Visibly Invisible: The Reality of Five Black Boys in a Public High School
In a study
of the New Orleans public schools, African American males represented
43% of the school population, while accounting for 58% of the non-promotions,
65% of the suspensions, 80% of the expulsions, 43% of the dropouts, and
only 9% of the gifted and talented (Cooper & Jordan, 2003). This is
not an anomaly, but a daily reality for African American males in the
inner city. The few who do graduate from America's public schools often
possess only marginal levels of literacy and are frequently ill-prepared
for college and/or employment. In fact, African American males are denied
equal educational opportunity at such alarming rates that some writers
have dubbed them an endangered species. The societal ramifications of
this systemic non-education have lead to a proliferation of research studies
addressing the tragedy of being young, Black, and male in America.
study attempts to engage with this issue by first stepping away from the
framework within which teachers, politicians, and academics have situated
the problem - that of society's expectation of the five D's: "dumb,
deviant, disturbed, disadvantaged, and dysfunctional" (Cooper &
Jordan, p.383) and seeks instead to understand and probe the (counter)identities
African American males assign themselves when not being forced to answer
the question, "How does it feel to be a problem?" (Du Bois,
Stevenson (2003) suggests that in order to progress, young Black males must be offered ways of thinking above and beyond their current dilemma and taught to refuse to accept definitions of themselves within a paradigm that seeks their self-destruction. Thus, this study seeks to understand the mechanisms by which African American male adolescents situate themselves within or without the paradigm of deviance and the implications this holds for successful academic interventions.
Urban Education published a two-part special edition dedicated to the
education of African American males. Contributions to the series explored
a variety of educational, psychosocial, and economic factors that depress
the achievement of Black male students. This section will briefly summarize
portions of that series, as well as an additional publication by Dr. Howard
Stevenson, Jr. (2003).
Jordon (2003) locate the problem of Black male underachievement within
the schools themselves, charging that public schools create the sense
of alienation that many Black male teens experience in educational settings.
They suggest that in order to be successful, Black male adolescents must
be able to see themselves as academically and socially competent, an almost
impossible feat in schools that reflect and reinforce societal perceptions
of Black male deviance, deficiency, and criminality. Thus, Cooper and
Jordon promote a comprehensive school reform model that hinges upon altering
school norms; creating new school cultures based on smaller, multicultural
learning communities; and increasing the representation of Black male
teachers to serve as role models. These reforms are in addition to the
more general recommendations of changes in curriculum/teaching practices
and an improved professional development agenda. Their proposal centers
upon the belief that school norms and culture are driven in part by beliefs
about academic ability and intelligence. Thus, fundamental shifts in how
the education endeavor is structured and organized (and thus in how it
is conceptualized) will ultimately change the way teachers teach and students
learn, hopefully forever eradicating the deficit model.
Cunningham, and Spencer (2003) provide quantitative support for the effects
of negative school climate asserted by Cooper and Jordan (2003) and seek
to identify in their study whether African American males employ reactive
coping strategies (bravado attitudes) in response to negative social and
educational experiences. The participants in the study were 219 African
American males in the 8th, 9th, and 10th grades from impoverished and
low-income backgrounds. The youth were asked to complete three measures:
1) the Black Male Experience Measure (BMEM) which assessed Personal Negative
Inferences and Personal Positive Inferences of Black male experiences
in public places; 2) a derivation of Mosher and Sirkin's (as cited in
Swanson, et al, 2003) machismo measure to assess bravado attitudes; and
3) a revised Scale of Teacher Expectations of Black Males (STEBM) to explore
perceptions of teachers' expectations of their students' academic potential.
Among other things, Swanson et al. found the highest predictors of bravado
attitudes to be Personal Negative Inferences and low Perceived Positive
Teacher Expectations, suggesting that when Black male adolescents do not
see their school environment as supportive of their individual goals and
development, they may cease to regard school as a place to receive positive
reinforcement for academic success. In their conclusion, these researchers
highlight the importance of training teachers to create supportive, affirming
atmospheres for Black male adolescents.
of these two articles find a degree of expression in the PLAAY (Preventing
Long-Term Anger and Aggression) project of Howard Stevenson, Jr. (2003).
Stevenson's PLAAY project incorporates the premises that environment,
relationship, expectations, perceptions, and paradigms play a major role
in the crisis of Black male teens. In confronting this crisis, Stevenson
explored the utility of racial socialization in promoting the development
of positive coping strategies among Black male adolescents with histories
(2003) PLAAY project offers a unique perspective on the plight of African
American males, which he identifies as Catch 33. Catch-33 reflects an
awareness of racism as historic, systemic, routine, and emotionally debilitating,
and life in such a system as an unending procession of Catch-22 situations.
In Catch-22, racism occurs based on one's efforts (damned if you do),
and racism occurs based on your presence (damned if you don't). In Catch-33,
there is prolonged exposure to racism despite your efforts, presence,
or talents (just damned). While other studies explore ways in which schools,
teachers, and society can avoid placing young Black males in Catch-33
positions, the PLAAY project explores ways in which young African American
males can be taught to confront, challenge, and ultimately reject the
The suggestion that African American males must actively confront and reject, rather than merely react to, the labels imposed upon them informs my study. If confrontation of labels is possible, the question arises, to what extent are African American males already confronting - rather than (re)acting to - these labels? Thus, my study seeks to shift the focus of the discussion from the actions of schools and society and the maladaptive reactions of Black males, to an investigation of the ways in which Black youth in these situations reject the labels of deviance and redefine themselves in their own terms. By reframing the discussion from one of reaction to one of confrontation, this study seeks in its own way to reject the foundational premises of the deficit model that feeds the discourse on the education of Black males.
In its earliest
form, this study took quite a different approach to challenging the premises
of the deficit model as applied to Black males. The original research
questions dealt with the discovery of the informal literacies of African
American males in formal and informal school settings and began with assumptions
of literacy rather than the assumptions of illiteracy. However, as I sought
to investigate the ways in which Black male teens defined or redefined
literacy, I found them more engaged in defining and redefining themselves
in an ongoing confrontation with the labels imposed upon them. In observing
this confrontation, I became aware of the fact that however much researchers
lament the imposition of the five-D expectation on Black males, Black
male teens themselves ascribe very different meanings and weights to these
concepts. In fact, in many ways their constructions of what they are facing
reflect subjective "folk" theories of their labels that are
seldom addressed in the research literature.
In short, there has been much investigation of how Black male adolescents respond to expectations of being "dumb, deviant, disturbed, disadvantaged, and dysfunctional" as if these were objective, concrete concepts. This study seeks to problematize this assumption on a very small scale by asking how labels such as "poor reader" are constructed by the Black male adolescents in this study. Second, it was observed that in the context of the reading class, several of the young Black boys were actively engaged in resisting these labels and redefining themselves outside the paradigm of deviance, while others sought to redefine deviance. This led to the second major research question of how these teens confront and/or acquiesce to negative labeling in their attempts to establish their identities in a relatively new setting - the reading class.
was conducted in the 9th grade of a local inner city public high school
housing grades 9-12 in a predominantly low-income African American neighborhood.
The red and gray brick building spans an entire city block, with an off-limits
parking lot in the front and a smaller, frequently filled visitors' lot
in the rear. The interior walls of the school are off-white in color and
inset with rows of tall tan lockers. The floors of the school are made
of wide squares of black tile that are dulled from use and lightly powdered
with dust. Along several of the walls, far above eye-level, inspirational
murals provide splashes of color, depicting African proverbs and African
Americans engaged in a variety of activities from sports to computer programming.
The high arched entrances to the stairwells are also colorful; their splashes
of dark green and red paint provide a nice contrast to their dim interior.
The 9th grade academy is located on the third floor and houses a student body of about 300 kids (primarily of African Ancestry), an African American female social worker, a European American male social worker assistant, the academy director (an older African American male) and a multiracial cadre of teachers. The students have four core classes (Algebra II, Physical Science, History, and English I) of 70 minutes each that meet five days a week between hours of 8:00am and 3:00pm. Though some electives meet at 7:30 in the morning, none are offered during the school day. Each student is required to wear a uniform of tan Docker pants and navy blue (boys) or white (girls) shirts.
