Fostering a Healthy Self-Identity and Agency in African American Boys
Brian L. Wright & Shelly L. Counsell
Assistant Professors of Early Childhood Education, College of Education
University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA
Three-year-old Michael, an African American boy, is enrolled at a child care center where most of the staff is White. His parents are proud of their bright-eyed, sweet-tempered, and playful boy. The head of the child care center, however, finds Michael to be “overly aggressive” and characterizes his social and emotional development as “below average” and his intellectual potential as merely “average.”
Many African American boys and their families experience a disconnect between school and home. When teachers underestimate the promise, potential, and possibilities of African American boys, and implement punitive practices that undermine their developing self-identity, it can have a devastating impact on their view of school and whether they consider it to be a place for them. Fostering a healthy self-identity and agency is important for all children and can be particularly critical for African American boys.
School Discipline and African American Boys
Despite growing bodies of literature identifying the strengths that African American boys bring to their schooling experience, discipline remains a major issue affecting access to a quality education for them. For example, data from the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights1 reports that while Black children make up only 19% of preschool enrollment, they represent 47% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. In comparison, White children represent 41% of preschool enrollment, but only 28% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. Suspensions can and do dampen enthusiasm toward school and decrease the likelihood of the academic achievement needed to enhance and sustain their life opportunities. To interrupt this cycle of oppression and repression, it is imperative that educators promote democratic learning communities that recognize, value, and engage African American boys’ self-identity development, while encouraging them to use their authentic voices to achieve agency as full and active community members.
History & Me
“History & Me” curricular opportunities expose Black boys to the rich and diverse African American history, with a focus on Black boys and men in their communities. Such exposure is critical to the boys’ development of a healthy sense of self and the ability of other children to challenge such stereotypes as “troublemaker” and “bad boy,” which have become an enduring aspect of perceptions regarding African American boys. Reading and discussing picture books like the biographical account of Richard Wright and the Library Card, by William Miller and R. Gregory Christie, and the historical fiction work Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea Davis Pinkney and J. Brian Pinkney, help to focus on positive self-identity and agency development for African American boys.
Mirror Books vs. Window Books
Children’s literature can further ensure that Black boys see themselves in books by introducing them to “mentors on paper.” Teachers can contribute to African American boys’ discovery of who they are, both historically and culturally, by designing a celebration of identity through children’s literature. African American boys, perhaps more than any other group of children, need access to what Rudine Sims Bishop calls “mirror” books—those books in which we can see ourselves. Currently, far more “window” books are available, representing a White world, and far too few books mirror children of color in their daily activities with their families and communities. Books that capture African American young men using self-agency to challenge racial discrimination in the South include Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, and Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights, by Jim Haskins and illustrated by Benny Andrews.
Teachers must continuously contemplate whether they afford every child equal agency in which their voices, feelings, and perspectives are respected and valued. Reflective practitioners continuously examine (and re-examine) personal and professional values and attitudes that underlie teaching practices. Reflective practitioners enact change, when needed, to ensure that all children have full access to community participation, active decision-making, learning opportunities (like “History & Me”), and classroom resources (such as “mirror” books). Teachers must consider whether their treatment of children (conscious and unconscious) who look like them differs from that of those who do not.
Failure to promote ALL children’s voice, agency, and identity is unacceptable in a democratic learning community, just as it is unacceptable in a larger democratic society. We cannot become a united community (a collective we) until we grant every learner (and every citizen) full and equal membership and agency. Only by deliberating together as fellow travelers where all voices are heard, valued, and respected, will we come together as a truly united community.
1 U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). School discipline. In 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look (p. 3). http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf