Finding a solution to the low academic performance and graduation rates of African-American and other non-white students is by far the most pervasive issue confronting schools and local communities today. With approximately 40 percent of the nation’s African-American students enrolled in fifty of the nation’s largest urban school districts, this is clearly a problem that needs immediate resolution in major metropolitan areas.
Many factors and potential causes for this substandard performance have been explored over the last four decades (e.g., low expectations of students and teachers, lack of interest in schooling, insufficient parental support, outmoded curricula, peer pressure, and even the cyclic and controversial claims of genetic inferiority), but no universally plausible cause has been identified to explain and reverse the adverse patterns of performance we see occurring in many schools today. Thus, theories are continuing to be formulated in search of the missing pieces to the puzzle of why some African Americans succeed in school and why so many others are placed in classes for the educationally challenged.
Less anecdotal and more scientific information is needed to answer those questions, and Signithia Fordham’s “Blacked Out. Dilemmas of Race, Identity and Success at Capital High” is the latest attempt to address this perplexing issue. “Blacked Out” is an in-depth analysis of the in-school and out-of-school lives of African-American students at a Washington, D.C., secondary school with an enrollment of almost 2,000. Using an array of qualitative data collected for her dissertation research during the early 1980s, Fordham’s thesis is based on: observations and “participant watching”; formal and informal interviews; field notes of students, parents, teachers and other key school staff members; and quantified academic performance indicators.
But this ethnographic treatise combines a mixture of historical, anthropological, personal and social psychological tenets to examine why African Americans respond in different ways to learning opportunities and academic success. The historical and psychological dimensions play pivotal roles in the discussion as the author identifies and sorts out the numerous signs of dissonance, internal conflict and confusion, and daily dilemmas experienced by these African-American secondary students (and their teachers) who must decide how to survive and succeed in high school, yet maintain their “Blackness” and avoid becoming and being perceived as “the Other” (i.e., the dominant members of society).
The interplay between historical, socio-cultural and psychological factors is made even more evident by the author in her statement that this is a book which “explores the complex nature of the problem of Black adolescents’ academic performance in the wake of a two-dimensional cultural revolution — the Civil Rights and Black Power movements — in a school where achieving academic success is constructed as `acting white.'” But reducing the focus of this book to a narrow analysis of students’ avoidance of “acting white” as the source of their academic disenchantment and their substandard performance would be less than fair because of all the other historical information and social science research she presents. Much of the first quarter of the book is devoted to the development of a four-tiered typology of historical and cultural epochs which have shaped African-American orientations toward (and responses to) academic, social and economic success — particularly in the Washington, D.C., area. These historical periods are defined as: the era of slavery (1609-1865); the First Emancipation following the Civil War; a Second Emancipation which followed the Civil Rights Movement (1960-1986); and the currently-evolving period of “neosegregation.”
While the author’s primary focus is on the “Second Emancipation” period when Blacks were required to “act white” to compete with white Americans, she presents the post-emancipation era as a time when Blacks tried but were forbidden to do so after a long period of slavery and dehumanization. Through her historical documentation, Fordham posits that a parallel exists today between the resistance of African-American youths to achieving success (and becoming like “an Other”) with those instances during post-slavery when Blacks resisted “success” because of how they would be categorized within their own group. The author points out that African-American youths growing up in the Second Emancipation and “neosegregation” eras are equally conscious of the “outsider (and Other) status” which they may assume if they achieve at higher levels than their peers.
These are also adolescents, she says, who are aware of the limiting results of integration as they observe overt racism and discrimination in society on a daily basis. As further evidence that African Americans’ strategies to assimilate have been less than satisfactory, these young students use as examples their parents and others who have not achieved their dreams even with excellent educational opportunities and outstanding credentials. Several signs of parental disillusionment are demonstrated through interviews conducted with parents about their children. It is easy to understand why some of their sons and daughters resist any and all invitations to conform and pursue lofty goals given the experiences of their parents.
Fordham devotes much of her anthropological emphasis to the importance of the fictive kinship system in the African-American community. According to her, this is the “premier prestige system” of African Americans: where membership is defined by universal sisterhood and brotherhood (or egalitarianism) — where everybody is considered equal, irrespective of socioeconomic status, gender, or complexion. Even though many will disagree with the latter assertion based on the growing chasm between the African-American underclass and middle class, most will agree that extended families and relationships were characterized by cooperation, collaboration and solidarity — which contributed significantly to African Americans’ survival and progress.
This was certainly evident during and after slavery, and after the First and Second Emancipation eras — when vigorous battles were waged to desegregate schools, secure voting rights for all Americans, eliminate employment discrimination and expand job opportunities in all fields. However, Fordham notes that even though African Americans increased their levels of literacy and received more schooling between 1890 and 1940, job dissatisfaction among African Americans increased rather than declined as they confronted job ceilings, racism, and discrimination of employers and union forces. Thus, the collective political and social action of African Americans has produced some gains but not the desired universal result for the masses.
