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The Responsibility of English Teachers in the Wake of Racial Violence

This post is written by members April Baker-Bell, Tamara Butler and Lamar Johnson.

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(Left to Right): Tamara Butler, April Baker-Bell, Lamar Johnson

Despite numerous claims that America is “post-racial,” modern forms of racism and race-based violence continue to operate as a daily part of American culture. The state-sanctioned brutality and murders of Black and Brown citizens, the forced disappearance of indigenous youth, and the violence against transgender people of color have generated new civil rights urgencies in communities of color and spirited academic discourse in educational spaces.

For us as Black US citizens and English educators, we recognize that “the same racist brutality toward Black citizens that we see happening on the streets across the United States mirrors the violence toward Black students that is happening in our nation’s academic streets” (Baker-Bell, Jones Stanbrough, & Everett, 2017, p. 131).

In response to this, we co-guest edited a special issue of English Education titled From Racial Violence to Racial Justice: Praxis and Implications for English (Teacher) Education that calls for centering race and racism in English Language Arts (ELA) classrooms. More specifically, we ask, What should be the responsibility of all English (teacher) educators and ELA teachers in the wake of terror, death, and racial violence? We address this question by building upon Lamar’s notion of Critical Race English Education (CREE), which suggests that teachers and students must “unlearn and engage in transformative conversations about anti-Blackness, anti-Brownness, homophobia, and other forms of xenophobia” (Baker-Bell, Butler, Johnson, 2017, p. 123).

The contributors to this special issue illustrate what this framework and stance could look like in English education and ELA classrooms. In “The Stories They Tell,” April Baker-Bell, Raven Jones Stanbrough, and Sakeena Everett examine how media reinforces white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and they offer pedagogies of healing and critical media literacy as tools to encourage youth of color to investigate, dismantle, and rewrite the damaging narratives that mainstream media constructs of them. In “#Say[ing] HerName as Critical Demand,” Tamara Butler calls upon English educators to engage in the political work of centering Black women’s autobiographies in ELA classrooms. Danny Martinez explores the symbolic linguistic violence that Black and Latinx youth experience in schools and calls for ELA teachers to imagine a language of solidarity.

We close the issue with a critical reflection from Bettina Love who uses her experience as a Black female educator to argue for teachers to have a space to wrestle with the difficult knowledge and task of teaching anti-Black, state-sanctioned violence toward Black women while dealing with the reality that their lives and spirits are also in danger.

We believe this special themed issue is important because it sheds light on what it means to teach ELA for and with Black and Brown youth, especially in a time where their lives are often devalued and disrespected. Additionally, this special issue provides educators with curricula and pedagogical tools that can transform ELA classrooms into sites of humanization and racial justice.

April Baker-Bell is an assistant professor of language and literacy in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. She is also affiliated faculty in the English Education and African American and African Studies programs. April’s research examines how African American youth construct their linguistic, cultural, and racial identities in relation to dominant language ideologies.

Tamara Butler is an assistant professor of English education in the Department of English and the African American and African Studies Program at Michigan State University. Tamara’s research explores how art, storytelling, and other creative processes can create spaces for youth, community members, and educators to collectively engage in mobilizing and consciousness-raising efforts

Lamar L. Johnson is an assistant professor of English Education at Michigan State University. He is interested in the complex intersections of race, literacy, and education and how ELA classrooms can become sites for racial justice.