Redefining Narratives About Young Black Men

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Sakeena Everett, PhD, director of research and outreach for the UIC College of Education’s Black Male Early Literacy Impact Project

One phrase at the UIC College of Education  is the axiom “Black children are brilliant.”  Research from the College’s Sakeena Everett, PhD, director of research and outreach for the College’s Black Male Early Literacy Impact Project, is detailing what this brilliance looks like in schooling contexts.

Everett defined traits of Black male success in secondary education settings as part of her doctoral dissertation, which was recently awarded the 2016 Outstanding Dissertation Award from the Critical Educators for Social Justice Special Interest Group within the American Educational Research Association.

“When we typically think of Black male students, we just don’t assume they are bright,” Everett said.

Everett says research indicates Black males face barriers to achievement through negative profiling and stereotyping, to the extent that their presence is sometimes feared in the classroom.  Her study began in an academic enrichment summer program for rising juniors that focused on understanding Black male success through narrative.  Participants possessed GPAs of 3.0 or better, high ACT scores and eventual full-ride scholarships to college.  Students engaged with critical theories of education to compose narratives describing their experiences in education, essays that in some cases served as college application material.

After the summer program, she built on these writing experiences, working to equip her students with language to defend and define themselves.  Her students read Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and scholarly journal articles, examining how research reflected—and did not reflect—their experiences as students.

“I wanted them to tap into who they were as raced and gendered beings,” Everett said. “They were able to redefine narratives about young Black men, and they felt really proud of being able to do that.”

Everett tracked these students as they completed their high school education, interviewing students, teachers, administrators, friends and family to gain a nuanced understanding of how the students conceptualized their academic success and what informed and sustained these successes.  She witnessed students’ confidence as writers growing as they progressed through these experiences.

Students in the study represented a broad swath of socioeconomic backgrounds, one from a single-parent home with his mother on public assistance, students from middle class homes and a student from a home in which both parents were educators.  Regardless of socioeconomic status, these students all recognized low expectations society held for them.

These students understood how fragile their position as successful students was because of these expectations.  Everett says they sensed that at any given moment in time, their high grades and scholarships could be taken away at a moment’s notice.  This equipped them with a sense of responsibility to serve as agents of change within their own communities; for example, one student started a writing club in his school, mentoring young Black males who sought careers as journalists and writers.

“I’m particularly proud that this project is very student-centered,” Everett said. “I tried very hard to make sure this project was mutually beneficial, so that students were enriched personally as well as academically.”

By Rob Schroeder
rschroe9@uic.edu