By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 Africansnot Americansis 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."
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."
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'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 yearin the wake of Levine's controversial letterNzingha'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, Corbettin a letter dated November 29, 1999ordered 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.
Absent from the controversy is the boisterous United Federation of Teachers. Last month, Gomes sent a letter to UFT borough representative Robert Astrowsky, expressing her "outrage at the apathy and lack of support" that she and Nzingha have received from the union. In her letter, Gomes, who is the UFT chapter leader at the middle school, lays out her version of the circumstances surrounding the disciplinary action against them and some students who took part in the rallies. "Because of the large turnout and show of solidarity by students, an in-house inquisition was launched," she charged. "Corbett began to drag students into her office and interrogate them without parental consent or representation. The questioning was based on the pretense that students had been 'solicited' to join the protest. Also, students' notes were [seized] in order to find evidence of foul play on the part of the teachers involved."
Gomes noted that she has asked for a "consultation with a union delegate who has specific experience with cases like mine" to no avail. "I have waited without success to hear from such a representative." And "despite the limited advice and fearful commentary" she has received from one low-level union functionary, "there has been no direct communication" between Gomes and the union hierarchy.
Additional reporting by Amanda Ward