- February 18, 2014
The following post, part of HRC's Black History Month series, comes from University of Mississippi alum Ray Mays:
When I first decided to return home to teach I was overwhelmed with emotions. I was eager, nervous, and excited all at the same time. The Mississippi Delta, a rural region that has been faced with among other things, prodigious amounts of poverty, racism, classism, social segregation, and educational inequity. Returning home to teach was more than about teaching my students content. Teaching for me is more about building character and instilling a keen awareness about the world; it is my desire to empower my students and help them develop holistically.
Returning home was a huge step for me, because, largely in part, the culture in Mississippi is deeply rooted in religious teachings. These deeply rooted teachings are very much a part of me and embarking on the role of mentor, educator, and role model, I have had to come to reconcile those identities, again. Personally, as a same gender loving black man living in the South, I know firsthand the struggles of racism, homophobia, and discrimination. I know the gender binary and the racial and homophobic stereotypes that have been deemed upon me and countless others. Professionally, I feel the binary and stereotypes increase tremendously. Thankfully, much of this does not come from my students.
I live in a state where I can be fired, simply because of my identity. I live in a country where black bodies are not being accepted or respected and an area of the country that clings tightly to an old past and backwards teaching. Because of such, it has led me to my advocacy work as a classroom teacher.
Reflecting on my identities and intersections and the importance they place within my classroom, I have the unique opportunity to expose my students to the systemic and systematic injustices that they face daily. Even as an elementary school teacher, my students are able to have thought provoking conversations around issues such as: race, class, gender, sexuality, education inequity and etc.
Not just during this month in my classroom, but yearlong we pay tribute and celebrate sung and unsung civil rights giants and trailblazers who have worked tirelessly for a better America. We pay tribute to those who challenged the institutions of injustices in America, namely - Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith, Bayard Rustin, Barbara Jordan, Emmett Till and James Baldwin.
Each day, when I look into the faces of my students, I am constantly reminded of how far we have come as a society and how much work needs to be done. We, collectively, stand on the shoulders of giants who have had fortitude, unyielding faith, and dedication to withstand anything. Yet, as I often remind my students, we know the troubling past and may even see a troubling present, it is our charge to be our best selves and fight for an inclusive and more just future because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
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