I selected this site for my study for several reasons. First, I am interested in the education of Black males from low-income families in inner city public schools; for several years, I taught in a middle school population with students from similar backgrounds. Many of the Black males I taught had reading difficulties that were impossible to remedy completely before they entered 9th grade. As a result, they carried these difficulties with them into high school. I often think about how my students fared in the high school setting with minimal reading skills and wished that I had been able to support them in that endeavor. Thus, in choosing a site for my research study, I rationalized that though I could not directly scaffold the reading skills of my former middle-schoolers, I could scaffold the reading skills of boys quite similar to them - 9th grade adolescent males from lower socio-economic backgrounds attending an under-resourced public school. I began with the closest, most convenient location that fit that description and which offered me potential access to this target population.
my desire to work with Black male adolescents in and around reading affected
my access to this site. As I had suspected, many young Black males had
arrived at high school with their reading difficulties intact, and this
school, like many others, found itself unable to provide the necessary
remediation. My request to be allowed to create a reading tutorial that
would function as the site of my qualitative study was instantly embraced,
with no questions asked other than how many and what type of students
I wanted and when I wished to work with them. I requested students who
were identified by teachers and administrators as having a low reading
proficiency coupled with behavioral issues. The school social worker provided
me a list of potential participants, and I interviewed each of them to
request their participation in the study. My final group consisted of
five 9th grade African American males between the ages of fourteen and
did not wish to study the students without in some way making a contribution
to their future school success, my status as tutor, former teacher, and
adult African American female complicated the definition of my role as
a researcher. Each of these identities had authoritarian roots that greatly
influenced the type of information the students were willing to share
with me and the degree to which they confided in me. At the same time,
as the only adult in a room of African American males with identified
behavior problems, I could not totally abdicate authority, nor could I
ever be accepted as a true co-participant due to the manner of their participation.
I chose to present myself to these students as an advocate, as someone
interested in understanding and supporting who they were, regardless of
what they were labeled to be. Moreover, I sat down with each boy individually
and requested his participation in the reading program, expressing my
desire to work with him, but allowed each individual to choose whether
or not he wished for my advocacy. As a result, the boys and I entered
into the tutorial contract by mutual consent, allowing for a certain degree
of parity in an otherwise vertical relationship. We were all volunteers,
and that fact created spaces of negotiation around issues of authority
and power. Looking back, I wonder if my defining myself in this way (as
an elected advocate) created an unusual atmosphere for the boys, one in
which they were not merely at liberty to be themselves, but where they
had the opportunity to actually recreate themselves if they so chose,
for my queries resulted in more instances of self-definition than of literacy
Either way, both my role and their responses created an ethical dilemma: how would I handle the potential tension between my predisposition (as their advocate) to view and present these young men in the best possible light and my ethical obligation (as a researcher) to present them in the most accurate light? In dealing with this tension, I attempted to juxtapose the constructions students place upon their behavior and achievement with the constructions teachers place upon the same, tying the two to the "both-and" framework of African American psychology and resisting the use of the either/or dichotomy. Thus, I did not view the behaviors of the students as falling into the categories of normal vs. abnormal or good vs. bad. Rather, as Stevenson (2003) suggests, I strove to adopt an ideological framework which allowed student behavior to be simultaneously defined as both normal and abnormal without dissonance. Ultimately, however, I believe that in the final research paper, my advocacy role was more pronounced than my role as impartial researcher. However, in sharing my data analysis with my research group, it was noted that the data rather than my personal biases informed the advocacy. Though I yet wrestle with the appropriateness of my advocacy stance as an ethical question, I am comfortable with the validity of my final report.
I used participant
observation, non-participant observation, tutorial discussions, and interviews
to gain an understanding of member constructions of reading and behavior
and to observe the strategies participants used to confront negative stereotypes.
Due to high truancy and suspension rates, only one "formal"
interview was conducted with the pair of students available on the day
the interview was scheduled to take place. It lasted about forty-five
minutes. A second "formal" interview was conducted with the
teacher who had referred the most students to the reading program. This
interview also lasted about forty-five minutes. Two informal (non-recorded)
interviews were also conducted. The first was with a student who had been
suspended everyday of the program except that particular day and the very
first day. The second was with a teacher whose class was frequently referenced
by the participants when talking about school, classes they liked, and
the teachers who liked them. This teacher preferred not to be recorded.
of the information I collected to answer my research questions came from
the tutorial discussions I had with the students and my observations of
their behavior inside and outside of the weekly one-hour reading tutorials
conducted over a thirteen-week period and augmented by three one- to two-hour
visits to the school (spent observing the social worker, faculty meetings,
and the academy director) over the same period of time. Each day in the
field for tutorials, I would pick students up from their respective classrooms,
noting what they were doing when I picked them up and how they interacted
in the halls with other students as I collected the remainder of the reading
group. Once in the tutorial room, we would spend the entire hour in conversations
that always began with a reading selection (Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
and/or Slam! by Walter Dean Myers), but ultimately drifted to other topics
and casual talk. When we began our main novel, Slam!, half the class time
was spent in oral reading and discussion, and half in responding to open-ended
questions and shooting a basketball into an indoor hoop (when the question
was successfully answered). In these interactions, the students' identity
and my identity were constantly being negotiated and redefined in numerous
small ways. Exploring the how's and why's of this identity creation became
the ultimate focus of this study.
In many ways,
this scene seems to highlight the supposed deviance of Black boys. After
all, most individuals would argue that there is something "dysfunctional"
about a fourteen-year-old boy standing silently beside a desk and throwing
Legos onto the floor one by one by one, even if he was having a bad day.
Moreover, the positioning of the White male teacher could be interpreted
to suggest that this is a scene involving an uncontrollable Black male,
for he is standing as far away from the boy as possible, near the door.
The work of many scholars suggests that had this student been a White
male or even a Black female, the dynamics of the situation would have
been totally different. In reality, teachers are often complicit in the
criminalization of Black boys, treating them as threats and objects of
Mr. Keale, another White male educator, had a similar reaction to Allan
when I first arrived in his classroom to speak to Allan about the proposed
was supposed to be under Mr. Keale's supervision at this time as his math
student, Mr. Keale makes no attempt to address Allan or his behavior.
He merely motions in Allan's general direction before returning to his
in a similar study of Black boys, offers a rationale for both of these
responses, "African American boys are not accorded the masculine
dispensation of being 'naturally' naughty. Instead, the school reads their
expression and display of masculine naughtiness as a sign of an inherent
vicious, insubordinate nature that [is] a threat to order
(Ferguson, 2001, p. 2) Thus, in many cases, the response to Black male
naughtiness or misbehavior is fear and caution. Mr. Barnes seemed to exhibit
both in his geographical distance from Allan and the somewhat anxious
expression with which he regarded him, while Mr. Keale's complete reluctance
to engage Allan is suggestive of a similar sentiment.
In both cases,
it was left to me, the researcher, who had seen the adolescent at most
four times, ( in Mr. Keale's case, never before) to intervene/ approach
the student. This intervention was possible because it never occurred
to me that Allan was a threat, a criminal, or a dangerous delinquent.
He was a boy standing in the middle of a room tossing Legos and/ or completely
ignoring adults, and he needed to stop.
that it is only when the "angry" Black male does not hit me,
curse me, or poke me in the eye with a Lego, that Mr. Clark feels comfortable
interacting with him. At that point, he has proven that he is not a threat.
Yet prior to my entrance in to the room, there was no way for him to prove
that he was not a threat - until he was in a frame of mind where he no
longer needed support and the question itself became mute. In his anger
and his grief, it is possible that he was invisible to Mr. Clark who may
have seen only the media representations of Black males when he looked
at him, and thus, hesitated to approach him, as did Mr. Keale. This failure
to support due to negative (mis)perceptions is frequently implicated in
the school failure of Black boys. But they are only boys after all, and
so much of their toughness springs from the pain and isolation that the
fear and caution of others imposes upon them.
cited earlier clearly suggests that in a supportive environment, young
Black boys will exhibit motivation, engagement, and a willingness to learn
that is at odds with the expectation of maladaptive reactions. Though
support may be conceptualized in a number of ways, in this study it manifested
itself as a simple willingness to allow the boys to make a first impression
and to treat them as boys and not hardened criminals. This may seem like
an unremarkable thing until we realize that our first impressions of Black
boys come not from they themselves, but from the media, from statistics,
and from our own (un)intentional biases. More often than not, they are
stigmatized as dangerous and delinquent until they can prove otherwise.
Yet as Stevenson (2003) notes, "Boys need everything. They need and
deserve love and encouragement and correction without humiliation
space, and sanctuary and room to be" (p.185). Withholding these things
from Black boys has very destructive effects on their conceptions of themselves.
