by Sherri Gardner

When I, a Black woman from the South Side of Chicago, think about my education, my memories are largely positive. I was lucky enough to be born into a family that was able to nurture a deep love of learning, I’ve always tested well, and I attended well-resourced public schools filled with teachers passionate about their work.

But even with all that positivity, I was still exposed to teachers who expected less of me because of my background. And even as a child, I knew how unfair it was that so many Black children who lived in my neighborhoods were stuck in crumbling school buildings with not enough resources and not enough teachers who believed that their students had a bright future.

With all that in mind, when I started reading Bettina Love’s upcoming book, Punished for Dreaming, in preparation for the below interview, I was forced to reckon with the school system that I succeeded in despite the odds. The book (set for release on Sept. 12) explores the myriad ways that education reform has perpetuated harm in the Black community and proposes educational reparations as the path to healing those wounds. As I read about the harm done to all children, but especially Black children, I had a flood of questions.

Questions about Love’s work, yes, but also about how we keep going when oppression seems to be getting worse. Below, you’ll find our conversation with Love on the state of education, Black people’s experiences in this country, and how we move toward a brighter future. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I'm so curious, what drew you to explore this topic at this time?

Bettina Love (BL): This is a book that I've been trying to write, and writing around, pretty much since I graduated high school. I'm from Rochester, New York, and I went to a really big high school…My freshman class was anywhere between 300 to 400 kids and we probably graduated like 150, 125 kids. I remember walking across the stage thinking to myself, “where did everybody go?” I've always been curious about what happened to us and I wanted to understand what happened to my generation, the Hip Hop generation…Since I'm a teacher and educator and I research education, it comes from that lens. 

You point out the difference in quality of education for Black children after Brown. Considering that, what are ways that teachers, especially teachers of color, can build a caring community and a sense of advocacy for their students? 

BL: That's a really tough question to answer, particularly in the current climate that we're in. There are spaces in the United States where books are being banned that teach Black history. And as [my] book tries to show, this is not a coincidence. This is intentional. This is the gutting of democracy…through education. It has become very difficult to do the job of an educator. It has become very difficult to be in the classroom in a way that allows you to bring your full self. That has become hard, particularly as a Black educator, because there's so much scrutiny right now. 

The best answer I have is to organize. Parents and teachers and students and folks who believe in justice, believe that teaching Black history is teaching American history, we have to be organized…if we are going to undo what they [those against racial justice and equity] are doing, then we're going to have to be organized. 

But I would say to educators that you can't stop creativity. You can't ban Black creativity. You can't ban Black genius. We as Black folks have never just succumbed to the system. We've always found a way to educate our children. 

I think that's so powerful, finding ways to navigate a system that was meant to oppress us. With race-based affirmative action being deemed unconstitutional, seemingly endless book bans, and some states disallowing the AP African American Studies course, how can one stay hopeful? Or channel their rage in productive ways?

BL: The fact that we will never give up, the fact that we will never succumb, and the fact that we will keep marching, we will keep protesting, we will keep fighting, you're going to see white rage, that's just how it works. And so we shouldn't be discouraged. We shouldn't give up. We shouldn't get small. We have to understand that struggle, sadly, is part of the African American experience here…it's sad, it's hurtful, but that's the reality. 

But our ancestors have never given up. We will not give up. We will keep fighting. We will keep pushing, because we have to make a way for our children. We have to educate our children.

I'm hopeful because Black people have always resisted oppression. The banning of Black books isn’t new. We resisted book bans a century ago, and were led by Carter G. Woodson to create Black History Month. History tells us to organize and stay hopeful…I'm hopeful when I see us thinking very deeply about democracy. And we have always thought very deeply about democracy.

The thing about that keeps me hopeful is that whatever Black folks come up with…to change this nation, it will be for everyone. At the end of the day, we will make this country better, because we've always thought about ways to make this country better.

I'd love for you to expand on how Black liberation is liberation for everyone as well as how Black joy is not just resistance, but a refusal to be kept down.

BL: When you think about the core democratic issues that have impacted this country for everyone, Black folks were either the creators of it, behind it, made it happen, supported it, got it to a vote. That is what we have done. Our country is so much better off for the ideas that Black folks have created for democracy in general.

And when I think about [Black joy as refusal], I'm using the work of Lindsay Stewart. Refusal is the idea that…whiteness does not exist today. I'm going to find my joy. I am going to be with my people. I’m going to laugh, I'm going to sing…I’m going to dream…There are moments in this country where I'm going to turn whiteness off and it does not exist, because I am stretching myself to find that joy. 

“Anti-Blackness is not bigger than Blackness. Never question your genius, your humanity, your intelligence, your beauty. Never question it.” - Bettina Love, with words of encouragement for Black students

I've always personally struggled with this. How do you respond to folks who say that by centering the Black experience, you're ignoring the Indigenous struggle or the Asian struggle in this country without dismissing those concerns?

BL: I think people don't realize that there is solidarity when we center Black people's issues. Other people are dying at the hands of police violence. Other people are not making a living wage in this country. Other people do not have health care in this country. Other people's rent is skyrocketing in this country. It's disproportionately happening to Black people, yes, but it's still happening to all people because…racism and capitalism, at the end of the day, will impact all of us. 

I think when people ask those types of questions, it's a question to deflect. It's a question to perpetuate harm. Every group is different…we all have different issues, but that doesn't mean there's not solidarity. We all have to be stretching ourselves towards that common ground. Sometimes it's hard because we have been told that we don't have any common ground…which is just absolutely not true.

Is there anything else we haven’t discussed that you want people to walk away with?

BL: DEI is being gutted. We have to think very deeply about how do we get on the offense and how do we make real change? That's why the book ends with reparations. Not just about money, but about the wholeness of democracy, about atoning for harm, ending harm, and then thinking about how do we transform systems? And that's the fullness of reparations. 

Reparations would allow this nation to build better schools, hire more teachers, pay teachers more, meet the needs of so many kids, create jobs by building new schools, and strengthen communities.  All of us benefit from reparations.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the speaker to whom they are attributed. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty, administration, staff or Trustees either of Teachers College or of Columbia University.