I came of age in the ’90s. A time when instead of explicit forms of racism, Black males, like myself, developed alongside illustrations painted by Nas and Jay-Z mixed with the hyperbolized clouds that promoted myths about how we were finally living in a post-racial society. When we went to school, the separate water fountains had long been removed, I could sit anywhere on that 54 bus up Lawrence to Markham road in Scarborough, and no one called me a nigger. I was a junior in university when America saw its first black President. I grew up and experienced schooling so far amputated from the civil rights realities that so many of my predecessors experienced that I see very little problem with calling my black friends, “my niggas”. But in school, I always felt that this post-racial reality wasn’t as simple for urban Black males. There always seemed to be a tension: a tension between Black masculinity’s relationship to the white world and also an equal tension in regards to the relationship between and amongst each other. The question becomes: how do many urban Black males, knowing on one hand – the importance of education, and thinking on the other, what the world perceives of them, come to deal with this, often unconscious, tension within schools? Let me attempt to answer some of this by starting towards the end.
When I became I teacher, I unpacked a lot of my schooling experience, and upon recollecting, decided to go back to school to earn a master’s degree. My goal was simple: I figured if I had a son one day, and that kid had any particles of my personality, I would have to one day sit him down and say, “Listen, your daddy went and got a master’s degree, you can at least get your shit together and graduate from high school”. The talk I envision inevitably happening with my son is due to my understanding of the fractious relationship between education and urban Black males. Kind of like so many critical moments that occurred on one of our favourite TV shows, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But, make no mistake; it is a talk that is in no way comical. The Fresh Prince was a funny show, but it had so many scenes that mirror the serious experiences of young, “cool Black guys” trying to survive education and keep their identity intact. One episode conveys my point much more succinctly. It was an episode where Will’s friend reminded him of his days in Philly when he used to hide his books in the pizza box on his way home from school. He was hiding his books because he didn’t want the boys on his block to know that he was trying to do well in school. He didn’t want his friends to know that he explicitly considered education to be important to his life and future. He didn’t want his peers to know that he was attempting to mesh with a system that accosted him at every turn down the hall. This example to me indicates the realities of urban Black males in school. It indicates the importance of performance for the urban Black male. Constantly being reminded of the subjective ideals of what it means to be a “cool Black guy” impacts scholastic initiative to the extent that many urban Black males are forced, or force themselves, into choosing strategies that stifle their educational pursuits.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is just as relevant a television show today as it was in the 90s. Unfortunately, the “Fresh Prince Syndrome” is too.
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