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research-article2017
UEXXXX10.1177/0042085917690203Urban EducationWright
Article
Five Wise Men: African
American Males Using
Urban Critical Literacy
to Negotiate and
Navigate Home and
School in an Urban
Setting
Urban Education
1­–33
© The Author(s) 2017
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https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085917690203
DOI: 10.1177/0042085917690203
journals.sagepub.com/home/uex
Brian L. Wright1
Abstract
This study explores a psychosocial concept coined by the author referred
to as “Urban Critical Literacy” (UCL). UCL is an emergent four-step
strategy employed by five African American young men as they navigated
their cultural worlds of home and school in an urban setting. Critical literacy
is the theoretical conceptual framework that underlies this research. Data
collected through individual and group interviews and direct observations
of home and school are further grounded in constructivist theory to
help guide the investigation and documentation of how the participants
used UCL. The findings revealed that the participants employed UCL
as a strategy to help navigate and negotiate peer pressure, styles of
communication, dress, and stereotypes as well as school personnel’s
unfavorable perceptions of them that can potentially impede their school
success. The young men critically identified and reflected on these issues
in ways that empowered them to make responsible decisions without
jeopardizing their academic goals.
1The
University of Memphis, TN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Brian L. Wright, The University of Memphis, 3798 Walker Avenue, Memphis, TN 38152, USA.
Email: BLWRGHT1@memphis.edu
2
Urban Education 
Keywords
African American, males, high school, urban settings, critical literacy, urban
critical literacy
. . . being warned of God in a dream, they went a different way.
—Matthew 2:12
Young African American males in general, but especially those who grow up
in major urban cities in the United States, face a number of critical academic,
social, and environmental issues. These academic issues include, but are not
limited to, overrepresented in and often misdiagnosed into special education
programs, underrepresented in gifted education, Advanced Placement or college-preparation programs, low high school retention rates, suspension or
expulsion, and stereotype threat that often impede their academic achievement (Conchas, 2006; Ford, Grantham, & Whiting, 2008; Harry & Klingner,
2014; Howard, 2014; Klopfenstein, 2004; Nasir, 2012; Perry, Steele, &
Hilliard, 2003; Wright, 2011). These academic disparities are inextricably
linked to negative life outcomes (social and environmental) that include economic hardships due to high rates of unemployment and discrimination in
various sectors of the job market, adverse health conditions, drug and alcohol
abuse, negative media perceptions, racial hate-crime violence, and victimization as a result of police violence (Anderson, 2008; Caldwell, Kohn-Wood,
Schmeelk-Cone, Chavous, & Zimmerman, 2004; Davis, 2003; Ferguson,
2000; Graves, 2008; F. D. Harper, Terry, & Twiggs, 2009; Howard, 2008,
2014; Irvine, 1990; Morial, 2007; Noguera, 2003a; Thompson, 2002). These
critical academic, social, and environmental issues are used to blame students
and their families living in poverty for their “failures” and, likewise, to frame
urban education and urban settings as a source of pathology and consequently,
the demise of public education. The practice of “blaming the victim” conveniently subverts the focus on race(ism) because it fails to acknowledge the
conditions of economic and societal inequities that produce these systemic
problems mentioned above (see Milner, 2010, 2015). Once these negative
perceptions toward urban students become normalized in society, then urban
education’s failure is, ultimately, expected. Such deficit perspectives (Delpit,
2012) make it possible—or at least, in terms of the status quo, preferable—
for stakeholders to omit discussions of racial and institutional inequities
(Emdin, 2016; S. R. Harper, 2015; Milner, 2015), despite the fact that nonWhite students are concentrated in urban schools. Thus, leaving them to
Wright
3
confront and address the impact that poverty and race(ism) have on education
with little to no support. As Gooden (2012) asserts, if we do not believe the
aforementioned to be true, “then why is there no outrage when we see so
many urban schools failing?” (p. 72). Ultimately, the normalization of the
“underachievement” of urban schools deflects attention from racial inequities
and systemic oppression that have resulted in the lack of access and opportunity that urban students have to high quality academic programs (e.g.,
Advanced Placement courses, Gifted Education) and services compared with
their suburban counterparts (see Ford, 2010, 2013).
Complicated by these well-documented challenges and difficult circumstances is the onslaught of violence mentioned above “at the hands of police
officers, security guards and self appointed vigilantes” (O’Bryant, 2014, p. 1)
that further compounds these complexities, resulting in the deaths of Sean
Bell (23 years old), Rumain Brisbon (34 years old), Kalief Browder (22 years
old), Mike Brown (18 years old), Philando Castile (32 years old), John
Crawford, II (22 years old), Terence Crutcher (40 years old), Jordan Davis
(17 years old), Ezell Ford (25 years old), Eric Garner (43 years old), Oscar
Grant (22 years old), Freddie Gray (25 years old), Akai Gurley (28 years old),
Dontre Hamilton (31 years old), Eric Harris (44 years old), Ernest Hoskins
(21 years old), Tyre King (13 years old), Trayvon Martin (17 years old),
Alfred Olango (38 years old), Dante Parker (36 years old), Jerame Reid (36
years old), Tony Robinson (19 years old), Tamir Rice (12 years old), Keith
Scott (43 years old), Walter Scott (50 years old), Phillip White (32 years old),
and others.
Against this lethal backdrop of disparaging circumstances, lurks the universal mischaracterization of this population “as hopeless thugs who care
nothing about their education, communities, and futures” (S. R. Harper &
Associates, 2014, p. 3). These negative, deficit-laden, and criminalized portrayals adversely affect society’s view and treatment of African American
males both in and outside of school. In fact, negative depictions are widely
accepted and most often expected when writing about males of color, especially young African American men. Evidence of the latter is widespread in
social science journal articles as well as in the case of mainstream media.
Framing discussions about Black males according to “short-sighted, negative, and inaccurate assumptions” (Knight, 2014, p. 434) reinforces and reinscribes these kinds of stereotypes in the minds of schools and society. As a
result, African American males are relegated as a one-dimensional, depleted,
and ruined population who are besieged by, and destined for, “problems and
pathologies” with little or no hope of being seen or understood differently.
For this reason, the present study highlights the wisdom of the five African
American male adolescents who consciously choose a different path (apart
4
Urban Education 
from the running narrative scripted by mainstream society) such as the three
wise men who were instructed by Herod the King to reveal the birth place of
the child, they instead went a different way and did not return to him. It is
important to note here that choosing a different path to achieve academic success as claimed by the five African American young men did not necessarily
serve as a protective factor from the burdened effects of racism and discrimination on their schooling experience.
Tuck (2009), for example, implores communities, researchers, and educators to “reconsider the long-term impact of ‘damage-centered’ research—
research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness [whether real
or manufactured]” (p. 409). S. R. Harper and Associates (2014) make a similar national plea to, “please stop mischaracterizing young men of color as
hopeless thugs who care nothing about their education, communities, and
futures” (p. 3). Likewise, Milner urges school officials to resist the belief that
“if it’s urban, then it’s bad” (Milner, 2008, p. 1574). He further explains that
such a belief invokes negative images, deficit thinking, and masks the
strengths of urban schools and deflects the critical importance of addressing
structural and systemic inequities. By viewing urban schools as “liabilities
rather than assets” (Milner, 2008, p. 1577), the transformation of urban
schools into positive educational spaces will fail to occur, leaving urban education stakeholders to address reform movements in manners that limit rather
than challenge the academic potential of urban students. For a more comprehensive discussion of what urban education is and should be, see the work of
Milner and Lomotey (2014).
