The right to attain a comprehensive education has dissolved into an illusion for Black children in Baltimore, sparking concern amongst educators and civil rights activists who say literacy is crucial to social mobilization.

Now, with public schools in the area being grossly underfunded, this pipeline to effective organizing has been relegated to a historical still life recalled by educators today. 

“We want to teach kids to be activists,” said Joseph Smith, a ninth grade English teacher at Frederick Douglass High School. “But [curricula] about how to change the world doesn’t really tell them that.” 

Although the Black Panther Party’s tradition of Black empowerment through knowledge continued on through local activist groups, those resources are now evaporating.

Oppressed groups have often looked to education as a launchpad upon which to craft liberation-geared realities. The Black Power and Civil Rights Movements of the 20th century, in a bid to address shortcomings of civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, necessitated a stern command of the English language to best understand the calamities that Black people endured globally. 

Black Panther Party members such as Marshall “Eddie” Conway championed community-driven political education programs and the distribution of the Black Panther Intercommunal News, a newspaper that was described as “an official organ of party opinion” in a 2002 article published in “Ethnic and Racial Studies,” a peer-reviewed social science academic journal. 

Through their efforts, Black children learned to read and write and became familiar with works from liberation greats such as Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Franz Fanon, and Malcolm X. And although the Black Panther Party’s tradition of Black empowerment through knowledge continued on through local activist groups, those resources are now evaporating.

How did we get here?

A 2022 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress pointed to the waning education and literacy amongst Black students in the state—46% of Black eighth graders couldn’t read at a basic level and 82% couldn’t read at a proficient level. 

Academics attribute this decline to socioeconomic stratification that was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Coupled with an emphasis on online learning and the mass exodus of teachers due to dismal pay and burnout, children from less-privileged backgrounds continue to be left behind. 

“There were a lot of differential ways that kids and families engaged in school and the way schools engaged with them during the virtual learning time,” said Dr. Stephanie Dodman, an associate professor in the School of Education at George Mason University. Prior to her professorship, Dodman taught special education and elementary school students. 

“[COVID-19] magnified those relationships, and the lack of those relationships, that were already there,” she said.

Teachers, often with minimal training, had difficulty navigating work as policies and procedures kept changing, and students lacked adequate access to computers, stable internet connections, and computer interface literacy lessons.

Smith, the Frederick Douglass High School teacher, joined the school in 2019 after completing the Baltimore City Teaching Residency program, buoyed by the promise of changing his students’ lives—but teaching on Zoom through the height of the pandemic quickly dismayed him. 

For many teachers, experiences like Smith’s fast-tracked their exodus from the profession. Over 5,500 Maryland teachers left their jobs in 2022 alone, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

“I repressed a lot of [my memories from that time],” he said. “It’s impossible to train someone to be an effective teacher in a few weeks.”  

There was also no school district mandate to turn on cameras during virtual schooling, so he couldn’t accommodate students living with disabilities and attention difficulties. This predicament reemerged in January when Frederick Douglass High students were forced to return online after pipes burst and flooded the school. 

“Kids [didn’t] come to school as much as they should [have],” he said. “What I’ve heard from a lot of my students is that going virtual signifies…an opportunity to disengage.” 

For many teachers, experiences like Smith’s fast-tracked their exodus from the profession. Over 5,500 Maryland teachers left their jobs in 2022 alone, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. In February, The Real News Network published a letter from Baltimore County teachers who identified pay differences—as high as $15,000 compared to teachers in neighboring counties such as Anne Arundel and Howard—as one of the reasons for their departure.

In March of this year, additionally, a Maryland circuit court concluded that Baltimore Public Schools receives “constitutionally adequate” funding in response to a 2019 lawsuit that claimed the Maryland State Board of Education had deprived Baltimore children of almost $2 billion in funding since the 1990s.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and American Civil Liberties Union rebuked this ruling in a press release, citing that generations of children were being forced to “attend school in dilapidated and unsafe buildings without the resources they need to succeed.” 

“The children of Baltimore City deserve more than a ‘basic’ education, and the law demands more,” said Alaizah Koorji, assistant counsel for the defense fund. 

This all deprioritized achievement amongst Black children, and oppressive policies that neglected the importance of Black history in curricula further diminished academic excellence.

Smith said that English curricula introduced in 2022 lacked a recounting of Baltimore’s rich, salient history. In one instance, his students had to read biographies of all white men when learning about changemakers in the city. 

“There were no spaces for Black joy,” he said. “There were no spaces for students to engage their communities.” 

Dodman views this as perilous. 

“When you have [a] curriculum that misaligns with who students are, kids know that,” she said. “They know that what their knowledge is and what their community cultural wealth is, is not what’s being valued.”

Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University, described this as “an attack on Black literacy.” Hansford, a movement lawyer, is also the executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. 