Fordham therefore postulates that since it is not clear today whether individual accomplishments are for the good of the collective, African-American adolescents who aspire to succeed academically must deal with two major obstacles: “the barriers established by the larger society and implemented in the curricular and structural organization of the school, and intragroup pressures manifested in the fictive kinship system, which reward or confer prestige on those members of the Black community who foreground their connectedness to the imagined Black community.”
In the real but fictitiously-named Capital High, the students have created their own underground fictive kinship system that is in direct opposition to what teachers and other school staff promote. Thus, both groups of students in the study — high achievers and underachievers — resist behaving in ways that mirror the dominant social order. But it is not because they do not have the abilities, or competencies to succeed or compete. They possess those skills but are more concerned with maintaining their place in their kinship system — one where students prefer to share and give, cooperate and collaborate, rather than accumulate and hoard.
For example, students avoid the advanced placement curriculum, those courses which are recognized as difficult (e.g., natural science courses, advanced literature, etc.), and one-on-one competition. Those who are intellectually gifted hide their academic talents by convincing their peers that they do not study long and hard when they perform well on tests. Interestingly, some of these same behaviors (i.e., of not wanting to compete with other Blacks) are exhibited by several of the parents who express their ambivalent perspectives on the value of schooling 1 and rear their sons and daughters differently. And not surprisingly, these parental beliefs create even greater confusion for African-American youth, especially those who are underachievers, because they are encouraged to distinguish themselves from their Black peers so that they can become more like an “Other” even though that “image” is accepted neither in their school nor neighborhood environment.
The more one reads “Blacked Out,” the more obvious it becomes that these are not African Americans who cannot succeed, but rather these are students who are refusing to perform at levels consistent with their abilities. Ironically, these same students do not want to be categorized as deficient or inadequate, even though many of their teachers believe that they lack the necessary skills to be successful in school or in society. Teachers are painfully aware of their students’ willful refusal to study hard or take challenging courses, but few have deciphered why they have chosen to resist the established norms and higher expectations.
As far as the students are concerned, their tactic of “resistance as conformity” is an effective way of doing only that which is necessary to maintain their standing in the kinship group at Capital High. Fordham paints this picture even clearer as she portrays the high achieving students’ resistance to the attainment of academic success as “a kind of warfare” whereby they attempt to defy society’s low academic expectations for African Americans yet maintain their imagined place in their peer group. It is this kind of dissonance, she says, that precipitates even greater personal and psychological problems as these adolescents are unable to separate their imagined (Black) self from the imagined Other which they are trying to avoid.
Despite the fact that “Blacked Out” is based on ten-year-old data, it is still provocative in the insights it provides into the lives of Capital High’s students and teachers. It is poignant in its description of youth who camouflage their better than average abilities to avoid being called “brainiacs” or “book-black Blacks” (“those individuals who have not been successful in avoiding the dreaded imposter image”) so they can remain accepted by their peers and in their communities.
But the book also provides a glimmer of hope if we recognize that this malaise is an opportunity for schools — and the African-American community particularly — to publicly and systematically address the internal conflicts experienced by these youth so that their academic talents can be positively expressed without fear of group reprisal. While Fordham’s ethnographic study does not give us the single answer needed to raise the academic expectations, school performance and self concepts of African-American students, she does give us another variable which may partially explain why some of these youth succeed and others do not.
Hopefully those who read “Blacked Out” will focus less on these adolescents’ strategy to avoid “acting white” and devote more time and energy to formulating effective strategies to counteract the individual and group resistance which prevents too many African Americans from achieving their full potential.
Black Issues In Higher Education Top Ten Books on Campus
On List Position
1. AND THIS TOO SHALL PASS 19 1
E. Lynn Harris -- Anchor/Doubleday, $23.95
2. WHEN DEATH COMES STEALING 30 2
Valerie Wilson Wesley --
G.P. Putnam & Sons, $5.99
3. COFFEE WILL MAKE YOU BLACK 20 4
April Sinclair -- Avon, $10
4. SOUL VIBRATIONS 4 5
George Davis and Gilda Matthews --
Quill/William Morrow, $10
5. AINT'T GONNA BE THE SAME FOOL TWICE 2 -
April Sinclair -- Hyperion, $19.95
6. BLACK SUN SIGNS: AFRICAN AMERICAN 2 -
GUIDE TO THE ZODIC
Thelma Balfour -- Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $11
7. WAITING TO EXHALE 28 1
Terry McMillan -- Pocket Books, $6.99
8. WILD EMBERS 4 6
Anita Richmond Bunkley -- Signer, $5.99
9. NEVER SATISFIED: HOW AND WHY MEN CHEAT 30 7
Michael Baisden -- Legacy Publishing, $13.95
10. HOW TO MARRY A BLACKMAN
Monique Jellerette Dejongh & 2 -
Cassandra Cato-Lewis -- Doubleday, $16.95
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville