The Only One

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At a time when I was the only black 7th grade teacher at a charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York (2015). 

Every day I stand in front of my diverse classroom intensely aware of my skin color. As the only black man teaching at my school, I am one of the 3.7 percent of New York City teachers that share my identity. This May, during Teacher Appreciation Month, I celebrated the critical impact black male educators have on the life of students who share similar experiences based on our gender, race, and life experiences. Despite the crucial impact we make, there are less black male teachers in NYC today than ten years ago. It is time for NYC, and the rest of America, to double down on recruiting, retaining, and developing excellent black male educators.

Growing up in Miami, I was one of the only black students through most of my schools and classes. Still, my teachers reflected the great diversity of my hometown – I had multiple African American, white, and Hispanic teachers of both genders throughout my K-12 education. It was these teachers that challenged and pushed me to become the learner, and later educator, that I am today.

Now, as the only black male teacher in a New York City public school, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, their uncle, their big brother, their mentor, and their hero. At the end of my first year in this school, a group of my black female students started to affectionately call me “Uncle” Toussaint. It has carried over into this school year. On my birthday, I found a card on my desk, signed by this group of four black girls and the card read, “Happy Birthday Uncle, you’ve done so much for us. You’re an amazing figure to have in our lives.” My connection with my students go beyond the content and test results. I look at them and see myself, 20 years ago. And in turn, I am someone they can see themselves becoming.

A study by the Institute for Labor Economics found that if a low-income black male student has a black teacher in elementary schools they are 39 percent less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college. These effects were even stronger when the teacher is a male or shares the gender as the students they teacher. Conversely, the media reports constantly about the disproportionately, higher rates of suspensions that black boys face in American schools. Not only are black boys susceptible to systematic racism and discrimination, but they are also susceptible to stereotypes that too often become self-fulling prophecies suffocated by dreams deferred.

In an age when our black boys are under constant attack, we must interrupt the status quo for young black male lives and the limited narrative that offer such limited options. As an educator of fifteen years, the solution I’ve seen work best is to recruit and retain black men in the teaching profession. Education is the most powerful vehicle people have to rise from humble circumstances and fight for better opportunities for their families and communities. When we recruit, support and retain black men in the crucial roles of educator, principal, counselor, or coach we provide a powerful opportunity for our young black boys. They are able to share some lessons that only a black man in American can truly pass on to a black boy; like how to survive an encounter with the police; how to code switch, how to fight with your words and not your fist, how to advocate for those like you and how to give back. This is the important difference a black male education can have on his students. It promotes a narrative that at times can seem non-existent, and makes it real, that black men can be intelligent, caring and a vital part of the development of children.

Nationwide, black men make up only 2 percent of the teachers, while half of all students are students of color. James Baldwin said, Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Our children need to see black male educators, who are professional, passionate, intelligent and tangible. It is time to deeply invest in effective initiatives that develop and recruit black male educators that address this issue nationwide.

As a black male educator, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, an uncle, a big brother, a mentor, and their hero. They trust me. They love me. 30 years in the school system and it seems all too familiar. I look around and I am the only one. But this time, I am not the only black boy, I am the only black man. 



The Good Negro


When Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel, instead of stand during the playing of the Nation Anthem, he positioned himself and changed his status from “the Good Negro,” to “a Problem”. Immediately, his critics became historians, patriots and defenders of all things American. Well, at least from the dominant culture’s perspective. When Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner during the War of 1812, people who looked like Colin Kaepernick would have been considered slaves, chattel, property, 3/5 human being or at best, byproducts of infidelity manifested through the rape of enslaved black women. A little more history will reveal that during the war, that thousands of black people actually fought against the United States on the side of the British, as they were promised to be liberated, if they fought for the British crown. Ever heard of Freetown, Sierra Leone? Look it up.

After all, Britain had abolished slavery by 1808, nearly 60 years before the American Civil War (1861-65). So any historian or person of color might naturally be inclined to believe that the Star Spangled Banner was not a song about justice for all, but a song of preserving the rights, freedoms and liberties and the union of a nation that was built on the oppression of black people; so much so, that they fought to preserve the union, as well as slavery. So to any well-versed and well-read person, black, white or any other label, can clearly see, why someone of color, or any American for that matter, might be dissatisfied with the content, context and history of our National Anthem.

