NCOBRA's International Commissioner, Brotha Onaje Mu'id's words ring clear, strong and true:
"All Praise is due the Creator, Libation to the Ancestors and respect to the elders.
Sista Yaa Asantewa Nzingha,
Your case is a clear illustration
of our oppression here in this country and one demanding
national, international support."
In the April, 2000 issue of Our Time Press, we ran an article titled, "Teacher at IS 113 Instills Confidence in Students, Suffers Reprisals From Administration." The article detailed the bureaucratic assault on veteran drama instructor, Ms. Yaa Nzingha, regarding her methods of teaching students of African Descent. The sidebar letters from a student and the complaining teacher tell how the story began.
October 18 . The streets of Clinton Hill in front of P.S. 113 resounded to chants of "Levine must go!" and "We are Africans," as about 200 people demonstrated in support of Ms. Yaa Asantawa Nzingha, a teacher criticized for her methods of teaching children of African ancestry.
Attorney Roger Wareham of the December 12 International Secretariat said, "This is about our right as a people to be self-determining and not have other people, particularly those responsible for the situation we’re in today, determine what we can be taught and who can teach it to us. The fact that Ms. Nzingha was singled out because she had the audacity to teach black children of their African heritage, and to be condemned for that is a sorry commentary as we enter the 21st century.
I don’t think this is particular to Ms. Nzingha. I think it is reflective of the education system in New York City and around the country."
October 26,: Joy Chatel, PTA president of P.S. 113, called an emergency meeting to discuss the demonstration. Ms. Chatel said she had received calls from parents concerned that their children were solicited by Ms. Yaa Nzingha and Ms. Lauristine Gomes to take part in the demonstration. Present at the emergency meeting were principal Katherine Corbett and District 13 Superintendent Dr. Lester Young.
It was a lively session of over a hundred parents and students. Many parents expressed outrage that Ms. Nzingha was not allowed to be in the school and was specifically told not to attend the meeting. Ms. Chatel explained that she had fully expected Ms. Nzingha to be present and was unaware that she had been barred from the school by a new investigation.
Principal Corbett said that the Chancellor’s office had received complaints from parents, and had sent a Special Investigation unit to the school. Based on their preliminary findings, both Ms. Nzingha and Ms. Luristine Gomes, a union representative and Nzingha supporter, were barred from the school. A lawyer for the investigation unit called this "neutralizing the site" pending the outcome of the investigation.
Many parents had their say and were in support of Ms. Nzingha and her teaching methods. One parent said that Ms. Nzingha did not encourage the children to protest and that the real problem was that Ms. Nzingha was teaching Afro-centric content in the school. This was a sentiment that was held by the vast majority of parents present.
Ms. Corbett said that it had come to her attention
that Ms. Nzingha told the children that they were Africans and would never
be Americans. "The central issue is, can teachers teach their own beliefs
in a class room? The answer is no." Ms. Corbett insisted that teaching
African culture is not at issue here. "On every floor of this school you
will see teachers integrating African culture into their classroom. But
no teacher can teach an exclusive curriculum. We are mandated to teach
a Multicultural curriculum and no teacher can violate Board of Education
policy." "The issue
here is when you work for any organization you have to follow the rules and regulations of that organization. The issue is insubordination."
Parents waved copies of Ms. Nzingha’s Annual Professional Performance Review, with yearly comments by Ms. Corbett on Ms. Nzingha’s "Stellar professional performance." They noted that Nzingha seemed to suddenly become insubordinate after teacher Richard Levine wrote his letter of complaint about the way she was teaching the African American students.
Superintendent Young said that the Chancellor’s office began the investigation based upon complaints by parents to that office. They wanted to know why the children were involved in the demonstration activity. Some parents said their children were solicited to be at the demonstration.
The barring from the school came from the chancellor’s office after investigators had spoken with the children with permission of the parents. "I was instructed that these two teachers, (Nzingha and Gomes) could not be allowed in the school."
