Ruby Sales' Annual Holiday Reflection
December 2009

If anybody asks you who I am,
who I am,
who I am,
If anybody asks you who I am,
Tell them I’m a child of God.

Mary rocked the cradle, peace and justice on earth,
peace and justice on earth,
peace and justice on earth,
Mary rocked the cradle, peace and justice on earth,
For every little child of God.
                                                                       - Odetta -

As we move closer to Christmas, these words ring in my heart, above the loud noises of Christmas songs and parties that distort the meaning of the birth of Jesus and detach us from its message of liberation, justice, and a people’s yearning to be free.

Since moving South, I have become painfully aware that there are thousands of disconnected Black youth in the South - the largest group anywhere. They are confined to second-class and “uncaring” learning environments, where hostile adults have power over them and do not believe in them. Instead, they believe that these young people are inherently deficient and inferior in the world and in the eyes of God.

Thinking about Christmas, I think about the Black youth of today as being part of a community of people throughout the ages. This community has stood over, and against, systems of government and communities that used their power to contain them, and to make them believe that they were inferior people who did not count in the world or in the eyes of God. This history includes Jesus’ community that was slandered by the Roman Empire with the dehumanizing epithet that “nothing good can come out of Nazareth”.

Throughout the ages, communities in every corner of the globe refused to give over their lives and their children to the state and its Empire - to its oppressive and violent culture. Instead, they built countercultures, where they created cultural and spiritual tools that gave them the wherewithal to keep living, hoping, believing, and struggling for the sake of righteousness.

This certainly was the case with my southern ancestors, who survived and, in many ways, transcended the culture of enslavement and segregation. Carlyle Stewart reminds us that they “took the chaos and dross of human experience and translated them spiritually and culturally into alternative modalities and symbols of Black life that promoted Black identity, sanity and wholeness”.

They knew, without a doubt, that they and their children were children of God, and they had “a right to the tree of life.”

Today, the South bends under the weight of unrelenting and successful efforts of a new coalition of White ministers, politicians, educators, and ordinary people, who have worked for more than fifty years to entrench systemic injustice and White supremacy in every artery of southern life. No quarter of the Black community escapes the fallout from systemic injustice. Nor do they escape coded messages of Black deficiency and White superiority. The entire Black community suffers and reels from this message.

Nowhere is the systemic racism more greatly felt than amongst Black youth. Even though they are young and vulnerable, modern segregationists, like their predecessors, use their power and resources to lock them down and out of opportunities and first-rate education. Towards this end, they create a national campaign that criminalizes these youth and holds them accountable for a White public-school culture that does not see their education as a priority.

Listen to what has been done to them, our children, and I promise that you will be moved by the new segregationists’ brutal assaults against Black youth. This is their story and ours to repair and set right!

Knowing the strength and power of the counterculture of education, and seeing it as the fertile soil that seeded youth activism during the Southern Freedom Movement, the conservative and right-wing coalition set about to destroy it. By 1965, school officials fired 38,000 teachers and administrators. By 2000, 84 percent of teachers in public schools were White. This disparity continues today and includes Black principals.

School officials bussed Black students away from community schools. Other students left because White schools received more resources and better equipment. Black parents felt intimidated or wary in a White public-school environment, where the way of doing business, the values, and the relationships were radically unfamiliar. Additionally, both students and parents confronted a learning environment and power structures that tracked Black students into second-rate, segregated learning environments and denied them the right to participate in extracurricular activities, while simultaneously limiting their leadership in organizations.

School officials tore down many high-quality Black schools and destroyed the awards and memorabilia that documented a southern Black counterculture of education. This education produced excellent students, compassionate activists, responsible community members, and authentic leaders, who succeeded despite second-hand books, second-class physical structures, unequal salaries of teachers and principals, as well as unequal distribution of public funds.
Today, in the South, “over half (54%) of all rural African-Americans aged 25 or older do not have diplomas, and they live in families that are the poorest in the nation.” According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 88% of Black fourth-graders in Georgia cannot read at grade level.

To cover up their intentions and to disconnect themselves from being the source of these outcomes, this modern coalition of White segregationists promotes a discourse that charges Black students with coming from a community that has never valued education. They present Black students as inheritors of this culture. They label Black students as low achievers, problem students, and uncontrollable human beings who pose a danger to society.

Despite their obviously racist rhetoric and policies, they get away with it by using well-coded "racist appeals”. They hide behind the garb of a post-racial narrative that claims that the Civil Rights Movement defeated racism. Additionally, this coalition of modern segregationists works to sweep the White southern narrative clean of its history of injustice and violence. They resuscitate the tricks of their segregationist fathers, who used assaults on Black people to cover the violent, dehumanizing, and oppressive culture they created while profiting from Black labor.

Today, this White coalition and their allies, both White and colored, control the consciousness of the White South and, unfortunately, the nation. They have convinced the nation that Black youth are drains on our society, and that the nation needs to forget about remedying social inequalities.

I know many of you are asking, “Why all of this bad news during Christmas?” In the shadow of this bad news, there is also good news. This is a kairos moment. All around us, the nation is looking for answers to correct the public schooling of Black youth. This is a perfect moment to shift their gaze away from blaming Black youth and their parents, and instead towards structural and ideological injustice as the source of the problem.

It is a perfect moment to rock the cradle of Black youth, and give to them the support, respect and opportunities that we give White youth and some youth of color. They are ready and yearning for it. A new Pew Social Trends Survey highlights that 83% of Black students value education, as opposed to 69% of Whites.

Henry Giroux asks, “What is one to make of social policies that portray youth, especially poor and minority youth, as a generation of suspects?” This is a good question that sets out our collective tasks of transforming Black youth from suspects to people of value.

Let us be strengthened by remembering that rocking the cradle of Black youth yielded high dividends. Black students in the South became major players in the Southern Freedom Movement. The children of this Movement were not schooled by national Black leaders. They were educated by the network of ordinary parents, teachers, principals, other members of the community, and school administrators, who stoked and kept alive the community’s deep impulse for freedom and dedication to human development and leadership.

Vincent Harding reminds us, “So with the death of Reconstruction, those African-Americans who carried the dream of true American democracy, within the deep places of their lives, dug in for a long and costly struggle. They were the bearers of the gift, and they would not give up. In their best hours, they understood that their movement was not simply for Black rights, or even for “equality” with a wounded white American populace, but for a new birth of freedom in the blood-soaked singed land.”

My urgent prayer for the New Year is that we dig in for the long haul, in order to build up a world where we claim all children as our kin, through our common connections as children of God.

Thanks be to God!

Ruby Sales
SpiritHouse Project

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