Many have argued that Kaepernick is dishonoring, or disrespecting America and especially its veterans. Well, they have the right to believe that, but up until the 1950’s, our military was still racially segregated. And it was not until the Obama administration, that being openly gay in the military was legitimately addressed, protected and recognized by our government. And if you truly understand our history, America has always been a land of protest and freedom of expression. After all, the Bill of Rights, protects the very actions that Kaepernick has decided to exercise. The first amendment gives all United States citizens the freedom of speech, which also includes freedom of religion, press and peaceful assembly. This means that even organizations built on the foundation of using terrorism to intimidate black people from voting in the late 1800’s, known as the Ku Klux Klan, can have parades, demonstrations and marches, while being protected under that same amendment. This means that Neo-Nazi groups can pass out white supremacist literature and rhetoric to the public and they have the right to do so, under the same amendment. Our unique principles of individual freedoms that are protected by the U.S. Constitution, were supposedly built on these same rights.

However, when I see someone who looks like Colin Kaepernick being attacked for exercising his freedoms, I become suspicious. I begin to question whether my contemporaries really believe in justice for all, or are they just as short sighted as our founding fathers were, when it comes down to race and gender equality. Are they upset because of his complexion, or his privilege as an elite athlete, who just happens to be a person of color? If you feel that not standing for the American flag is un-American, then you must have the same sentiment towards the Confederate Flag, which was a direct dis against our United States. Then you should be just as passionate about the Ku Klux Klan being able to continue to operate after going on a reign of terror that lasted 100 years, as they hung innocent black, men women and children and any brave white folks who dared to stand for justice and equality for their black brothers and sisters. You should be outraged at how the 2nd amendment continues to be the same device used to allow almost anyone over 18 years old to purchase an assault rifle, that was only designed to do one thing —-and that is to destroy human flesh.

However, I do see why some people may be upset with Colin. They are upset because Colin Kapernick has gone from the conventional role of the unassuming, quiet in the storm of injustice, Michael Jordan silent, endorsement filled “good negro” to “a problem.” Our history has always been fine with people of color who simply conform to the system, even in times when the flaws of the system have direct negative impacts on them. We can look at the Trail of Tears, under the Indian Removal Act of 1831, under Andrew Jackson’s presidency. As long as the people of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole and other nations did not resist leaving their ancestral land and being forced to march 1000 miles to Oklahoma, then they were fine. But if they resisted or protested in any way, they were eradicated. As long as black folks in the South did not show up to the ballots on election day during the Jim Crow years (1877-1965) they were fine. But as soon as a negro tried to exercise their right to vote, they were eradicated. Do you know who Medgar Evers is? Look him up.  As long as immigrants work under the table, doing menial jobs for impoverished wages, it is not a problem. But as soon as they begin to get involved in the political process, send their children to school and demand higher wages, “they need to go back to Mexico, because they are taking all of our jobs, committing crimes and leaching off our healthcare system.”

I’m sure that Harriet Tubman was an excellent slave. They say that she was a strong as any man. She probably worked as hard as any slave during her years of bondage; and her masters benefited greatly from her production- as a slave. But when she ran away, she was no longer helpful to them. And when she began to free others, she became a problem. By no means am I saying that a multimillionaire professional athlete is a slave in today’s society—- at least not from a materialistic stand point. But if our argument is that because Colin Kaepernick is wealthy then he has no worries or place to speak out or protest the unjust treatment of some of his fellow Americans; then what is the point in becoming wealthy; to only remain wealthy and not use your influence or platform to change the things that are flawed with our system?  May he should just continue making millions and keep his mouth shut. Paying a few black athletes millions of dollars does not even begin to address our country’s battle with racism, discrimination and inequality.  And just because Colin was raised by white parents does not mean that he does not understand what it is, feels like to be black in America or that he is not somehow, immune or protected from the same unfair treatment of those who do not have the implied protection of white privilege.

So does the first amendment apply to everyone or does it only apply to some? If you agree that it applies to everyone, then Colin Kaepernick is just as American and patriotic as anyone who has ever spoken out against injustice. He is just as patriotic as Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, while owning hundreds of slaves on his Virginia plantation at the same damn time; not to mention becoming elected our 3rd president, not to mention fathering at least six bi-racial children with his mistress, Ms. Sally Hemings. These documents were a direct response to the injustice that Americans faced under British tyranny. We were a country born out of a social revolution. But if we are going to have a double-standard about who can fight and speak out for freedom then the flag means absolutely nothing.


Climbing the Mountain

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As I watched the President and the First Lady promenade down the streets of Washington, D.C. I could not help but think about how special that moment was. Not only was it the second inauguration of our nation’s first African American president, but it was also a day in which we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was probably most notable for his non-violent approach to fighting for civil rights and his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, arguably one of the greatest speeches in American history. “That one day, little black boys and little white girls will one day hold hands together…” Well today, we have a black president. Would King have had the audacity to even dream of such a thing? Today we are blessed to witness and experience it.

