The Souls of Black Teachers: Reading José Luis Vilson with W. E. B. Du Bois

The Souls of Black Teachers: Reading José Luis Vilson with W. E. B. Du Bois

The schools of New York are now more segregated than at any point in the state’s history, and are the most segregated schools in the nation. New York City math teacher José Luis Vilson’s This Is Not A Test is a powerful account of how today’s resegregation holds back students of color—and how black and Latino teachers can fight back.

José Luis Vilson speaking at a Save Our Schools rally, May 17, 2014. Photo by Bianca Tanis.
This Is Not A Test:
A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education
by José Luis Vilson
Haymarket Books, 2014. 220 pp.

The heart of education lies in the relationship between teacher and student. The quality of that relationship—its capacity to nurture, to inspire, to awaken the imagination and to cultivate the intellect—is crucial to student learning. This is an ancient truth, equally central to the pedagogy of Socrates in the West, Confucius in the East, and many others in between. But it bears repeating in an age when many self-styled “education reformers” seek to reduce the value of teaching to standardized test scores and statistical algorithms.

José Luis Vilson’s This Is Not A Test bears witness to the enduring vitality of that relationship. Vilson teaches math to poor black and brown students in New York City middle schools, and his writing is rooted in his classroom experiences. His voice is an authentic teacher’s voice, with the resonance of a teacher’s calling and the timbre of a teacher’s passion for the welfare of his students. Teachers will recognize themselves in Vilson, from his fatherly affection for his students and disarmingly open accounts of classroom triumphs and defeats to his sorrow at a former student’s senseless death and anger over the poverty that throws up so many obstacles to student learning.

Teachers will also experience painful recognition upon reading Vilson’s tale of the arrogant, shallow supervisor who threatened him with an unsatisfactory evaluation not because of his teaching, but because she disliked the aesthetics of his classroom bulletin board. Such was the lived reality of “education reform” as practiced under former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who formed a regime so contemptuous of teachers that it appointed supervisors bereft of teaching expertise. Unable to carry on any meaningful discussion of teaching and learning with those they supervised, these administrators would focus on ephemera such as bulletin boards.

The teacher-student relationship is central to Vilson’s understanding of his vocation. He offers evocative descriptions of his students’ personalities and captivating accounts of their behavior—from Vilson’s clever retort to a smart-ass boy to the empathy that he shows to a rebellious girl. “I had put so much effort into maintaining my professional mask,” he writes, but “as much as I kept trying to push them away, I couldn’t keep my students from pulling me in, chipping away at the wall I had built. Even if you’ve never lived these students’ lives, how can you not find yourself drawn to their personal stories, their emotions, and their struggles to find their identities in a world that steadily widens every time we teach them something new?”

Vilson challenges students who see themselves through the reflections of a white-supremacist culture rather than espousing the hard-won dignity of the African-American freedom struggle.

One of the more striking vignettes in This Is Not A Test is Vilson’s account of his confrontation with his students over their casual use of the word “nigger.” As readers of his blog know, Vilson does not shirk from difficult discussions of race and education. He casts a critical eye on the racial inequities and racial segregation that still permeate American society and schools sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and is a piercing critic of the ways in which that social order works to the detriment of his students and millions of other poor black and brown children. He examines the racial power dynamics among educators and within the world of education policy, challenging those who carry on conversations that marginalize voices from the other side of the “color line” and who would make decisions without addressing the realities of race. As a black Latino, Vilson is intent on asking hard questions about class, race, and ethnicity—of the powers that be, of other educators, of his own students, and of himself.

In Vilson’s struggles with race and education, one hears echoes of W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic work, The Souls of Black Folk. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century when the Jim Crow regime was at the apex of its power, Du Bois took note of the special place of leadership that had been accorded to preachers and teachers within the African-American community. At the head of the church and the school, the two social institutions in which African Americans in the South were able to exercise a small measure of self-determination, the preacher and the teacher were the political and spiritual visionaries of the community, the molders of community thought. According to Du Bois, they “embodied the ideals of this people—the strife for another and juster world, the vague dream of righteousness, the mystery of knowing.”

