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JAY Z Is A Billionaire. What Will Black Boys In YOUR School TODAY Be Tomorrow?

I felt so inspired by what my teacher said,

Said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head

Not sure if that’s how adults should speak ta kids

Especially when the only thing I did was speak in class

JAY Z, So Ambitious (Blueprint 3, 2009)

There are many reasons why I decided to write my doctoral dissertation and forthcoming book on JAY Z (born Shawn Corey Carter). I could speak about him becoming hip-hop’s first billionaire or his marriage to megastar Beyoncé. I could speak about his rags-to-riches story or his incredible, yet silent activism such as bailing out fathers and financially supporting organizations like Black Lives Matter. All of these facts are relevant and worthy of their own chapters and articles but the aforementioned quotation from the song So Ambitious speaks to me as an educator who works with schools on elevating their black males like no other JAY Z line. The lines resonate because I realize that we spend so much time celebrating JAY Z while ignoring or outright ostracizing the JAY Zs in our classrooms today.

At eleven years old, JAY Z was a poor, self-described “half orphan” living in the crime and crack-infested Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. When I interviewed his sixth-grade teacher Renee Rosenblum-Lowden about his three biggest influences at that time, she stated without hesitation: “drugs, drugs, and drugs.” She talked about the pressures hard-working students faced from other children making money as drug dealers. She spoke about having to let some of her students sleep in class because they could not sleep at home with all the gun shots and violence. She spoke about her students walking out of school and seeing dead bodies. Though her classroom was a haven for JAY Z and other students, it is also worth noting that the school itself was so underfunded (like many inner-city schools across the country then and now) that it could only hire a male gym teacher who “supervised” both male and female locker rooms.

What were JAY Z’s life chances? In all reality, this was a boy who should have never reached adulthood but as this article is being written, there are still JAY Zs in classrooms across America who are just as bright and determined but are not being given a chance to reach their fullest potential. It should be noted here that despite JAY Z’s challenges in and outside of the home, he was a child prodigy, demonstrated by the fact that on citywide school exams, he received senior level scores though he was only in the 6thgrade. In other neighborhoods he would have been called a genius, but in 1980s Brooklyn JAY Z dropped out of high school to sell drugs. Did he fail school or did school fail him?

Judging by what is happening with our black boys in schools today across America, school failed JAY Z then just as schools are failing black boys now. Using JAY Z’s lyrics, I will highlight three immediate steps that schools can take to genuinely reach their black male students, and by default, all of their students.

I’m a hustler, accept that

No correctional facility can correct that

NYMP (1999)

These lines remind me of a quotation from Dr. Cornel West, who said that black male rage cannot be destroyed or caged. He said it can only be redirected. Unfortunately, in too many of our schools, the rage that many of our black male students enter schools with or develop while in schools (and of course many black girls too) is redirected towards detention, suspension, and expulsion. It is this redirection that is greatly responsible for what has been called the preschool to prison pipeline. Within schools, however, this is best manifested by black male students being separated from the “general population” by being placed unnecessarily in special education or in-school suspension though what many of them need is the critical thinking skills developed in honors and advanced placement classes. Unfortunately, in many schools, according to Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, about 20% of teachers make 80% of referrals as it relates to discipline and serve as the gatekeepers to who gets to experience advanced courses. Give black male students the same opportunities to excel as all students instead of setting low expectations and not being surprised when they meet them!

Teacher said I was a lost cause ’cause I used to roam the halls

Still I spit knowledge, dropped out of high school, skipped college

Who’d a thought I’d make it BIG like Ms. Wallace?

This Life Forever (1999)

A carryover from the last point, teachers and administrators must set high and honest expectations for black males and verbalize them. I say “honest” because students can always detect fake intentions. I once spoke at a high school where the principal saw a student and smiled in his face and encouraged him to not be late to class. As soon as he turned the corner, the principal said: “You know he is going to make a great prisoner one day.” I believe that student, like so many others, saw through her façade and knew exactly what that principal thought of him. As study after study and educators like Jane Elliott have shown with her brown and blue eye test, students of all backgrounds will rise or sink to the expectations set for them. If you enter your school with low expectations of any student, it may be time to either find the passion for every student that led you to become a teacher or leave the profession.

I went to school, got grades, could behave when I wanted

But I had demons inside that emerged when confronted

Now all my teachers couldn’t reach me and my momma couldn’t beat me

Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seeing me so

With that disdain in my membrane

Got on my pimp game

F*** the world, my defense came

December 4th (2003)

Whenever I see a mass shooting conducted by a white boy or man, conversations quickly emerge about mental illness oftentimes before the name of the shooter is even known. If the shooter is Muslim, they are automatically labeled a terrorist. If they are black, they are usually labeled a thug. I do not, for example, hear discussions about mental illness in conversations about violence on the streets of Chicago. Do you? Non-white people deserve the same mental health prescription that is assigned to most white male offenders. In order to make sure black male students can reach their apex, schools should survey the services that these students need that could range from mental health services to basic dental care. As Jonathan Kozol talks about in his book Savage Inequalities, a student cannot excel during an exam if he is suffering from a simple toothache. In fact, some children have indeed died in America from a “simple” toothache due to a lack of access to health services. Many of our black male students have those “demons” inside that could be exorcised with the assistance of community and school health services.

