Race and Class

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

Levine could not be reached for comment, but the following declaration in his complaint seems to speak directly to how the touchy subject of racism is handled at the middle school: "I don't shrink from discussing racism with my students when the discussion grows naturally out of curriculum context, and I don't feed them any Pollyanna sugar pills about the existence of racism in our nation's history or current events. But it is quite another matter to make one's personal opinions and prejudices the curriculum, and that is what I understand Ms. Nzingha to be doing."

While watchdogs like Levine might insist that Nzingha was not, in accordance with the chancellor's regulation, trying to "develop in students a healthy respect for facts" but instead was brainwashing them with "opinionated and inflammatory pronouncements," Nzingha supporters like community activist Norman Coward eagerly cite the same readout, which mandates that a teacher "teach the truth and admit ignorance when the truth is not known." Levine, Coward contends, is ignorant of studies that clarify the history and culture of Africans in the diaspora: No wonder, the activist adds, Levine confuses black pride with being unpatriotic. Wrote Levine: "We put on many good programs at [the school] that can be considered Afro-centric in their content; [programs that] celebrate culture and are character and spirit builders for the children. I cannot see [Nzingha's teaching] in the same light."


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

Yaa Asantewa Nzingha's identity polItics apparently were not an issue with Katherine Corbett until Richard Levine drew attention to the issue in his complaint. Except for "unsatisfactory" attendance and punctuality, Nzingha, according to Board of Education records obtained by the Voice, has been an outstanding teacher. In her overall evaluations from 1992 to '99, she was rated "satisfactory," the board's top grade.

Nzingha often won principal Corbett's praise. "Ms. [Nzingha] accepted many extra assignments in order to showcase the outstanding creativity and abilities of her students," Corbett wrote in 1993. "Her leadership in the classroom was excellent." In 1994, Corbett again lauded Nzingha's skills as a drama teacher: "Your drama students demonstrated cultural and technical growth. You are to be commended for your expertise." By 1995, Corbett began to signal that Nzingha seemed indispensable: "This year you demonstrated professional growth. This only added to your expertise and excellence as a master drama teacher. Thank you for your cooperation and support." Again in 1996, Corbett recognized that Nzingha had "provided outstanding service above and beyond the call of duty" and "demonstrated professional growth." However, for the grading period from September 1998 through the first six months of last year, Corbett hinted at Nzingha's lateness and absences: "Attendance and punctuality negatively impact on an otherwise stellar professional performance."

From September 1999 to April of this year—in the wake of Levine's controversial letter—Nzingha's performance as a "master drama teacher" diminished in the eyes of Katherine Corbett. Suddenly, the outlines for Nzingha's skits did not meet Board of Education guidelines because they did not "reflect a variety of dramatic presentations." In a "final warning" to Nzingha, Corbett—in a letter dated November 29, 1999—ordered the teacher to change and resubmit her outlines for approval or she would be "terminated immediately." As pressure mounted on Nzingha, supporters enlisted the help of the Race Relations Institute and militant groups like the New Black Panther Party, which is led by Khallid Abdul Muhammad, and Sonny Carson's December 12th Movement.

These groups participated in demonstrations in front of District 13 and the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center. One flyer promoting the October 18 rally at the school contained a Jim Crow-era photograph of a black woman swinging from a tree, dramatizing "the systematic lynching of black teachers." The flyer urged people to "support black educators [who are] under attack for teaching the truth." In her letter alerting parents to the demonstration, Corbett blasted Nzingha and her supporters.

"I find it unjustifiable for students to be manipulated into becoming involved in a teacher's professional issue," she wrote. "I find it inexcusable for adults with a mission to serve as community advocates to provide a platform and support for any issue without investigating the facts (only one individual called me about the charges being made against the school and that person was from out of state)." The next day, District 13 superintendent Lester Young, claiming that he was acting on a complaint from parents that Nzingha had "solicited their children's involvement" in the demonstration, ordered Nzingha to meet with him. "During the meeting on October 25, no parent came forward to complain that their child was solicited," Nzingha says.

In the backlash, some teachers who participated in the protests are being targeted for discipline. On October 25, several hours before she was scheduled to attend a PTA meeting, Lauristine Gomes, a seventh-grade language-arts teacher at the middle school, was slapped with a restraining order by the district superintendent. The order, hand-delivered to Gomes by Corbett, indicated that as a result of the preliminary findings of a probe by the Office of Special Investigations into her role at the October 18 protest, Gomes was being reassigned to the Willoughby Street office of the Committee on Special Education. Like Nzingha, Gomes must report to the office every day during school hours and stay away from the middle school.

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