This study further admonishes schools and society to likewise suspend
their tendency (be it unwittingly or wittingly) to frame urban schools as an
example of all that is wrong with public education and by extension, positioning African American males from the point of view of problems and pathologies or as victims and perpetrators. These deficit views ignore structural
inequalities, and in turn, deny personal agency for young men whose lives
follow a different path.
The decision on the part of the study’s participants to take a different path
to achieve academic success, as mentioned previously, comes with its own
set of challenges. Like so many African American young men, they
must learn to manage multiple developmental tasks: both the ordinary tasks of
life course development, as well as tasks that involve managing sources of
stress rooted in particular forms of institutional stigmatization due to
assumptions regarding race, poverty, language variation, gender, and disability.
(Nasir, Rosebery, Warren, & Lee, 2006, p. 489)
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5
This study, therefore, provides a different view of five young African
American males living and going to school in one urban neighborhood/community in the Northeast who do manage to succeed socially and academically
with astute critiques of the very system that they are asked to navigate. Their
voices, agency (ability to act upon their cultural worlds of home and school),
and shrewd observations shed light on some of the challenges they faced in
pursuit of academic achievement while reading and engaging the world
sociopolitically through their awareness and utilization of multiple identities,
performances, and masks as they moved across different contexts, places,
and spaces.
Beyond School Failure
Taking an antideficit view of African American males toward a focus on
strengths and possibilities requires intentionally attending to the voices,
agency, and astute observations of these young men as they negotiate and
navigate their home and school contexts in urban settings. Such a view also
requires a
. . . belief that despite what is consistently reported in the media, peer reviewed
academic journals, and research reports, there are many Black male students
who enter [high school and] postsecondary institutions with high levels of
academic preparation, support, and motivation, which enables them to succeed
academically. (S. R. Harper, 2015, p. 142)
Their preparation also includes strategies (e.g., Urban Critical Literacy
[UCL]) for negotiating and navigating the schooling context to achieve
greater access and opportunities that ultimately assist them through high
school completion and beyond.
Although it cannot be denied, the importance of examining all aspects of
the schooling experiences of African American males within the education
system in general, urban schools in particular, attention to those factors that
disrupt the so-called academic achievement gap (Milner, 2013) and enable
academic success also cannot be denied and must not be ignored (S.R. Harper,
2015).
For these reasons, focusing on those factors that contributed to the success
of the five African American males such as the concept of “Urban Critical
Literacy” (UCL), a strategy that emerged from data analysis (and discussed
later in this article) is not only important in its own right but ultimately can
provide an opportunity for the recognition of the strengths that reside in the
target population. Taking a strength-based approach serves to counteract the
6
Urban Education 
negative representation, images, and associations of African American males
as problems and failures. Highlighting those African American males who
are able to effectively negotiate and navigate their home and school contexts
and who reject school failure to achieve school success can provide greater
insights into not only those factors that facilitate their success but also the
impact of educational inequality (see Harper & Associates, 2014; Howard,
2014; S. R. Howard & Associates, 2017; Milner, 2015).
An antideficit and strength-based approach uses equity-based practices/
emancipatory pedagogies (see Emdin, 2010; Gay, 2013; Haddix & SealeyRuiz, 2012; Kinloch, 2012; Kirkland, 2013; Morrell & Duncan-Andrade,
2002; Wright, Counsell, Goings, Freeman, & Peat, 2016) to disrupt the prevalence of the deficit-oriented narrative around African American males and
their educational success versus failure. The following research question
guided this inquiry:
Research Question 1: What funds of knowledge (or meaning making
resources) do high-achieving African American male adolescents use to
navigate and negotiate their cultural worlds of home and school?
This question was formulated based on a constructivist grounded theory
approach to critically examine and interpret those constructs (e.g., attitudes,
beliefs, practices) embedded in the various situations and circumstances that
the study’s participants used to negotiate and navigate their home and school
contexts. The strategy of UCL that builds on critical literacy, emerged from a
deeper analysis of the data, which is further used to describe and explain how
these five young men’s understanding of, and experience with, social stratification (i.e., divided and unequal) along lines of race, class, and gender prepared them in some ways to negotiate and navigate their home and school
contexts in an urban setting.
What Is Critical Literacy?
Critical literacy is a stance, mental posture, or emotional and intellectual attitude that readers, listeners, and viewers bring to bear as they interact with
texts (McLaughlin & Devoogd, 2004). Critical literacy has been traced to the
work of Paulo Freire, who taught those systematically marginalized in society to “read the word” to “read the world,” and to engage in a cycle of reflection and action (McLaughlin & Devoogd, 2004). In reading the world, those
in the margins and on the periphery, “recognize inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of [a racist] society” in which they must figure out the best
strategy to “refute . . . [the] reproduction of Black inferiority materially and
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7
symbolically” (Casey, 1993, p. 123), which is both psychologically and physically exhausting. Building on this framework of critique, critical literacy in
the present study goes beyond simply understanding literacy as a set of skills
or practices to
•• challenging common assumptions and values;
•• exploring multiple perspectives, and imagining those that are absent or
silenced;
•• examining relationships, particularly those involving differences in
power (teacher–student interactions);
•• undoing deficit constructions of the intersection of language, literacy,
and culture with respect to African American students, especially
males; and
•• reflecting on and using critical literacy to take action for social
justice.
Using these principles and a constructivist grounded theory approach, the
participants’ reflections on their experience living and going to school in an
urban context are documented. These experiences are later analyzed using
the concept of UCL that as previously mentioned emerged from a deeper
analysis of the data, in which the author of this study listened to the voices of
five African American males to better understand what it meant for them to
be literate (reading the word and the world) in a multicultural, democratic,
and racist society, where the existence of White supremacy and racism treat
the languages, literacies, and cultural ways of being of African American students as “deficiencies to be overcome in learning the demanded and legitimized dominant language, literacy and cultural ways of schooling” (Paris,
2012, p. 93; see Lee, 2007; Paris & Ball, 2009; Smitherman, 1977).
Method
The perspectives of five African American males considered high achieving
in an urban pilot school in the Northeast were documented using a constructivist grounded theory approach (Creswell, 2013). This approach was used
specifically as an instructive framework to examine and interpret several
constructs embedded in the various perspectives, situations, and circumstances surrounding the lives of traditionally disenfranchised individuals
(Charmaz, 2006; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). These include, but are not limited
to (a) participants’ feelings, assumptions, and ideologies surrounding what it
may mean to be Black and male in their cultural worlds of home and school
(specifically, the multiple realities and complexities related to these different
8
Urban Education 
settings); and (b) participants’ views and actions used to negotiate and navigate various spaces and places that tend to be circumscribed by race and
gender. This approach provided a method for the development of UCL, a
four-step strategy that emerged from the data analysis of the five wise men
and discussed in greater detail later in this article.
