I can trace my professional academic trajectory to my adolescence when I began to notice the separation of my peer group into different academic tracks in middle school. I pondered why most of my black friends, who were just as smart as I was, were placed into lower level classes. Without intervention from my parents, who were both public school teachers in Philadelphia, I would have been placed into those same lower level classes. It was not until I became a teacher years later, first in Philadelphia and then St. Paul, that I started to grasp the societal function of those segregated classroom structures, and their vital role in maintaining the raced and classed social hierarchy of the locales I inhabited. As a youth, I began to hone an acute interest in Africana Studies. Pulling books from my parents’ shelves, I read Baldwin, Angelou, Carmichael (Ture), and Malcolm X. The mentors from my community fed this interest by giving me more material, such as old records, magazines from the 1960s and 70s, and more books. My passion was fueled by the burgeoning cultural formation of Hip-Hop, which provided a soundtrack to this self-discovery. Oddly, none of this intellectual stimulation was happening in school. School was mostly boring except for the social aspect, yet doing the work was easier than hearing lectures from my parents. So I “succeeded,” despite the irrelevance.
As a young teacher I wondered why school had to be this way. Seeing my black students simply survive through the school day with no intellectual stimulation, save for a lyrical battle in the cafeteria, was too familiar and draining. I saw my former self and my former friends occupying those desks. I wondered why many of these youth did not make the decision that I made and were more content to hear the lectures and threats from teachers and parents rather than just doing the irrelevant work. I could only exist in this state of wonderment for a short period of time until I demanded myself to do something—anything I could—in whatever small capacity I had as a young math teacher. These aspects of my experience as an adolescent and a young teacher set the stage for my vocation as an engaged-academic, and have provided the fodder for my research, teaching, and service, which have merged into a singular practice, often impossible to separate.
When I consider the scope of my work, I boil it down to a broad question that escaped me as a young teacher: “How can we (educators, youth, and families) create educational environments that draw from the intellectual lives of black youth and families? An immediate follow-up question is, “What are the implications if we don’t?” All of my research and writing have either dealt with the potential or practice of creating these spaces and the epistemological shifts in understanding research and education that are necessary to do so, or understanding the nuances and empirical experiences of black youth when we typically fail to do so.
Answering these questions requires unpacking what seems like a never-ending series of presuppositions that establish the kernel of my scholarship. Thus, my work from pre-dissertation to now, across theory and methodology, explores how we make meaning of the out-of-school intellectual lives of African diasporic youth and families in the U.S., specifically connected to cultural practices honed through lived experiences as subjects of settler coloniality. As my work becomes increasingly historical, I find it necessary to understand the historical and current implications of the paradox of the U.S. as both a project in European settler colonization and Western-style democracy. Afrodiasporic populations in the U.S.—descendants of enslaved Africans and recent immigrants—are faced with grappling with these dichotomous realities, and the project of mass education historically has not been immune to these wider realities as schools have been a continual site of black suffering, and yet remain one of the most palpable mechanisms to fulfill the multiple desires of black communities for self-determination and liberation.
My recent scholarship illuminates how heritage study as a literacy practice can impact the cultural practices of African diasporic youth. I also explore at how schooling, as a mechanism for the continuance of colonial subjectivity, functions to keep black youth from questioning their role in a social hierarchy. Within this, I explore the functions of teachers and the complicity of teacher education programs toward this end. Finally, my work seeks to understand educational environments that challenge and disrupt these colonial structures by drawing knowledge and practices from decolonized community spaces and transferring these practices into youth agency through inquiry and action-based research as a teaching and learning model.