Review: We Want to Do More Than Survive

Vineeta Singh
December 19, 2020
Love’s approach to teaching invites us to build our pedagogical praxis around civic engagement and intersectional justice so we can move past reformist paradigms and practice educational freedom.

We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Education Freedom begins with a simple statement: “we who are dark want to matter and live, not just to survive but to thrive” (1). Over seven chapters that bring together a wide range of theoretical texts and empirical research, social movement history and lived experience, author Bettina L. Love makes this statement the foundation of a philosophy of education restoring the humanity of Black and Brown students. Drawing on a wide range of historical events (from the abolitionists of Beacon Hill to the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin), critical race theory and Black Studies scholarship (including the work of bell hooks, Robin Kelley, and Carol Anderson), and her own experiences as a student, teacher, and teacher educator, Love synthesizes an abolitionist approach to teaching built around three pillars:

· Teachers must understand the white supremacist history of the U.S. state and the historic role of schools in propping up the philosophies and structures of white supremacy

· Teachers must acknowledge how contemporary schools and societies are shaped by White rage and dark suffering

· Teachers must intentionally commit themselves to demanding a world where Black and Brown children thrive within and outside their classrooms.

Love’s approach to teaching invites us to build our pedagogical praxis around civic engagement and intersectional justice so we can move past reformist paradigms and practice educational freedom.

The Education Survival Complex

Love calls our current institutional framework the “Educational Survival Complex.” Educators practicing today have inherited a landscape defined by what William H. Watkins has called the “white architecture of black education.” The ideology of this white architecture is based on a combination of scientific racism (the belief that race is a biological characteristic and the corollary belief that biological and social characteristics associated with Black and Brown people are inferior or even pathological) and corporate philanthropy (meant to alleviate the most spectacular inequalities produced by capitalism just enough to preserve the overall system). This means that the genealogy of public schools in the United States is not just the story of Horace Mann and John Dewey and the common school movement and progressive ideals of the public good but also the story of Native American boarding schools, English-only instruction, massive resistance, forced bussing, school choice, and character education. From this complex and contradictory history we have inherited a system which asks educators to accept or, at the very least ignore, institutional barriers to Black and Brown students’ success. Instead of creating openings for radical systemic change, the educational survival complex tells teachers to focus on ‘fixing’ individual students or on giving students the ‘tools’ to survive white supremacy. Love writes:

“The educational survival complex has become so rationalized and normalized that we are forced to believe, against our common sense, that inadequate school funding is normal, that there is nothing that can be done about school shootings, that racist teachers in the classrooms are better than no teachers in the classrooms. We have come to believe that police officers in our schools physically assaulting students is standard practice, and that the only way to measure a child’s knowledge is through prepackaged high-stakes state tests, the results of which undermine teachers’ autonomy, de-professionalize the teaching field, and leave dark children in the crosshairs of projected inferiority. After all the billions spent in test materials and meaningful teaching hours lost to test prep, dark children are held accountable for the failures of the public school system” (101–2).

Corporate reform measures and teaching strategies that emphasize “educational survival tactics” (test-taking skills, character education, Race to the Top, or school choice, for instance) train Black and Brown students to survive school and other institutions built on maintaining racial, gender, and class hierarchies. Love, contrasts this educational survival complex with Black schools before Brown v. Board where, she argues, history and civics lessons were celebrations of Black resistance and self-determination, what bell hooks has called “homeplaces.” Such spaces could teach Black youth “to petition, protest, speak in public, solve social issues with groups of people from diverse backgrounds, and commit to acts of civil disobedience” (70). Instead, dark students today are taught while “the world crumbles around them, to pay their taxes, vote, volunteer, and have good character, which is code for comply, comply, comply. Dark children are told that their good character is dependent on how much they obey” (70).

By replacing an education for freedom with an education for compliance, Love argues, the post-Brown educational survival complex has become another side of the same coin as mass incarceration:

“Creating the narrative that dark people are criminals to justify locking them up for profit is no different from continuously reminding the American public that there is an educational achievement gap while conveniently never mentioning America’s role in creating the gap. Both prisons and schools create a narrative of public outrage and fear that dark bodies need saving from themselves. The two industries play off each other…” (10).