One way Black boys react to this lack of "room to be" became apparent as I interviewed Keithan (a 14-year-old African American male identified by the school's administration as a disciplinary problem) regarding his willingness to participate in the program.
of boys I was describing to Keithan were not the types of boys mothers
raise their sons to become. They were the types of boys normally associated
with the deficit model of "dumb, deviant, disturbed, disadvantaged,
and dysfunctional." Yet, Keithan immediately acknowledged that he
was identified with this population. His tone and grin suggested that
I did not have to camouflage his reality for him or even deny complicity.
Rather, his expectation was that before being "seen" by me,
he was already "known" by me in terms of prevailing social images.
This became clearer in a later discussion I had with him about his frequent
assignment to ISS, which he casually attributed to being "known"
rather than to being a discipline problem. In many ways, it seemed that
his purpose in that first meeting was not to "make" an impression,
but to live with the impression that was already in my mind before he
entered the room.
Keithan, like many young Black boys in public schools, did himself a disservice in identifying so readily with the stereotype. Though he agreed to be in the reading program because he wanted to be with "kids like me", he was a very capable reader who did not need the tutorial. It was the assumption of many of his teachers that Keithan was a remedial student due to his excessive energy and the innovative ways he devised to channel it. Yet his performance in the tutorial suggested it was lack of challenge, rather than excessive challenge, that led to his misbehavior. Nevertheless, he accepted his recommendation to a remedial reading tutorial. His acquiescence to the inaccurate label is troubling. It could suggest the existence of internalized racism - frequently the result of continuous exposure to negative perceptions of one's identity. This seems a plausible explanation given that Keithan was only slightly familiar with most of the other young men in the tutorial, per his own admission when told who else was participating.
many individuals who are consistently stigmatized begin to accept, if
not believe, the labels imposed upon them and fail to question even the
most overt acts of discrimination. This seemed to be the case with Tim,
another fourteen-year-old Black male with few identified behavior concerns
(based on the comments of his teachers and the relative infrequency with
which he acquired suspensions) but who was experiencing reading difficulties.
In a discussion of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, we explored the justification/causality
of the narrator's rage at being seen as his media image rather than his
glance, it seems tragic that Tim is not aware that, as an American citizen,
he has a right to enter into a public place without being immediately
stigmatized as a thief. He does not seem to realize that he, like other
Americans, has a right to be recognized as visible. In his reality, as
in Keithan's, being mistaken for one of society's stereotypes is a normal,
everyday occurrence. These boys have not been encouraged to question the
racism that allows statistics and stereotypes to make their first impressions
for them, and they accept with seeming equanimity the fact their first
impressions were made before they were born.
(2003) suggests that before these teenage boys can successfully make a
new impression, they must be allowed and encouraged to challenge the validity
of their "default" impressions. Contexts must be created that
question stereotypes about the boys, rather than the identities of the
boys themselves. In fact, if they are to survive, Black boys must be given
the space in which to reject society's images of them and create their
own images of themselves, setting the parameters of their own identities.
it is often very difficult for Black boys to find spaces in which they
can define themselves in opposition to existing stereotypes. Such new
images tend to have little validity in the hallways and classrooms of
public schools, for they create dissonance within the five-D model. Moreover,
in cases of dissonance between what is expected of Black boys and the
new identities they try to inhabit, negative expectations continue to
receive the greater weight. This is clearly evidenced in the following
excerpt from an interview with Mr. Keale regarding another student named
Leon. Leon is a stocky 9th grade African American male with identified
behavior concerns (as evidenced by his selection for a tutorial program
which requested students with reading difficulties and behavior problems)
but a great deal of academic competency. His reading skills seemed slightly
above average when compared to national statistics (grade-equivalency)
for inner city Black male students. Leon frequently requested permission
to travel to the local elementary school and tutor younger children, but
such permission was routinely denied on behavioral rather than academic
grounds. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Mr. Keale
suggests the stereotypes and images of Black boys that saturate schools
and public institutions are sometimes extremely tenacious. Though I suggest
to Mr. Keale (a math teacher) that Leon is a good student and Mr. Keale's
own experiences with Leon do not negate this fact, he seems to find it
difficult to relinquish the stereotype of Leon as an academically deficient
Black male. Though Leon has not been in his classroom for some time, and
Mr. Keale has never heard him read, his words seem in to redefine Leon's
success in a manner that does not challenge the five-D expectation. For
example, Mr. Keale's suggestion that it is the vocabulary of the book
or the shortness of the material that allows Leon to succeed in the reading
task creates an impression that Leon's success is based on circumstances
rather than ability. When one considers that most books with any measure
of difficulty possess a plot, Mr. Keale's insinuation that the books Leon
reads do not involve plots seriously undercuts his previous statement
that Leon does not have "a serious reading issue". This claim
is also undercut by the fact that Mr. Keale recommended Leon to the program,
along with several other young Black males of average reading abilities,
following a general request to the faculty to provide the names of students
with serious reading and behavior problems.
