Column: Undercurrents: Jefferson Flap Points to Need for Serious Slavery Study By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday July 01, 2005

We began last week’s column discussing Berkeley resident Michael Larrick’s opposition to the petition to change the name of Berkeley’s Jefferson Elementary School, outlined in Mr. Larrick’s April 19 Berkeley Daily Planet commentary in which he wrote that “Black Americans and their leaders would be far better served if they would address the real problems in black education instead of the superficial and misleading issue of the name of a school.” (Advocates of the Jefferson name change—who were black, white, Native American, and other variations, by the way—said they didn’t want the school named after Thomas Jefferson because of Jefferson’s lifelong status as a man who personally kept Africans in slavery.) 

We ended with the promise to pursue the question: Does the so-called “achievement gap” between black and white students have some roots in American plantation slavery and could a serious study of slavery reveal those causes and have a hand in the cure? 

Some thoughts: 

To know and understand the nature of our universe, serious scientists tell us that we must study the Big Bang, that enormous explosion at the beginning of time as we know it, when the universe was formed. The idea here is that all of the vast and almost unbelievable complexities of the universe had their root in minuscule differences within and between early pre-atomic matter and that seeing the conditions at the earliest stages of the Bang, we can follow their pathways as they spread out to become the black holes and pulsars and gas giants and dark matter across the billions and billions of light years that constitute what we call space. 

So it is with slavery and African-Americans. 

Before the American slave trade there were no such people as African-Americans. Slavery was a vast funnel in which Twi and Hausa and Mende and Wolof and such were poured in at one end on the East Coast of Africa, and what we now call African-Americans came out the other, walking off the plantations at the end of the Civil War. The dark passage inside that funnel forged most of the attitudes and kinship bonds and contradictions and attributes-both good and bad-we see played out among black folk today, from the Louisiana backroads to the streets of East Oakland to the halls of Congress. 

One such set of contradictions concerns the issue of education. 

In his commentary, Mr. Larrick writes that “Black anthropologist and author Dr. John Ogbu has...found that the very same problems [of about race, opportunity and responsibility] plagued both [less affluent] Oakland and the affluent black suburb of Cleveland, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Black students were absent more often, did less homework, watched more television and had less involved parents. They did not value education and in fact, if a black student was doing well in school he was chastised by his peers. If you live up to your academic potential you are accused of acting white. He found that the students own attitudes hindered their academic achievement.” 

Seen in isolation, the evidence of such attitudes among some black students is either inexplicable, like the tale of the man shot over a watermelon, or else leads to the conclusion—by some—that African-Americans are trifling, lazy, and stuck in our present condition pretty much because of our own inabilities. 

In fact, the term “acting white” is actually a pale echo of the slavery-time charge of “acting like the masta’,” and was part of the fierce cultural wars that took place between those African captives who thought freedom—and even mere survival—lay in adopting white folks’ ways and those who believed that those goals could only be met by maintaining the old African cultures and resisting being sucked into what has been called a “slave mentality.” You can pretty much see that same struggle played about among pretty much all long-term captive or colonized peoples. 

Clearly, a serious study of that slaverytime struggle would be helpful in understanding black attitudes over education today, which continue to be just as contradictory. Then why hasn’t such a study been undertaken? Mostly because a dark veil hangs over America’s slave history that is difficult to penetrate. 

One of the most successful strategies of American slavery-from the point of view of the slavemasters, of course-was to put the shame of slavery on the Africans themselves. That undercurrent of low black self-esteem is at the root of many present difficulties among African-Americans, none more so than the one that finds most African-Americans ashamed and embarrassed even to this day to have a serious discussion on what exactly happened during slavery. 

Repressed shame, too, plays some part in the white reluctance to have that discussion. It gets played out in the nagging and largely unspoken fear of what might be revealed by such an investigation, as well as by companion attitudes of “haven’t we already dealt with that enough?” or “didn’t we already make up for all of that with a.) the Civil War, b.) the civil rights acts, c.) recent Supreme Court decisions or d.) some combination of all of those?” 

That’s a subject for another discussion. 

But a revealing thing happened during the recent debate over the proposed renaming of Berkeley’s Jefferson Elementary School. 

I attended a mid-May meeting at the school in which for the first time in my life, I saw ordinary people—not just politicians or policy makers or folks with some agenda to promote, whether good or bad—have an honest and serious discussion about American slavery, its ramifications, and its implications. This Jefferson School discussion was participated in by people of many ethnic backgrounds. 

I think that discussion happened for two reason. 

The first reason was that the proposal to change the school name forced people—black, white, and other races—to enter a difficult discussion that they might have otherwise ducked. 

But the second reason, I believe, was that by focusing on Jefferson’s relation to slavery rather than a general charge of white people’s complicity in slavery, the discussion allowed whites to participate without having to come in the door with guilt-coats draped over their shoulders. It permitted a detachment which will certainly have to be modified if these types of talks go deeper, but which appeared to be absolutely necessary as a first step. 

That spirit of cooperative soul-searching, I’m afraid, got overshadowed in the incidents surrounding the School Board vote itself over the name change. But it’s something that existed for a brief moment in time and space, and therefore we know it can be done. 

Looking at the public education systems of the three major cities of the inner East Bay—Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond—you see all of them dominated by the often unspoken issue of how to educate black youth. How is the achievement gap to be closed? How to do it while at the same time lifting the education of all students? No one has come up with any easy answers. But perhaps a three-city cooperative effort in a long-term project of the study of American slavery—using it both as a research effort and student education tool, perhaps with related essay contests and events, perhaps with a Slavery Institute operating out of one of the community colleges—would be an important step in the right direction to explore causes and, out of them, formulate solutions. Looking backward is sometimes the best way to move forward. The Jefferson School name change discussion may have shown us a way, and, if so, it would have ended up doing an enormous good.