And so the fight for educational freedom must be properly understood as part of a larger Black freedom struggle.

The Teacher Education Gap

Love points out that the pathologization of dark children is pervasive across educational spaces. Even education research ostensibly conducted for the benefit of dark children shirks the responsibility of naming White rage, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ablism, and xenophobia as the problem, instead framing Black and Brown students themselves as the problem. Research on the “achievement gap,” for instance, is focused on fixing the gap in test scores between white and dark children, rather than identifying and removing the structural barriers within and outside our schools — including the tests that manufacture the diagnostic tool we call the ‘achievement gap.’

Love writes:

“Education research is crowded with studies that acknowledge dark children’s pain but never the source of their pain, the legacy that pain has left, or how that pain can be healed. I have seen professional development sessions titled ‘The Crisis in Black Education,’ ‘The Problem with Black Boys,’ and ‘Addressing a Poverty Mindset.’ These types of workshops White-splain Black folx’ challenges to White folx but rarely discuss the topics of redlining, housing discrimination, White flight, gentrification, police brutality, racial health disparities, and high unemployment, problems that are not due to low levels of education but to the racism discussed. (13).

As a teacher educator working at a predominantly white institution, Love is acutely aware of how little preparation most teachers trainees (Love’s students, like the majority of US teachers are, “mostly White, middle-class young women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one” (126), receive to work with Black and Brown children. Further, Love has seen her students give all the ‘right answers’ about the importance of cross-cultural understanding in the classroom, then leave the classroom and share social media posts that dehumanize dark children. It is not enough, she argues, for teachers to be acknowledge the reality of white supremacy and to watch for it in their classrooms. Rather, they must come to understand how their own lives and career paths are shaped by the history and present of White rage and dark suffering. Love points out that white teachers in particular are embedded in white supremacist social organization in ways they may not always be aware of:

“Many White teachers are by-products of White flight and White rage. They have grown up living and learning in communities created by their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ hate and fear of darkness. Many of these teachers are unaware of how their lily-White communities were established in and have upheld Whiteness. This lack of awareness, of course, often leads them to measure their communities against the urban school communities they teach in, which makes subscribing to stereotypes easier” (29)

Like Love’s students, we might be aware of the U.S.’s white supremacist history, but unless we own these histories as our histories and our schools’ histories, we cannot begin to imagine our role in dismantling the present and future of U.S. white supremacy. Academic training does little to offset the cognitive dissonance of knowing but now owning histories of white supremacy. Instead teacher training perpetuates what Love calls the “Teacher Education Gap”:

“Teacher education programs also perpetuate the stereotyping and myth-making targeted at dark children and their communities. I call this the ‘Teacher Education Gap’ For example, many education programs have one diversity course in which White students learn about all the ills that plague dark communities without any context of how Whiteness reproduces poverty, failing schools, high unemployment, school closings, and trauma for people of color. Future teachers learn that dark children are in trauma, dark children are ‘at-risk,’ dark children are ‘underprivileged,’ dark children fall into the achievement gap, and dark communities are underserved, living in poverty. But how did this reality happen, and is that all?” (127–8).
Pictured: A Black and white woman holding hands in solidarity.

Even when educators are required to complete a ‘diversity’ credit or take one course addressing racial inequality in education, they merely end up with more elegant and academic language to reinforce the stereotypes about low achievement and ‘poor discipline.’ Producing more and more elegant descriptions of Black and Brown students’ oppression is not enough to change that oppression. Love advocates for teacher education programs to require students to take classes in Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Caribbean Studies, Latinx Studies, and Native American Studies so they can learn about ho how dark peoples have resisted oppression and innovated pedagogical traditions that fuse intellectual, political, and creative labors. Without an education in Black, Native, Latinx, queer, and working people’s histories, teachers cannot be model how to celebrate dark history, struggle, and life. Without an education in these histories, white teachers can only teach dark children how to survive.

