In Honor of Zyad Shakur: Push the Ball Forward
By Bruce Jackson, Special Education teacher at Aki Kurose Middle School, member of SEE
(Editor’s Note: Bruce delivered this speech at the Black Lives Matter at School Student Talent Showcase on March 8 at Cleveland High School.)
When I was 10 years old, my uncle Zyad Shakur was murdered on the New Jersey turnpike while fighting to protect the unalienable rights of black people in this country. After his death, his family, my aunt Louise and cousin Craig moved in with us. A few days later she started receiving threats on her life and the life of her son. My uncle was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Those organizations felt they owed a great debt to my uncle, so from that day on there was an armed presence in and around my home.
Consequently, there was no lack of people in our home that knew a lot about black people, black history and our people’s place in the struggle for liberation of all people. From that day on, I had mentors who would not let me fall. I had proud, strong, black men in my circle. I attended breakfasts with community members who would ask me about what I was learning in school and give me questions for my teachers about those topics, questions that would tip the conversations in class toward the topic of social justice. When I asked these questions in class, I would usually stand alone, or other students would use me as a way to avoid the teacher chosen topic of the day.
I would usually lack the depth of knowledge to defend myself against my teachers, and due to my curiosity and these contradictions, I would often end up in the principal’s office asking those same questions. I remember asking those questions in relation to what I was being taught in school, in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I would often end up bringing those questions home to my mentors where I would be given the answers and rebuttals with no class time for the discussion necessary for the depth of knowledge I craved.
I wanted to create an ideology, something that made me stronger in the face of grief and loss. That didn’t happen in school, and at an early age, I knew that there was more to knowledge than what I was being told in school. That there was more to being black than poverty, ignorance, and slavery. As my mentors told me more about my uncle, I started to see my education as a gift I had no right to squander, a gift that no one had the right to twist and shape into a master narrative that omits the proud truths of my ancestors and the ancestors of the marginalized groups I lived and learned with.
My uncle was murdered while trying to create a Black Studies program in elementary and middle schools in New York and the surrounding areas. He was murdered while fighting for many of the demands we are still asking for with the Black Lives Matter at Schools movement: Ethnic Studies, More Black Teachers, and a move toward Culturally Responsive treatment of people of color in this country, a strengthening of our communities. Why is this such a difficult thing to give? Why is the truth such a guarded secret?
I still have questions. Why must we glorify our oppressors in education? Why must we glorify criminal acts by praising that “Louisiana “Purchase”, that “Manifest Destiny”, all the while downplaying the genocide they caused? Why must we glorify racism by ignoring merciless acts of dehumanization like slavery, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, Native re-education schools, in this Master Narrative?
Why can’t we glorify those who fought against these acts of cruelty? Why can’t we create our own heroes in history? Why can’t we praise humanity? Why can’t we join the human family? I want to teach our children to be humane beings on this planet, citizens of a world that needs their creativity. Citizens in a species that will not survive without them. How can we save ourselves from self–destruction when we teach history in its current form?
My uncle died 19 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He died moving the ball forward, moving the ball ever further away from ignorance and closer and closer to enlightenment.
I am honored to help him push that same ball forward 40 years later. I am honored to live for the people, the humane beings on this planet. I am privileged to know my history, to know that I am capable of much more than the current master narrative believes I am. I want to share that dignity of knowledge with all who are willing to listen.
We have so many stories to tell. Stories of great heroes fighting and dying for justice. Stories of communities rising and demanding more from themselves and from those who govern them. Stories of our rise after being knocked down by the forces of ignorance. We, as educators, are obliged to tell these stories, to hold these truths to be self–evident that all men are created equal.
As educators, we are required to teach an equality in education. We are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When we fight for our education, we fight for the rewards of independence. If we do not teach about the structures of life on this planet and how to maintain those structures, we are denied our rights.
If we do not have critical knowledge about the cultures and ethnicities that fill this planet, if we are not free to interact with all people, we do not have liberty, and our rights are denied. If we cannot see happiness in as many of its forms as possible, we cannot understand it. We tend to pursue what we are told to pursue, and our rights are denied….we have to do better. No more murders to deny self-evident truth.
I would have loved to have known my uncle, to have joined him in his struggle to make education benefit all people, but all I was left with was a ball that needed to be moved forward.
I am not alone in my desire to see this ball moved forward. Many of us are in this audience now. There’s Tracy Castro-Gill, Head of the Ethnic Studies Department pushing, pushing that ball forward. There’s Jesse Hagopian, the first educator to teach Ethnic Studies in the city pushing, pushing that ball forward. Sitting among you is the NAACP Youth Coalition, students making the same demands as I made all those years ago pushing, pushing that ball forward. Help us push this ball forward to the top of the hill. Then release it with me.