As an adolescent, he was more inclined to read topics about Black history that were “relevant and interesting” to him, and this propelled him toward a degree in African American studies in college and a career as a movement lawyer.  

“[There’s] an anti-literacy campaign to take Black things out of the curriculum because you remove an incentive for kids who may not care about just reading, but who do care about themselves and their people and reading is the mechanism for that,” he said. 

He added that because of a cultural divide within the Black community regarding “acting white,” not representing Black children in education ostracizes them from their Black peers. 

Hansford recalled being bullied for being an avid reader and “acting white” as an adolescent, but his moments of reprieve were when he read books about Malcolm X. 

“If you’re reading something pro-Black you’re not ‘acting white’ [so] it becomes cool to do your reading,” he said. “And what [some politicians] are doing is that they’re removing that and now those kids can say, ‘If you’re going to school and you’re reading, and they’re taking all the Black stuff out, you must be reading the white stuff.’”

This scenario is a product of how teachers treated students during integration in the 1960s and 1970s, Hansford said. In his opinion, Black teachers at all-Black schools encouraged all students to read for empowerment. However, in integrated schools, only high-achieving Black students were applauded, thus transitioning them out of the Black community into the white establishment. 

This reduced chances of effective organization in the Black community, posing a threat to Black political activity. 

“I think there’s been a fall off [in knowledge],” he said. “But it’s not that it’s just a blank slate, but what was filled in were talking points from the right wing…[and] what we have is the indoctrination of misinformation and lies.”  

Is there a way forward?

In his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Brazilian educator Paulo Freire posited that oppressed people cannot humanize themselves unless they acquire knowledge. A 2022 study done at McGill University also supported this, concluding that higher levels of literacy result in higher levels of self-worth and political activity. 

The African Diaspora Alliance, a Baltimore nonprofit organization that connects descendants of Africa to the global African diaspora, facilitates this through a diverse set of educational programs. 

Founded in 2015, ADA came to life when co-founders Moriah Ray and Jasmine Hall “were not with the shits” following the lynching of Freddie Gray. In an effort to learn more about themselves, the global Black struggle and how best they could impact their community, the two traveled to Cuba where they conducted a case study on students at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine. 

[Moriah Ray’s] time in Cuba allowed her to engage in complex conversations about race and Blackness—for example, how Cuba protects Assata Shakur but jails Black Cuban activists—that she and Hall brought back to Baltimore youth. 

“Seeing how many Black people were there who I’d never learned about… I was furious,” said Ray. “The erasure of Black people in the Americas just had me pissed. I was like, ‘Oh, we’re not in this just by ourselves?’”

Her time in Cuba allowed her to engage in complex conversations about race and Blackness—for example, how Cuba protects Assata Shakur but jails Black Cuban activists—that she and Hall brought back to Baltimore youth. 

Through ADA’s youth program, participants meet twice a week to learn about topics such as financial literacy and mental health. And, in some cases, how to read.

This year’s youth program reading was “Assata Shakur,” and one of Ray’s students disclosed to her that they’d been listening to the book because they’d never read a book in its entirety. Perplexed, she visited one of the Baltimore high schools where she discovered that students were provided with Sparknotes summaries of their assigned readings as opposed to reading entire books. 

Despite this, Ray doesn’t believe that the future generation of activists won’t still be able to organize.

“In terms of Black folks’ experience in the Americas, we’re not new to illiteracy,” she said. “My grandfather had a middle school education and could barely write on his own but he made his way further up north to Baltimore and he died owning four different properties.”

“I think that literacy is absolutely important and essential, but I don’t think it historically… has ever been something that we use as an excuse to not gain freedom,” she added. 

Ray views literacy as being “a piece of the pie”—a sentiment unforeign to Hansford, the Howard law professor.

Hansford believes that individuals also need to be politicized, a concept he learned from activist Fred Hampton Jr. while on a study abroad trip to Brazil during his undergraduate years. 

“When I was young, I had to see that the outcomes taking place in the world were not just because some people worked hard and were rich whereas others didn’t,” he said. “I had to see political action resulting in certain outcomes. Being politicized was the transition.”

He added that slave rebellions happened during a time where it was illegal for Black people to read; thus, illiteracy shouldn’t preclude one from political action. However, its benefits are invaluable. 

“The danger is that you can be more easily manipulated. So, if you don’t have that ability for critical thinking, you get stuff like ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,’” he said.

This story was produced as part of the 2023 POWER Fellowship, a joint project of The Real News Network and Just Media, made possible with the support of the Scripps Howard Fund as well as generous individual donations.

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Tinashe Chingarande is a 2023 P.O.W.E.R. fellow with Just Media and The Real News Network. Tinashe is a writer interested in history, politics, culture, and identity, and how they all influence society's self perception.