The study’s findings illustrate the use of strategies taken up by the young
men that enabled them “to see deeply what is below the surface—[to] think,
critique, or analyze” (Wink, 2005, p. 1) situational and situated issues of
urban life and living to strategically navigate their home and school contexts.
Thus, like the three biblical wise men who departed to their own countries
another way, so too do the five young men in this study. They go a different
way in pursuit of academic success in school. Put another way, these young
men skillfully “read the word and the world” (Freire & Macedo, 1987), with
the understanding that in doing so, they will achieve “higher education access
to gainful and rewarding employment, and access to civic life” (Morrell,
2008, p. 237) to a greater extent.
Participants: Who Are These Young Men?
At the time of the study, the five participants were socially and academically
successful African American male adolescent 11th and 12th graders, all of
whom attended Success Academy (pseudonym) during the 2005-2006 school
year. In addition to all participants belonging to loving families, each adolescent was intrinsically motivated and protected by a “thick skin,” and was an
astute observer of life and living within his respective communities/neighborhoods. These qualities enabled them to successfully negotiate and navigate environments where negative perceptions were abundant. Without
mechanisms to deflect negative mischaracterizations reified in media portrayals and low societal expectations, such perceptions borne out of stereotypical depictions of these young men can compromise and impede their
success in school.
As captured in Table 1, the five young men who participated in the study represent varying family compositions, dynamics, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The profiles that follow are testaments to these young men who allowed
me into their cultural worlds of home and school to better understand how
they used their experiences, social supports, situations, and relationships to
shift identities, behaviors, and decisions dictated by existing hierarchies of
power, communication, and opportunity they navigated on a daily basis.
Johnathan: I expect much from myself. So I pressure myself most of the
time.
9
Wright
Table 1. Characteristics of the Participants.
Name
Age
Grade
GPA
Johnathan
17
11th
3.1
Mark
18
12th
3.0
Marlon
18
12th
3.0
Nate
17
11th
3.0
Zach
18
12th
3.6
Academic program
English 11 Honors
Spanish 11 Honors
Algebra 11
Trigonometry
Spanish III
Preengineering
Precalculus
Spanish III
Digital art seminar
English II Honors
Spanish II Honors
Algebra II
Trigonometry
Psychology 100
Spanish 102/201
Critical writing 111
College algebra 115
(taken
at a local university)
Family
composition
Single parent
(mother)
Two parents
(mother
and father
are not
married)
Single parent
(mother)
Single parent
(mother)
adopted
Two parents
(mother
and father
married)
Note. GPA = grade point average.
Johnathan was a junior at Success Academy with three younger sisters. He
was a soft-spoken 17-year-old of average height and weight, with brown eyes
and short black hair. Firm in his convictions and unwavering in his attitudes
and beliefs about school, he strived to compete against a standard of excellence he had set for himself. As reflected in his quote above, his is a story of
self-determination as he pressured himself to succeed against all possible
odds with the support of his family, peers, and teachers.
Marlon: Growing up to become a successful young man faced with many
challenges has been one of the things that I have admired about myself.
Marlon, who has one younger sister, was 18 years old, of average height with
brown eyes, dark brown skin, and a head full of shoulder-length dreadlocks.
A senior at Success Academy, his family and teachers describe him as intelligent, energetic, funny, hardworking, and kind. In and around Success
Academy, Marlon can be seen with his dreadlocks pulled back in a ponytail,
10
Urban Education 
wearing baggy pants, a large T-shirt, and the latest name-brand sneakers, and
moving through the halls with a walk that reflects his confidence.
Nate: If they [teachers] see me struggling, they’ll give me an extra help or
some more time ’cause I have a[n] IEP.
Nate was a 17-year-old rising senior of average height and weight, with
brown eyes, and short brown hair. He was painfully shy. His inconspicuous
manner might easily allow him to be invisible in a large high school. However,
it was impossible not to notice this mild-mannered intriguing young man in
the small but vibrant learning community of Success Academy, of which he
was a valued member.
Mark: I am diligent, ’cause I am hardworking, intelligent, ’cause I’m
smart, handsome ’cause I look good, and ambitious, and spontaneous.
That makes up me.
Mark was a senior with an older brother and two younger sisters. He was a tall
18-year-old of average weight, with dark brown eyes, and wavy hair that he kept
cut short. He was well groomed and wore a style of dress he claimed was uniquely
his own. He insisted that he was from the “hood,” and was born in the projects,
and considered himself to be diligent, hardworking, intelligent, handsome, ambitious, and spontaneous. Mark was also something of a comedian, as he enjoyed
engaging in joking and teasing (e.g., playin’ the dozens) with his peers.
Zach: I’m hardworking, Christian, well actually Christian is first.
Hardworking is second, friendly is third, intelligent is fourth, and fifth
would be real.
Haitian American, Zach was born in 1987 to immigrant parents and the
youngest of four siblings. A senior, he had dark brown eyes and short black
hair. He was extremely intelligent with a personality that was contagious and
permeated everything in which he was involved. He was also a devout
Christian, active as a youth leader in his church. When Zach was not at
church, he enjoyed listening to a variety of music such as alternative and classic rock, heavy metal, rap, hip-hop, and R&B.
Settings: Private and Public Places and Spaces
Success Academy (pseudonym) serves predominantly African American and
Latino students. Sixty-one percent of the student body is on either free or
Wright
11
reduced lunch. According to the school’s website, Success Academy is a nurturing and supporting environment, where every student is known by his or
her first name. The faculty is highly qualified and has high academic expectations for all students. At Success Academy, the strong sense of community is
assumed to deter the feelings of alienation, low academic performance, and
the high drop-out rates that often characterize large urban schools (Steinberg
& Kincheloe, 2004).
Success Academy is located in a very large, diverse, and vibrant community with widespread poverty, limited community resources, and racial segregation in a city where crime rates are considerably higher than the national
average across many U.S. cities. However, despite these challenges, the study
participants’ do manage to steer clear of many of the challenges they have
frequently witnessed their peers fall victim to.
Data Collection
To examine and accentuate the participants’ local worlds of home and school,
their individual and collective realities, as well as the complexities of each
young man’s views and actions, they were interviewed individually on four
occasions and collectively one time as a focus group. Observations of home
and school were completed across the duration of the entire school year. For
example, observations of the school context were conducted periodically during different parts of the school day (e.g., first period, science and math
classes, lunch, afterschool). Observations of the home took place randomly
over the course of the school year. Each participant gave me a personal tour
of his home and community pointing out areas in his neighborhood that
should be avoided. The interviews conducted were biweekly at school and in
the homes of the young men. Prior to the start of each interview, the young
men were given a written summary of their previous interview as a reminder
of what topics were discussed and to clarify information shared.