There are so many lyrics by JAY Z and other rap artists that provide clues about why our schools are failing black males. Rather than ignoring those signs and praising these rappers as the ones that “made it out the ’hood”, we need to do a deeper dive to better understand their stories because theirs are the stories of our students in our classrooms today. The next JAY Z is in your classroom right now or at the very least in your school. He may have aspirations to be a rapper, teacher, sanitation worker, lawyer, or president. Whatever it is, we need to do the work needed to help him reach his greatness. Our black male students should not feel the need to leave school in order to reach their greatness. If we listen to JAY Z beyond the surface level, we will indeed see that he has provided us the Blueprint (pun intended) to do just that.

Educators Weaponizing Authority: Jabari Talbot Arrest and the School to Prison Pipeline

Across the country, people have been engaging in intense debates about the 11 year old student Jabari Talbot in Florida who was arrested for not saluting the standing up during the Pledge of Allegiance. Of course, there are lots of debates going on about what actually led to the arrest. People are saying he wasn’t actually arrested for not saluting the flag but arrested for refusing to leave the room and disobeying orders of the resource officer, At the end of the day, the semantics are irrelevant. The challenge we have today, particularly for those who are in the education field, is seeing how educators are weaponizing their position, whether they are regular assigned teachers or substitute teachers. We saw other similar cases like this in terms of substitute teachers challenging students. For example, the teacher in North Carolina who told children that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. killed himself, that they would be going to jail because they’re dressed like gangsters, and that they’re not real Christians if they don’t really support President Donald Trump. The list goes on.

What we see here with the Talbot situation is that it’s the latest example of what people call the preschool to prison pipeline or the cradle to prison pipeline, championed by the Children’s Defense Fund and Marian Wright Edelman. The idea is that situations happening in our schools are preparing our students for a life of incarceration, particularly our African American students and particularly our African American male students. Numerous studies have shown that in many of our schools there’s a correlation between special education and incarceration or at least involvement with the judicial system. They have also shown that some of the conditions in which we put our students in school are actually doing nothing but preparing them for doing a prison bid where they’re sitting around all day, not really being challenged intellectually and being punished for basically trying to engage themselves in in classrooms.

It was JAY Z who said:

I felt so inspired about what my teacher said
Said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head
I don’t know if that’s how you’re supposed to talk to kids
When all I tried to do was speak in class.

JAY Z, who has a sixth grader, was scoring as a senior in high school on citywide exams, dropped out of high school to sell drugs because the school system failed him. He left the supposedly safe environment of school and went down a trajectory that would put him in confrontation with law enforcement. For example, Laquan McDonald was a 17-year old male who was slain in Chicago by the Chicago Police Department. The killer put himself in between himself and Laquan and then said his life was in danger ad then shot him 16 times, including while he was still on the ground and the smoke form the bullets coming out of his body (other officers called for a taser). Laquan McDonald was such a troubled child that a former teacher of his said she feared what would happen in a world that abandoned him.

Going back to Talbot, there is again a correlation, particularly as it relates to zero tolerance policies. We have a student who says he refuses to salute the flag because he calls it racist. The teacher tells him if he doesn’t like America, he can go back to Africa and then he’s asked to leave the room, even though it’s not illegal to not stand for the flag. If it’s not illegal to not stand for the pledge of allegiance, then he should have never been asked to leave the room in the first place. So from that point on, the teacher weaponized her authority, leading to the boy’s arrest and a potential criminal record, whereas the teacher who instigated this gets no penalty other than not being able to teach in that school system.

Some argue that the teacher should have been arrested for trying to force the student to do something that he legally didn’t have to do. But this teacher gets to go on with her life while the student now has the potential of a police record at the age of 11 for defending his rights for standing up for himself. Luckily JAY Z and TEAM ROC intervened and got the charges dropped. This is a problem and we see this in many situations and even if you look at some of your schools, you will see sometimes that some of the language that is used to most described African Americans who don’t do what they’re told is they’re being insubordinate, they don’t follow the rules, they are not listening, and they don’t comply. These types of behaviors and this terminology corresponds with language that is also used in our criminal justice system.

So whether you feel Talbot should have stood for the Pledge of Allegiance or not is really irrelevant. What you should be frustrated with is that through this incident, through the arrogance of this teacher and through her ignorance of the law, she almost added another child to the preschool to prison pipeline and that should disturb us all. There are many teachable moments from this. Maybe in your schools you’re not having kids arrested, but I have seen students taken out of class and disciplined maybe just from writing on a desk and some are getting expelled. We’ve seen people like Glenn Singleton who wrote Courageous Conversations About Race, who talks about over at one point over 5,000 black boys getting expelled every year from preschool.

Under President Obama’s administration, efforts were made to challenge discipline issues in schools but the Trump administration ended it. The main issue relates to disparities and discipline. This is real. We’re sacrificing our children, we’re making them feel like they don’t really belong. I talked about JAY Z and Talbot is the same age as JAY Z was when he was testing as a senior in high school. We are wasting talent in America. We are not valuing children as they should be valued and this is just the latest example. We need to support the work of so many working actively to keep our students in the classroom as well as engaged in the classroom through culturally relevant instruction. We can, and we must do better for the sake of our children.