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Real Talk: Is It Time for Another Lesson in Stereotyping?

A Virginia student claims his teacher told him to read a poem "blacker."
Confession: I don’t always like reading the news. Of course, not doing so isn’t an option because of my profession. But lately, I’ve been alternately annoyed or depressed after clicking through my favorite sites.

Today, I’m annoyed. I recently read a story in The Washington Post about a teen boy who was encouraged by his teacher to speak “Blacker.”  

Yes, that just happened. The details (according to The Washington Post): Ninth-grader Jordan Shumante, 14, the only Black child in his Virginia classroom, was reading aloud a Langston Hughes poem when his teacher interrupted him. “She told me, ‘Blacker, Jordan — c’mon, blacker. I thought you were black,’” Jordan told the Post.

Jordan refused to continue reading the poem, and his teacher took up the task, reading aloud herself. “She sounded like a maid in the 1960s,” Shumate said. “She read the poem like a slave, basically.” (Have I said how much I love this kid? No? I love this kid!)

While the English major in me is tickled iridescent pink at the idea of Langston Hughes’ name being discussed in the news and pop culture again, everything else about this story— oh, besides Jordan’s one-liners and righteous indignation — is plain ratchet.

Instructing students to read aloud with “more emotion,” “more passion” or “more feeling” is par for the course in an English class. I was instructed by many a professor or teacher to do so. But “Blacker”? A Black person reading classic American poetry written by a Black man in Harlem during the Renaissance to a room full of entirely non-Black people is a “Blackity-Black” Black moment. And however the Black child read it before the teacher’s misguided “encouragement” was undoubtedly “Black” if for no other reason than the person reading it was Black. But it seems Jordan’s version of Black didn’t fit conveniently into his instructor’s stereotype. It sounds like she was looking less for “President Obama Black” and more for “Madea Black.”  

Narrow definitions of Blackness, like the one Jordan’s teacher insultingly tried to impose on him, isn’t what I expect from a veteran teaching professional, as is the case here. I do — sadly — expect it from children who haven’t been exposed to too much in the world. Usually when we hear of Blackness being simplified to the most monolithic way possible in schools, it’s stories of Black kids chiding others for “acting white,” for offenses like not speaking enough slang or even getting good grades. I heard that enough coming up from some of my neighbors and church “friends” who didn’t quite know what to make of a Black girl who did — or didn’t do — both of those, and whose music collection was more Oasis, Green Day and Jewel than Wu-Tang, Tupac and Missy Elliott.

What I wish some of those childhood associates knew then and what Jordan’s instructor should know now is that one of the many beauties of Blackness is our diversity. And no part of it — whether it’s hip-hop dialect or stereotypical suburban enunciation with the “ing” added to present-continuous-tense verbs — is any more Black, or less, than another. It would have made coming of age so much easier for me, and would make it so much easier for Jordan and kids like him.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk