Flush Academic Freedom And Civil Rights Down The Toilet
Call To Reinstate Celerity Nascent Charter School Teachers
In March 2007, the administration of the Celerity Nascent Charter School in Los Angeles fired seventh grade teacher Marisol Alba and math teacher Sean Strauss for their participation in events planned for the school's Black History Month program.
The school also forbade its students to read a poem, "A Wreath for Emmit Till," written by Marilyn Nelson, or to lay a wreath of flowers as part of its memorial to the slain youth.
According to an article in the L.A. Times, school officials felt that the details of Till's murder were "too graphic" for its younger students. The article quoted Celerity co-founder and Executive Director Vielka McFarlane as saying:
We don't want to focus on how the history of the country has been checkered but on how do we dress for success, walk proud and celebrate all the accomplishments we've made.
Marisol Alba had helped her students plan the Black History Month program and was dismissed for her activity. Fellow teacher Sean Strauss signed a letter of protest drafted by the students after the program was cancelled. He was dismissed for doing so.
In 1955, Emmit Till, a 14-year old Chicago native, was visiting the town of Money, Mississippi when he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Till was African-American. The boy was abducted by two white men, pistol-whipped, shot in the head and weighted down witha 74-pound gin fan before being dumped in a nearby river. The men were acquitted by an all-white male jury. Both of his killers publicly admitted their guilt in a national article in Look magazine. The savage murder and the trial received worldwide attention and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.
NEW BESSY REYNA COLUMN
Fired Over Poem About Emmitt Till
April 20 2007
I don't have to wait for April, National Poetry Month, to read poems or attend poetry readings. My love affair with poetry began in Cuba in the fourth grade when a teacher chose me to recite a poem by Jose Martí, Cuba's most beloved poet, at a school assembly.
When it comes to poetry, I am in good company. Any given week there are dozens of readings all over Connecticut. The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington used to attract more than 2,000 people in its heyday.
Writing poetry can be an intensely personal endeavor, ready to rescue us at times of sadness, or help us celebrate joyous occasions. I still remember where I was when I wrote my first "real" poem. It was called "The Absent Friend," in honor of my best friend who died of leukemia at 16. In that one poem, I was finally able to verbalize my sorrow.
I still think fondly of those teachers in Cuba and the influence their own love of poetry has had throughout my life. As a master teaching artist with the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, I honor those teachers every time I try to pass on to students the enthusiasm and the amazement at how such few words woven together can tell a story.
But not all students are as lucky to have school administrators who understand the role of poetry as many of their teachers do. Sadly, that seems to be the case at the Celerity Nascent Charter School in Los Angeles.
Celerity Nascent is at the center of a disturbing controversy surrounding former Connecticut Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson's "A Wreath for Emmett Till." This book-length poem, which has wonthe Coretta Scott King, the Boston Globe-Horn Book and the Printz Honor awards, sparked the firing of two teachers by the administration of Celerity Nascent.
Marisol Alba's seventh-grade students had prepared to read a sonnet from the book and lay a wreath for Emmett Till during a schoolwide program for African American History Month.
Till was 14 years old when he was beaten, shot and dumped into the Tallahatchie River in 1955 in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His murder, and the fact that his killers were found not guilty by an all-white jury, became a major catalystin the civil rights movement. Yet, Grace Canada, the school's principal, considered a reading from Nelson's heroic crown of poems in homage to Till "unsuitable." Vielka McFarlane, the executive director and co-founder of the school, said that the poem didn't help celebrate African Americans' accomplishments.
It seems the goal of the celebration for Canada and McFarland was simply to encourage their students "to dress for success and to walk proudly."
Students at Celerity Nascent wrote letters of protest, one of them signed by Sean Strauss, a teacher who supported the students' actions. This got him fired along with Ms. Alba.
In a letter to the school's administration in support of the teachers, Nelson wrote, "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."
How learning the story of a martyred child, whose life and death inspired the civil rights movement, might prevent students from achieving the school's goal of celebrating African Americans is beyond my comprehension. Nelson is circulating a petition asking for the reinstatement of the teachers and reminding us that Till's death is as important today as when it happened.
Some years ago, during a reading at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, poet MayaAngelu said "poetry puts starch in your backbone. It will help you to survive."
If only we could find a way to put that starch in Canada's and McFarland's backbones.
Firing Teachers Who Encourage Students To Think
Poet Cites Injustice Against Students And Teachers
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.