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Black excellence in education: Fostering a sense of being among students of color in Buffalo

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Dr. Fatima Morrell, Buffalo Public Schools' associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives.

Author Toni Morrison once described her writing, centering on Black characters and the Black experience as avoiding the white gaze — the tendency to measure oneself to the norms of the white middle-class, and more specifically — middle class, cisgender white males.

But how is this concept applied to education? As book bans and challenges to what is being taught in schools continues to grow across the country, local educators are providing spaces for students to learn outside of the white gaze.

In the Buffalo Public School District, where roughly 80% of students are non-white and 77% of teachers are white, Dr. Fatima Morrell, in her role as associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives, is making sure all of her students are represented.

“We can't partially educate our children and then ask them to make informed decisions about who they are or to advocate for their own justice and their own liberation if they don't even know that there's a struggle going on and where does that struggle began,” she said.

Through Morrell’s Emancipation Curriculum, concepts which differ from what many of us grew up learning in school are more than welcome in Buffalo Public School classrooms.

“When we talk about the Emancipation Curriculum we're going to start from the origins of America,” she said. “And as hard as that truth is, we have to unpack that so that they can see that through all of the trials, the triumphs, the Jim Crow segregation, the lynching’s, the mobs, the riots, the massacres, we still stand as a strong people, and we still stand as a people who have contributed infinitely to American history.”

The curriculum, which was developed in 2020 to promote equity in schools, discuss racism and offer perspectives from diverse on the histories of people of color, has garnered praise from across the country and a feature story in Time Magazine.

“It really is a liberating curriculum,” Morrell said. “And so you may ask me well liberating from what? Really unlocking the cognitive abilities of our kids, unlocking true history for them so that they can think freely and think for themselves and make decisions about life in the world for themselves.”

Morrell’s work has gained in importance following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo which killed 10 Black grocery store shoppers.

Centering Black and Brown lives is critical to Morrell’s work.

“So we do this wonderfully for white children,” she said. “They're included in all the books, the stories, the histories are there. They feel good about themselves, they can see themselves mirrored in that curriculum and that's wonderful but what we have to do is we have to do that same thing for our children of color.”

At SUNY Buffalo State College’s Africana Studies department offers a range of courses looking at Africa and the African diaspora through the arts, sciences, politics, culture and more.

In developing the curriculum Buffalo State Africana Studies Assistant Dean Carlos Jones said there were not classic curriculums from the past to rely on.

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SUNY Buffalo State College
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Carlos Jones, SUNY Buffalo State College Associate Dean of Africana Studies

“Creating Africana Studies programs and creating that sort of scholarship and writing around it hasn't had hundreds of hundreds of years of history of practice,” he said. “So when you talk about controlling the curriculum, you're really want to talk about this upsurge of Africana Studies, as a particular viewpoint is relatively young.”

And Jones wants to make it clear; what is being taught is not Critical Race Theory or whatever people may think CRT is.

“I'm talking about-- I have faculty talking about US history, or here's some literature and here's the viewpoint. Here's what they were looking at. Here's theater,” he said of the development of the courses. “So, yeah, we can look at classics, here's people that you didn't know, that were a part of this lineage and American culture or in American politics.”

Because access to higher education for a wide swath of African Americans is so recent so is the application of Black voices in many fields of study.

Africana Studies Assistant Professor Dr. Marcus Watson funding is an important part of the equation.

“At the very least symbolically it means the institution recognizes you as having some value so that it's your worth being given something and having something funded,” he said. “On a more practical level when we have an operating budget or any kind of funding at all it means we can do things to build the discipline and the major.”

Marcus Watson
SUNY Buffalo State College
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Marcus Watson, Africana Studies Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo State College

And in this era of diversity, equity and inclusion having Africana Studies and the transferable skills that come along with the discipline does look good on a resume.

“I mean students leave our classes, having an understanding or an accurate understanding of the diversity of black folks in the US and in the world,” Watson said. “That's important because for many black students, it means for the first time maybe they're getting an accurate understanding of who they are.”

And through programs like Africana Studies and the Emancipation Curriculum a sphere of education geared towards the sensibilities of Black and Brown students is growing in Buffalo.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thomas moved to Western New York at the age of 14. A graduate of Buffalo State College, he majored in Communications Studies and was part of the sports staff for WBNY. When not following his beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats and Boston Red Sox, Thomas enjoys coaching youth basketball, reading Tolkien novels and seeing live music.