Race and Class

A Brooklyn Teacher Is disciplined for Telling Her Students to Refer to Themselves as Africans—Not Americans

After a year-long battle with Board of Education officials, Yaa Asantewa Nzingha, a junior high school "master drama teacher" who was demoted for telling her students to refer to themselves as Africans—not Americans—is being investigated by the Chancellor's Office of Special Investigations for encouraging the students to participate in a demonstration demanding her reinstatement. "Students as well as community members have been incited to protest against the school," principal Katherine Corbett of the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center charged in a letter to parents, warning that their children had been "solicited to participate" in the heavily attended October 18 protest outside of the school in Fort Greene.

Until the "investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct" related to the protest, the board had been stymied by its attempts to get rid of Nzingha for allegedly violating a regulation by Chancellor Harold Levy, which prohibits the opinionated teaching of race and politics. A white colleague at the predominantly black school reported on Nzingha, who has been teaching there for eight years.

Because Nzingha's case has attracted national attention, mainly from the Nashville-based Race Relations Institute at Fisk University, firing her now may prove difficult. Dr. Ray Winbush, director of the Fisk Institute, said in a statement that "Nzingha's demotion is representative of [a] trend to punish Black teachers who provide African-centered curricula to their students, and is a nationwide problem that must be challenged." Since November 1999, Nzingha, who had staged two productions, Lightskinned and Games, has been banned from performances that "address issues of rejection, racism, peer conflict, personal conflict, and the atrocities of slavery."

Yaa Asantewa Nzingha: dramatizing race
photo: courtesy of Yaa Asantewa Nzingha
Yaa Asantewa Nzingha: dramatizing race

In April of this year, Nzingha charged in interviews on WBAI-FM and in Our Times, a community weekly in Brooklyn, that she was being harassed for teaching Afrocentrism and rebuffing the principal's directive to alter her curriculum. When Nzingha was summoned to the office of the superintendent for Community School District 13, an official there reportedly asked her, "Don't you think you deserve some sort of punishment for going public?" In June, a defiant Nzingha received an unsatisfactory evaluation from the principal for "noncompliance with school policies," and was removed from her specialized area and ordered to teach English, math, science, and social studies to sixth graders. After last month's demonstration, Nzingha was barred from entering the school "for any reason," and reassigned to the district office pending the outcome of the investigation. Every day, Nzingha, who receives a $44,000 yearly salary for her teaching position, reports to, in her words, "a poorly ventilated room" in the basement of the district office where she sits idly from 8:40 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Running into Yaa Asantewa Nzingha on October 29 last year, the day after covering his colleague's eight-period class in her absence, Richard Levine delved into his self-appointed role as the politically correct cop at Ronald Edmonds Learning Center.

"Your students were trying to get me to believe that you teach them they're not American, and never will be because they're African," Levine recalled telling Nzingha during the encounter, which he detailed in a complaint he would later file against her.

"I do tell them that," retorted Nzingha, who taught the seventh and eighth grades. "And I tell them every chance I get, because they never will be Americans."

"We shouldn't teach our opinions," Levine asserted.

"It's not an opinion!" argued Nzingha, who has been nominated for an AUDELCO award (which recognizes excellence in black theater) for best actress in Lillie Marie Redwood's play Fool's Gold. "It's a fact! They'll never be Americans! They're Africans!" According to Levine, Nzingha "stormed off, saying she wasn't going to have this discussion with me." Outraged that Nzingha was "teaching racism and lowering children's self-esteem," Levine complained to principal Corbett. "As a parent and educator, I feel obligated to report this," he wrote in a November 1999 memo. "In my opinion, this is teaching racism and worse. Given the tender age of our students, I believe it is teaching them hopelessness, and instilling in them the belief that they will be victimized." In his complaint, Levine does not say how the topic of the students' citizenship came up: "The students were, I thought, 'playing me,' " he wrote. But Kurtis Lee, an African American student who attended a drama class the day Levine substituted for Nzingha, claimed in a statement that the whole mess may have been triggered by his challenge to Levine's own attempt at racist play-acting.

"Mr. Levine asked me to do a skit where I had to be a thief to impress a group of girls," Lee stated. "I responded by telling him that I did not want to do a skit like that. He said, 'Why?' I simply explained by telling him that I didn't want to act out a character [who] was a thief because all black people don't steal. He then asked me, 'Where did [you] learn this?' I told him that my drama teacher, Ms. Nzingha, teaches us that as Africans we shouldn't fall into the standards of America. Instead we should have high standards as an African people. So I felt I should not have to act out a play [in which] I was a thief."

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