A lawyer from the Chancellor’s office of special investigation said "The investigation began today and is on-going. Ms. Nzingha and Ms. Gomes are the subjects of the investigation and have been reassigned to administrative duties."
Many students had the opportunity to speak at the meeting. Here are some of their comments:
"I joined the protest because of my respect for Ms. Nzingha. No one told me to. Ms. Nzingha teaches us about a number of different cultures."
"Ms. Nzingha teaches us about who we are and where we came from. She does not teach separatism. She teaches us about white, black and Asian."
"You’re supposed to be teaching us about how to act, but you keep getting up while other people are talking and jumping down their throats. It hurts me that black people can’t get along."
"Ms. Gomes did not solicit me. I protested because they are my favorite teachers. I love them. I held the sign because I support them. The drama students want Ms. Nzingha back. When you take her away, you’re taking away part of us."
"We want to learn where we came from. We don’t want our minds to be blank."
"I want to see my teacher in this school teaching us who we are. Ms. Nzingha taught me to love myself."
"You see every other background learning about themselves, but when a teacher wants to teach us about ours, there’s a problem."
"She is teaching from and African perspective, not only African. She told us who we are bringing our self esteem from 5% to 90%."
"She is correcting all the lies taught in the past."
"Ms. Nzingha taught me self-discipline and voice projection. She knew more than my regular teacher. And Ms. Nzingha is a tough teacher but her students will do whatever she says."
Several parents complained about the injustice of having a meeting about a problem with only one side present. They felt that Ms. Nzingha was not the one instilling low self-esteem in our children. It was Mr. Levine who was expressing the popular culture.
A parent said she was offended that the teacher who offended our children has not been reprimanded (Ms. Corbett said that Mr. Levine was reprimanded and has apologized.)
Another said "This meeting was supposedly called because some parents said their children had been solicited to demonstrate. Where are they? Where are those parents?"
Another mother said, "My child is in 113 and the best thing for him is the drama class. He’s applying to a special school that requires him to do improvisation and scene work as entrance requirements. He’s not going to be prepared. When he was working with Ms. Nzingha the performance the troupe gave got a ten-minute standing ovation. I want my child to have the best opportunity. This has to be put to rest so that we can move on."
Another parent, "We can’t just wait for something to happen. We need parents to step up to the plate and be involved. We have an obligation to our children. We must resolve this or we are doing our ancestors a disservice."
"My son was in the drama Department but now there’s no drama going on. This new teacher has called them ‘dummies’ as a group. The textbook is offensive. Africans invented drama, but the text refers to Africans as primitive."
Speaking from Fisk University, Dr. Raymond Winbush said that, "One of the jobs of the Institute is to keep track of these kinds of actions. ‘There is a recent case in Tennessee where 2 young black girls wanted to recite And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. The PTA would not allow it, saying it was "too provocative".
"And there at PS 113 in Brooklyn, you have Yaa Nzingha educating children to be critical thinkers and African-centered about themselves and being censured for it.
"The issue all over this country, is that anytime you are trying to teach black children where they come from and who they are, there is an attack. We are finding at the institute that these cases are happening at every level where African-centered education is occurring.
"This is no different that 150 ago when Africans were not allowed to read. Now they are not allowed to read about their connection to Africa.
"The other thing we’re seeing is that most large urban school districts are getting black and Latino superintendents. What we’re finding is that superintendents such as Dr. Young there in Brooklyn, are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than following an African-centered curriculum. There are too many studies showing that when you educate people in their own culture they achieve at a higher level. It is true that Ms. Nzingha uses unconventional methods, but the final analysis is that the students are learning.
"We should remember that in June 1890 and 1891 in upstate New York, The Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian held sessions on "The Negro Question."
"Rutherford B. Hayes chaired the conferences which were concerned with how and what to teach former slaves and their children. They concluded that you don’t want to teach them anything about their history and their African past. How do you educate them to be docile and compliant and accept the system? You don’t teach them about their history.
"The central thinking was to have an extension of industrial education and teach them about American history.
