe