Like many who made a resolution to get healthy, this Sunday I took myself to the gym and jumped on the treadmill. As I walked in place I had my headphones on jamming to Beyonce tearing up Crazy in Love, an oldie but a goodie. Then I looked up at the T.V. mounted on the wall and saw that the official swearing in of our 45th president was about to happen. (There was even a count down clock going). The commentators were talking back and forth. I couldn’t hear any of it, but I kept watching.
Then they cut to Joe Biden being sworn in. Oh how nice. His wife held the Bible. His children looked on. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina, swore him in. I paused.
Then it happened. The count down clock went to zero and a shot of the White House came on the screen. The justice in his black robe walked into the room. Then Barack Hussein Obama walked in, followed by his wife and daughters. He placed his hand on a Bible that had belonged to Michelle’s grandmother. The story goes she used it to open Bible study at the bookstore she managed. The Bible had been passed down to Michelle and kept by her aunt for just a time like this.
I realized that as I watched the screen, I’d turned off my iPod. My eyes welled up with tears.
My reaction was less about being happy because he was a Black man or that the justice swearing in our vice president was a Latina. It was more about remembering all those shoulders they were standing on and connecting that to the Afrocentric value of interdependence. I thought about all those forefathers and foremothers who created a safe space for their children to not just survive oppression, but to thrive despite it.
Standing on the Shoulders of Others
President Obama’s swearing-in was a reminder of what it means to be a communal people. Now don’t misunderstand. I am not saying interdependence is only a Black thing. On the contrary, in many other communities of color you find the same emphasis on interdependence and the family bond: Asian, Pacific Islander, and Latino, among others. What distinguishes it from the dominant culture’s notions of interdependence is that for communities of color, it is the prime directive. It is the first and most important thing. For example, in the African American celebration of the First Fruits or Kwanzaa, the first principle is Umoja, which means unity and stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community. The depth of that connection is reflected in the African saying, “I am We.”
Connection and Caring = Affirmation
So what’s the point? Being part of a community where one “fits in” means you can relax because someone has your back. When you feel you fit in, you feel affirmed.
Affirmation is the first pillar of culturally responsive pedagogy. David Rock, neuroscientist, says wanting to belong and be accepted by your clan, tribe or community at home, at school or in the office is hardwired into our brains. He reminds us that the brain’s threat response system is always trolling for threats to our connection to the group or is always ready with strategies to self-protect if one feels he’s in hostile territory. Only when we feel connected and unthreatened can we turn our attention to other things, like learning or being creative.
As I watched President Obama’s quiet, official inauguration on Sunday before all the pomp and circumstance yesterday, I wondered what his affirming communities looked like. Who were those men and women who created those spaces that affirmed him – his physical appearance, his way of being, his gifts and the unique cultural way he expressed them — and made it possible for him to grow into the man we see today. Our president – again.
It isn’t enough to simply point to President Obama and tell young children of color that they too can aspire to be the president of the United States if we do not create safe spaces for to them to develop their social, emotional, and intellectual character in their own culturally authentic ways.
O.K. Your Turn: How are you creating safe space in your classroom? How are you affirming students of color in ways that feel authentic and not patronizing? How does the idea of interdependence show up in your classroom community?