The following keynote address was delivered during the launch of the Black Teachers Network, on June 24th, 2009, at the London Centre for Leadership in Learning.
We stand here at a historical moment, a ‘Yes, We Can’ moment. We stand here in history. We stand full square on the shoulders of those who went before us and blazed a trail in the cause of black liberation and quality education for all children.
I wonder how many of you in this august gathering know who the following people, all education pioneers, were and are and what they did. As I call the names, please indicate by a show of hands whether you have ever heard of them or met them: Marina Maxwell, Waveney Bushel, Beryl Gilroy, Bernard Coard, Maureen Stone, Charles Mungo, Winston Best, Jocelyn Barrow, Hewie Andrew, Ken Noble, Nat Perez, Kelvin Caballo, Shirley Chase, Yvonne Connolly, Elaine Foster, Carlton Duncan, Roy Blackman, Ken McIntyre, Henry Thomas, Trevor Carter, Yvonne Collymore, John Prince, Donald Hines, Ken Allen, Claudette Williams, Rosemary Campbell.
Dr Susan Craig, an eminent sociologist at the University of the West Indies, in tribute to the late John La Rose, Founder of New Beacon Books in 1966 and Director of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books (1982 -1995), identified four things that characterised his life and work:
“The first is his strong sense of history, of continuity between past, present and future.
‘In 1969, he drew my attention to a book by two African-American psychologists, W. H. Grier and P. M. Cobbs, Black Rage. There the authors state:
Even now each generation grows up alone. … Non-black groups pass on proud traditions, conscious of the benefit they are conferring. For black people, values and rituals are shared and indeed transmitted, but with little acknowledgement of their worth.’
W.H.Grier and P.M.Cobbs. Black Rage. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969. 28-29.
John saw this in the politics and the whole intellectual life of Caribbean people at home and abroad. So he spoke often of ‘a tradition of discontinuity’ and of ‘a history of hiatuses’. Therefore, in his publishing (and in his political work), he set out to redress this growing up alone.
The second idea that permeates all of John’s activity follows from the first. He was always clear that the Caribbean had autonomous,cultural, political and intellectual traditions on which we must draw. That is one reason why we cannot afford a tradition of discontinuity. We have to draw on the past to think out of our own heads.
The third idea on which John insisted is that our people were never victims. He argued that instead we have always been – and always will be – ‘protagonists of our fate’. Protagonists. The leading people, the ones whose thought and action will determine our fate. Therefore we have a responsibility to examine our culture and history to see what the exploited, and not only the exploiters, have said and sung and done.
And so: linking the generations, thinking out of our own heads, and portraying our people as creative initiators, as protagonists in shaping a better world. These are the first three principles that guided John. They led automatically to the fourth, which is that for him publishing was therefore a political act. To give voice, to affirm and validate ourselves, was an act of empowerment, for it takes consciousness to inform action to change the world. So, for John, the cultural was political, and the political was cultural.
These four strands of thought – linking the generations, thinking out of our own heads, being protagonists of our fate, and publishing as political – these are some of the basic ideas that inspired New Beacon Books Limited, the publishing house and bookshop that John and his partner, Dr. Sarah White, founded in 1966”.
Susan Craig (2006) ‘Tribute to John La Rose’
- The Trinidad Memorial Tribute to John La Rose organised by the Oilfield Workers Trade Union on 8 April 2006, OWTU, San Fernando, Trinidad.
If that is true of publishing, it is even more true of teaching.
We do not occupy neutral, non-ideological space. We do not engage in neutral ‘knowledge transfer’ activity. The schooling system, our own teacher education and training, the curriculum we teach validate certain forms of knowledge and dismiss others. The Black Working Class Movement in Education and Schooling in this country has waged a relentless campaign since the 1960s against the notion that knowledge is best when it is white and Eurocentric.
So, why the Black Teachers Network?
There are other staff networks within and outwith the Institute of Education and we have a right to belong to them and to exercise that right. Like members of those other networks we bring what we are and we are what we bring.
