Ethnic Studies Educator Bruce Jackson and the Beautiful American Story Never Told

 by Ari Robin McKenna

This is the second in a series of articles featuring the words of local ethnic studies educators who are doing work to address systemic racism in our classrooms. To read the first, click here. To read the series intro, click here.

When Bruce Jackson was a child, his household was swept up into a greater story that still reverberates across the world today. His uncle, Zayd, was killed defending writer and civil rights activist Assata Shakur during a confrontation with police on the New Jersey Turnpike. A documentary about Shakur’s life ends with the following words regarding her chosen surname:

“It is a name that I took to carry on the name of Zayd Malik Shakur in honor of his family, and in honor of the forces of beauty and good on this earth which I’m grateful for. That is my name.”

Zayd’s widow and their son moved in with young Bruce’s family in Chicago for a spell, and members of both the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army used to check in on them frequently to make sure they were all safe.

Meanwhile, Bruce was attending an all-Black school that taught students an all-white history. Knowingly, some of the frequent visitors to Bruce’s home began giving him homemade Black history cards to bring to his elementary school classroom. One card he still remembers was Charles R. Drew, a celebrated surgeon and plasma innovator who organized a first-of-its-kind, large-scale blood bank for Allied soldiers in World War II, only to quit when the military demanded separate banks for Black and white blood. 

If young Bruce became disillusioned in class, he would simply stand up and start reading one of these cards out loud. As a result, he was often sent to the office — some of his teachers were frustrated not to be familiar with these accomplished people who their history books seemed to skip over so effortlessly. Other teachers dealt with these disruptions better, even finding and providing supplementary information.

Bruce Jackson currently teaches Special Education at Aki Kurose Middle School on the edge of Hillman City and Brighton in the South End of Seattle. When the Emerald spoke with him at length in Jefferson Park a few weeks ago, protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter were just erupting worldwide, and millions of people around the world were raising their fists in tribute to those who’d passed him cards and protected his extended family, and those who initiated what is now a federal free breakfast program for students: the Black Panthers.

In a sense, the immutable poetry of “history” still surrounds Bruce. What he was doing as a boy in school — standing up and raising those Black Panther history cards in the air — is strikingly similar to what he does as a man.

A member of the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG), Bruce is developing K–12 educational frameworks tailored towards the identities of his diverse students, while centering historically marginalized populations. ESAG is also demanding that the Seattle Public Schools district office scrap its Eurocentric curricula, which still systematically ignores the majority of its students.

What follows are some of Bruce’s thoughts on how Seattle Public Schools can stop miseducating children and how it can structure future learning, building on the tremendous opportunity that Seattle’s diversity presents (especially in the South End), and on the beautifully complex story that could be told in the United States of America:

“When you’re a white supremacist, and you’re winning, you have a lot to lose with ethnic studies. That’s where I’m coming from, because right now, kids go to school, they learn Romans and Greeks as ancient history. They learn about the Constitution (as much as they’re willing to tell them about it) and the birth of this nation based on a white perspective. 

“But when you look at world history, and say you start in Asia, you’re seeing the first writings ever. You’re seeing the first structured mathematical concepts. Europe also evolved similar concepts around the same time, with the same numbers. You’re also seeing that same thing in Africa. You’re seeing that same thing in the Middle East. Hell, algebra is a Middle Eastern word and no one even knows! Unless you point it out to kids, no one realizes this is a Middle Eastern thing. There’s so much information that’s not provided to kids, that it’s so easy to make history a weapon against them. But when you bring it all out, when you put it all on the table, everybody realizes they have an incredibly important role in all of it.

“That’s why we [Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG)] created the structures that we did. We wanted to start in the family, and then move from the family to the community, and then move from the community to the city, and then from the city to the world, you know? This country as it exists right now. There’s so many lessons to draw from it.

“When I look at my [own] education, I’m thinking: They taught us about when I was a slave. Then they skipped history for like 100 years and went to Martin Luther King. And you know we were doing interviews with Aki [Kurose Middle School] kids, [asking], “Who is Martin Luther King?” And one of them said, ‘Martin Luther King freed the slaves.’ because that was your next story. The next time you hear about Black children in history after slavery is Martin Luther King: he freed us all. That goes from, ‘he freed us all,’ to ‘he freed the slaves.’

