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From an urban school on the verge of blight to the White House

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Courtesy of CNBC

Published: Friday, February 1, 2018 

Reading Time: 3 min 0 sec

By Nehemiah D. Frank, Founder and Editor-in-Chief

In her new book, “Becoming – Michelle Obama,” Mrs. Obama shares how her mother, Marian Robinson, adamantly championed the halls of her primary school in search for a seasoned, no-nonsense teacher.

In the first chapter, the former FLOTUS peeled back the blinds for mainstream Americans to imagine and revealed the spread of urban blight that encroached on her South Shore neighborhood.

Urban blight is an experience that most Black Americans have either encountered or are currently enduring today. These communities are notorious for low performing schools.

“My second-grade classroom turned out to be a mayhem of unruly kids and flying erasers, which had not been the norm in either my experience or Craig’s [Michelle’s older brother],” she wrote. “All this seemed due to a teacher who couldn’t figure out how to assert control—who didn’t seem to like children…” an interesting detail pointing to the difficulties most teachers face in urban schools — classroom management.

She continued, “Beyond that, it wasn’t clear that anyone was particularly bothered by the fact that the teacher was incompetent. The students used it as an excuse to act out, and she seemed to think only the worst of us. In her eye’s, we were a class of bad kids.”

One can only wonder what Mrs. Obama meant by “incompetent” and that it was her second-grade teacher’s incompetency that seemingly provoked the class of mostly Black students to react negatively towards their teacher.

But what was the source of the agitation that disturbed the children? Perhaps it was the same issues that currently plague our inner city youth today that annoyed Mrs. Obama’s second-grade classmates — teachers who don’t live in the community and don’t understand or don’t make effort to understand ‘Black culture.’

“We have too many educators who at 3:15 PM, get in their autos and drive to the suburbs. They have no real kinship to the community, and naturally, the people feel hostile toward them. Furthermore, many of them believe poor people are dumb, and they don’t get ahead because they don’t want to get ahead,” Timuel Black, a Chicago Public School Student at DuSable High School — during the Civil Rights movement, stated.

Furthermore, a University of Chicago study conducted by Virginia Johnson exposed the social conditions that Black students in Chicago experienced during the city’s desegregation efforts — occurring just a decade before Michelle entered primary school:

“White teachers called Black students ‘niggers’, ‘pickaninnies’ and ‘trash’ to their faces. One teacher thought that Black children were ‘more excitable’, another thought that Black children seemed ‘harder to handle’ and had ‘low morals’, and another that ‘Negroes have an inclination to theft.’ ‘It’s terrible what some of our teachers say to the children,’ commented one teacher, ‘Negroes have to suffer so much segregation as it is.’”

White flight quickly followed after the integration of Chicago Public Schools, and Michelle and her brother Craig were forced to deal with the aftermath like every other Black kid on the south side of Chicago, and really, like every other Black child across America had to endure after integration.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Obama’s mother, however, didn’t allow the presence of blight and White flight to discourage her from advocating for her children.

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Mrs. Obama wrote about the time that her mother, Marian Robinson, became an educational advocate. 

Mrs. Robinson “began a weeks-long process of behind-the-scenes lobbying, which led to me and a couple of other high-performing kids getting quietly pulled out of class, given a battery of tests, and about a week later reinstalled permanently into a bright and orderly third-grade class up-stairs, governed by a smiling, no-nonsense teacher who knew her stuff.”

Michelle characterized her mother as the type of ‘momma who gave a damn,’ — not an angry Black woman, but a caring mother who was willing to do just about anything to ensure that her children succeeded in life despite the adversities they’d face due to their ascribed status as Black American kids. 

The lessons that Mrs. Obama leaves to her readers in this first chapter of her book: No matter what ethnic group one belongs, always advocate for your children. It is a parent’s natural right to ensure that their child has access to quality education.

Every parent, therefore, should have the option — the choice — in selecting what will ultimately be the best environment for their children.

And, Michelle Obama probably understands that best.

Her mother’s decision to advocate for a quality teacher and equitable classroom led Michelle to Barack Obama and the White House.


Nehemiah FrankNehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. A rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the education reform movement, Nehemiah frequently travels for speaking engagements around the country, is a blogger for Education Post, and has been featured on NBC as well as in Blavity and Tulsa People. Nehemiah is also a teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK, a 2017 Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, and a 2018 Oluko Fellow. He gave a TED Talk at The University of Tulsa in the spring of 2018. 

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