Class of 2010: A single mother’s reflection on race and education

Education — By Crystal Hayes on June 9, 2010 at 11:38

It’s graduation season. All the grades will soon be in. College acceptance and rejection letters have arrived, and after a year or more of test prep classes, SATs, recommendation letters, financial aid documents, and dozens of college applications and essays, many families can breathe again. While there are still many unanswered questions, at least the stress of applying to college is behind us. My daughter and many of her high school peers will soon join the legions of other successful students across the nation who will be known, this summer, as the class of 2010. By the fall, when they’re all registered for their first semester of college, they will be renamed the class of 2014. I really love the sound of that. As I reflect on our joy and this amazing journey, I am also keenly aware of the institutional racism that partly defined my role in this process.

“When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before.” Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl ~Harriett Jacobs

Nothing I will ever do will come close to eliciting the sense of pride and joy I feel as mother. I still remember my daughter’s kindergarten graduation like it was yesterday. I cried the entire program as if she were being sworn in to the Supreme Court. It was not pride alone that brought the tears. They were also the release of a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear I felt towards an education system that continues to be shaped by the dis-investment and racial isolation of some children while others are born into the world with their futures already paid in full.  I’ve held these fears close to my chest for the past 18 years.  Every day that I sent my daughter off to school, I worried whether or not she would, at the very least, be returned to me in the same condition: with an enthusiasm for learning and a sense of positive certainty about her future. I celebrated my daughter every chance I got because I knew, as a brilliant empowered Black woman, racism, like a cancer, would try to take permanent root in every cell of her body- challenging her deepest sense of self.

A review of the academic literature on this topic shows that my story is not exceptional.  For instance, the 2006 Annie E. Casey tool-kit, Race Matters: Unequal Opportunities in Education, states that “Black and Latino students are more likely to be in racially segregated high poverty schools than their White counterparts with less experienced teachers, unequal school resources, and out-of-date poor quality curriculums and learning tools.”   Likewise, the University of North Carolina School of Law’s Center for Civil Rights points out “racially and economically isolated schools are costly, and even with increased financial resources it is a challenge to sustain high student achievement and retain high quality teachers in schools with high concentrations of minority and/or low-income students.” These schools are, it says, “characterized by an overall culture of failure.”  As a Black single mother, this horrifies me.

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It’s an unnecessary insult.” I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings ~Maya Angelou

I never had to look farther than my own life to know what was at stake for my daughter. I didn’t need an academic journal or a pundit. My own experiences and those of my grandmother, mother and father conveyed volumes about the crossroads of race, gender, and class inequality and their implications for my education.

My maternal grandmother lacked a formal education. She held several jobs from housekeeping to factory work, and died from cancer uninsured, poor, and before her 40th birthday. Later, despite the incredible progress spurred by the Civil and Women’s Rights movements, my mother was also a low-wage worker. I watched her suffer to support myself and my brother. Although she did eventually earn her GED, she worked more than half of her adult life in dehumanizing, low-wage jobs that never empowered her as a mother or a woman.   My father wanted more for his wife and children and joined the Black Panther Party for Self Defense to help create opportunities that I now know and enjoy. As a result, he’s been incarcerated for the past thirty-seven years.

Thus, my childhood revealed the relationships between multiple systems of oppression webbed together through cultural practices and social policies. I was determined that my daughter would not be imprisoned by the same social forces that had imprisoned both of my parents: the physical incarceration of black radical consciousness behind the walls of a state prison, and the social, psychological and economic imprisonment of being a Black mother in a society that values motherhood while devaluing mothers’ work, Black women’s specifically. Indeed, I learned quickly that there are no clearly defined roads for low-income Black students in a society that claims to value public education for all while it denies and devalues education for Black and poor children.

While there were more post-secondary educational opportunities when I graduated high school than when my mother did, I was in no position to take advantage of them. Growing up, I attended poorly resourced public schools in hyper-segregated communities in New York City. There, I never heard any of my nearly all White female teachers talk about college as the next step to more learning and a meaningful life. Instead, I often heard the cliché, “College isn’t for everyone.”

