Honoring Black History by looking towards the future
As the Woods-Beals Endowed Chair for Elementary Education, Literacy and Educational Leadership at SUNY Buffalo State, Jevon Hunter sees his role as nurturing and molding young minds, particularly the minds of young Black men.
“The history of Black teachers is a history of service. It's a history of justice. It's a history of giving back,” he said.
Hunter came to Buffalo from Southern California 12 years ago with his young family and a sense of adventure. He had previously served as a teacher and administrator in the City of Compton.
Upon becoming the Endowed Chair Hunter began a summer youth literacy program for kids city in the City of Buffalo.
“So we're breaking bread. We're laughing. We're dancing,” he said. “We had artists who would come in and show off comic books, digital drawings. You know, we had rappers, we have beatboxers, right? It was and we're sitting in the library doing this work. It was, just like I said, a place to just simply be.”
Being in a position of such influence, Hunter understands the weight of responsibility and the impact early influences in his life have put him on his current path.
“You know my mother was a heavy influence on me,” Hunter said. “And the role of literacy in my life, I remember being surrounded by books, being read to.”
Because of his mother, literacy became a driving force in Hunter’s life.
“I remember early on the importance of literacy, the importance of reading everything that comes with that. The importance of speaking,” he said. "She was one of those early adopters of 'Hooked on Phonics' before it was called 'Hooked on Phonics.'”
'Hooked on Phonics' may not be the best way to make connections with Generation Z, but Hunter has been able to make connections through Hip Hop music, which grabbed him at an early age.
“I grew up at a time in the mid ‘80s, late ‘80s, where Public Enemy, Spike Lee, Sister Soulja, all of these folks were really kind of speaking a new level of consciousness,” Hunter said.
That particular era of Hip Hop got Hunter to explore his own identity as a young Black man and Black identity as a whole in a white-dominated society.
The struggle is real and the struggle continues for Black youth—no different in Buffalo than it is in Compton, Hunter found this out years ago when he went to speak to seniors at the former Bennett High School.
“I asked them, 'What are your plans when you graduate?'” he said. “And it's a great question to ask because young people are looking forward to graduating, right? And they're looking forward to living life. And there was this one young man who said, when I asked what are your plans after you graduate, he said, ‘To get out of Buffalo.’”
The young man’s words have stuck with Hunter to this day and through his summer literacy program, he was able to nurture the ideas of the students in the program, while also keeping them grounded in the beauty of the City of Buffalo.
Hunter’s influence has rubbed off on Melique Young, Jabari Blodgett and Darren Cameron, three young men who were in Hunter’s literacy program and now attend area colleges.
For Young, who attends Buffalo State College, the program and the space created specifically for Black youth helped him come into his own as both a writer and a young man.
“It was the first time where I was able to really look at writing as, 'Oh, my goodness, this is fun!'” Young said. “I was able to see it as a way to escape into another realm, where I can just go in and write about something I really feel passionate about and not have to write what New York State is telling me to.”
Blodgett attends Canisius College and was homeschooled until high school. Bouncing around different high schools was an experience that left him feeling overwhelmed at times.
“I didn't come from the wealthiest family. Working class,” Blodgett said. “These people who had different backgrounds, who had parents in different companies who had more money. I felt like an outcast.”
Although he enjoys college life, Blodgett says that due to being on scholarship, it sometimes as if he there to meet a quota.
In the fall of 2021, Hunter was asked to give a presentation for the National Council of Teachers of English. Hunter’s focus for the presentation was to highlight black boyhood, literacy and creating spaces for black boys to be themselves and had Young, Blodgett and Cameron present with him.
For his presentation, Cameron, also a Buffalo State student, used poetry to put a critical lens on the education system.
“I'm having a critical appreciation of the things around me because it was a critique of schooling,” Cameron said. “Because that is still something that's very important to me, is looking at the way that you know people are educated. Because I think that that can have a huge impact on the way that things play out and happen around us.”
Cameron said the work put into the presentations made them all reach depths in their writing they didn’t know they had.
From Hunter’s point of view, the experience has brought all of them even closer together.
“You know it's just been a beautiful relationship at least from my perspective a really cool relationship to work with them,” he said.
By standing on the shoulders of giants, Hunter said it is his duty to give back in kind to the generations after him.
“I understand my role here as a professor,” he said. “Someone who has a PhD, as a black man working with young people. But for me, I also wanted them to understand, like, this is what service looks like. This is what teaching could look like, right? I think about that old adage by Mary Terrell Church, right? We lift as we climb.”
From Southern California to Western New York, Javon Hunter is contributing in his own way to Black history.