In many ways,
this is an ideal example of the Catch-33 situation. Leon remains on the
receiving end of low academic expectations, despite the fact that Mr.
Keale and I both agree on his above average competence. In this situation,
as in so many others, expectations of Leon seem to be tied to more than
his achievement, but also to the stories society circulates about Black
boys. Thus, any signs of achievement must be accompanied by mitigating
Several things are happening in this scenario, but most immediately apparent is the fact that in most literary circles, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is considered to have both a plot and difficult vocabulary. Yet, the pervasiveness of the "dumb, deviant, disturbed, disadvantaged, and dysfunctional" model provides evidence for the fact that Mr. Keale made the exact opposite assumption regarding the nature of the reading material. In addition, Leon's immediate assertion upon entering the classroom and receiving a copy of the text was to say that he could not read. Given that he later established the fact the he could read, this first statement can be considered "dancing in the stereotype" (Stevenson, personal communication, 2004) - making a game out of one's constant exposure to racism. Leon's jest seems to reflect an awareness similar to that of Keithan and Tim: assumptions of his academic deficiency are not based on his actions, but on his identity as an African American male. In short, I should be able to tell by looking at him that he cannot read. This does not seem too far from Mr. Keale's own perception.
the reading class allowed Leon to make his own first impression and created
a space in which he could reject the stereotypes surrounding him and invoke
and substantiate his counter-identity as a reader. Unfortunately, Mr.
Keale's response suggests that the process of securing acceptance for
these counter-identities in the wider contexts of the school would necessitate
the incorporation of a comprehensive school reform model similar to that
of Cooper and Jordan (2003). That issue, however, is beyond the scope
of the current study.
For the purposes
of this study, I ultimately came to view the existence of this opportunity
to make a first impression as the key to understanding the identity definition
I was observing. Though it appeared to me then a strange, researchable
activity, its very abnormality is a sad commentary on the plight of Black
boys. For most children, adolescence is a time of exploring and (re)defining
their personal identity. For Black male adolescents, it is a time of dealing
with an identity they have inherited from society and coping with the
invisibility of their true potential.
men are great in their imaginations" (as quoted in Stevenson, 2003,
p. 184). In the context of the reading program, where their first impressions
were not predetermined, many of the boys felt free to "imagine"
and project identities outside of the deviance paradigm. Though these
identities seem to have had limited scope, their production marked the
beginning of a process of self-affirmation that is crucial in the confrontation
and rejection of stereotypes.
One such incident of self-definition occurred in the last weeks of the reading class. David, a Black Muslim student with a blend of moderate behavior concerns (as described by teachers) and reading difficulties, explored the potential inherent in being the "top student."
seem like a very simple statement unworthy of notice, but it is an act
of self-definition that rejects his prevailing school image. In several
of his classes, David is perceived as both a "poor reader" and
a "non-motivated" student. His keeping the book to take home
with him, which had been preceded by an extensive amount of voluntary
oral reading, served to create an identity that challenged the image of
the "lazy under-achiever." It not only painted him as a reader,
but it depicted him as a motivated and competent student. As a "top
student," he had contributed more than his share to the classroom
discussion. Next, he voluntarily took the book home to continue reading
it (assigning himself homework), though the other boys in the class opted
to leave their books with me.
these things, David challenges the extant stereotypes of young Black boys
in the school: he chooses to identify as a reader. Other boys in the study
sought to identify merely as "good" students, engaging in the
learning process to a degree so at odds with their labels that it attracted
the notice of several teachers and lead to a flurry of student referrals
at the end of the study. This suggests that in some cases substantiating
and encouraging efforts at self-affirmation/self-definition by Black boys
enable educators to create spaces in which these boys can develop positive
coping strategies in the face of negative and stress-inducing stereotypes.
