This letter was written by Manuel J. Fernandez, Head of School at Cambridge Street Upper School (CSUS) in Cambridge, MA to CSUS Families
Dear CSUS Parents and Caregivers,
1968 was a pivotal year in my upbringing. I was in my early teens, and it was the year of assassinations (notably Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy), urban protests, college campus takeovers, the rise of the anti-Vietnam protests, and so much more. Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, I felt pretty invisible as a Black Cape Verdean boy among my white classmates. I only felt noticed when one of them would call me the N-word or bullied me verbally and physically. I know now that I suffered from internalized racism, which was burrowed into me every time my white teachers were dismissive of my racial harassment concerns. I did not like being Black, and it seemed no one else liked it either. The only Black teacher I had was when I was a high school senior. He was the P.E. teacher, and he wasn’t too impressed with my unathletic and uncoordinated self. I am not sure what was internalized in my psyche from that, but I certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of a tall Black boy.
I observed many changes in society at that time and within my self-identity. In the ensuing years, I latched on to the Black Consciousness movement spurred on by my Uncle and Aunt’s membership in the Black Panther Party. I became more and more racially conscious through the readings of James Baldwin, W.E. B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance period. As I came to know of the many contributions Black people had made to the country and the world, I felt proud of being Black. I was becoming increasingly aware of my Cape Verdean ancestry, particularly about our history in southeastern Massachusetts. I was equally proud.
As a young educator, I endeavored to support the aspirations of my Black students and advocate for their needs with higher-ups. I became increasingly aware that my white students and the white educators I worked with needed my support to embrace an anti-racist lens. We learned from our consultant Beverly Daniel Tatum (author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria) that anti-racism was an active choice. Choosing not to be actively engaged in the dismantling of racism in our society was to implicitly or explicitly support racism. This past week, I have heard from scores of those students, Black, White, Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ accomplices. I am so proud of these many women and men who, like me, have made the struggle for racial equity their life’s work.
This week that pride has been tempered by feelings of rage, fear, and despair. As the father of three Black daughters and two young Black grandsons, I cannot look at the graphic videos of unarmed Black men and women being murdered without seeing my family members in harm’s way. They all embody some of my voice — proud, unapologetic, and strident on all issues of equity. I caution my daughters often to consider their surroundings when they publicly object to inequity. They don’t always heed my advice.
As a Black school leader, I have struggled with ways to support our scholars devoid of my emotions at a time when they need clarity and perspective. Since its founding in 2012, CSUS has centered equity in our mission. At this time, I find comfort in the leadership and advocacy of so many of our CSUS educators. They have stepped up in a big way and have responded to scholar inquiry on the horrific events of the past few months and engaged scholars with strategies rooted in an anti-racist lens to help CSUS move forward.
I have spent my forty years as an educator as a staunch advocate for equity and anti-racism. It has not always made me friends, but it has created opportunities and a vision for all the scholars that I have been fortunate to serve. I will continue to do that as long as I am able. I will stand for my scholars and with my colleagues to advance anti-racism in our school and the community. There is no other choice. I hope you choose to do the same within your sphere of influence.
1968 changed America. Unfortunately, the change was incomplete, and many of the small gains have little influence on our present situation. 2020 is changing our society, whether because of the pandemic or because of the heightened awareness of the anti-Black racism and other forms of bigotry that pervade every aspect of our society. We can embrace the change and stay the course. But the new day that we want for all of our children and grandchildren will not be realized unless we all step up.
Thanks for reading.
An Educator’s Letter to Families in This Moment was originally published in Nellie Mae Education Foundation on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.