Some of us are confident in our own skin, know who we are and where we came from, if not where we’re going. Some of us are radical and revolutionary. Some of us are conservative, if not reactionary. Hopefully, none of us makes a fetish out of backwardness. Some of us hold fast to the fundamental principle, as stated so succinctly by Paulo Friere:
There is one thing I am certain about: Nobody is superior to anybody.
So, what makes this Network different?
We are global majority people with an experience of North/South geo-politics and binary constructions of the world:
- Rich nations/poor nations;
- Third world/first world;
- Developed/ under developed;
- Dominant economies/ emerging and/or dependent economies;
- Validated cultures/exotic and diversity inducing cultures;
- Validated religions and belief systems/traditional and unenlightened religions, practices and beliefs;
We are global majority people with a commitment to building a schooling and education culture that ceases to marginalise and devalue students and to reproduce educational disadvantage on account of ‘race’ and ‘class’:
- Protagonists for social change;
- Protagonists in the struggle for racial equality and social justice;
- ‘Protagonists of our fate’;
We are global majority people with a commitment to teaching, leading and managing in a manner which ensures that Every Child Does Matter, ensures that global majority children believe they can be high achievers and are aware of the growing number of high achievers among their peers, and that engages their parents/carers in effective learning partnerships:
- New paradigms for teaching and learning;
- New paradigms for leadership and management in learning communities;
- New paradigms for curriculum design and delivery;
- New paradigms for promoting global education both through and in spite of the national(ist) curriculum;
- New paradigms for community partnerships and for engaging with the educational aspirations of communities;
We are global majority people who, like members of other target groups, have suffered from schools’ structured omission of issues to do with equity, ideology, power, exploitation, discrimination and the creation of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’.
Above all, we are global majority people who have firsthand experience of the way this society validates white people automatically while requiring black people to prove themselves before they could be ‘accepted’.
The BTN as ‘the Academy’
If we are not to perpetuate the cycle of ‘each generation growing up alone…’, we have a historic responsibility in this period, in our time:
- To seek to connect global majority children and all children with their past, with the advances gained through struggle as well as with an understanding of past defeats;
- To understand the proud traditions to which we ourselves belong and the history that others before us made as part of their life experience with Britain in their native lands as well as here in Britain;
- To extend the frontiers of knowledge through our own practice, reflection, research and theorising; engaging in:
- critical reflection on practice and on pedagogy;
- monitoring, evaluation and theorising about the experience of applying these new paradigms;
- To share good practice and engage individually and collectively in the construction of knowledge;
- To engage students and their parents in constructive dialogue about the quality of teaching and the quality of learning;
- To empower students to be effective learners and active members of the learning community by democratising our leadership and management of schools and the way we manage the teacher/student relationship;
- To record our activities as a Network so that in 5 years time, or in the next decade or three, no one will have to struggle to find evidence of the work of the Black Teachers Network as I have had to do in respect of the Caribbean Teachers Association;
- To ensure that we do not simply keep speaking to ourselves about ourselves, about ‘the system’ and about those who erect barriers to constrain us; but rather ensure that our voices are not marginalised;
- To ensure that we do not become a group that is seen as a readymade forum for rubberstamping the policies and initiatives others dream up, especially those in government;
- To connect with communities organically and to support the development of independent organisation among students and parents, so that acting collectively, we might ensure that all children receive their educational entitlement and support with their self development;
Let me say, finally that we cannot expect others to take us seriously if we keep sending out powerful signals that we don’t take ourselves seriously.
So, let us commit to making a difference in our time, finding strength in unity and laying the foundations for a national network of global majority teachers and leaders of learning, leaders of education research and education policy making.
And, returning to where I started and invoking Susan Craig’s theme of the continuity of past, present and future, let us not forget that black teachers like you in an education culture unencumbered by racism, racist stereotyping and low expectations, produced maths, science, geography and history textbooks, books on pedagogy and on the role of education in society that have served generations of global majority children and global majority teachers.
Surely, we find that creative capacity within ourselves daily. So we can therefore act collectively and build a critical mass of global majority thinker practitioners in London and across the United Kingdom.
Go for it!
Picture: “Principality of Liechtenstein: school class, 2006“, by Hellebardius (Flickr)
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