Whether I am teaching undergrads or high school students, one of the first things I tell my classes is that it is OK to struggle. This idea cuts against the meritocratic messaging that dominates our society—that the best among us will always succeed and that failure is a result of personal shortcoming. Perhaps there are situations where this is the case, but the classroom is certainly not one of them. Education is, at every level, defined by an opportunity gap in which neighborhood and income level track most closely with long term student outcomes. These boundaries are clear, but they do not have to determine success or failure for our students.
I always share that I am a student who struggled. My kindergarten teacher told my parents that I would never pass the first grade. By the time I started eighth grade, I never dreamed that I would go to college. And then there was my mom’s mental illness. It always seemed to strike at just the wrong times, when we could least afford to help her cope with it, and it led to an empty pantry and cut utilities more than I’d like to recall. I explain that this wasn’t her fault; that we live in a society that copes poorly with these problems; and that together we can find ways to create opportunities for those struggling with every kind of obstacle. You can usually hear a pin drop during these conversations where we, as a class, talk openly about the impact of struggles on each of us and how we can help one another overcome them. This narrative of overcoming becomes the class contract, every bit as important a tool as the syllabus for helping students succeed.
As instructors in the humanities, we have a unique responsibility to empower students who struggle. We offer a raw explanatory power with which to frame injustice and oppression that few outside our discipline can access. This, more than anything else, represents the central contribution of our discipline. Sure, we “produce knowledge,” but racists and elites do that too. Lost Causers, after all, are nothing if not producers of elaborate systems of white supremacist knowledge. History, under their tutelage, seeks to justify systems of power and exploitation. What makes our work different is that we can explain how systems that are clearly unjust and exploitive came into being. In doing so, the best of our scholarship seeks to help students and readers overcome inequality and facilitate justice.
The essays for the Black History Month issue of The Activist History Review critique our present and offer hope for the future. The authors, all students from my 10th grade Comparative Government class at Collegiate Baton Rouge, remind us that compelling writing is both relevant and bold. Their work also shows a way in which we might rethink history “from below,” not just as academic research on marginalized groups, but as scholarship written by non-scholars, activists, and members of disenfranchised communities. Their work reminds me that many of the most important thinkers, theorists, and activists come from oppressed communities. The great revolutionary thinkers of the Civil Rights generation—Angela Davis, Malcom X, and Huey Newton—adopted the mantle of the activist-scholar in the immediate and personal context of oppression. Why should we expect anything less in our classrooms?
As we work to expose and counter the legacies of centuries of white supremacy and inequality, we would do well to pay close attention to the scholarship of these young thinkers. Their work, both within and outside the classroom, is reminiscent of one of the key turning-points in the Civil Rights movement—the Children’s Crusade. Many of the most famous photos of Jim Crow policing in action come from this 1963 Birmingham youth revolt and underscore the injustice of segregation for many Americans. Now, as then, young people understand the ways that existing systems of power work to steal their future. They are capable, creative scholars whose relentless optimism should be an example for the most seasoned among us. We hope you enjoy their inspiring work, as I have, and that you take to heart the lessons they share. In many respects, our future depends on it.
Anayah Porter’s provocative piece on Black protest in Baton Rouge, “Being Terrified Makes Us Unified,” reminds us that struggle brings us closer together.
Nickela Washington examines the frustrations of Black protest in Baton Rouge in “Legal Action Without Protest?” Her conclusion, that protest remains the most potent tool for creating positive change, emphasizes the importance of persistent agitation.