"W.E.B DuBois said you can’t keep educating black folks not to be thinkers. Both he and Carter G. Woodson felt the need to link Africans in the U.S. with the African continent."
In all of this, it is the education of the children that is suffering. A system whose avowed purpose is to educate, must answer two questions. When will Ms. Nzingha be allowed to resume her regular drama instruction and teaching at I.S. 113? It is the wish of the students, the parents and the community. What steps will be taken system-wide to insure that other effective teachers, employing similar methods, will not be persecuted? The Commission on Students of African Descent.
The Village Voice
November 22-28, 2000
Race and Class
Brooklyn Teacher is Disciplined for Telling Her Students
to Refer to Themselves as Africans -- Not Americans
By Peter Noel
a year-long battle with Board of Education officials,
Yaa Asantewa Nzingha, a junior high school "master drama
teacher" who was demoted for telling her students to
refer to themselves as Africans -- not Americans -- is
being investigated by the Chancellor's Office of Special
Investigations for encouraging the students to participate
in a demonstration demanding her reinstatement. "Students
as well as community members have been incited to protest
against the school," principal Katherine Corbett of the
Ronald Edmonds Learning Center charged in a letter to
parents, warning that their children had been "solicited
to participate" in the heavily attended October 18 protest
outside of the school in Fort Greene.
the "investigation into allegations of inappropriate
conduct" related to the protest, the board had been stymied
by its attempts to get rid of Nzingha for allegedly violating
a regulation by Chancellor Harold Levy, which prohibits the
opinionated teaching of race and politics. A white colleague
at the predominantly black school reported on Nzingha, who
has been teaching there for eight years:
Toward the end of October (1999), Mr. Levine covered one of my drama classes.
Levine then asked me to do a skit where I had to be a thief to impress
a group of girls. I responded by telling
him that I did not want to do a skit like that. He said, "Why?"
simply explained by telling him that I didn’t want to act out a character
that was a thief because all black people
then asked me where did I learn this? I told him that my drama teacher,
Ms. Nzingha teaches us that as
Africans we shouldn’t fall into the standards of America.
we should have high standards as an African people. So I felt that I should
not have to act out a play
where I was a thief. Sincerely, Student I.S. 113
Re: Teaching Racism and Lowering Children’s Self-Esteem
Would it be unethical
and unprofessional for a teacher to tell students that they are
not Americans and never will be Americans because the are African? On Friday,
October 29th (1999) I learned that Ms. Nzingha is doing just that! As a parent and
educator I feel obligated to report this. In my opinion, this is teaching racism and
worse; given the tender age of our students, I believe it is teaching them
hopelessness, and instilling in them the belief that they will be victimized. I don’t
shrink from discussing racism with my students when the discussion grows
naturally put of curriculum context, and I don’t feed them any Pollyanna sugar pills
about the existence of racism in our nation’s history or current events. But it is
quite another matter to make one’s personal opinions and prejudices the
curriculum, and that is what I understand Ms. Nzinga to be doing, and I wish to
file this as a formal complaint, as a result. ... When I saw Ms. Nzinga, I said,
"Your students were trying to get me to believe that you teach them they’re not
American and never will be, because they’re African." She said, "I do tell them
that, and I tell them every chance I get, because they never will be Americans." I
said, "We shouldn’t teach our opinions." She said, "It’s not an opinion. It’s a fact.
They’ll never be Americans. They’re Africans." Then, she stormed off saying she
wasn’t going to have this discussion with me. Well, I insist that the discussion take
place, among our peers.
If I’m mistaken or off
base here, I’ll apologize, but I feel there’s something very
wrong here. We put on many good programs at 113 that can be considered
Afro-centric in their content, but celebrate culture and are character and spirit
builders for the children. I cannot see this in the same light. Ms. Nzinga’s students
also told me they were learning monologues for a theater piece.......
