Editor’s Note: World-renowned poet Marilyn Nelson is speaking out against the outrageous firing of two California teachers who celebrated Black History Month in part by examining the life and death of Emmett Till. Following are Nelson’s letter to California education officials and a news account of the controversy. Nelson read her poem, “A Wreath For Emmett Till,” to thunderous acclaim and a standing ovation at the Litchfield Inn on Jan. 6, 2006. Her reading was broadcast on the Connecticut Network, CT-N, as part of a tribute to Bill Cibes, Chancellor Emeritus of the Connecticut State University System.
“People in power often wield that power unjustly and unwisely … it is our responsibility to speak truth to power and to resist injustice.”
March 20, 2007
Dear Ms. McFarlane and Ms. Canada:
It has come to my attention that controversy apparently related to my book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, has led to the firing of two of your teachers. I feel compelled to defend Marisol Alba and Sean Strauss, who were fired because they had signed one of several letters written by students to protest the summary cancellation of the seventh grade’s contribution to the Black History Month program at Celerity Nascent Charter School.
From what I understand the seventh graders had planned to read a poem and create a wreath of white flowers in memory of Emmett Till, who was lynched when he was their age, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. I cannot tell from the newspaper article exactly why the seventh grade’s wreath for Emmett Till was deemed “unfitting for a program intended to be celebratory.” But one might argue that the lifelong courage of Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett’s mother, who spent nearly fifty years campaigning against lynching, is well worth celebrating. One might celebrate Emmett Till’s contribution to the then nascent Civil Rights Movement. One might celebrate how far we have come since the year of his death. One might – as was apparently the point of the program – celebrate Black History.
But the news coverage indicates something more troubling than a failure to honor our painful history and its triumphs. I am shocked to learn that there may truly be African American women who would consider what happened to initiate the chain of events leading to Emmett Till’s murder in any way related to “sexual harassment.” May I remind you that fifty years ago, and perhaps still now, what happened, -- if it DID happen -- was not that a man whistled at a woman, but that a BLACK man (or, actually, a 14-year old boy with a bad stutter, on the first day of his first trip without his parents, hundreds of miles from home, in a Mississippi town which surely his mother would have warned him about) allegedly whistled at a WHITE woman. I am deeply concerned that an educational administrator and the president of the P.T.A. of a school whose student body is 80% African American would so completely miss the point; that you hope to teach children to “dress for success, walk proud, and celebrate … accomplishments,” yet choose not to teach such a pivotal moment in our history of upward striving. Your decision to cancel the seventh grade’s part of the Black History Month program suggests that you know or care little about Black History: Do you allow the students of Celerity Nascent Charter School to know that slavery existed?
Even more troubling than that initial decision, however, is your deciding, in a school in which, according to the L.A. Times, “most students are below grade level in reading when they enroll, and many have behavioral problems” to fire two teachers who have turned things around to such an extent that seventh graders (a notoriously difficult age to teach) are so committed to their project that they wrote letters of protest. This whole incident reminds me of a scene in Ralph Ellison’s great novel, Invisible Man, in which the protagonist, standing in front of the statue which symbolizes the school’s mission, wonders whether the teacher who is holding a veil over the head of a kneeling slave is raising the veil, or lowering it. Ms. McFarlane and Ms. Canada, might it be that you have fired teachers who were raising the veil? Might it be that you are lowering it?
I suggest, Ms. Canada and Ms. McFarlane, that your firing Ms. Alba and Mr. Strauss has taught the students of Celerity Nascent Charter School one of the most important lessons to be learned from the study of Black history: that people in power often wield that power unjustly and unwisely, and that it is our responsibility to speak truth to power and to resist injustice. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Mamie Till Mobley would have been proud of your students’ passionate and clear view of your decision to cancel their program. They would have signed the students’ letters of protest, too. You have accelerated the original injustice by firing teachers who encourage your students to think. Thus you commit injustice against both teachers and students.
I encourage you to reinstate Marisol Alba and Sean Strauss. With all celerity.
East Haddam, CT
From the Los Angeles Times: March 19, 2007
Not the lesson they intended
Two L.A. charter school teachers lose their jobs
over a planned Black History Month presentation
By Carla Rivera, Times Staff Writer
Administrators at a Los Angeles charter school forbade students from reciting a poem about civil rights icon Emmett Till during a Black History Month program recently, saying his story was unsuitable for an assembly of young children.
Teachers and students said the administration suggested that the Till case — in which the teenager was beaten to death in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman — was not fitting for a program intended to be celebratory, and that Till's actions could be viewed as sexual harassment.
The decision by Celerity Nascent Charter School leaders roiled the southwest Los Angeles campus and led to the firing of seventh-grade teacher Marisol Alba and math teacher Sean Strauss, who had signed one of several letters of protest written by the students.
The incident highlights the tenuous job security for mostly nonunion teachers in charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run. California has more than 600 charter schools, and their ranks continue to swell. According to the California Teachers Assn., staff at fewer than 10% of charter schools are represented by unions.