As one of a very small number of African-American academics in this era, Du Bois understood his own role as that of the teacher, writ large. In one chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, “The Meaning of Progress,” Du Bois presents an allegorical account of how he ventures out from Fisk University, where teachers and students consider themselves “beyond the veil” of white racial supremacy, and into the Tennessee countryside in search of an African-American school that would have him for a brief time as its teacher. The story concludes with the sad end of the school, literally razed to the ground, and the wretched fates of his former students, either broken or dead. Another chapter, “The Coming of John,” recounts the story of a teacher, educated in the North, who is driven from his native Southern town and school when the white elite decides he is a “dangerous Nigger . . . givin’ talks on the French Revolution, equality and such like.” After John kills a white man who was trying to rape his sister, his tale ends at the hands of a lynch mob.

Given their leadership roles, the preacher and the teacher were the main interlocutors between the African-American community and white society. As the tragic portraits in The Souls of Black Folk illustrate, this was a most difficult undertaking, filled with tension and fraught with peril. On the one hand, they fought to guard their community’s safety and well-being, its spiritual integrity and dignity, against a white society that denied black humanity. On the other hand, they struggled to further their community’s access to the protection of law and to the opportunities crucial for moving beyond the status of political disenfranchisement and economic servitude. This struggle required engagement with that very same white society that denied black humanity. This is why the teacher and preacher—and the teacher Du Bois himself—felt so keenly what The Souls famously describes as the African American’s “double consciousness”:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The “veil” is the unifying metaphor among the essays in The Souls of Black Folk: it serves as the symbol of the “color line,” the system of white racial supremacy and black racial subordination. Although the veil is sometimes misread simply as the shroud of racial oppression and blinding social exclusion cast over African Americans, Du Bois has a more complex image in mind. The veil does not blind, it darkens and distorts; the African American of “double consciousness” sees himself, but only faintly, through the reflections of how others see him. The problem is not the hybridity of the African American, his two different souls of Africa and America, but the way in which the veil of white racial supremacy sets these two souls in conflict with each other.

Similarly, in This Is Not A Test, Vilson describes challenging his students over the casual way they called each other “nigger,” seeing themselves through the reflections of a white-supremacist culture that denies black humanity rather than espousing the hard-won dignity of the African-American freedom struggle. “Now you listen to me,” Vilson tells his students. “We didn’t fight for you to sit here where you can get an opportunity to do better for yourselves and your communities for you to use this language around each other.” It was, he says in his book, “one of the standard diatribes we concerned folks have.” But his students knew he cared about them and how they acted, so it worked.

Even inside the veil, Du Bois argued, African Americans could acquire a sense of their own power. It is there that black communities established a redemptive faith in a better future, building the institution of the black church and the powerful culture of the spirituals that they sang in church. This “second sight” creates a vision of redemption and liberation that would free not only African Americans, but America as well. “Let America be America again,” Langston Hughes would write, with that parenthetical “second sight”—“(America never was America to me).” It was the African-American freedom struggle that brought the principle of equality into the very center of American political discourse and the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment.And it was the African-American freedom struggle that created the political template for subsequent struggles for equality and human rights—by women, by the LGBT community, by the disabled, and by immigrants, among others.

Vilson writes in the Du Boisian language of “double consciousness”: he explicitly claims for his own heritage a multiplicity of “souls.” He avows his own identity as both African American and Latino, and makes a point of complicating his own Dominican heritage—noting that while his mother, who raised him, was Dominican, his father was Haitian. While Dominican identity is often constructed in opposition to a Haitian one (assuming, falsely, that most Dominicans have no African ancestry, only European or Native American ancestry), Vilson affirms his entire cultural heritage, with its many different “souls.” At one point in his book, he plays out one dimension of his own “double consciousness” with an internal dialogue between “Mr. Vilson” and “José.”

But he is not championing a superficial identity politics, which claims identity as an end in itself. In Du Boisian fashion, he invokes his own identity as a prelude to discussing his education, with a goal of looking at that education through the “second sight” of the “seventh son.” Like most students, Vilson had a range of educational experiences—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in public schools, in Catholic schools and at a Catholic summer camp with a priest who was a profound mentor to him. The common thread in his reflections is the ways in which some teachers and mentors engaged his intellect while affirming his African-American and Latino heritage, whereas others denied his intelligence and denigrated his heritage.

