By Niara Savage
Special to the Tribune from The Voice
NASHVILLE, TN — Over two years ago, in a unanimous decision by the Metro school board, Dr. Shawn Joseph became the first African-American to lead Nashville’s 86,000 student school district. The face of the new director of school’s would finally match that of the increasingly black and brown student body. It’s essential for young children of color to see people who look like them holding positions of stature and power. Dr. Joseph provides the crucial minority representation of the next generation craves. Joseph’s significant experience in education, as well his ability to identify with the unique experiences of minority students solidified the idea that Joseph’s four years as director of schools would prove promising for the Metro Nashville Public School District.
Last September, in response to a spike in low performing schools in Tennessee, Dr. Joseph held a conference in which he outlined a detailed plan to improve the state of the education system by recruiting and coaching quality teachers. Critics who easily pointed out Tennessee’s low performing schools coincidentally failed to acknowledge any of Joseph’s tremendous successes.
Over the past two years, Dr. Joseph has ensured access to gifted and talented programs for elementary and middle school students. In addition, more students are taking advanced placement courses and industry certification classes. Reading and ACT scores increased, while the number of suspensions was reduced.
Two months later, a group of 10 furious protestors interrupted a school board meeting to call for Joseph’s firing. At the same meeting, several members of the school board were sure to put their distrust and lack of faith in Dr. Joseph on full display. Despite the loaded criticisms, Joseph maintained an optimistic and dedicated spirit, saying, “I love my job, and I am committed to the children of this district.”
Regardless of Joseph’s unwillingness to bite back at his critics with bitter words, pent-up frustrations quickly boiled over to aggressive tensions. Increasingly high-stake efforts have been made to run Shawn Joseph completely out of his position just over three years into his four-year term.
In January, Joseph was notified that the Tennessee Board of Education is deciding whether or not to discipline him after allegedly failing to report cases of teacher misconduct. In the midst of the ongoing firestorm surrounding Joseph’s performance, Mayor David Briley has made public his support of the embattled director of schools.
Amid controversies surrounding Joseph’s use of a rap song at a principal’s meeting back in May, as well as his membership in the historically black fraternity Omega psi phi, Tennessee’s marred racial history casts a suspicious and familiar shadow over the superintendent’s unusually tumultuous term.
Last month school board member Jill Speering encouraged her supporters not only to attend meetings in opposition of Joseph but also suggested that they wear masks to protect their identities. In response to these comments, Councilwoman Erica Gilmore (who had previously recanted her call for Speering to apologize) stated “The South’s history of wearing masks to public events on subject matter dealing with someone who is African American is long and very tragic.” Speering has not apologized for her comments, stating that the situation was simply blown out of proportion.
Black America (our children included) can only watch as the ongoing public castration of one of the most prominent black men in the Nashville community continues. Furthermore, the same education system that has traditionally been criticized for being disproportionately female-dominated, despite the documented evidence that male educators add significant value to the classroom setting, is persistent in its attempt to run Dr. Joseph out of town.
In a political climate where Americans have lifted their voices in response to the racist and xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump by electing the most diverse cohort on Congressmen and women in the nation’s history, how will the people of Tennessee be viewed after running the first Black school superintendent out of office following months of comments about rap songs, black fraternities and threats of mask-wearing?
Shawn Joseph’s election to the office he holds is representative of a rapid change taking place both state, and nationwide. The Metro Nashville Public School District, the state of Tennessee, and America itself are becoming increasingly brown. If Tennesseans are unable to resist racist microaggressions the Volunteer state may be left frozen in it’s sinful, bigoted past.