The Neoliberal Misunderstanding of Black Education

Mikki Kendall on Anti-Blackness, Ancestors, and the Price of Growing Up Smart

I have what my mother calls euphemistically a rebellious spirit. It’s a nice way to describe a child who is not what you expected. This does not mean that I was always strong, always sure, or anything even remotely close to the narratives of inborn self-confidence often foisted on young Black bodies to excuse the premature expectations of adulthood. I was a cowardly child who (a) hated fighting—literally cried through a fight because I hated fighting; and (b) threw my whole self into the fight anyway.

I wasn’t a good fighter. I was just a child who understood that not wanting to fight is meaningless sometimes. There is a lot of research around young women of color and fighting, a narrative that lends itself to the idea that they are violent for the sake of violence. It ignores the fact that they are often the only people with an investment in their own safety outside their 

nearest and dearest. 

I wasn’t a cool kid. I was a nerd; my nickname was Books. 

And yes, I got teased for talking so proper and reading so much. But it wasn’t the “Black people don’t value education” trope that gets trotted out so often. There were lots of smart kids at my grammar school, Charles S. Kozminski. We were all poor, so there was relatively little difference in our clothes in terms of price. Style was the key, and I had none. None. I was two years younger than everyone else in my grade, and my grandmother’s sense of style was age appropriate but not grade appropriate. She bought me the kind of clothes you dress little girls in that are prissy images of girlhood. Lace tights, Mary Janes, and full skirts, while everyone else was in overalls and gym shoes.

I stuck out and not in a good way. It didn’t help that I sounded like I was reading from a dictionary half the time. Fortunately, I had friends who understood the social perils of being raised by a grandparent; they nudged me to hang out, to talk like the other kids did when the adults weren’t listening. I learned to codeswitch sometime between seventh grade and twelfth grade. But I was always a nerd. 

There’s a trend in some of these feminist books to tell you that the hood punishes you for being smart, that it hates those who reach for success. That wasn’t my experience at all. The same kids who called me Books are now adults who pass my articles around and tell me how proud of me they are, because there was nothing malicious in the teasing. I teased, I was teased; that’s basically the nature of kids.

There’s a trend in some of these feminist books to tell you that the hood punishes you for being smart, that it hates those who reach for success.

There’s a myth of exceptionalism attached to people who succeed academically after a childhood in poverty. We must be unique and thus worth listening to, but at the price of leaving behind the past and the people in it. You’re supposed to look back on those years as though they were this hardscrabble time and you would never expose your child to the same things—if you even have a child, because after all, growing up there is scarring, the kind of thing that might mean you have to sacrifice everything else to claw your way out. 

It’s a comforting idea to some that aspiring to a place at the table comes at a cost, that success for marginalized people means leaving behind their culture and community because it isn’t good enough to get them where they want to go. But that’s a myth that opens the door for some women to be shut out of conversations that directly affect them. Being “one of those people” lends itself to a unique and useful ability to understand not only how something can be helpful but also how it can be twisted to hurt the people it is meant to serve. 

Class and classism matter here; this isn’t something that springs up out of nowhere. We treat being poor, being from the inner city, being from the country as reasons to be ashamed even though no one controls the circumstances of their own birth. We look at places that are being starved of resources, where being tough is a matter of survival, and then we say, “In order to have safety, financial stability, housing that isn’t subpar, you have to be willing to cut away everything that made you,” and when some people can’t or won’t do that we punish them for it.

It’s assimilation, not acculturation, that is demanded of people who are already sacrificing, already making hard choices. Yet whenever a problem arises, those same skills are what everyone needs to make it. Ask your elders about bread lines and soup kitchens; ask them about who steps in immediately after a disaster, natural or otherwise. Invariably it is those with the least who are the most generous. It is women who are worried about their own homes and families who comfort themselves by cooking pots of soup to feed rescuers.

It is men who have nothing to lose who climb into the wreckage without masks or gloves to pull out those who had everything and lost it. The things are replaceable, the people are not, is the logic. Unfortunately, that kind of compassion isn’t as common in reverse. 