Protecting not Measuring

Love shares her own educational trajectory as a case study throughout the book, beginning with her childhood in the rapidly deindustrializing Rochester of the 1980s where she was “a lost kid” surrounded by controlling images of Black disposability. What she needed, Love explains, was to see herself, her friends and family, and her community more broadly through the eyes of someone other than “Officer Friendly.” Love recounts the work of teachers and coaches who gave her those eyes. These include her first Black teacher, Mrs. Johnson, who “called home to speak to your parents about you as a person, not just a student”; and who “taught as if the fate of her and her children was tied to [her students’]” (48). She talks about how teachers like Mrs. Johnson showed her how classrooms could be homeplaces and not just sites of discipline.

Love also emphasizes the importance of learning opportunities outside the school curriculum through callouts to the work of Thabiti Bruce Boone, then a local college student, who created a program for local children called FIST (Fighting Ignorance and Spreading Truth), in which Black youth were able to learn about the work and ideas of “Angela Davis, the black Panthers, Black Liberation, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and leaders of our own community” that is, stories of Black leadership and Black power that weren’t filtered through the white architecture of Black education. Love writes that these lessons taught her “that being Black was beautiful, to love our skin, and that our darkness had a history of resistance, pride, community, joy, love, and understanding, and that we mattered to our community, to the world, and to ourselves” (65). Seeing how FIST was organized also taught her the importance of grassroots organizing and self-determination and how integral these principles have been in the Black freedom struggle.

Together the homeplaces these adults built in her school and her community showed Love “It is not that dark children do not have grit and zest, but they need educators and their communities to protect it, not measure it” (86). Today, as a teacher educator, Love is calling on all educators to be a part of networks that will protect and nurture all dark students. Pedagogy alone will not be sufficient. Love explains:

"Abolitionist teaching is not a teaching approach: It is a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of taking action against injustice. It seeks to resist, agitate, and tear down the educational survival complex though teachers who work in solidarity with their schools’ community to achieve incremental changes in their classrooms and schools for students in the present day, while simultaneously freedom dreaming and vigorously creating a vision for what schools will be when the educational survival complex is destroyed” (89).

Based on her experiences in school and her teacher training, her experience as a classroom teacher in Florida, and her own extensive study of critical race theory and the Black radical tradition, Love asks educators to imagine relations with students based in joy and celebrating dark children — not only for their (academic) accomplishments, but for their whole selves. This is the heart of abolitionist teaching and of education as the practice of freedom:

“Dark students have to enter the classroom knowing that their full selves are celebrated. Not just their culture, language, sexuality, or current circumstances but their entire selves, past, present, and future. Their ancestors, their family members, their friends, their religion, their music, their dress, their language, the ways they express their gender [120] and sexuality, and their communities must all be embraced and loved. Schools must support the fullness of dark life as a way to justice. Abolitionist teaching is searching for spaces of understanding and affirming. Abolitionists dreamed in full color of what life would be without oppression. Black joy makes that world manageable for dark people; it is how we cope. It is how we love” (120–121).

Freedom, Not Reform

But why ‘abolition’? What makes this framework different from the more mainstream frame of ‘anti-racist’ teaching? In recent years I’ve heard educators worry that the label of abolition in grassroots organizing might find interest convergence with right-wing plans to ‘abolish’ i.e. defund and dismantle, public education, precisely the dark students Love urges us to protect and nurture. But Love’s abolition, unlike ‘anti-racism’ and right-wing (mis)use of ‘abolition’ is not defined by what it opposes; it is defined by what it wants to create as a replacement for the educational survival complex.

Pictured: Ella Baker.

Love places her framework in the intellectual genealogy of abolitionist thought, drawing inspiration and direction from Black radical thinkers from W.E.B. Du Bois through Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin all the way to Mariame Kaba and Angela Davis. Love points out that reform has not created promised results not because we have failed to fully apply reforms but because these “tweaks” to the system are meant to preserve the educational survival complex, not tear it down. She writes:

“For centuries, we have tried to tweak, adjust, and reform systems of injustice. These courageous efforts, righteous and just in their causes, are examples of the pursuit of freedom. However, we have learned from our collective building as dark folx that tugging at the system of injustice is just the first step, as White rage will counter and bring in reinforcements to maintain injustice” (90).

