A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men

Do we operate from a deficit perspective or a profit perspective?

A Black high school student, Derrick, is involved in a fistfight. A journal falls out of his pocket during the altercation.

Two days later, the teacher approaches him after class, asking for a moment of his time. She returns his book and admits to having read from it, writes David E. Kirkland.

Before Derrick can leave, his teacher uses this opportunity to engage him in a conversation about her perceptions of his academic performance, the story continues. She tells him, “You’re not doing great in my class, and it’s not because you can’t do the work. That book in your back pocket says that you can. I just want to says understand how I can help.” Derrick knew what the teacher’s statement had asked: How can I get you to do what I expect you to do in school? To this point, Derrick wondered if the sentiment of his teacher’s comment came from a place of twisted compassion instead of sincere interest.

Kirkland asks: Did it emanate from a missionary desire to ‘save’ him from the bondage of his own savage complacence a radical misinterpretation of him surrounding him and the world? In her comment, she’d positioned Derrick not only as helpless, but also as powerless as wasted potential. Her perspective… represented the same delusion that characterizes the tension between Black males and schools. From this perspective, Black boys are painted as ‘bad, rebelling against the authority of the academy. Of course, this has never been an accurate picture to begin with.

From a profit perspective, the teacher might have asked Derrick, How am I hurting you?” or “How does the school impede you from writing with the liberty with which you wrote in your journal?” But to her eyes, neither she nor the school was complicit in the design of his miseducation or in failing to encourage his hopes, aspirations, and opportunities to learn. Behind her quiet voice, the Black male that she could imagine was at fault for his own failures and was at risk due to his own faults, the author says.

How could she help her student? What could she say or do to encourage Derrick to want to succeed? Unfortunately, the teacher was not posing appropriate questions. For Derrick, neither success nor literacy was about scoring higher grades in English class. Rather, literacy was richer and deeper, “more complex than his experiences with books [and classrooms] could reveal.”

SOURCE: A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men. David E. Kirkland. New York: Teachers College Press, 2013. 187 pp.

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