Free at Last: Hard Words About Soft Bigotry
Our children are God’s children, capable of more than we can imagine. We must “restore all things in Christ” by repenting of our low expectations for them, and teaching them with the love they deserve.
Editor’s Note: Shortly before his death on Oct. 21, 2020, Craig Bowman submitted this reflection for publication at the Register. It is his last published article and a coda to his long and distinguished career in education and writing, and a life of dedication to his students, readers, friends and Jesus Christ. May the Lord welcome him to his eternal reward.
I’m an angry Black man and a serious Catholic.
My angry part comes from both my African American and German roots, and the serious part comes from the Church herself. The faith drills me in the non-negotiable, inflexible reality that I am a child of God, dignified by his timeless and unconditional love.
At the same time, my Afro-Saxon side barks the urgent reality: “Wake up and die right! This Black kid has only a 10-year window to move from womb to life beyond home and school. Graduation day is moving day. Hurry up!”
In April 1947, my mother delivers me out of wedlock in the Florence Home for Colored Girls in Kansas City, so she surrenders me up to Catholic Charities when she returns from exile to Denver. My grade-school parents and teachers are German sisters with their own legacy of persecution and exile, and my high-school parents and teachers are the Christian Brothers with a similar history.
From the start, my Catholic education shouts a defiant and militant counterculture during the Baby Boom. It’s heavy on the Latin, theology, literature, a first-person singular, mea maxima culpa sense of personal responsibility, writing and history. In other words, I savor the old-world, classical education of my complete person. From kindergarten through 12th grade, I enjoy the grueling training of the Church militant that would make a Marine drill sergeant cry for his mommy.
When someone taunts me with a racial epithet, I’d better know what part of speech it is, how to spell it, and where to put it in a correctly-diagrammed sentence.
I learn to write from the best, including Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, and Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, by 8th grade. In high school, my favorite works include Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, more papal encyclicals of the 20th century, the documents of the Vatican Council and the best poets and storytellers of the Harlem Renaissance. Don’t even get me started on my favorite sci-fi prophets, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. If you think online learning is the happy wave of the future, check out the latter’s 1951 short story, “The Fun They Had.”
A decade after high-school graduation, I’m armed with an excellent college education, two years of post-baccalaureate leadership training in the U.S. Army, and a semester of graduate school. That’s when I get beamed down to American Public Education. There, in my state’s highest socioeconomic school district, I endure a brutal initiation into a system that echoes the old fear of Black literacy 20 years after Brown v. Board! From its beginning, American public education has constructed a racist system that has helped to perpetuate the financial and social exclusion of people of color.
Pause this narrative, and listen carefully to this angry English teacher’s demand: “Watch your language!”
On both sides of the color line, too many of us have abused the term “racist,” and we’ve cried wolf so often as to damage our credibility when a real crisis strikes. Look at the white parent, for instance, who adopts two Black kids and teaches them how to manipulate the race card as early as 3rd grade. A Black single mother encourages her daughter’s violent behavior at school and calls anyone racist, including me, who dares to tell her “No.” And both school community and the compliant local media shout the headlines about a controversial social studies teacher who displays “foreign” flags in his classroom. Never mind that his school is failing all of its students. That’s not a fun headline.
Sadly, the racism I encounter in public education is the real, sheer and untrained fear of the other of color, and it occurs on the social and academic levels.
On the social level, I think a metaphor will help. From the beginning, public education, so long the ticket out of poverty, operates like an exclusive club. The bouncers include real estate agents, school boards, local principals, classroom teachers and school counselors.
So, what do you do when not one but many students of color show up, ready for a college prep curriculum? Even scarier, what do you do when a degreed Black teacher shows up at the door of your high-end club, armed with a crème de la crème education and a graduate school entrée? Are you kidding? He plans to show his students how to escape through education. You can’t deny them entry outright, but you can and do attach so many “gotcha” conditions that, in effect, exclude them and their kind. “They’re probably illegal, anyway,” you might say. Or, for both Blacks and Hispanics: “They’re probably gang members.”
On the academic level, the racism of fear looms even more distressingly. Too many of the teachers in my schools either don’t know their content area comprehensively, or they don’t know how to convey the same to any students. So many educators can’t educate their students out of poverty even if they want.
Even though the public education establishment commands enormous power, it fundamentally lacks the most crucial element of effective teaching: Parents and students don’t trust the system. Millions of local schools are failing, and standardized tests only confirm the tragedy.
Given this background, here are some things I observed between 1974 and 2006.
In my first school when I submit my scope and sequence to the department chair, she proudly warns me that she “only reads for mistakes.” I already know she’s never read an entire written product. Anybody can read just for mistakes, but she can’t get any student ready for college English 101. She can’t show her students how grammatical and mechanical mistakes get in the way of their great ideas. Like so many other English teachers of the day, she comes back to school and brags, “I just got recertified, and I didn’t have to write a single paper!”