So then I asked myself, Would Dr. King be happy with this moment? He would definitely be happy. But would he be satisfied? Would Dr. King be satisfied with the current drop-out rates, murder rates and incarceration rates of so many young black men? Would he be satisfied with the widening of the social-economic gap between the rich and the poor? Would he be satisfied with the shrinking of the middle class? Would he be satisfied with our war in Afghanistan (the longest war in America’s history)?

Yes, America is great indeed, but if you listen to the president’s message, he clearly understands that we have not reached the proverbial mountain top. We are still climbing. We are still standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and we need to prepare a foundation for those to come.

Obama: Hope or Hype?

The 15th Amendment (1865) gave African-Americans the constitutional right to vote. But 100 years later, most African Americans, especially in the American South, were still disenfranchised.

Less than an hour earlier I had encouraged Sabrina to stay after school for a few minutes, to make sure that all of her teachers had signed her daily progress report. I told her mother that I believed a daily progress report might help Sabrina better manage her own behavior. She seemed to be getting in a lot of trouble in school and nothing we did seemed to work. She complained, like a typical 12 year old should, but she did not leave until each teacher had filled out that progress report.

I remained at work for a few more minutes and later received a ride from a coworker who was heading to Park Slope. She dropped me off just blocks away from the new Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets. The new arena looks amazing, I can remember when they first broke ground. Now Brooklyn has one of the most fascinating structures in the entire city.  I had to stop and post a few photos on Instagram. I wasn’t alone. Dozens more would stop and capture this magnificent work of art, on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues. After taking a few nice snaps I quickly retreated downstairs to catch the Manhattan bound 3 train. As soon as I boarded the train, I looked left and then right, only to see Sabrina sitting next to an empty seat, near the back of the car.

I was surprised to see her because the 3 travels to the west side of Manhattan, she and her family lives in East Harlem. “Hey Sabrina!” Her large eyes grew larger. “What are you doing on this train?” I asked.  “Shouldn’t you be on the 4 train?” “The 4 is not  not running, it’s having problems so I had to take the 3 train instead,” she replied. My next question was, “Do you know your way home from the 3 train?” She shook looked up at me, and softly shook her head.

It was a delightful  1 hour trip Uptown. She was good company, as she had so many interesting questions for me. We talked mainly about school and more specifically social studies. We even began talking about the 2012 Presidential Election.

“Mr. Toussaint, how come a president can only be elected twice? I think that’s a dumb rule.” I explained to her that that was not always the case.

“Have you ever heard of the FDR?” I asked.  “Yeah, my mom takes the FDR to work every morning,” she replied excitedly. “Well that highway was named  after  Franklin D. Roosevelt, a president who was elected four times and he was the only president to do so. He was such a great president that the American people confinued to vote for him.

He never finished his last term because he died from a disease called polio. But after FDR died the rules changed. America is the land of opportunity and wanted to make sure that we gave the people more opportunities for leadership. We did not want to become like some countries who have the same president for 20,30 or even 40 years. These leaders sometimes become out I touch and don’t allow the countries to advance. To hold power for 8 years is a pretty long time; that’s nearly a decade.

I tried my best to make explain. I can tell that it had very little effect. She still thought it was dumb to limit the presidential term to 8 years.

But deeper than her grievances towards the ratification of the twenty-second amendment was her concern about Barack Obama being unseated by Mitt Romney. In her lifetime, she had become accustomed to having a black president. She was too young to understand the Bush Era, let alone understand the possibility of Jim Crow or the need for a Civil Rights Movement. But she remembers how big of a deal it was to have a black president. And for millions of children her age, black, white, Asian or Latino, Obama is their first president. But he might be their last black one .

I asked her, do you think we will have another black president in the U.S.? Confidently, yet reluctantly she said no, with a look of slight confusion on her face. “Not with the way the world is today,” she said. At the tender age if 12, she had already made up her mind (scary thought).

Whether Obama wins tonight or not. For all of us who lived in this time, in this era and moment in American History, we can all say we were there when America elected its first black president.

Will there ever be another? Will Sabrina’s children, or children’s children, have an opportunity to see a Head of State that looks like them? How long will it be before we have a woman or Latino in the White House? Does it even matter? Some may argue that it is not about skin color, gender or heritage, that it’s about the issues. And I may respond, the fact that we may never have another, is the issue.

We finally reached  96 street.  I showed Sabrina a subway map of how far we had traveled; from Crown Heights to the Upper Westside and that we would take the cross town bus to the east side, walk a few blocks north and she would be home.