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How the blues can help remedy the punishment of black girls in education

“The blues” can be many things: a musical genre, a kind of dance or the foundation of modern rock music. It can also be a pathway to conversation and healing, according to social justice scholar Monique Morris.

At her Sunday talk hosted by Duke NAACP, Morris discussed the ways black and brown girls are treated harshly in schools—and the way music can be a template for dialogue about the problem. 

Black girls disproportionately experience out-of-school suspensions, in-school suspensions, arrests and corporal punishment, according to the data Morris mentioned during her talk. Morris connected this disparity to “adultification,” whereby black girls are assigned “more adult-like behaviors and understandings about their behaviors at a very early age.”

“We don’t respond to them in a way that would grant them grace,” Morris said, “that would grant them the opportunity for repair.”

She cited a Georgetown Law study on adultification, which found that black girls as early as 5 years old were seen as needing less nurturing, less comfort and less protection than their white peers. Additionally, black girls were perceived as knowing more about adult subjects, like sex, and were seen as more independent.

Morris has investigated how discipline in school can influence the lives of girls in her two recent books: “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” and “Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Education for the Liberation of Black and Brown Girls.”

“Pushout” grew out of a participatory research study conducted by Morris that examined how best to help communities disproportionately affected by school disciplinary actions, starting with young girls behind bars. 

Morris asked girls in detention facilities what their educational journeys looked like, and the answers shocked her. 

“Juvenile detention facilities are not rehabilitative spaces,” Morris said. “They’re not healing spaces. They’re not trauma-informed spaces. They have a deep impact, though, on how young people form narratives about themselves.”

Morris emphasized the need to create conditions where children who have disruptions in their lives feel safe enough to learn.

“When we bring young people in closer, that’s when we’re able to address the root causes of the destruction,” she said. “But when we push them away, that’s when we allow the pain to fester. The harm gets worse.”

“We are not having the kind of conversations we need to have about these issues,” Morris said, citing our lack of open discussion about patriarchy, gender bias and cisgender heteronormative discussions about justice.

It is important for these conversations to be anchored in solutions, Morris said, and in the rhythmic patterns of people who have to heal from harm even as they were talking about  that harm. For this reason, she proposed anchoring the solution in blues music.

To support this idea, she read an excerpt from her book “Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues.”

“Millions of people consume the blues as entertainment without acknowledging its most important contributions to the freedom struggle: a platform for truth telling, a form of resistance and thus a pathway to healing and learning,” she read. “The blues is about bearing witness to contradictions and then working through them to bring about critical, intellectually responsible thinking and action.” 

Healing, Morris read, is at the center of the blues. This message is what will lead educators, parents, students and community members to imagine schools as a counter to criminalization of black and brown girls.

“This life of zero-tolerance policies, and police in schools, and arrests and all this stuff that we’re talking about, is part of a tapestry of harm,” Morris said. “We can’t do the same thing and expect a different outcome.”

For this reason, there must be a policy framework which supports healing, she said. Morris advocated for legislation that would promote a school environment supportive of young people. She outlined reforms like gender and sex equity policies and support for LGBTQ+ youth.

“I recognize education as freedom work, making all of us freedom workers, and all of us held accountable to the standard of excellence that our ancestors called us to embrace,” Morris said.

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