Geoffrey Canada and Tyree Boyd-Pates both know that American education is deeply flawed—and they’ve each spent their careers working to correct different facets of it. Canada, an elder statesman of education policy, is the longtime president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has provided holistic support to dozens of thousands of underserved students. The millennial Boyd-Pates has curated exhibits with a focus on untold Black history, and this summer he distributed an antiracist tool kit called the Freedom Papers. They met on Zoom to talk about America’s dark history and the potentially catastrophic effects of the pandemic on education.
Geoffrey Canada: Tyree, I have a preamble before I ask a question. This is something that frustrates me so much when I’m talking to people about the condition of African Americans: they think of slavery as such ancient history— like, “Didn’t you get over that?” But it was just a blink of the eye in which I can reach back in history and touch that period. Through my grandmother, I have talked to a person who talked to an enslaved person.
Since then, so many forces have been working against us: President Hayes pulling the troops out of the South after Reconstruction, the slaughter and the absolute reign of terror that continued right through when I was born in 1952. And policies like the GI Bill, which built the white middle class by giving out free college and low-interest mortgages—but African Americans couldn’t get any loans for houses. In New York and northern New Jersey, there were 67,000 mortgages insured by the GI Bill—but less than 100 for nonwhite people. All of this Black history shaped my life and helped me do what I ended up doing. Did similar forces help shape you?
Tyree Boyd-Pates: Completely. I was raised by my grandmother, who was knee-deep in political education. But it wasn’t until college, when I was in the townships of South Africa, that all of what she taught me in low-income Los Angeles clicked, because I saw the same generational poverty and the afterlife of apartheid there.
It let me know the ways in which white supremacy constantly works cyclically in creating and causing violence toward communities of color. And it made me want to study and bring back what I didn’t have in my own K-12 education to my neighborhood. What was your K-12 education like?
GC: I grew up in the South Bronx in the late ’50s, when I could see the social fabric fraying. In elementary school,
all of the kids were tracked. If you were in Track 1, you were smart; if you were in Track 5, we assumed that you were dumb. But these kids in the lower tracks, they were my friends: I knew there was nothing wrong with them. I asked myself, “Why are they stuck in these classrooms where everyone decided by age 10 or 11 that their life was basically over?”
It was written by the education system that you weren’t going to make it. One of the end results of this is that at the age of 68, only one of my friends I grew up with is still alive. No one else. If they didn’t die early, they died in their 50s, and a few made it to their 60s. Now they’re all gone. I could see this coming when I was in elementary school.
The only reason I’m here today was I caught a break that lots of other folks didn’t catch. That still haunts me, when I think about the thousands of lives lost because the system failed them.
TBP: Yes. There’s this myth of Black male exceptionalism. But for every one Geoff or Tyree, there’s nine other Geoffs and Tyrees who never make it to the platform you and I have. It’s our duty to bring those who got locked out of opportunity toward the spaces they deserve to sit in.
GC: Did you see Hidden Figures? I was in high school when that was happening. It would have changed all our lives if we had been told that Black women were so smart, they were the only ones who could get a rocket to outer space and back! There are probably 200,000 Black scientists who don’t exist today because they denied that to us.
TBP: This discussion reminds me of Carter G. Woodson’s ideas about “The Mis-Education of the Negro.” The idea that Black folks don’t know their history, and without knowledge of self, they’re going to be in a perpetual cycle of dysfunction and destruction.
But whenever I revisit Carter G.’s work, it also reminds me that as miseducated as Black folks are, so are white folks. They are so deeply as miseducated about us and themselves as we are. The inherent flaws of American education have made me wonder if there’s a further discussion to be had about why it’s working the way it is—and if it’s designed to work that way.
GC: Last month, everyone I knew who was white came up to me saying, “I never heard of Juneteenth! There was a Black Wall Street?” These were educated, smart people, stunned that somehow this was denied in their education.
People are taught a certain view of American history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, everything was good. Based on what you’ve seen, is America ready for real history: to talk about the Trail of Tears, the smallpox blankets, what happened after Reconstruction?
TBP: It’s overdue. If we want America to fully live up to its ideas, we have to tell an unapologetic interpretation of American history, told from those who were on the ground to experience it. We shouldn’t run away or hide from the darker parts of it.
America’s future is predicated on knowing the full history about herself. We need to move away from a Euro- centric lens and toward a culturally centric lens. But we also need to create favorable environments for education, which is the work you’ve been doing for years.
GC: It took me decades before I realized we needed something so encompassing that no one would want to do it: to re-create what we call middle-class environments for poor people. People would say, “We can’t afford to do that!” But I’m like, “Wait. We did that already. We built a middle class for whites. We got them homes and free college. Why shouldn’t we think we can afford to do that for a people who have been systematically denied opportunities?”
But I couldn’t say it out loud, because that would turn people off. Raising the money to do it without saying that’s what we were trying to do took some time to work out. But now, at our Promise Academy schools, we’ve eliminated the white-Black achievement gap. There’s nothing magical about this.
The pandemic we’re in right now has been terrible for educational inequality. Think about what our kids are going through: Whose parents are the ones getting sick? Whose communities are most of the people dying in? Where are the places kids don’t have the technology to be online?
It’s all in Black, brown, Latinx communities. We’re sowing the seeds of the next disparity in education right now. I’ve been yelling at people: We need massive investments in these communities to mitigate what’s going on right now, so that in five years from now we’re not trying to figure out why our kids aren’t going to school.
I keep challenging America: If we can do it and if you care about these children, why aren’t we ensuring that is happening at scale across this country? That’s the next part of the work.
Moderated by Andrew R. Chow