As Cornel West reminds, “American Democracy cannot afford to lose another generation.” Lack of a college education produces long term racial inequality with dire consequences for health, economic stability, incarceration rates, poverty, and political and social isolation in general.  Schools have incredible potential and power to limit or expand our options. Knowing this, I spent the past 18 years ensuring that my daughter would benefit from the best education possible, and in many cases, this meant on-going battles with schools that attempted to exclude her from rigorous programs that would prepare her for college while overemphasizing her musical and athletic talents.  As a single mother this meant several things:

1. I had to find the money for private school.

2.  I had to find the money to move to a place that I could afford on one income.

3.  I had to leave my social networks behind.

4.  I had to create new social networks.

5.  I had to send my daughter to a majority White school where she’d have access to college preparation but where she’d also face the threat of racial stereotypes and social isolation.

These are not real options for anyone, no matter what your race or class background. We have to do everything we can to ensure every child has a quality education that prepares him or her for college. We have to change our culture to one that doesn’t limit college to the few. There are more Black and Hispanic students languishing in segregated high poverty schools today than in 1968, the year Dr. King was assassinated.  Today, when public school systems across the nation abandon, as they’re doing in my current home state of North Carolina, more than forty years of research substantiating that socio-economic diversity is our best option for leveling the playing field, we tell our children that we don’t know right from wrong; that it’s okay to lie; and that bullying vulnerable people is not only acceptable, it’s a requirement to succeed because someone has to lose.  When we allow our schools to re-segregate, we tell our children that Jim Crow racism isn’t a thing of the past and that Thomas Jefferson’s words “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal” have as much value as a piece of paper in a fortune cookie.  To add insult to injury, we often send the students most harmed by America’s apartheid-esque schools to war to promote global democracy.

It’s not just wrong. It’s cruel and obscene.

As a single mother, I struggled to finish college and graduate school.  The sacrifices were well worth it. I have built a meaningful career that allows me to support myself and my family, and I enjoy the dignity of work—something that is out of reach for too many. As a first generation college graduate, the child of an incarcerated parent who grew up in foster-care, my road to college was not traditional.  It underscores years of overcoming barriers that tied my grandmother, and to a large degree my mother, to demoralizing work that made it difficult for them to support their children or find fulfillment otherwise.

Today, on the other side, life feels like an amazing victory.  My daughter applied to some of the most competitive private liberal arts schools in the country, and she was accepted into every one—all ten. But even amidst the joy of getting those acceptance letters, I was reminded that issues of class and race are never too far behind.  While several schools offered her substantial financial aid packages, others did not.  As part of my appeal to one institution, I was asked to write a letter detailing why our household was single income.  The financial aid counselor said my response was not personal enough. “If he hit you, write about it,” she advised. For me, this felt like the intrusion Diahann Carroll depicted in the 1974 movie, Claudine.  36 years later, they’re still looking under the bed.

Fortunately, our story has a happy ending.  My daughter will start college in the fall at one of the most prestigious private liberal arts college in the country, grant packages in tow and ahead of her peers (in my humble opinion) in terms of both her intellectual preparation and her lived experiences.  Still, this does not mitigate the fact that the past 18 years felt like I was engaged in a war for my daughter’s future. Every battle had major implications for us financially, socially, and emotionally.

While I will enjoy honoring my daughter’s graduation and academic success immensely, I will not forget that in some states only 41% of Black students and only 23% of Latino students will graduate high school this year.  The lowest graduation rate for White students (more than 60%) is still higher than the number of Black and Latino students who will earn a high school diploma or GED. If this doesn’t enrage your sense of human decency, nothing will. As my own experiences teach, the human spirit is resilient and should never be counted out. Thus, those students’ fates are not sealed, just like mine wasn’t. But for me, that’s not good enough.

