ARTICLE

A Crooked Seat at the Table: Black and Alone in an Honors Class

Educator Kiara Lee-Heart was often the only Black student in her high school honors classes. Here’s what she wishes her teachers—and all educators—knew about that experience.

It was Shirley Chisolm who said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” 

So, let’s say you bring one. The chair brings you closer to the table, but its legs are wobbly and it lacks the support you need to survive and thrive. Your posture is compromised. 

It’s the price Black students often pay for a seat at the table, for access to opportunity, particularly when they are the only Black student in their honors class.

Picture it: You’re in a class that will challenge your mind, expand your world and ultimately give you a competitive edge in college admissions. Your honors class is an opportunity—an opportunity that is not in the cards for many Black students. You know that Black, Native American and Latinx students are generally less likely to attend schools that even offer advanced classes. Opportunity gaps can limit your access to academic success from the start, resulting in racialized achievement gaps. These inequities present major obstacles for many students in search of a seat at the table.

Nevertheless, you’re still here. You still made it to the table. 

Making the grades, doing the work, you’re making leaps and bounds, theoretically. But how far can you really go, sitting in a crooked chair?

I wish I could have told my teachers about my experience. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell them, “I am the only Black student in your honors classes, and I am not OK. Don’t let the A’s fool you.” I’ve been that student many, many times and I’m here to tell you that grades alone are an inaccurate indicator of Black student success.

Allow me to go back in time, putting myself in that crooked seat again, so I can convey to you some things you may want to consider in order to offer a more inclusive environment for your own Black honors students and Black students in other classes.

 

Legitimize my existence without fetishizing me. 

I know: It may be easy to forget about me because I’m the only Black one, but please don’t. I am here, and so are my thoughts, my intellect and my emotions. Being ignored will crush my capacity to learn and to feel good about myself, just like it would for any other student. Think about this the next time you overlook my raised hand in fear of having to address whatever non-dominant opinion or idea may or may not come out of my mouth. At the same time, I’m no unicorn; I am a human being, just like the rest of your students. I am not your project or your assignment. Think about that before you decide to interrupt class just to compliment my hair or ask me to represent my entire race in my response to your questions. “Do you all prefer ‘African American’ or ‘Black’?” I know what I prefer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that my momma, the Black kids across the hall or Al Sharpton all feel the same exact way. The only way for you to get the answer for the whole collective is to ask the whole collective; I can’t do that for you.

 

Realize how other students may act toward me when you’re not looking. 

The girl who sits in front of me in your class covers her paper every time we take a quiz or a test because she is assuming that I’m cheating off of her paper. The boy who sits beside me constantly stares at me because to him, my bamboo earrings, my wooly hair and its various styles, and my copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X have no place whatsoever in an honors class. And when you tell us to work in groups, I’m really working alone because my partners don’t even acknowledge my presence in the group. Their eye contact, their respect and my dignity are all but missing. The moment you turn your back, your classroom turns into my battleground.

 

Understand my Blackness as conflicted in this space. 

I am Black and I’m proud to be Black because of how I was raised, but lately, my Blackness has been tested and questioned. Although my mother and father are so proud of me and my ability to thrive in honors classes, my success is an expectation rather than an exception. My mother was an honors student herself and was offered the chance to skip a grade in middle school, amidst the many trials and tribulations of coming up in one of Brooklyn’s toughest housing projects, Red Hook. Some of my Black friends look down on my participation in honors classes; they feel that I’m not “Black enough” because of it. Some of my white friends look down on my participation in honors classes, somehow thinking I’ve been given special privileges to get my seat at the table simply because of the color of my skin, completely dismissing my intellect, my work ethic and my sincere desire to learn and do well in school. 

Should I be proud? Should I be ashamed? Am I Black? Who am I? I used to think, This must be how it feels to be in no man’s land—too white to be Black and too Black to be white. But then I realized: To be in no man’s land means to belong somewhere. 

For me, being a Black honors student means belonging nowhere. For me, the seat is crooked and the table is lonely, and I have no reason being anywhere near it. 

Or do I? 

 

Acknowledge how tiresome it is to do the code-switching that your class calls for. 

In your class, you see only one version of me. In your class, I’m abandoning the way I really talk and the way I really walk in order to conform to the constraints of the class. I put on my “proper” voice for your class because my natural voice will not be taken seriously. Code-switching is the way I thrive and survive in your class and in many other settings, but that doesn’t mean I’m not tired. 

Actually, I am tired. I’m tired of home not being good enough for school. I’m sick of the concrete wall that towers between who I really am and who I have to be to make it. I’m tired of minimizing my Black girl joy—my big, hearty laugh; my assertive demeanor and my confident swagger—because it may increase my odds of suspension and other disciplinary consequences.  It hurts me to be limited to literature by white authors only, to learn about famous experiments that exploited Black folks and never about those led by Black scientists themselves. It hurts me to be taught to discredit Black vernacular instead of recognizing its value and significance, even if it is not necessarily significant in your classroom. I get eight hours of sleep a night and I eat a full breakfast every morning, but I’m still tired. In your class, my eyes are wide open and my mind is ready to learn, but my soul is exhausted. 

Nevertheless, I’m still here.

Educators: You must genuinely embrace your Black honors students. Make it so they see themselves in your classroom through and through, from the educational content itself down to the decor that adorns the walls. Address the limitations of Eurocentric curricula. Include images of Black leaders and other content that centers Black stories and success—not because you have to but because you want to. Intentionally create space and opportunity for Black students to share their brilliance and their culture, although it may not necessarily be included in the statewide curriculum or the educational standards of your school district. Doing so will help to encourage a sense of belonging for the Black students in your classroom, something that white students have had the privilege of taking for granted since the beginning of time. 

Your lone Black honors student may be wobbling in their chair as you read this. They deserve to have the same experience as others whose chairs are historically solid and sturdy.  

Lee-Heart teaches writing in the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Read more of her writing at theBlackertheBerry.org.