David E. Kirkland answers 5 questions from the We Are Human campaign

This month, we chose David E. Kirkland as our featured PACH member. David E. Kirkland is Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools. He has also been described as an activist and educator, cultural critic and author. Learn more about David and read his responses to PACH’s We Are Human questions below.

How does your work foster a common humanity?

My work concerns questions of equity and liberation, examining a broader project of education as a necessary means for achieving a better world where all selves are actualized (not just dominant ones). The word common is based on the Latin word communis, meaning “belong to all,” “free,” or “open.” My work, then, is framed by the premise that education should extend to all—be open—that it is fundamentally a practice of freedom. When we begin to look closely at criss-crossing phenomena such as the peculiar intersection of, say, race, masculinity, and literacy, we see from a paradigm of commons that literacies are best understood as plural (belonging to all). We see that struggles over who can be literate are about disconnection, or severing. Instead of different ways of being literate, we have notions of the presence or absence of literacy. We have done, in a sense, violence to the common.

This is where the humanity comes in—a term that reflects our shareness as humans (as opposed to our differences as other things). A common humanity is, thus, reflected in my work as it insists upon the basic humanity of all people, but particularly of those we so often relegate to the permanent margins of social subordination. It says that Black, Brown, and other vulnerable lives matter, because we live in a world bent on the subornation of some and the over-valuing of others. My work says to Black young men and boys that “I can be literate … too.” This is a revolutionary proposition particularly in a world that have maintained a narrative in opposition to this truth. What’s most important about my work, then, is its shifting of the narrative, saying to others who view young Black men and boys with “bemused pity and contempt” that young Black men and boys can BE … too. The interruption of the master narrative and counter-narrativizing of the tragic Black body liberate our connections to one another and to ourselves; they advance the senses of “belonging to all” and our fundamentally shared destinations as human entities, while illuminating the oppressive obstructions we have placed in the trails for some (but not others).

What is one of your favorite childhood memories and why?

One of my favorite childhood memories deals with my grandfather, who was not my grandfather but my great grandfather by marriage. We called him granddaddy because everyone called him granddaddy. And he looked like a grandpa. He had salt-and-pepper-hued hair and those roving kind eyes that poked out his head like they were chasing you. He had aged stubble on his face, thick and gray like grass from heaven. He wore overalls and flannel shirts. He looked like a grandpa.

Like a grandpa, though, he carried within him the wisdom of the ages. He’d talk for hours. I’d sit at his feet and listen, always craving more. His stories were like dreams. Beneath his voice was a certain thunder. His arguments were tight as a corked bottle. He was a genius, though he could not read and possessed as much as first grade education. As child he work the fields of Alabama, picking cotton. His family were sharecroppers in Dothan. He went to work as soon as he could walk properly. He taught me many lessons about hard work, doing the best that I could at all I do, and “picking cotton.” He taught me that there was value, meaning, and dignity in all labor, especially the work of lifting your people. He picked cotton so that his family wouldn’t have to.

But these are not the memories I remember most nor are they my favorite childhood memories—what my grandmother (who was actually my great-grandmother) who raised me called them “precious memories.” The most precious memory was not about what my grandfather told me. It was about how he held me. I can still sometimes feel his loosened skin melting around my seven year old body, the warmth of his cares sink in too. It is a memory I will always remember. It is a feeling I hope to never forget.

I wrote a poem about it titled “Nikki’s Roses.”

“… I was quite happy then”

Grandma would fry hot-water bread

And cook collard greens over a cast-iron stove.

The memory of grandma’s kitchen brings with it the sweet scent of yesterday

Rushing suddenly in my nostalgic nostrils,

Bringing forth a hunger for memories …

Like the time when granddaddy hugged me.

I had never seen granddaddies hug their grandsons before then.

But lost in my grandfather’s arms, I was the luckiest child in the neighborhood.

I was the richest kid on earth.

I am luckier now, rich with the fascination of memories

That breathe relief into the resemblance of poetry and the burning of leaves.

My momma gave me the uncut jewels of her quiet efforts

When her pressured tears were planted firmly in her soiled lap for me,

Cultivated religiously in a ceremony of her bended knees.

I find wealth in the tattered door, which flung wide-open onto the well-used porch

And hung defiantly from the beaten up frame of her bending, still-standing home.

It swung open, falling from the staircase,

Flung open to invite me back into a wealth of buried secrets,

Of memories mined in silence for me,

Silent memories …

Meaningful stories of when “my Adidas walked through concrete doors”

And trod black on the tire-beaten streets of tiring, not beaten Detroit.

Now I have my mother’s jewels to carry with me—

Tears that are still searching yet shining like the poetic prowess of diamonds

That twinkle, frozen, in the elusive starlight of my mother’s burning brown eyes.

I am rich like my grandmother’s crispy fried chicken, peach cobbler, and baked macaroni.

I have hidden treasures like my grandfather’s stolen hugs, planted deeply within the loam of life.

Though life has robbed me of lots of things, sometimes even my liberty,

I hold firmly to these assets lent to me that no one can ever steal.

What is one of the best things that has ever happened to you and why?

This is a hard question for me. Waking up is a blessing, it is the best thing. The other things that accompany the day are added blessings.

Whom do you trust the most and why?

I am a person of tremendous faith. I trust God completely. My grandfather taught me to.

What do you fear the most in life and why?

I fear disappointing my ancestors—particularly those who lived and died that I might lead a better life than they. I understand the responsibility. At times it feels so enormous that fear overtakes me. It’s enormous not because I fear a challenge, but because I don’t want to disappoint or let my people down.

What do you most desire in life and why?

I want change. I want a world were we all can feel freer, a world absent capitalism and all that it regards—the ways that it makes race and gender commodities, the ways that it creates artificial boundaries that become almost impossible to cross. I want a world where love is more elastic, a love that stretches into those deep and dark places were old hatreds fester. I desire most in life that world, a better, and in that desire, I wish to be among those who are responsible for making it.

More about David

Dr. David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools. He has also been described as an activist and educator, cultural critic and author. A leading national scholar and fierce advocate for educational equity, Dr. Kirkland’s transdisciplinary scholarship has explored a variety of equity-related topics, including school climate and discipline; school integration and choice; culture and education; vulnerable learners; and intersections among race, gender, and education. With many groundbreaking publications to his credit, he has analyzed the cultures, languages, and texts of urban youth, using quantitative, critical literary, ethnographic, and sociolinguistic research methods to answer complex questions at the center of equity and social justice in education. He is the 2016 AERA Division G Mid-Career Scholars Award winner, a former AERA Division G Outstanding Dissertation Award winner, and a former postdoctoral fellow of the Ford Foundation and NAEd/Spencer Foundation. A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Black Males, the fifth book that Dr. Kirkland has authored, is a TC Press bestseller and winner of the 2015 Daniel E. Griffiths Research Award, the 2014 AESA Critics Choice Award, and the 2014 NCTE David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English. Named by Ed Week as one of the 200 most influential scholars in the U.S., Dr. Kirkland has been a pivotal intellectual voice promoting educational justice in the U.S. and abroad.