We need comprehensive and bold education reform in this country that addresses housing patterns, jobs, access to affordable healthcare, affordable quality childcare, and livable wages. Reform efforts must also include the many diverse voices of parents, particularly low-income, working class Black and Latino parents, and educators. No one knows better than parents and teachers the fall-out of insensitive, poorly implemented, but expensive reform strategies like No Child Left Behind or the destructive shortsighted action taken in my hometown, New York City, where ninety-one schools were closed in predominately low-income communities of color in the past eight years alone.

Finally, our schools and kids need your support. We need you to become education activists who work on addressing the root causes of the racial achievement gap. Become a mentor or tutor. Take parenting classes. Support allied groups and agencies that help to alleviate poverty in your community. Financially support those organizations that teach inner-city kids to achieve in school. Volunteer at your local YWCA and help promote equity in education. Challenge your local school board to examine its policies through a structural racism framework. Be an active engaged parent at every stage of your student’s development. Start a grass-roots group to help parents organize and become better advocates for their children. Support policies that help good teachers become excellent teachers, and learn more about how to stop the school to prison pipeline and close the racial achievement gap.

In East Africa there’s a Maasai custom that doesn’t ask  “How are you?,” they ask, instead “How are the children?”

Stop.  Look around you.  Look all around you.  How are our children?

Photo by: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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Author: Crystal Hayes (2 Articles)

Crystal Hayes

Crystal M. Hayes, MSW, is an activist, writer, and proud mother of her 18 year-old daughter who will be a first-year college student in the fall. She is a dedicated anti-racist activist and trainer committed to eliminating structural and institutional racism and gender inequality in every aspect of the human experience. In 2004 Crystal received her BA from Mount Holyoke College in African American Studies and Politics and in 2006 she received her MSW in clinical social work from the Smith College School for Social Work. She is a native New Yorker but now lives in North Carolina and is currently researching a book on race and motherhood. Her research and writing interests include women’s health, Black life and culture, racial justice, and policy.


  • DebC says:

    Thank you, my Sister, for this beautiful truth-telling! In a time, where it seems everybody (from the president, down to the man/woman on the street) is holding up Black, single motherhood as the epitome of what is “wrong” with the Black community – you bring truth to the lie in a mighty way! Your critical thinking is definitely on-point, laying bare the rudder of institutional racism that guides the rhetoric into which many in the “village” have fallen in lock-step. Shame on them.

    And I agree, “No one knows better than parents and teachers the fall-out of insensitive, poorly implemented, but expensive reform strategies like No Child Left Behind…” But rather than “comprehensive and bold education reform” for all, this administration continues to feed us the same damaging, white supremacist capitalist partiarchal blather we’ve been fed in the past, funnelled through none other than Arne Duncan, an “administrator” who seems to believe that education is for sale to the highest bidder. “Race to the Top”/No Child Left Behind – same thing. Left to his own devices, there’ll be many more public school closures across the country (in poor neighborhoods, in general and Black neighborhoods in particular), quickening a return to pre-”Brown,” separate and unequal education.

    How are our children? IMHO, the answer is rooted in another, more pointed question: As the shoulders upon which our children must stand, have WE been “responsible for what we KNOW to be true” about our existence in this country? If the overall answer to that question is NO (and I believe it is, given our continued struggles with “housing patterns, jobs, access to affordable healthcare, affordable quality childcare, and livable wages), then how well (or well-prepared) can the children be?

    Reading this, I couldn’t help but recall the words of Florence “Mama” Montana upon the return of her oldest son from the Korean war in James Baldwin’s, “Just Above My Head” (he’s been on my mind lately and I’ve been re-reading). As family and friends sat around the dinner table discussing pending desegregation legislation, she said to her youngest son, “Pass me your brother’s plate, Arthur. I ain’t going to fatten him for the slaughter, but I’ll be damned if I don’t strengthen him for the battle.”

    With, what seems, a solid foundation, a strongly infused sense of self and a role model extraordinaire, you have most definitely “strengthened” your girl-child for the battle. She should be as proud of you, as you are of her. I know I am. Congratulations to you both.

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