Six years ago, I was student teaching in Durham under the graduate MAT program at Duke University and was well on my way to perhaps the most fulfilling, demanding, and emotionally draining career path in my life. I like to think I accidentally ended up at the front of the classroom — senior year of high school saw my required community service hours stack up until I could go nowhere else last minute, aside from my neighborhood mosque. As presumptuous as it was, the imam still agreed to have me on board teaching elementary Arabic.
From that mosque in Hollywood, Florida, all the lessons of patience came from pint-sized, flushed-face children having just come inside from recess. 18-years-old and legitimately out of my depth, there was still something wholly gratifying about meeting those students halfway despite the challenge of teaching them an entirely new language. That was my foundation, lessons in Arabic consonants and vowels in the musala of a space both familiar and new. I learned more than I taught and after completing my hours, I decided to stay a few more years. It was a lesson in humility, community, and camaraderie that I discovered the intimations of my future educator in that masjid.
For the next handful of years, I’d find myself in similar spaces, meeting students, young and old, halfway or more, engaging in lessons I thought I was prepared for and over-preparing for ones I didn’t realize I had a grasp of already. My undergraduate endeavors pushed me into a more challenging space: college students. I was a writing tutor at the academic center that would yet again serve as the catalyst for my pursuit of a career in education. None of it was neatly mapped out or thoughtfully organized. Nearly every avenue traveled was either by accident or pure serendipity.
Despite several existential crises and a half-dozen applications, I landed in a graduate program student teaching in Durham and was ultimately exposed to one of the most important filmmakers of our time. A field trip was organized for the students at the school I was assigned to but it wasn’t to a museum or the American Tobacco Campus, rather scores of students were set to attend a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s Selma during Black History Month. There was a palpable energy on campus as I helped my mentor organize and create assignments that would challenge our students’ notions and ideas of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t apparent to me then but Ms. DuVernay’s work would lead future conversations, projects, and personal journeys I’d embark on in my own classroom in ways both profound and necessary.
One of the very first big picture projects I dove into when I began teaching on my own centered on asking my students what bothered them — what issues, current or historic, impacted their communities and their livelihoods in ways that needed more attention? It was a unit that focused on public speaking and speech writing, and of course I sought the guidance of Ms. DuVernay’s Selma yet again to help fine-tune the needs of my kids. It was also an opportunity to explore the significance of incorporating multimodal media in the classroom to engage students of all learning backgrounds. So many of my kids were riveted by the performances on-screen and were compelled to learn even more about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Selma to Montgomery marches. What followed weeks of lessons on rhetoric and logical fallacies, drafting speeches, and analyzing Selma, was the delivery of each student’s speech to the school from a podium lent to us by the music department. One of my most timid and concerned kids said they only survived that day because they thought of the performances on screen and how convinced they were that they too could communicate the same message as long as they tried.
Ms. DuVernay’s work possesses the kind of timelessness and appropriateness that students and educators could benefit most from considering how significant the issues she tackles are. With Selma, we were introduced to a more intimate story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his community of civil rights activists battling lethal white supremacy in the south. For me, her work enabled a deeper understanding of the complex history of the south and beyond, with regard to civil rights and the lives of Black and Brown communities in the US. 13th and Queen Sugar offered examinations that didn’t simply gloss over the erasure of Black women and men at the mercy of the state and systems of oppression. There occurs within each scene, setpiece, and establishing shot a humanization and personification of the Black experience that is so uniquely her own.
What’s more, Ms. DuVernay’s work on and off-screen has not come without continued dedication to her craft and her community, all the while battling the lack of diversity plaguing Hollywood for years, especially with regard to women of color. Her contributions to the field highlight the need for concerted efforts to bring necessary stories to audiences forgetting that our country witnessed the Tulsa race massacre in the 1920s or the Tuskegee Syphilis Study that spanned multiple decades. The work done on the series When They See Us brought critical acclaim, but most importantly, it revisited and reintroduced the discussion on police violence and misconduct that continues to happen today. These films and television series transcend entertainment and begin to grapple with the real-world issues students and educators must engage in to truly understand past and present injustices, and to help prevent future ones.
Beyond the classroom, Ms. DuVernay’s work and journey to the status of elite filmmaker reassures me that folks will continue to want to hear these stories. As the son of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, I’ve spent my entire adult life contemplating the intersecting histories of the displaced and disenfranchised, writing stories and articles I too hope shed light on the necessary issues. Those years in the classroom helped me understand the personhood behind the struggle, that each pitfall was not the endpoint for characters, heroes, and leaders of color. The work of Ava DuVernay proves to me, time and again, that no matter the struggle, what we overcome will show the world how necessary our own stories are and why they must be heard.