Data Analysis
Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed verbatim. Initial a priori
codes (street smarts, social awareness, reflective young man) derived from
observations of home and school, guiding questions, substantive literature,
and the theoretical framework (critical literacy) served as the basis for emergent codes (intrapersonal reflection, code-switching speech, code-switching
dress; Patton, 1990). Data displays generated in ATLAS/ti V5.0 (a qualitative
software program) were used to aid in data reduction, to facilitate interpretation, and to identify patterns within the data (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
12
Urban Education 
These included matrix displays for the primary research question: “What
funds of knowledge (or meaning making resources) do high-achieving
African American male adolescents use to navigate and negotiate their cultural worlds of home and school?” The participants’ responses to this question and those questions that emerged (e.g., What do you think it means to be
Black and male in the United States?) as a result of the observations conducted at home and school were displayed to compare (not an hierarchical
sense) and contrast their experiences of growing up Black and male in the
United States. Analytic memos further develop the analyses and interpretations of the data.
These analytic memos were based on the initial coding of the data that
revealed three patterns for analysis: (a) interpersonal reflection, (b) codeswitching (speech), and (c) code-switching (dress) strategies across all five
participants. From these patterns emerged the development of the UCL fourstep strategy that took place in two stages. Stage 1 involved the identification
of patterns within and across the five wise men that represented tenets of
critical literacy. In Stage 2, from these patterns, the concept of UCL that represented the context (urban) and strategies (critical literacy) in which these
five young men negotiated and navigated their cultural worlds of home and
school were analyzed. Assignment of a specific step (e.g., reflect on it) in the
UCL four-step strategy was determined during the focus group interview in
which the participants explained and described, for example, the strategy of
“reflect on it” individually and collectively used when faced with a situation
and/or circumstance that could potentially get in the way of their academic
striving. This process of the five young men providing checks and balances
on each other offered quality controls on the data collected to weed out the
potential for false or extreme views (Krueger & Casey, 2009). The group
dynamics that lead to focusing on the most important strategies used to negotiate and navigate home and school were relatively consistent and shared
across all five young men.
Findings
Data analysis of observations and interview responses using a matrix
approach (Miles & Huberman, 1994) revealed some interesting, yet familiar,
trends and patterns among the participating African American adolescents.
Altogether, the data captured the participants’ feelings, assumptions, and ideologies surrounding what it may mean to be Black and male as they navigate
and negotiate their cultural worlds of home and school. Most noteworthy are
the strategies frequently used by African American adolescents to manage
their life experiences (both at home and at school) to best support their
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13
personal goals, namely intrapersonal reflection, code-switching speech, and
code-switching dress.
Intrapersonal Reflection
Consider how Johnathan effectively used intrapersonal reflection to make
sense of a family decision to impose a curfew. Johnathan reflected on its relevance to achieving his short- and long-term goals. He explained,
I do not want to be like other people that I see. Like some of my friends, yeah,
I do get a little jealous sometimes that they’re out longer [curfew] than me,
having more fun. But at the same time, I can see what they’re gonna become. I
don’t want that. So, I take my time to look at life and divide it up and take what
I want, and what I don’t want. I make the decision to do the right thing, and I
put all the pressure on myself to be what I wanna be.
Johnathan’s quote demonstrates his understanding of the complex reasons his
family imposed a strict curfew. Aside from helping him be well rested so he
can be alert in school the next day, he believed that a strict curfew also kept
him safe and away from the gang activity or other violence he reported in his
community (focus group interview). Also, he perceived his friends as becoming less successful in school, and later curfews could very well have been a
contributing factor. Johnathan tended to reflect on life, and focus on what was
in his best interest, to ensure that he would succeed. Doing this, he believed,
would help him not become like other people he observed in school and in his
neighborhood.
To further problematize Johnathan’s perceptions of the value of a strict
curfew imposed by his family, on one hand, seems appropriate in light of
the real challenges that his family believes can potentially jeopardize his
success in school. On the other hand, his belief that a strict curfew imposed
by his mother will keep him on the “straight and narrow” creates an “us”
versus “them” mentality. This occurs when a particular individual or
group’s self-image is enhanced be it real or manufactured resulting in a
false sense of superiority. This, in turn, can lead to discriminating and holding prejudice views against others. In the case of Johnathan, his belief in the
importance of a strict curfew as imposed by his family can unwittingly
result in a deficit view of his peers who do not adhere to a strict curfew.
Moreover, such a rigid view can lead to a false sense of self and security,
and the belief that because his peers do not follow a strict curfew, they will
automatically be less successful. This type of thinking promotes a familiar
narrative about mainstream parenting practices (i.e., White middle class) as
14
Urban Education 
ideal. Johnathan’s perspective may also reify the belief that there is only
one path to achieving school success. This view is in many ways counterproductive to one of the tenets of critical literacy regarding “challenging
common assumptions and values.”
Code-Switch Speech
Across the five participants, Mark was particularly skilled at code-switching
his speech patterns as demanded by different social contexts of home, school,
and work. The quote that follows represents Mark’s understanding of what it
means to code-switch with respect to speech. He understood and effectively
used various language registers according to the context demands and audience. Mark articulated the value and need to code-switch between slang,
African American English (AAE), and Standard American English (SAE)
both in and outside of school. He stated,
In this world, right, people think only White people speak proper English.
Some of them do, but some Black people do too. Like me, I speak both proper
English and slang. I mostly use proper English in class and at work. But with
my friends, though, I use slang, like everybody else. The difference for me is I
know when not to use slang. Like some of my Black, White and Spanish
[Hispanic] friends don’t. You gotta know how to switch it up because people
will think you are not smart. You know what I’m saying? I already know, that
if I use slang, like at work, people will think I am not smart or something. You
know all the stereotypes out there. But you know I got to represent and show
’em that I know how to speak proper English. Oh my bad, I mean, show them.
(Laughter)
Mark’s quote highlights his understanding of styles of communication in
and outside of school. He did not mince words when he explained his perception of society’s views associated with SAE as somehow synonymous with
European Americans, not to mention, an accepted assumption regarding
higher intelligence. Despite this view, Mark believed that both White and
Black Americans use SAE, as indicated by his emphasis on the word “some.”
He admitted that he used slang (which exists across all racial and ethnic
groups), AAE (not to be confused with slang), and SAE, and he recognized
when it was appropriate to use these styles of communication, demonstrating
his understanding of the use of code-switching albeit on a surface level. He
concluded by stating, “you gotta know how to switch it up because people
will think you are not smart.”
On one hand, Mark seemed to understand when it was appropriate to use
and SAE given what was expected of him in school, his community, and at
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work. On the other hand, his privileging of SAE over slang (that exists across
all racial-ethnic groups and often confused by mainstream as a derivative of
AAE) ignores how particular languages (e.g., AAE a legitimate language
with a set of rules and structures) historically and presently are dismissed as
mere slang, street talk, and having little value in schools and society. A deeper
analysis of Mark’s view of SAE in relationship to slang and AAE revealed a
language hierarchy, wherein non-White students learn early that the linguistic, literate, and cultural practices they bring from their homes and communities must be replaced with superior practices as schools demand. This
linguistic genocide under the guise of the importance of SAE to acquire
greater access and opportunity further perpetuates systemic inequalities in
schools based on race, ethnicity, and language.