“I can say you can’t teach the Civil War without teaching reconstruction right after it, because that’s what happened next. It was like an unprecedented time! In reconstruction we had our first Black senator, and no one even talks about him! It’s like a giant gap, half the people in this city — more than half the people — 90% of the people in this city can’t name the first Black senator. There were twenty Black U.S. representatives right after the Civil War! They were unifying with white Northerners on how to reconstruct the South. They started community groups to figure out who are the best people to run for this office, and they ran them and won. It was an amazing time for democracy, and it’s probably the only time that democracy — as we envisioned it — has ever existed in this country. And they allowed the Ku Klux Klan to smash it to bits.

“There’s so much we don’t talk about — way too much important stuff. The decolonizing of our educational system is just a matter of opening it up, opening it up to the truths that are around us. How many times does a kid get to ask his parents: Who am I? Who are you? What’s your history? What makes you proud? What books did you grow up liking? What movements did you think were interesting when you were my age?

“When I go to Aki [Kurose Middle School], we’ve got 37 home languages that we speak at that school. That’s 37 different cultures that all need to be attended to. We have a responsibility to teach every single one of those kids to be proud of themselves — and there is a point where you can become proud of yourself.

“I’ve been there for 16 years. First 10 years, we had maybe five white kids per year. This year we’re at our maximum ever, we have maybe 100, but it’s never been the majority, never even close — but every lesson plan we teach is about white people and how white people have done this for those people and how benevolent they were.

(Photo: Chloe Collyer)

“I know it’s planned, but it’s just insidious. It’s like one of the worst things that can happen to a kid that’s looking for identity and finding out that that’s something I’m never going to be — the good thing in this country.

“And you know our teachers are predominantly white, so it doesn’t feel wrong to them because this is the way they were taught. So when you get that rare educator of color, they don’t stay long because they’re looking at the system that they’re forced to teach, and it’s not what they grew up with. As an educator myself I know when I’m messing up, when I’m talking to a kid and I’m not reaching them because I’m full of bull shit.

“Another thing that we [ESAG] have been working on, is getting more parental involvement in classrooms. It may look different in the North End, but in the South End, parental involvement down here means that 37 cultures are coming into our classrooms. And if we record the things they have to say, we as educators find directions that we didn’t find before. We find out how to expand education. How do we tell the perfect Somali unit? I don’t know that much about Somalia. A large segment of our population is Somali immigrants. How do you tell that story when you just have nothing to go on? It’s their parents coming in and talking to us. They’re being set to the side because their education doesn’t come from America.

“We’re at a point in this city where we can teach something that’s never been done anywhere that I can think of. There’s so much information if we just don’t let the minds of our students go to sleep.

“If I’m going to sit around a campfire with a class of Aki [Kurose Middle School] kids and tell them a story, I want that story to be relevant to all of them. And I think that’s what it all gets down to, that’s what history is. You go to a Native American camp, they’re telling you their history. They’re sitting down telling you stories. Sometimes those stories are fantastic, and sometimes those stories are ordinary and silly, but you have no doubt in your mind that that story comes from some point in truth. And that same thing goes down in those African American camps, those African camps in Ghana. Sitting down in front of a campfire, listening to people entertain you with history. That’s where we got to get close to sometimes. Tell us the stories that make us strong.

“When I try to see the whole picture, what I see is kids knowing that they’re not going to be told the story of their past, and then tuning out and missing the potential of what they could do.

“If you study Hungary and you understand that history. If you study Ireland you understand that history. And you’re melding that history with the person who’s sitting next to you who’s from Ghana —  and was born in America and has been here for ten generations, and right next to them is a person who’s from China for ten generations in America too, and someone who’s Native American has been a hundred generations here, and you’re combining these stories … 

“That story is going to have a whole lot more beauty in it than what we can gather from the story that we’re getting from our schools right now. There’s beauty in it; I want to see that story told, and it’s been denied me my entire life, but I want to see it.”

Bruce Jackson (right) and Amanda Hubbard (left), both members of the ESAG, at the Leschi Elementary Black Lives Matter vigil on June 6. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, and is now settled in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach) and writing. He is currently pitching a novella called “On a Moonlit Landing.”

Featured image: Bruce Jackson by Chloe Collyer.