In his first written observation of my class on descriptive writing, the principal writes that “interpretation of art … is beyond most student’s interest areas and irrelevant to their frame of reference.” Again, the Queen’s English informs me that he’s babbling in the non-standard dialect called “educationese” and that the plural possessive of “student” is misspelled. Behind his crude attempt at condescending intimidation is the clear message. “You don’t belong in our exclusively nouveau riche club.”
Academic tracking, on the other hand, is slightly more obvious, but it nevertheless steals choice away from parents and students and puts it in the control of self-proclaimed experts.
But, even in that high-end school, there’s an ironic exposition of bias. The middle- and upper-middle class parents know how to navigate the system. Halfway through the first grading period, moms and dads sit down with kids for “The Talk” that has nothing to do with sex.
The parents say, “Here are the classes and teachers you will take next semester. For English, you’ll sign up only for Mr. Bowman, Mr. Fogal, or Mrs. Randell. No other English teachers!”
The youngsters say, “But why?”
“Because you’re going to Stanford. Those other teachers won’t even get you ready for high school graduation.” Those same parents impose the same rules for mathematics, science and social studies.
Three years later, I’m fired, and the following fall, the principal and department chair are run out of town. Unbeknownst to them and to me, students and their parents notice what the school’s leadership was doing to teach me a lesson about the system.
A couple of years later, in another, poor area of another district, I battle the same racist structure. Master’s degree completed, it’s my first day of class, and I’m telling students that we’ll study the parts of speech, sentence structure, literature and writing. Suddenly, the school counselor sends for four or five kids from class, and they sit in her office for the rest of the period. That happens the next day and the next. I ask her and the principal why, and she looks straight into this Black face and says with deepest pity, “They’re poor. They can’t.”
She’s right. The nearby feeder school sends the same message, and so does the local high school. Not only can poor, Hispanic and Black kids not rise to rigorous academic and behavioral standards, they are forbidden by unspoken rule. If they’re poor, Black or Hispanic and graduate from high school, they’re usually first in the family — in 1980 and still in this year. In their white-informed education system, higher education doesn’t exist.
In 1983, I’ve had enough, and my anger explodes on the editorial page and shouts the question: “What’s wrong with this picture? And why are too many of you taxpayers accepting this? An African American orphan enjoys a superior education compared to white children born into the middle, upper-middle, and upper classes. Many of his students wish they had his background because ‘at least they cared.’”
I write about colleagues who raise serious concerns about anything and everything but serious teaching and learning. I don’t quite fit in and I’m not well organized in planning field trips. Never mind that I’m practicing what I’m teaching, the art of writing, and teaching my students to do the same. They’re even learning proofreading and editing marks and how to proof and edit their own papers — in 7th grade!
After many decades of battle in the public education system, I think it’s time for a long and serious examination of conscience. My proposal is simply this: Without the reality-TV temptation to label, judge, holler, shout, accuse, blame or condemn, all of us together must humbly proclaim, “Confiteor.”
“I confess to almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned… Ora pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum. Pray for me to the Lord, our God.”
I believe that our penance will require all of our best efforts to restore our American community to its best familial, educational and spiritual health over the next two or three generations. It won’t happen without an abundance of love, time and patience. I believe that, if we begin family restoration this year, our high-school and college students will be grandparents to the R-generation whose mission is restorare omnes in Christo, to restore all things in Christ.
In the meantime, we can study and remember the history of the Catholic Church in the Old World and the New. All of it, good and bad. Remember how and why the Catholic schools were founded, the Church’s pathetic response to the slave trade, slavery itself, and Jim Crow.
Remember, too, a favorite footnote in my life: Archbishop Joseph P. Rummel integrated the New Orleans Catholic schools in 1962, the end of my freshman year. The Christian Brothers in my high school were headquartered in that city and operated several schools there as well.
As painful and difficult as it will forever be, our faith demands that we pray for, love and forgive the enemy, the personal racists who enforce the institution’s toxic evil. With compassion, we understand those who fear the full power of literacy in the hands of the poor and people of color. Strangely, this lesson comes from my doctor who discovered that my anger against the bigotry I experienced precipitated my dangerously high blood pressure.
Most heartbreaking of all, there’s St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s the shortest of his letters, the only New Testament epistle addressed to an individual. Written in a Roman prison, the note is deeply emotional. It demands repentance, a traumatic re-thinking of long-accepted secular social norms. Change forever the relationship between slave and owner and do likewise with their descendants:
Although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love, being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus. I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment, who was once useless to you but is now useful to [both] you and me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. … This is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord. So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.
The Apostle to the Gentiles preaches a difficult truth. In our all-American dog-eat-alpha-dog world where we insist on being the boss of everybody, our faith explodes in a counterculture revolution, just as Paul’s did. God insists that if I am to be the greatest of all, then I must be servant. In all those schools, I watched a scared, angry and unhealthy hardness of heart that kept Whites on top and people of color on the bottom. In a compound sentence, a subject-predicate-direct object structure, the Lord commands, and we Christians obey the imperative. Lose the attitude of racial supremacy, and change the relationship from dominance to love.
Diagram that! Better yet, live it.