To further substantiate the aforementioned point, AAE, in particular, has
been criticized as primitive. Scholars such as Kirkland (2013) have noted how
mainstream (particular school-based) attitudes toward various elements of AAE
(e.g., Black Masculine Language [BML]) are associated with laziness and lacking in intellectual prowess. These deficit views of AAE problematize what is not
reflected in Mark’s critique of the use of different communication registers (e.g.,
code-switching, code-meshing), and that is those speaking a language other than
English and/or a variety of the English language (which will all speak) to give
up their home (slang, English varieties) and cultural languages (AAE) to speak
the language that mainstream society deems appropriate and necessary to
achieve the myth of the “American Dream” (see also Paris, 2012; Young,
Barrett, Young-Rivera, & Lovejoy, 2013). Put another way, Americans especially non-White Americans (and those living in poverty) are often presented a
“choice” under the guise of a command to invest in Whiteness (not as a race) but
as an ideology to amass particular resources toward greater access and opportunity (see Lipsitz, 2006). Like code-switching, styles of dress that deviate from
societal norms also require those from nondominant groups and those who exist
outside of mainstream establishments to conform in a manner that tends to marginalize much of what individuals learn in their homes and communities as irrelevant to schools and society.
Code-Switch Dress
Like Mark, Nate also demonstrated his perception of the importance of codeswitching in relation to different attire for school, work, and in his neighborhood. He stated,
When I go school, I try to dress nice because I know it is getting you prepared
for work. You wanna dress nice when you are in school and on the job. You
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know first impressions matter, and you don’t want people thinking you are not
serious about your job and stuff. Like my teachers know that when I come to
class, I’m there to learn. But when you’re hanging out in your hood, you want
to switch it up with some sweats and stuff and put a little swag in it so my boys
know that I am cool and stuff (laughter). [Be]cause you know, people be
watching you and stuff and so, knowing how to fit in, is important.
Nate offers advice on how to dress appropriately for school, work, and in
his neighborhood. He recognizes that first impressions matter and that
assumptions will be made about an individual if they fail to adhere to appropriate styles of dress according to different contexts, places, and spaces. He
believed that “dressing nice” in school conveyed to his teachers that he was
in school to learn, just as appropriate attire for the job conveyed to his boss at
work, that he took his job seriously. Nate further distinguished appropriate
forms of dress for school and on the job when he stated that clothing should
be more relaxed (e.g., sweatpants) complemented with a particular way of
walking (swagger) to be congruent with the environment. He admonished
that because people are watching, adhering to appropriate styles of dress is
important for both survival and success.
It cannot be denied that particular styles of dress are privileged over others
(see Anderson, 2008). Given this fact, Nate’s perception of appropriate dress
may at first glance, seem well reasoned. However, when consideration is
given to respectability politics, Nate’s critique of appropriate dress is shortsighted. There is much evidence to suggest that even when members of nondominant groups, African American males, in particular, have adopted a
certain style of communication and dress (believed to be compatible with
mainstream practices), they were not able to inoculate themselves from the
effects of racism and discrimination in and outside of school. For these and
other reasons, and in the spirit of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, neither language use nor styles of dress that deviate from mainstream norms can
serve as a justification to rationalize the perpetuation of racism, sexism, bigotry, hate, and violence (such as in the case of Trayvon Martin, 17 years old).
The thoughts, perceptions, and firsthand experiences voiced by the young
men specifically, their developing ability to question what they saw, and critically interpret what they heard beyond the surface level, resulted in a deeper
analysis. The critical thinking skills demonstrated by their calculated critiques and analysis of peer pressure, societal perceptions about them, as well
as their own assumptions about how they are engaged (or not) and were consequently viewed by school personnel, led to the creation of a new psychosocial concept. Coined as, Urban Critical Literacy (UCL), this important and
timely construct will be defined and described in the subsequent paragraphs.
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Constructing a Theory of UCL
Aronowitz and Giroux (1993) and Freire (1974) define critical literacy as the
motivation and capacity to be critical of the school curriculum by asking
questions that challenge assumed or unquestioned beliefs and prejudices.
According to these scholars, when teachers introduce critical literacy to students in the multicultural classroom, they can help them cultivate transformative knowledge—insights into the construction of knowledge surrounding the
school curriculum. Other scholars, for example, Morrell (2004), define critical literacy as “the consumption, production, and distribution of print and
new media texts by, with, and on behalf of marginalized populations in the
interests of naming, exposing, and destabilizing power relations [e.g., white
supremacy, racism]; and promoting individual freedom and expression” (p.
241). Finally, according to Freire (1970), Hull (1993), Kirkland (2013),
Milner (2015), McLaren (2007), and UNESCO (1975), critical literacy can
lead to an emancipated worldview and even transformational social action.
From the critical literacy, tradition has emerged a new theoretical framework
coined, Urban Critical Literacy (UCL).
What Is UCL?
Conceptually, UCL is a navigational strategy used to navigate and negotiate
peer pressure while confronting and counteracting negative stereotypes (e.g.,
misbehavior, gang membership, prison, drugs, and crime) that prevail in U.S.
society, especially within urban settings. UCL relies on a deep understanding
of both the society and one’s own racial-ethnic identity. UCL provides the
individual with the personal strength needed to resist pressure from peers
(e.g., pressure to reject or view academic achievement as incongruent with
their racial-ethnic identity).
Operationally, UCL is an array of navigational strategies used to move
from setting to setting successfully through the processes of deflecting identity threats and decision making/problem solving, to claim opportunities for
optimal development (e.g., school success). Through the processes of careful
and critical reflections on situations related to school achievement and circumstances that could potentially impede their success in school, the individual employs UCL. In so doing, the individual will make an informed
decision—one that will not interfere with or jeopardize their school success
and future life goals.
The African American young men in this study who embody UCL were
able to acquire greater access to succeed in schooling through the development of a powerful language of critique of schools and society in the social
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reproduction of discourse, dialogue, and oppressive practices that continue to
position the urban poor as deficient (Brock, 2010). UCL, as operationalized
by these young men, develops out of the aforementioned reality; it is the ability to learn from, and seek out, the positive elements of one’s environment
without being interfered with, or distracted by, peer pressure or the negative
stereotypes mentioned above, many of which have largely maintained this
population’s miseducation, undereducation, and/or exclusion from educational opportunities. In the subsequent section, I outline the constitutive parts
of the theory of UCL that include (a) reflect on it, (b) speak it, (c) name it, and
(d) replace it.
The UCL Four-Step Strategy
As explained, UCL is a strategy derived from specific behaviors that the
five young African American men used in this study to resist pressure
from peers to reject academic achievement (pressure to view it as incongruent with their racial-ethnic identity). In addition, the participants used
UCL to ensure their school success is not compromised when they faced
situations that threatened that success, thus requiring wise decision making. These young men sought out the positive elements of their environment to succeed, especially in school. Such an ability is particularly
important in schools in general, but especially urban schools given the
often negative attitudes and beliefs that some Black adolescents hold
about school (Fordham, 1996), which I argue, is not because they lack the
ability to actually do the work or feel that education is unimportant to
their lives, but rather, because of the negative ways that they are categorically treated in and outside of school that undermine any chances for an
equitable education. As a result, this racial violence that stems from
schools and classrooms decreases opportunities for African American
males to develop into fully participating citizens in a so-called democratic
society.