With his experiences as a bilingual student and an adult identity as both a teacher and writer, Vilson often focuses his thoughts on the issue of language and its uses in the classroom. But he would agree with a pioneer of bilingual education, Leonard Covello, that language is the focal point of a broader concern. Do the practices of the school work to alienate students from their heritage, forcing them into a destructive choice between their home culture and their schooling? Or do they appreciate the value and power of home and community, and incorporate them whenever possible into the educational process? Put in Du Boisian terms, does the school set the “souls” of students into conflict, or does it make it possible for them to reconcile them?

This point is often misunderstood. Students in the United States must master standard English and learn to navigate mainstream American culture. Without an education that provides that capacity, students of color, immigrants, and the poor are condemned to lives of social marginality and economic deprivation. The question is to how best to build that capacity. A school that requires students to surrender their heritage language and/or dialect will find that many are unwilling to pay that price.

Drawing upon the valuable work of education scholar Lisa Delpit, Vilson stresses the importance of teaching students to engage in code-switching—readily shifting from one language or dialect to another and navigating from one culture to another, depending upon what is appropriate for a particular conversation or interaction. That approach not only respects the heritage language and culture of students; it is the best way to motivate students to learn standard English and master the social skills of the dominant culture, because students will understand it as opening for them new doors and opportunities, rather than shutting them off from their family and friends.

But what teachers do in their classrooms is only one part of a solution: vital questions of educational justice must be addressed in order to reconcile home and community with school. Two issues deserve comment here:

The resegregation of American schools is well underway.

Six decades ago in the Brown decision, the Supreme Court took note of the harmful effects of school segregation on the educational psyche of African-American students, citing the famous doll experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Today, progress toward the integration of schools has been reversed. Not only is the resegregation of American schools well underway, but contemporary school segregation serves to intensify students’ sense of alienation, combining segregation by race and by class that was less common sixty years ago.

The schools of New York are now more segregated in both ways than at any point in the state’s history, and are the most segregated schools in the nation. New York City schools, where Vilson and I have both taught, are driving these state-wide statistics. Should it come as a surprise, then, that today’s students show the harmful effects of segregation on their educational psyches? When students of color choose to do poorly in school because they fear that doing well will be seen as “acting white,” are they not seeing themselves refracted through the “veil” of racial and economic segregation? Are they not reflecting back to us the damaging opposition between school and community that has been foisted on them? Americans are distressed when students conclude that racial authenticity demands failure in school, as well we should be. But where is the moral outrage at the racial and economic segregation of schools that give rise to such destructive self-images? Where is the political will to integrate our schools?

As part of this effort, it is vital to increase the number of teachers of color in our schools. The shortage of male black and Latino teachers is particularly acute right now. After a period of growth that tracked the desegregation of schools and the early successes of affirmative action, progress has stalled: the numbers of students of color continues to grow, while the number of teachers of color has not kept pace—and has even lost ground in many urban areas. African-American and Latino teachers are an essential resource for students of color, demonstrating that it is possible to be academically successful without betraying the culture from which one comes. African-American and Latino male teachers are particular important in this regard, because poor boys from those groups tend to be less successful in school than girls. Our schools need many more José Luis Vilsons.

“Education is the civil rights issue of our day.” Over the last decade, this has become a stock line in the stump speeches of the corporate education reformers, from former Chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools Michelle Rhee and former Chancellor of New York City public schools Joel Klein to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former Superintendent of Denver public schools and Colorado Senator Michael Bennett. Yet, at the same time, teachers have seen the racial and economic segregation of their poor and minority students grow and their access to gifted and talented programs, the best schools, and talented teachers of color decline—all under the leadership of these same individuals. Thus, when they hear this sound bite, many seethe. In José Luis Vilson’s This Is Not A Test, they can find a voice that tells the truth about the struggles so vital to equal education today.

Leo Casey is Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. He worked for twenty-seven years in New York City public schools.