Although not explicitly mentioned, Du Bois’s concept of “abolition democracy” is clearly an animating principle of abolitionist teaching. In Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term ‘the abolition-democracy’ to point out that for Black people to be meaningfully free, it was not enough to merely end the legal practice of chattel slavery.1 Without creating means for Black people to enjoy the rights of citizenship or even legal personhood, emancipation did not manifest anything we could substantially call Black freedoms. Angela Davis, in her 2011 book Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, elaborates:

‘In order to achieve the comprehensive abolition of slavery — after the institution was rendered illegal and black people were released from their chains — new institutions should have been created to incorporate black people into the social order.. slavery could not be truly abolished until people were provided with the economic means for their subsistence [e.g. the 40 acres and a mule promised in Special Field Order №15]. They also needed access to educational institutions and needed to claim voting and other political rights, a process that had begun, but remained incomplete, during the short period of radical reconstruction that ended in 1877… Prisons have thrived over the last century precisely because of the absence of those resources and the persistence of some of the deep structures of slavery” (95–96).

Thus abolitionist teaching in 2020 is actually the fulfillment of the promise made in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It is a means of recognizing how education is embedded in a larger horizon of organizing and struggle. It allows us to see education not as an isolated site of struggle or reform, but as one among many fronts where Black Americans have long fought to create their own freedom. Love writes:

“Abolitionist teaching is teachers taking back their schools, classroom by classroom, student by student, parent by parent, and school community by school community. The work is hard and filled with struggle and setback, which is why Ella Baker’s model of grassroots organizing rooted in creativity, imagination, healing, ingenuity, joy, and freedom dreaming is vital to the undoing of the educational survival complex and to all justice work” (89).

What then, does abolitionist teaching look like?

Abolitionist teachers are committed to removing structural barriers in their students’ paths. Love elaborates:

Abolitionist teaching is refusing to take part in zero-tolerance policies and the school-to-prison pipeline. Demanding restorative justice in our schools as the only schoolwide or districtwide approach to improving school culture. Refusing the idea that children do not need recess and insisting that all children need to play. Abolitionist teaching ensures that students feel safe in schools and that schools are not perpetrators od violence toward the very students they are supposed to protect. Abolitionist teaching is calling out your fellow teachers who degrade and diminish dark children and do not think dark children matter — we must demand that they leave the profession; we have to call them out. Abolitionist teaching stands in solidarity with parents and fellow teachers opposing standardized testing, English-only education, racist teachers, arming teachers with guns, and turning schools into prisons. Abolitionist teaching supports and teaches from the space that Black Lives Matter, all Black Lives Matter, and affirms Black folx’ humanity.
Abolitionist teaching asks educators to acknowledge and accept America and its policies as anti-Black, racist, discriminatory, and unjust and to be in solidarity with dark folx and poor folx fighting for their humanity and fighting to move beyond surviving. To learn the sociopolitical landscape of their students’ communities through a historical, intersectional justice lens. TO abandon teaching gimmicks like ‘grit’ that present the experiences of dark youth as ahistorical and further pathologize them and evoke collective freedom dreaming… (11–12).

Love’s text cites a number of teachers and organizations modeling the work of abolitionist teaching including Corrie Davis, King Johnson, Jahana Hayes and Mandy Manning; Youth organizations like United We Dream, Dream Defenders, and Black Youth Project; and teachers’ organizations like Badass Teachers Association, New York Collective of Radical teachers, Caucus of Working Educators, Teachers 4 Social Justice in San Francisco, Black Teacher Project, Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice, Educators’ Network of Social Justice in Milwaukee, and Free Minds, Free People. Since writing the book, Love has added another north star to this constellation with the Abolitionist Teaching Network.

None of these people or organizations can give us an easy answer or checklist to become abolitionist teachers. But they are all involved in the hard work of recognizing how everything that happens in our classrooms is connected with everything that happens outside of our classroom, and they can give us models and support to do the same. It won’t be easy but as Love, riffing on Angela Davis, writes:

“To want freedom is to welcome struggle. This idea is fundamental to abolitionist teaching. We are not asking for struggle; we just understand that justice will not happen without it” (9).
Vineeta Singh
Vineeta is a college teacher. Study enthusiast. Against the white supremacist architecture of education. For students' dignity.
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