I’m a descendant of enslaved people. My great-great-great-grandmother Mary Gamble was sold on Sullivan’s Island, and that is as much as I will ever know about her origins. It was theorized that she wasn’t completely African based on her reported complexion, but there’s no way to know. We know more about her children—my great-great-grandfather AB, or Abraham, was gifted to one of his white half-siblings when the family decided to move from South Carolina to Arkansas. His children were born into slavery, though they were freed after the Civil War.

My great-grandfather’s land is still technically in the family, though my grandfather never lived on it after childhood. He had a temper, you see, and so he went north, because otherwise he was going to get himself or someone else killed. That was the fear, anyway, and he was a hard man, so perhaps this was a valid concern. By the time I met him, he was on the usher board at Blackwell AME Zion, but people told stories about a man who tried to rob him, and the way he dumped that man in the ambulance bay at County. 

I never thought there was only one way to be Black or that Black Americans were less-than, though I went through periods of deep fascination with roots.

He met my grandmother in Chicago. She was the granddaughter of enslaved people. We don’t know as much about her family history; a lot of it was a secret, though I do know that her mother, Penny Rose, was the first woman in my maternal line to legally be able to read. I’ve gotten far enough back in the research to know that her mother was enslaved for a time in Georgia and her father was enslaved in Louisiana, but I have no idea how they met or a host of other details.

There was a lynching, you see, some murder (my family believes in revenge in ways that I can’t quite explain), and then they moved. They left the South, came to Chicago, Detroit, spread west to California. Penny Rose ran a policy wheel and I was raised by Dorothy, who was also involved in policy. Vice and sacrifice paved the way. 

Survival can be a religion unto itself, and for many it’s the only one that they always have time to practice. Putting food on the table, giving the next generation a better shot at success by way of relocation or education. The hood doesn’t lack answers; it lacks resources, and so the priorities beyond basic survival are how to accumulate enough to set the next generation up for more success. 

I have a bachelor’s from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s from DePaul in Chicago. My great-aunts were educated, though my grandmother left college during the war, and there’s a weird story about her working for the US Army Signal Corps that might in fact be a cover for her working in cryptanalysis. Dorothy loved her puzzles and her mysteries and her codes, and she was frankly a genius who never got the credit she probably deserved. But she raised strong, smart children. Complicated children, but still, she made sure that we knew what price was paid to get us here. 

I tried to drop out of high school once, and by tried, I mean I mentioned taking the GED because I was a 16-year-old senior having a miserable time in school. I was bored and restless, and I told my grandmother my grand plan. She had just had a radical mastectomy and I was hanging out with her because, well, elders really matter in my community. You listen to them, you spend time with them, and I talked to my grandmother every day about everything. We had a great relationship that was only in peril for the approximately 30 seconds when I thought dropping out to get my GED was a good idea.

Pro tip: Never tell a woman who lived through Jim Crow, who grew up with grandparents who had been enslaved, who had a mother who’d worked tirelessly to make things better for her kids, that you want to throw away your chance at a diploma. I mean, you could, but I promise you, you are not built for the moment you get snatched up by a hand that is harder than steel while she informs you about what your ancestors paid in blood to buy your access to education. 

Education wasn’t the only thing on the table. I grew up with the arts because one of my great-aunts wanted to be an actress; another aunt sang in church. Some of you will recognize by now the kind of family I had: they were never well-off, though they were often comfortable enough to afford wants. Still it was life in an apartment and sharing a room, but there were trips to the library and getting my hair done at Josephine’s on Forty-Ninth and a school that was poor but excellent. Middle-class aspirations in a working-class family that knew that respectability hadn’t brought them a thing, but that hard work can happen in a lot of ways. 

I never thought there was only one way to be Black or that Black Americans were less-than, though I went through periods of deep fascination with roots. I am still interested in roots, but I know now that the seeds of my family were from across the water, and my roots are here in America. My kids are sixth- generation and possibly seventh (the details of whether my maternal great grandparents, Mariah and Andrew, were born here are fuzzy, but Penny Rose’s stories to her children make it sound like they were), and there is no going backward.

I will never know the cultures that birthed them or their ancestors. I can never lay claim to those cultures, because they are not mine, not even if I move into one of the countries that would pop up on a DNA test. That road is closed. That’s okay; there is a way forward. We always go forward. 

