Dear Ms. Janelle Monae,
First and foremost thank you for bringing a black feminist perspective into music that moves my soul. HellYouTalmBout continues to be a source of hope, righteous indignation, and monument to the lives of so many snuffed out, the song is at once too long and yet not nearly exhaustive. Your work at Wonderland and artistic gifts are a source of pride and inspiration, which is why I was so shocked to learn you will be performing at the 25th Anniversary of Teach For America.
Your Lyrics in Many Moons:
“We’re dancing free but we’re stuck here underground
And everybody trying to figure they way out
Hey Hey Hey, all we ever wanted to say
Was chased erased and then thrown away
And day to day we live in a daze”
Is a beautiful metaphor for the current (and temporary) trend toward privatization following the public school system’s disinvestment in minority populations, the black community’s contestation of these circumstances and subsequent struggles to resist structural racism only to have that resistance framed by corporate interests as deficient, lazy, and a failure.
My letter is informed by Kristen L. Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space. This provocative and eloquent book details the long history of racial exploitation of Indigenous Indian, African American, and Afro-Caribbean peoples. How the roots of jazz, blues, and hip-hop sprung organically from Mississippi delta gatherings of slaves and Indians on Sundays for trade, fellowship, and music, and how white privilege leveraged said music and culture through appropriation, benefitting white property owners, developers, and urban planners.
Stuck in this “underground” committed black teachers figured the “way out” would be through public education. An education only guaranteed at the time to white children, and in this context they fought segregation only to have white flight and significant divestment hinder their heroic efforts. In spite of mounting obstacles black teachers in New Orleans provided care, concern, and a curriculum imbued with the culture of a community where black pride and property ownership were the highest in the country. The communal and generational assets of property and public school pulsed with their place-based heritage, wisdom, experience, and culture. Cultural assets that Katrina, urban planners, and the department of education “chased” out of town.
Reaganomics, or according to David Harvey the “neoliberal” agenda, slashed social services, making room for the rampant influx of drugs and its closely associated crime and later the mass outsourcing of jobs thanks to policies like NAFTA and union busting depressed wages and increased unemployment in New Orleans. And still committed black teachers worked the best they could, lovingly, in their community. Enter NCLB and Hurricane Katrina and the socially constructed problems of poverty were “erased” and black lives “thrown away and day to-day we live in a daze”.
White philanthropists and reformers swarmed the city and now employ edubusiness models. What Haliburton did for the military in Iraq, Teach for America and their allies in New Public Management do for education in New Orleans and urban cores across the country. Predominately white novice teachers, with often zero cultural humility or understanding are lured to these teaching positions with promises of forgiven student debt, resume building, signing bonuses, and the chance to start their own putatively innovative business to meet the needs of a quote, historically underserved community or in business terms find their niche. Meanwhile black teachers with expertise, culturally relevant wisdom, and a deep commitment to their community (not just a two year stint) are dispossessed from their life’s work. Buras (2015) sums it up, “Instead of place-based knowledge that undergirded veteran teachers’ pedagogy, (TFA Teacher) relies on a decontextualized command-and-control model of curriculum” (p. 153). Public resources are once again leveraged by whiteness for monetary gain at the expense of the black community through the familiar pathologies used to justify their actions. Thus the Puritanical tradition of educating the savage and American tradition of dehumanizing people of African descent continues now wrapped in the rhetoric of social mobility and justice instead of moral authority and eugenics.
Fridays’s college football game at the Sugar Bowl will no doubt mention the bowl’s charitable $200,000 donation to TFA and the significant contribution TFA is making to education in the big easy (donations and public funds they use to book a world-class artist like you). What won’t be mentioned is how the event couldn’t take place without the labor of African Americans in the service industry, concessioners, ushers, parking lot attendants, custodians, housekeepers, and athletes while the white coaches, athletic directors, regents, hotel owners, TFA type organizations and advertisers make millions. Or how TFA spends lavishly, for a nonprofit, on recruiting banquets, information technology, intellectual property, administrative, and facilities costs in order to save the poor black children of the ghetto. Meanwhile black educators and those students deemed too expensive or oppositional to teach are dispossessed of one of the few public spheres left in this country, that of public and democratic education.
Please Ms. Monae, corporate America is treating black teachers and many black students “wrong” it was you who said “I’ll take you home” and along with Erykah asked, “So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal”. I think we know it is because of money, “White house, Jim Crow, Dirty lies”. So I am asking you from the bottom of my heart, please forgo the money TFA is paying you to perform and back out, send the message, “Keep back kid not corporate thug…Tell me are you bold enough to reach for love?”
Your Fan, Friend, and Fam,