The UCL four-step strategy that includes reflect on it, speak it, name it,
and replace it is expounded below and should be understood as a strategy
used in the moment (short term) by the five young men to mitigate albeit
temporarily those negative experiences from home to school that might
impede their school success:
1. Reflect on it—refers to a deep understanding of society’s influences
in general and urban settings in particular. This reflection is evident in
the manner in which the individual is careful to avoid being ensnared
in practices of the street.
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2. Speak it—refers to the ability to draw on various language registers,
or styles, to communicate with different audiences as dictated by the
context, for example, “code-switching” to behave according to a set
of linguistic rules (e.g., the use of SAE, AAE, slang) that depend on
the situation.
3. Name it—refers to the ability to name (understand people, places, and
situations) and confront (by finding smart and effective ways to
respond to the situation to dismantle and recast the situation or circumstance). For example, the individual must keep their eyes and
ears open at all times to respond correctly if challenged by race(ism)
and gender that tend to circumscribe the experiences of non-White
individuals (specifically Black and Latino males).
4. Replace it—refers to the ability to recast societal pressures (that tend
to privilege some while oppressing others) to overcome obstacles in
the moment as a result of structural inequalities that exist in and outside of institutions.
The UCL four-step strategy used to further analyze the quotes of the participants captures their use of UCL, specifically what it means to reflect on it,
speak it, name it, and replace it, based on situations and circumstances they
encountered living and going to school in an urban setting.
Johnathan Reflects on and Speaks It
Johnathan’s quote is evidence of a young man who circumspectly thought
about the short- and long-term possible risks of decisions made carelessly
that may impact his educational trajectory. His claim “reflects on it,” “speaks
it,” and “replaces it,” when he made clear that he did not want to follow the
chosen path he had witnessed many of his friends select. It demonstrates the
situational use of UCL that provided him with an in-the-moment strategy to
resist negative social influences and complacency.
Johnathan’s reference to the path taken by his friends signals the challenges on the street and at school for young people especially Black men
regardless of age. Adolescents from even the most stable homes must come
to terms with the various influences of the street. That includes, but is not
limited to, drugs and alcohol, coping with sex, peer pressure, materialism,
and low expectations at school. Being aware of such influences and developing strategies to steer clear of such things is critical for African American
young men, especially those growing up and going to school in challenging
neighborhoods. This ability to successfully negotiate and navigate their cultural worlds of home (and in some instances, the school context) has the
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potential to deter aggression and disrespect at the hands of peers and sadly
those who view them as a “menace to society.” Guided by his reflexivity,
sense of self, and general awareness of the day-to-day expected and unexpected negotiations of home and school, Johnathan deliberately steered away
from practices and activities that he believed might jeopardize the goals and
objectives that he has set for himself.
Mark Reflects on It, Speaks It, and Names It
Mark “reflects on it,” “speaks it,” and “names it” in his quote when he demonstrated that he is linguistically and socially smart and distinguishes between
the use of slang, AAE, and SAE. He recognized the need to use slang, AAE,
and SAE when appropriate. He explained the role that language plays in
school and on the job. His analysis of the assumptions that were made about
a person based on the way they speak, aligns with the research literature (e.g.,
Dandy, 1991; Delpit & Dowdy, 2002; Fogel & Ehri, 2006; Kinloch, 2012;
Kirkland, 2013; Paris, 2012; T. Perry & Delpit, 1998; Smitherman, 1977;
Young et al., 2013) that highlights the pejorative view of the ways in which
schools and teachers treat language, prior knowledge, and values of African
Americans as aberrant.
Mark’s acknowledgment that he used slang, AAE, and SAE, and that he
knew when to use them appropriately, reinforces the view of language varieties in and outside of school as well as the perpetuation of language hierarchies. His awareness of language varieties corroborates to some extent, the
work of Delpit and Dowdy (2002) who assert that “everyone is multidialectal
or multistylistic, in the sense that he adapts his style of speaking to suit the
social situation in which he finds himself” (p. 74).
Mark went on to state that his understanding of the use of SAE in school
and on the job is a way of “representing.” Although not reflected in his quote,
this notion of the need to “represent” reifies his claim that negative assumptions ensue when an individual fails to communicate effectively. This in
mind, it can be assumed that he viewed himself as an example of an African
American young man who is articulate and not the stereotype (inarticulate).
In contrast to this view, and unbeknownst to Mark, privileging SAE over
other varieties and languages (e.g., slang, AAE) may also indicate internalized racism in the form of linguistic violence that has a long history in U.S.
schools and society. This linguistic violence historically has sought to eradicate those “linguistic, literate, and cultural practices many students of color
brought from their homes and communities” (Paris, 2012, p. 93) as having no
real value in schools or society.
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The notion of “representing,” as articulated by Mark, might also be interpreted as he is a good example to others from his peer group to follow. In
addition, the need to “represent,” could also signal an unconscious (or conscious) investment in countering the pervasive stereotype that abounds
regarding styles of communication taken up by some African Americans that
are positioned in stark contrast to the hegemony associated with the use of
SAE (see, for example, DeBose, 2005; Kirkland, 2013; Young et al., 2013).
An important social fact that Mark alluded to is “people judge a speaker’s
intelligence, character and personal worth on the basis of his or her language”
(Delpit & Dowdy, 2002, p. xx). This critique of language and social stereotyping in schools and society pointed out by Mark demonstrates, rather compellingly the usefulness of UCL in how he has come to understand the
importance of language in school and out in the world.
Marlon Reflects on It, Speaks, and Names It
Marlon “named it” in his quote when he delineated a list of social ills he
believed are plaguing young African American males. He said, “I would like
them [teachers] to know it’s a big, it’s a big struggle that African American
males have to go through, and just let them be aware of it.” Awareness is the
first step toward creating an action agenda to understanding and meeting the
needs of African American males. Through awareness as Marlon pointed out,
school personnel can begin the work of changing their attitudes and perceptions of Black males in their schools and out in the world. Marlon’s quote is
echoed in the research of Howard (2014) when he states not “hearing and
empathizing with the pain, frustration, and deep seated anger that resides in
the hearts and minds of many U.S. citizens, particularly our young people”
(p. 52) further silences the voices and ignores the experiences of those individuals from historically marginalized populations who continually seek
inclusion in schools and society.
Thus, cultivating a caring community where all teachers are prepared to
serve all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, class, ability,
and/or disability is critical especially for African American male students
because simply being who they are is difficult due to the racist environments
in which they must negotiate and navigate on a daily basis. This challenge is
well documented in the work of Perry (2009) when she writes, “Tell us how
it feels to be a problem: Hip Hop Longings and Poor Young Black Men.” She
asserts that refusal to devalue African American males will occur only if we
(society and schools) acknowledge the human value of these males is far
broader and greater than the aforementioned pervasive stereotypes. The ubiquitous nature of this challenge is captured in a 2014 report by The National
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Black Child Development Institute titled “Being Black Is Not A Risk A Risk
Factor: A Strength-Based Look At The State Of The Black Child.” Contrary
to some, being Black is indeed not a risk factor but rather an asset.