It is very disturbing
to learn of this. It is troubling, too, to consider the possibility
that some members of the staff might not see this as a matter of ethics or
professional behavior, but one of race. Sincerely, Richard Levine
of the commission were appointed jointly by the Board of Education and
Chancellor Ramon Cortines
and included public school and university teachers and administrators, parents, students representatives of civil
rights organizations, business persons, corporate executives and a member of the City Council. Board members
Simmons and Walcott were among the appointees.
Commission’s purpose is to make recommendations to enhance the achievements
of students of African
descent, to include policy recommendations in such areas as curriculum, staffing, professional development,
parents involved in resource equity.
Commission has authored three reports: Professional Development for Teachers
and Administrators of
Students of African Descent; Curriculum and Instruction to Support Academic and Cultural Excellence; and
Improving Family and Community Partnerships. Draft copies of the reports were circulated to educators, parents,
students, politicians, clergy, business persons, community and civic organizations. Public forums were held to
receive input and recommendations from these groups, and the final reports reflect this input.
Professional Development report was printed and circulated throughout the
country, including all members
of the New York City Board of Education, New York State Board of Regents and Superintendents of major school
districts in New York State and throughout the country. Response cards were included in the mailings. All
responses were favorable, with the greatest number coming from educators in the State of Texas. There has been
no official response from the New York City Board of Education. The other two reports have not yet been printed
report discusses the urgent need for restructuring professional development,
including higher education
and district-level programs, for educators in the New York City Public Schools. Importantly, the report develops
profiles of the expectations for students, teachers, principles, and superintendents. In the case of students the
profile specifies the knowledge, skills, attitudes and characteristics students might be expected to have achieved
by completion of the twelfth grade. For teachers, principles, and superintendents, the profiles detail the kind of
training and credentials these professionals should possess in order to be effective with students of African
approaches to professional development have proved ineffective in meeting
the needs of most
students of African descent. Too often there has been a reliance on remediation and strategies for responding to
a perceived condition of student deprivation and "risk". Asa Hilliard’s critique of contemporary views about
teaching and learning for students of African descent contends that they are said to be more retarded, more
emotionally disturbed, more learning disabled than others. Families are said to be dysfunctional, as are the
communities from which students come. As a result, remedial education strategies take on the character of
therapy, externally designed and implemented. Children are seen as "culturally deprived," "culturally
disadvantage" or at "risk." With such a limited and distorted definition, and without recognition and respect for
African ethnicity, it is impossible to pose valid remedies for low student achievement, including the design for
valid teacher education.
emphasizing remediation and/or treatment of "risk" factors may appear to
work for some students,
but these intervention have failed to contribute in a substantial way to the attainment of academic excellence
overall. In addition, notions of student deprivation and risk are philosophically at odds with the convention that
"all children can learn."
research evidence to the contrary, educational practices often serve to
perpetuate the pernicious myth
that students of African descent cannot be held to the highest standards of academic success. The assignment
of the least qualified teachers to schools with the majority of students of African descent, and the
disproportionate numbers of students of African descent trapped in "watered down" courses, general education,
and special education provide a stark measure of the low level of expectations of what students can achieve.
Students of African descent make up more than half of the enrollment of New York City’s public schools.
collective educational experiences are replete with many examples of outstanding
perseverance and determination, and of hard work. But the educational experiences of students of African
descent also reflect a tragic story of institutional paralysis in the face for the need of change. The themes of this
story are neglect, apathy, indecision, inadequate funding for educational and cultural programs and the
well-entrenched legacy of enslavement, racism, and low expectations regarding what students can accomplish.
so many students have achieved success in the public schools is a mighty
testament to their resilience and
strength yet, in spite of the successes, public education has exacted heavy price from the majority of our
children. They have learned, through years of exposure to "water down" courses, that they are not expected to
master challenging course content. They have learned through the years of inculcation, that their African
heritage is neither valued nor respected; that their culture is not considered worthy of inclusion in the
curriculum; that the content and methods of education bear little relationship to their life outside the classroom.
They have been taught that they must suppress most expressions of their heritage in the classroom.
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