Book Review: ‘Black Lives Matter At School,’ An Invitation to Participate in History

Black Lives Matter at School, a book about a national movement for educational justice that was born in Seattle’s South End.

by Ari Robin McKenna

While reading the 31 chapters of Black Lives Matter at School, you may sense that history, instead of trailing behind you, just out of reach, has caught up; we are living in it. If you are involved with public education in the city of Seattle, where this story begins in a South End elementary school, it is especially difficult to read this book and not think the only choice you really have is what role you will play.

Co-edited by Jesse Hagopian and Denisha Jones, Black Lives Matter at School is a novel work of nonfiction as full of variety as it is imbued with a sense of purpose. Hagopian is an ethnic studies teacher at Garfield High School, an activist, and an editor of the magazine Rethinking Schools as well as two prior books. Jones is acting director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College and an education advocate and activist.

Writes Hagopian, “The Black Lives Matter at School movement erupted in Seattle in September 2016. A white supremacist threatened to bomb John Muir Elementary School when the educators there, in conjunction with parents, community, and the group Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative, declared that they would celebrate Black students with an assembly and by wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirts to school.”

When teachers across the city expressed solidarity, it launched what became a Black Lives Matter (BLM) Day of Action in Seattle. Philadelphia educators soon got wind, and they expanded it into a week of action. The idea was shared and appreciated at the 2017 “Free Minds, Free People” conference in Baltimore, with many participants choosing to take it back to their hometowns. The national BLM at School Week, with a corresponding curriculum, has continued ever since during the first week of February, finding purchase in more than 40 cities and towns across the country. Its purpose, as interviewee Jennifer Johnson, chief of staff of the Chicago Teachers Union, states, is “a clarion call to hold educators accountable.”

Front cover of “Black Lives Matter at School” (courtesy of Haymarket Books)

In the book, educational researcher Dr. Bettina Love says, “Too often, reform is rooted in whiteness because it appeases white liberals who need to see change but want to maintain their status, power and supremacy.” Thus, reform consistently fails to address the systemic racism that destroys opportunities for Black children because it is rooted in whiteness, just not necessarily the type you would expect. 

Both Love and Black Lives Matter at School affirm the BLM at School Week demands: 

1. End zero tolerance discipline in school, and implement restorative justice.

2. Hire more Black teachers.

3. Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum.

4. Fund counselors, not cops.

Although Hagopian and Jones feature a few engaging academic authors such as Wayne Au, author and professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington, and the aforementioned Love, who each have memorable chapters, the majority of the language is semi-formal to conversational. Perhaps seeking to avoid even a moment of staleness, Hagopian and Jones switch up the flow frequently, interspersing narrative personal accounts — which resonate yet sometimes take time to process — with chapters that provide the reader respite. These intermittent chapters include news articles and features, the scripts of movement demands, relevant teachers union new business items (NBIs), a FAQ about BLM at School, artwork, and even a student poem. What may sound chaotic is surprisingly cohesive, and the diversity of the editors’ approach leads to a potent, nonlinear understanding of the effective tactical methods used to dismantle what can seem like an ironclad status quo.

Black Lives Matter at School is divided into five sections. The first four are mostly concerned with consciously documenting the spellbinding growth of an uprising against systemic racism, with first-person accounts and interviews from across the country grounding the book in the backstories of featured educators and students. For every successful action we read about, a corresponding injustice that needs to be addressed is described by those facing it. As readers, we start to get a rare, city-by-city sketch of how systemic racism harms Black students clear across the country.

While this book could serve as an anti-racist education activist’s guide, it also offers a stark, impossible-to-ignore portrait of our nation’s education system for those unconvinced about the severity of our systemic racism. We see a system where the results of culturally-biased tests are used to close underfunded schools in Black communities; where the charter schools that replace them hire even fewer Black teachers; where art, music, physical education, and even recess, are stripped from Black students so those systems can increase their misguided focus on test preparation in English and math; and where cops patrol the halls for understandably disinterested or recalcitrant students, even entering classrooms to perform random searches.

A surprising amount of narrative tension builds section-by-section throughout Black Lives Matter at School. After reading the introduction and section 2, there is a sense of unbounded optimism coinciding with the rapid geographic spread of the movement. In section 3, Hagopian and Jones detail the struggle for teachers to get the BLM at School Week validated by their unions, both locally and nationally, and the book’s pace slows significantly. Though activist educators are becoming more and more common as the myth of neutrality dissolves, it is a fact that about four-fifths of rank and file educators are white, and within that majority there is great variance in their degrees of equity literacy. In an interview with Jones, Erika Strauss Chavarria, a high school teacher and social justice advocate, says, “Unions can be reluctant to support the [Black Lives Matter] week of action because of the fear of angering white educators and ultimately losing membership,” and because educators are so often white, “they may end up doing more harm than good when trying to teach the lessons.”

Chavarria goes on to clarify why union support for Black Lives Matter Week is crucial:

“It allows educators to feel like they have protection in participating in the week of action. It also enables resources about the week of action to be shared widely among the millions of union members across the country. Endorsements and support also put pressure on local school districts to demonstrate their commitment to Black students and families through supporting the week of action and by supporting the four demands. Maybe equally as important, endorsements demonstrate a collective power and voice in the affirmation of Black students by educators across the country.”

By the end of section 3, however, we’ve read exciting stories of groups of teachers who were able to prevail over their unions, despite massive pushback, and we regain a sense of possibility.

In section 4, we hear from a bevy of educators involved in various efforts to address systemic racism. In one chapter, Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price and Raquel James-Goodman — who three years ago had a falling out over James-Goodman’s lack of support for Aryee-Price when she was fired for organizing for racial justice — are reunited and interview each other. This remarkable passage follows:

“OKAIKOR: Each time we hurt or harm each other, we are pushed further away from our own humanity, but when we reconcile, we gain back a piece of that humanity we’ve lost.
RAQUEL: …Our reconciliation and solidarity is most commendable, but so is your ability to forgive. I am moving to a place where I forgive too, especially the administrators that look like me and are paid very well to masquerade as advocates for equity.”

After hearing from 18 impressive educators in section 4, in section 5 we hear directly from Black students. Though inspiring, their accounts often speak to how far we have to go. They speak of being summarily discounted, harassed, criminalized, or ignored within our current school system. Despite the students’ inspiring ability to organize for change themselves, it would have been difficult not to become angry or demoralized by the weight of their accounts had we not already read sections 1-4. Since we’ve now become familiar with the amazing work of so many committed educators (and now students), we have been prepared for how heavy the lift will be. Student leader Nathaniel Ganene, from Minneapolis, says, “If there’s one thing I learned in the last couple of weeks [after George Floyd was murdered by police], it’s that there are a lot of really good people who continue to hold up some really bad institutions and policies. And I think it’s finally time for that to change.”

In 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. — who would have turned 92 this year — said about people still clinging to neutrality in times like these, “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history … there is such a thing as being too late.” Black Lives Matter at School, is a compelling, conscious effort at movement-making, an invitation to make history in real time, and a guidebook to do so for educators and students alike.


Black Lives Matter at School book trailer

Black Lives Matter at School website

DC Area Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action Resources for Educators

Black Lives Matter at School Virtual Curriculum Fair, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021 (8 a.m.–10:30 p.m.)

Black Lives Matter at School Year of Purpose Zinn Education Project Teaching Materials

Featured Image: Jesse Hagopian and Denisha Jones, co-editors of the book “Black Lives Matter at School” (image courtesy of Haymarket Books).

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