For school personnel, teachers, in particular, to “push them” [African
American male students], as Marlon suggests, teacher preparation programs
and professional development must improve. Many teacher preparation programs continue to operate from an ideological framework that reflects dominant, often harmful, mainstream belief systems. Such ideologies are
perpetuated in the minds of their largely White, middle-class teacher candidate pool (see Lewis & Toldson, 2013) based on the entrenchment of the
aforementioned stereotypes that are deeply engrained in the very fabric of our
psyches and, as a result, manifest in our institutions. Therefore, it is important
that teachers recognize the “struggle between African Americans and society” that Marlon alludes to by understanding the significance of their students’ cultural identities and lives, become culturally competent through
what Marlon explained as “workshops about what’s going on in the neighborhood with most of the males who are African American.” To extend Marlon’s
recommendation, such teacher workshops should provide teachers opportunities to examine and interrogate how their attitudes, beliefs, and values
affect their perspectives, and actions to refrain from dichotomized thinking
that positions African American male students as either “good” or “bad.”
These workshops should position teachers as the “cultural other” to develop
sociocultural consciousness of other worldviews.
Finally, these workshops should focus on the development of racial literacy in preservice teacher preparation programs. Racial literacy coined by
Twine (2010) is defined as an example of intellectual and antiracist work. It
is a practice of reading, perceiving, and responding to the racial climate and
racial structures encountered by individuals daily. It is believed that individuals who develop skill in racial literacy in a given context have the ability to
recognize, name, challenge, and manage various forms of everyday racism.
Thus, racial literacy as it relates to the teaching of African American males
can serve as a pedagogical method for teachers, introduced early in their
course work, field experiences, and subsequently used in their future classrooms, to mitigate their misreading of this population as “ . . . hopeless thugs
who care nothing about their education, communities, and futures” (S. R.
Harper & Associates, 2014, p. 3).
Nate Reflects on It and Names It
Nate’s ability to “reflect it” and “name it” is demonstrated through his advice
on appropriate dress for home, school, and work at first glance, which signifies
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a young person who has perhaps learned the power of first impressions, specifically their impact on an individual’s ability to negotiate with a degree of ease
and fluidity in various spaces and places. Nate went on to explain why he
dressed a particular way at school and in his neighborhood. He stated, “Like,
my teachers know that when I come to class, I’m there to learn.” In contrast to
school, he explained, “But when you’re hanging out in your hood, you want to
switch it up with some sweats and stuff and put a little swag in it, so my boys’
know that I am cool and stuff (laughter).” On a much deeper level, Nate’s fashion sense raised a simple but rather pointed question, “What do clothes mean
(or not mean) in different contexts?”
From a developmental standpoint, the multilayered answer to this question draws a parallel between clothing and identity. The negotiation of identity is situated in appearance for many young people. For example, clothes
are used to negotiate a tenuous and fragile self at times, and an elastic self at
other times. Past and present, and present and future, clothing (fads, trends,
styles) serve as markers of economic class that becomes the basis of relationships/friendships for young people’s ability to navigate their cultural worlds
of home and school. Corroborating this point is the work of Elijah Anderson
(1999) who explains in his book, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and
the Moral Life of the Inner City, that in the public, an individual’s very
appearance, clothing, demeanor, and way of moving, as well as the peer
group he associates with, has the potential to deter transgressions. In fact,
clothing may not only serve as a protective factor for young people, they
often form the core of the person’s self-esteem, particularly when alternative
avenues of self-expression are closed or thought to be unavailable. Clothing
for many young African American males, as Trayvon Martin (hoodie), is
used to suspect, criminalize, and demonize them, rendering their Black and
Brown bodies as meaningless.
Nate’s final claim that “people be watching you and stuff—and so, knowing
how to fit in, is important,” resonates with families who are raising African
American sons as well as all those who care deeply about this population.
Families raising young African American males past and present, not only want
their sons to survive and thrive but also want them to simply stay “alive” in a
society where sadly, countless (and senseless) deaths of so many Black males
below the age of 25 years listed at the outset of this article have occurred.
Zach Reflects on It, Speaks, Names, and Replaces It
Finally, Zach’s quote highlights his awareness when he articulated the view
that some teachers have a less than genuine demeanor and a lack of investment
in the education of their students when he stated, “See some teachers are
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sneaky. They’ll talk about you during staff meetings. They’ll send out memos.
They’ll send out emails, and they think you don’t know that they’re writing
about you.” He goes on to say, “ . . . some of them just have a bad, nasty attitude around you. And you can vibe, you can sense it in their presence although
they try to hide it, and be nice, and try to keep the peace.” His perception of
teachers aligns with the research of Ladson-Billings (2000) in her assertion
that schools see teaching Black and Latino males as one of their greatest challenges. As a result of this view, the primary focus of their educational experience is maintaining order and discipline.
Unfortunately, the fallout of this treatment is not always inconspicuous as
Zach suggested. And yet, despite this attempt on the part of teachers to “keep the
peace,” based on his intuition (e.g., UCL), he was able to “see right through the
duplicity.” His claim of being able to “see right through the duplicity” is reflected
in the research of Barbarin and Crawford (2006), and others (e.g., Monroe,
2005; Monroe & Obidah, 2004; Noguera, 2003b), when they write about the
disproportionate use of expulsion and other severe sanctions in the care and
education of young African American males and the unconscious (and at times
the conscious) message this treatment conveys about this population as expendable. Other scholars (e.g., Ferguson, 2000; Taylor & Foster, 1986; Wright,
Counsell, & Tate, 2015) suggest that the discipline directed toward Black males
tend to be reactionary and exhibits itself in the form of control measures rather
than building up any self-actualization or self-management skills.
The way in which schools and society treat young African American males
is to label them, push them out of the system, write them off, and then adjudicate them early, as we would adults. As a result, this population’s humanity
is denied and they are not given the opportunity to be young Black males but
are treated instead as invisible or as a stereotype: violent, unintelligent, hypersexualized, misbehaving Black men with extreme athletic prowess (see U.S.
Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2016—“2013-2014 Civil
Rights Data Collection A First Look” on school discipline for Black males).
Rejecting these stereotypes requires personal empowerment and awareness
not just on the part of African American males, but society as a whole. In addition, young African American males need supportive school and out-of-school
structures that understand their educational and emotional needs. Finally, cultural pride, relevant connections, and an ethic of genuine care is required of
school personnel who work with African American male students.
Conclusion
Overall, the findings from this study lead to the conclusion that UCL was a
useful strategy employed by the study’s participants to navigate their cultural
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worlds of home and school. Through the use of UCL, the participants demonstrated their social competence, problem-solving skills, and autonomy.
Indeed, this study emphasizes and affirms the participants’ insights into perceptions about adolescents in general, and African American males in particular, who live and attend school in an urban setting. The emphasis the
young men seem to place on the importance of being aware of one’s environment highlights perhaps the necessity of the use of UCL as an important
psychosocial concept that can maximize one’s potential.