though allowing the boys to make their own first impressions in this study
led to the invoking of positive counter-identities, the data suggest that
these students are seldom in contexts in which the stereotypes attached
to them are not entrenched realities. When given a choice, all students
in the study chose to consistently identify themselves as capable, functional,
intelligent, and advantaged, yet in the wider spaces of the school these
options were seldom available to them. The following excerpt offers a
mild contextualization of the daily reality of these boys outside the
cloistered environment of the reading tutorial. The research suggests
that the reality of many Black boys in America reflect continuous exposure
to magnified versions of these events. The following excerpt is from an
interview with Mr. Keale:
The two excerpts that follow are from my own field notes:
though offering new ways of viewing the identity constructions of Black
boys, this study is not meant to suggest that these boys and others like
them do not have "human" identities. They do. They skip classes
to play basketball in the gym. They chase their girlfriends through the
hallways begging for kisses. They curse when they are angry and when they
are not. They arrive in classrooms without paper or books and sometimes
fail to answer even a single question on major exams. During the course
of this study, they did all of these things, and some of these things
they will probably continue to do.
does suggest that the challenge to us as educators is to view these boys
as boys when they do these things and not as societal threats or aggressive
criminals. We must ensure that the perceptions that we have of them do
not preclude the growth, the change, and the growing pains that are so
often a part of adolescence. As Black male teens, they are still trying
to establish their identities, and our expectations of them must leave
space for them to confront stereotypes and redefine themselves without
being placed in a straightjacket comprised of societal prejudices. We
cannot interpret behaviors as deficits, label them immutable character
traits, and then expect to successfully educate Black boys. Paradigms
of deviance and deficit deny Black male teens of the most beautiful aspect
of youth-the ability to learn. Black male adolescents CAN explore and
develop identities outside of the expectation of "dumb, deviant,
disturbed, disadvantaged, and dysfunctional", but this is more likely
to happen in those spaces where these traits are seen as potential behaviors
rather than entrenched realities. In the words of Desmond Tutu,
What are we doing to salvage our Black boys?
am pleased with the information I was able to gather in this study, I
would welcome the opportunity to go back to my site and do a more extended
research project. I do not think that my questions themselves would change
very much, for I would still be interested in how these boys define themselves
within and without the paradigm of deviance. I would also like to explore
to a greater extent how their teachers situate them within this paradigm.
Moreover, in this study I only interacted with five boys. I would love
to be able to work with fifteen or more of them. Also, if the length of
the study were extended, the effect of suspensions and truancy would not
be as great as it was in the current study; this would allow me to explore
more fully the development of their counter-identities over time and to
note the occurrence of any regressions.
In a longer
study, I would also allot more time to observing students' classroom interactions
with teachers - those cited in the current study and others. This would
allow me to form a more complete idea of how their interactions in the
classroom mirror or contradict their interactions in the reading tutorial.
Perhaps the teachers I spoke with only remembered the bad days because
they were memorable and failed to take note of the good days when the
behavior of the student did not reflect the deviance paradigm. Or perhaps
they were reluctant to speak of the truly bad days for fear that it would
reflect negatively on their practice. I do not know. Sometimes as humans,
we see only what we expect to see, and we only share what does not cause
us harm. Observing class interactions myself could potentially avoid such
I would change the way I conducted interviews with the boys, scheduling
them later in the study when they are more likely to feel comfortable
sharing their experiences with me and discussing the reasons for their
academic successes and failures. In addition to the group interviews,
I would schedule several individual interviews with those boys whose reading
and classroom identities seemed the most divergent. I would also schedule
more interviews with the teachers about their impressions of the boys
and the progress of the boys in their classrooms. I would seek a mix of
races and genders and note any similarities/differences in teacher and
student definitions of achievement and behavior.
Finally, I would make a major change in the design of the program itself. Instead of a reading tutorial, I would call it a reading enrichment program designed to promote critical thinking skills, and I would market it differently in speaking to the students. In this way, perhaps I myself could avoid raising the specter of "dumbness" in the minds of the participants.
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A.M. (1992). Educating and motivating African American males to succeed.
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and cultural factors on the academic performance of African American males
[Electronic version]. Urban Education, 38(4), 431-459.
Reed, R. J. (1988). Education and achievement of young Black males. In J. T. Gibbs (Ed.), Young, Black and male in America: An endangered species (pp. 37-96). Dover, MA: Auburn House Publishing Company.
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schools immersion program: A progress report. Presented at the Annual
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1 - All names used in this piece are pseudonyms. back