When I stand between people who would disrespect elders, who would demean or denigrate the grief of a community, I am not always nice. And kindness in my definition is not the one some others would use. But what I will never be ashamed of is the knowledge that Black American equals a unique and distinct cultural context that deserves respect, and the same careful approach as any other in the diaspora. There is an idea created by white supremacy and fostered by anti-Blackness that Black Americans have no culture to own or defend, that anyone can move into our culture and communities, stand outside the context, and declare themselves a part of what was built through sacrifice and suffering.

Whether we’re talking about the hood, the rez, or the barrio, the truth is that no community hates learning or success.

It is the commodification of Black cool on white bodies, it is the narrative that Black Americans are lazy, it is the erroneous conflation of Black American hypervisibility with power and privilege. And while I firmly believe anyone in the diaspora is welcome to tread paths we carved out, and to carve out their own, I will never back down from protecting the legacy of those who paved the way for me and my children. 

Too often the legacy of slavery crops up in the assumption that Black Americans are not taking advantage of opportunity, with no understanding of the impact of generational racism and anti-Blackness on our communities. It’s easy to assume that we all come to the table from places that are healthy, but realistically that isn’t possible, not when we remember that while flowers can bloom in the harshest environments, many plants simply die.

I was lucky—I had someone to take me in, to raise me and feed me, and catch me when I might have slipped. I am obligated not only to give back, but to challenge erasure and disrespect where I find it, because the children I am raising and the children who are being raised need to see that they are the inheritors of a proud enduring legacy forged here by the people who were put into chains and the people who broke them. 

Whether we’re talking about the hood, the rez, or the barrio, the truth is that no community hates learning or success. Nerds come from all walks of life, but accessing the lifestyle that those things are supposed to provide is much more difficult than it should be for marginalized people. 

It’s no surprise that a narrative of “being smart is acting white, so other marginalized people hate you” resonates with a lot of people. After all, it echoes a narrow, stereotypical image of what it means to be Black, to be Latinx, Asian, or Indigenous. It validates the prejudices of adults who remember feeling that they were different, and remember conflating that feeling with ostracism. It’s an easy explanation for being smart but not popular in school; that doesn’t require thinking about the reality that children, like adults, react to more than the surface.

It ignores the adults who might have rewarded academically successful children at the expense of children who struggled. And for those who are only vaguely interested in improving educational outcomes, it promises a quick fix by way of attitude adjustment instead of actual investment. 

It’s a theory that not only appeals to those who want to retroactively feel special and unique but also validates conservative ideology by placing the blame for disparate academic outcomes squarely on the backs of children. By making the lack of opportunity about cultural pathology instead of broader factors like inequality, racial bias, and segregation, survivors can cozy up to whiteness and absolve themselves of any meaningful responsibility to the community. Feeling isolated in sixth grade is common, but only some communities are assigned a narrative that makes it about being too smart, and not about more mundane things like clothes, hygiene, or social awkwardness. 

I know that everyone’s road to acceptance and embrace of their culture is not the same, and that a collective understanding of what it means to succeed at all costs is ultimately impossible. But as we talk about feminism and Black Girl Magic and the folks who make a way out of no way, we need to welcome the 

idea that those who pushed us ahead weren’t valuable just because of what that did for us as individuals. They have and had value in their own right.

The shadow economies they build are about survival and success, but they are also about making sure that no matter what happens, the future is always an option. White savior narratives embedded in feminist rhetoric tend to position the people who don’t get out as not being worth the effort of engagement, of needing to be led toward progressive ideologies instead of understanding that the conversations that need to happen between the proverbial hood and the hills are ones between equals who have had to face different obstacles to arrive at the same destination. 

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From from Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Mikki Kendall.

Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall is a writer, speaker, and blogger whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, TIME, Salon, Ebony, Essence, and elsewhere. An accomplished public speaker, she has discussed race, feminism, violence in Chicago, tech, pop culture, and social media on NPR’s Tell Me More, Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post, BBC Women’s Hour, Huffington Post Live, as well as at universities across the country. In 2017, she was awarded Best Food Essay from the Association of Food Journalists for her essay on hot sauce, Jim Crow, and Beyoncé. She co-edited the Locus nominated anthology Hidden Youth, and is part of the Hugo-nominated team of editors at Fireside Magazine. A veteran, she lives in Chicago with her family. Her book Hood Feminism is available from Viking.





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