MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
It is almost the end of summer and those lazy hazy crazy days of summer have given way to the hustle and bustle of back-to-school routines. Although summer does not officially end until September 21 (Farmer’s Almanac states that autumn begins September 22 at 4:44 p.m.), the weather has changed and already unwanted images of boots, coats and mittens make me want to hibernate.
Labour Day signals the end of summer for me because the next day is back to school and this year was no exception. Students returning to school, whether elementary, secondary or post-secondary, usually look forward to reuniting with school friends they may not have seen for two to four months.
New friends to make in a new classroom and most likely a new teacher could cause some anxiety and some anticipation. Elementary students, especially those transitioning from kindergarten to elementary “big school” where they might for the first time be spending all day in school, could experience some anxious moments.
Many students and parents might be anxious about what experiences the new school year could bring – positive, negative or some of both. New bag, clothes, shoes, maybe the latest electronic gadget could help with the anxiety of anticipating a new school year.
There may be some who are overjoyed at returning to school because we are not all the same. Some of us thrive on change and look forward to the unexpected. However, one child and her family in Tulsa, Oklahoma had more to deal with than any child or parent should expect.
Right at the beginning of this new school year a seven-year-old African-American girl was forced to leave the school she had attended last year, not because of misbehaving in school but she did break one of the school’s rules.
This rule at the Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, Oklahoma is against “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles” because the school administration feels that such hairstyles “could distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere it strives for”.
Imagine a school established by an African-American woman where the natural hair of Africans is considered “faddish” and could distract from a “respectful and serious atmosphere”.
The website of the school displays photographs of the board members of this public chartered school. The six board members are African-American men, all of them wearing their natural hair. The administrators of the school are two African men both sporting natural hairstyles and two African-American women, one sporting a natural hairstyle and the other one wearing a straight haired wig.
Of the eight staff members pictured, there are three African-American women, two with chemically straightened hair and the founder/executive director/grade 5 teacher and one African-American man wearing natural hair styles. It is puzzling that the founder of this charter school in which 97 per cent of the students are African-American wears her hair in an Afro hairstyle yet bans the students from doing so.
The Deborah Brown Community School is billed as the first charter school in Tulsa, Oklahoma which means that it is a publicly funded school that operates as a private school. The school was founded in 2000 by its present executive director/grade 5 teacher, Deborah Brown. In an article published in Tulsa World on Saturday, September 7, Andrea Eger (staff writer covering education issues at Tulsa World) writes that in 2005 the Deborah Brown Community School “drew the notice of its then-sponsor, Tulsa Public Schools, for spanking students for serious behaviour infractions. The following year, the school’s founder and namesake sued Tulsa Public Schools in federal court over the non-renewal of a contract with her separate pre-kindergarten program, Smart Kids LLC. In 2008, amid contentious negotiations, Tulsa Public Schools agreed to an early end to its contract sponsorship of Brown’s charter school. The school secured new sponsorship by Langston University.”
Members of the public by way of an online petition are now calling on Langston University to insist that the school publicly apologize to the seven-year-old who was humiliated and in tears when she was forced to leave the school or withdraw their sponsorship for the school’s charter.
Langston University, founded in 1897 as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, is the only one of America’s 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that is located in Oklahoma.
Ironically, the Deborah Brown Community School which is now infamous internationally for attempting to deny an African-American child the expression of her Africanness through her natural hair, is located in Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is the area where a thriving African-American community – then known as Little Africa, now known as the Black Wall Street – was destroyed by a rioting White mob in 1921.
In 1921, before the prosperous African-American community of Greenwood was destroyed by jealous Whites living in the surrounding area, it was one of America’s most prosperous communities. On Tuesday May 31, 1921 everything changed for the African-Americans of Greenwood when a young African-American man was wrongfully accused of attacking a young White woman. There is a history of White people in America falsely accusing African-Americans of crimes as an excuse to visit mayhem on African-American individuals, families and communities. These well documented incidents are almost commonplace from the time Africans were enslaved in America through to the 21st century.
The Greenwood Massacre was especially horrific because White policemen and members of the Tulsa National Guard were involved. Between Tuesday May 31, 1921 and Wednesday June 1, 1921 the entire African-American community of Greenwood was burnt to the ground and some 3,000 African-Americans had been killed by their White compatriots.
The destruction of the African-American community of Greenwood is described in an article published in the May, 2013 edition of Ebony Magazine:
“During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African-Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African-American homes, including hospitals, schools and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African-Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”
The National Guard was also involved in aerial bombing of the Greenwood community as described in eye witness accounts of African-Americans.
White American author James S. Hirsch in his 2002 book “Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy” writes of the attitude and role the National Guard played in the massacre and destruction of the prosperous African-American community:
“Conferring such legal authority – apprehending suspects – on untrained, loosely supervised ‘deputies’ wearing overalls, their pockets bulging with stolen guns whose price tags still clung to the end, defied every protocol, but it reflected the feverish attitudes of white Tulsans: the riot was a Negro rebellion that had to be quashed with extraordinary measures. The phrase ‘Negro uprising’ is used often in the National Guard’s reports; one guardsman even referred to blacks as the ‘enemy.’”
In the “Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” (http://www.tulsareparations.org/FinalReport.htm), it was found that in “the lynchings of twenty-three African-Americans in twelve Oklahoma towns during the ten years leading to 1921: In some government participated in the deed. In some government performed the deed. In none did government prevent the deed. In none did government punish the deed.”
With this history of oppression of African Americans in Tulsa and the entire USA, it is puzzling that an African-American administrator would deny an African-American child the expression of her unique Africanness (wearing locks) and force her to leave a school in the historic Greenwood, Tulsa area where the student population is overwhelmingly African-American.
Fortunately for young Tiana Parker there has been much support from the wider African-American community (http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2013/09/open-letter-tiana-parker-little-girls-nappy-nappy-hair/), (http://issuu.com/yabablay/docs/for_tiana_a_care_package__1_/129?e=3379385%2F4743549) and the African-Caribbean community (http://islandistas.com/?p=3543).