The study in some ways challenges the universally negative perceptions
that seem to abound about Black males. It demonstrates hope to African
American males and all who care about them, and it affirms that they do care
about their education, communities, and futures. Moreover, they are skilled
in their abilities to negotiate and navigate effectively their worlds of home
and school. Each of the participants evidenced his ability to question what he
sees, reads, and hears beyond the gentry to respond thoughtfully to negative
situations and actually uses them as stepping stones for success in and outside
of school.
Because many African American boys and young men begin early in their
lives responding to a daunting array of school, social, and community pressures that “may” encourage misguided decisions, it is imperative, that helping Black males “reflect on it, speak it, name it, and replace it,” through this
four-step model that teaches young people how to counteract peer pressure
and negative stereotypes (e.g., misbehavior, gang membership, prison, drugs,
and crime) that prevail in U.S. society. Moreover, to respond to racism and
discrimination strategically in the moment is to deflect the debilitating impact
of this violence on self to mitigate progress toward making sound personal
choices and potentially avoiding trouble. Sadly, for many African American
males regardless of the strategy, violence, as discussed in this article, may
ensue.
The power of literacies such as UCL lies in the young person having the
ability to make a sound personal choice to reflect on it, speak it, name it, and
replace it responsively to avoid overreacting negatively that could result in a
number of unfortunate outcomes. Thus, the student who has a negative
encounter with a peer or school official can replace it with a positive (re)
action to avoid escalation. By using strategies such as UCL, African American
males can create and apply positive resolutions to counteract potentially negative home- and school-related experiences, such as stereotypes.
This work is not simply the sole responsibility of young African American
males but requires schools and society to heed the plea of S. R. Harper and
Associates (2014) to “stop mischaracterizing young men of color as hopeless” (p. 3). Instead, recognize their strengths and needs and engage them in
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supportive in-school and out-of-school experiences that do not require a “loss
of self, or alienation from one’s culture, language, and values” (Morrell,
2008, p. 237), but rather, serves as a buffer. When African American young
men must constantly be on guard in and outside of school, the fatigue that is
symptomatic of this vigil impedes their ability to learn at the highest levels of
which they are capable (Knight, 2014). Thus, providing opportunities for
African American males to name injustice and prejudice—to overcome the
pressure to be silent about personal experiences involving racism and discrimination when they occur—is absolutely critical to their survival.
Unfortunately, race and gender (including class) continue to circumscribe the
schooling experiences and life chances of this population. For these reasons,
recognizing and cultivating the astute ability of students in general, and
African American male students in particular to read the word and the world
critically will ensure that they will choose to go another way to claim greater
educational access toward increasing their overall life chances. What follows
are recommendations for teachers as voiced by the five wise men.
Recommendations for Teachers
In addition to identifying and describing strategies that the five young male
adolescents used to navigate and negotiate their home and school cultures,
they also discussed how teachers could likewise advocate for them by recognizing and supporting their efforts. Marlon demonstrated his awareness of the
multiple challenges and struggles Black males face in his community and
school. When asked the question, “If you were principal of your school, what
would you want teachers to know about African American young men to help
them be successful in school like you?” Marlon responded,
I would like to let them know it’s a big struggle that African American males
have to go through, and just let them be aware of it, and probably have
workshops about what’s going on in the neighborhood with most of the males
who are African American. I feel there is a struggle between African Americans
and society. There are males in the streets, jail, and males at their homes who
have problems, males who just don’t get money, don’t get food, don’t get an
education. So they [teachers] just really need to push them.
Aware of the many societal problems that have kept young African
American male students from completing high school and succeeding in later
life, Marlon felt it crucial for teachers to grasp the problem in all its complexities. He readily recognized the challenges that countless young men like
him face, and that recognition motivated him and informed his decision to
pursue an education, so he could avoid a similar fate.
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Zach’s critique of some teachers further highlights an alarming factor that
disturbs many students in urban schools: Too many teachers are not invested
in students’ futures. He said, “you [can] see [right] through the duplicity,” and
explained,
See, some teachers are sneaky. They’ll talk about you during staff meetings.
They’ll send out memos. They’ll send out emails, and they think that you don’t
know that they’re writing about you, but they are [be]cause not everyone was
born yesterday. And basically, some of them just have a bad, nasty attitude
around you. And you can vibe, you can sense it in their presence although they
try to hide it, and be nice, and try to keep the peace. But of course, deep in their
heart, it’s not true. And sometimes, you see right through the duplicity. You see
right through it. Well, actually, I see right through it. That’s me personally. It’s
like when I, I walk into a store I know they are watching me, thinking umma
try and steal something. I got money! I’m going to college; so don’t judge me
[be]cause I’m Black. I know how to switch it up, to play it cool, you know.
Zach’s quote demonstrated his ability to distinguish between teachers who
do and do not genuinely care about their students’ futures as well as how
behaviors of suspicion (e.g., racial profiling) are played out in society. His
quote also revealed his ability to name, confront, dismantle, and recast perceived discrimination toward resiliency.
The thoughts, perceptions and firsthand experiences voiced by the young
men specifically, their ability to question what they saw, and critically interpret what they heard beyond a superficial surface level demonstrates their use
of UCL. The five wise men’s astute critiques and analysis of peer pressure,
societal perceptions about them, as well as their own assumptions about how
they are engaged (or not), and were consequently viewed by school personnel, further demonstrate their ability to reflect on it, speak it, name it, and
replace it.
Future Research
In their own words, the five young men offer insights into their understanding
of how to make sense of the complex ways in which structural racism, discrimination, and stereotypes shape their lived experiences and can potentially
undermine their well-being. Their voices, agency, aspirations, and input into
their lived experiences should enliven discussions about improving the
social-emotional realities and educational experiences for African American
males. Consequently, making visible those strategies employed by African
American males that enable them to name, confront, dismantle, and recast
strategically the differential treatment they frequently experience both in, and
28
Urban Education 
outside of school. The identification of such strategies requires a deliberate
and careful focus on the challenges that are unique to this frequently misunderstood population that is beset by negative stereotypes that fail to account
for the social-emotional trauma in their lives.
This study aims to contribute to documenting strategies such as UCL that
emerge from the everyday experiences of African American males. As a
result, the ongoing gathering and analyzing of additional data are required to
determine the antecedents of how the strategy of UCL is developed. Moreover,
why do African American males such as the young men in this study have
UCL, and do other young men living in urban settings have it as well.
Questions such as these require a closer investigation into the experiences
and well-being of African American males to determine and document the
onset of such strategies and their protective factor quality that can help this
population not just survive but thrive in and outside of school.
Acknowledgments
The author would like to thank Dr. Theresa Perry, a professor of Africana Studies,
Simmons College, Boston, MA and a member of his dissertation committee for her
insightful recommendation that he further develop the concept of Urban Critical
Literacy.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: This article is based upon the author’s
2007 dissertation, funded in part by a 2005 Graduate Student Research Award (Tufts
University) and a 2005 American Psychological Association (APA) Dissertation
Award.
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Author Biography
Brian L. Wright, PhD, is an assistant professor of early childhood education in the
Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership at the University of Memphis,
in Tennessee. His research focuses on high-achieving African American males in
urban schools pre-K-12, racial-ethnic identity development of boys and young men of
color, African American males as early childhood teachers, and teacher identity
development.
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