Communion in Diversity

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Reflecting back over this last academic year teaching RS in a secondary school in Birmingham, my mind is drawn to all I have been learning in my endeavours to chair the school’s new Diversity Forum promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion[i].

Seeing a pupil reading Malcolm X’s autobiography[ii], got me reading his story, too, and it turned out to be the most significant book for me of these last twelve months. As a teenager I had only heard of Malcolm X as a dangerous thinker. Why four decades later was I so captured by his story?

On the one hand there was a driving cause-and-effect necessity about his life-story: the environment he was born into stacked up pain and rejection including the early death of his father when he was just six years old (some believing he was intentionally run over by racists) which brought disintegration to his family, but also the downplaying by his schoolteachers of his academic talent. Both created a deep anger towards white people. Yet at the same time there seemed present a golden thread of grace running through his life, a vortex inexorably drawing him in closer to the hope that is Love. At 21, finding himself in prison, he began to read widely and voraciously, so launching his intellectual journey. When released, he expressed his new faith and philosophy in passionate dedication to Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam. However, after his expulsion from that organisation, it was the Islam he met on hajj in the Middle East, and then in Africa, which drew him to embrace the family of all human beings, a growing revelation cut terribly short by his assassination.

So now alongside Martin Luther King Junior, Malcolm X is in the ‘canon’ of thinkers whose pictures wend their way around the top of my classroom walls. And whenever a new face goes up it doesn’t take long before a pupil will notice and ask, “Who is that, Miss?”, eagerly hoping to hear their story. Ideas get passed on powerfully to teenagers when they come ‘wrapped’ in the life story which produced them.

Seeking reading advice on theology and race, Professor Anthony Reddie encouraged me to read black liberation theologian James Cone. I began with his inspirational, The Cross and the Lynching Tree[iii], where the crucifixion is movingly interpreted as the identification of Christ with the oppressed of this world. I introduced Cone to my (mostly BAME) GCSE RS pupils who found his approach inspirational: now he regularly surfaces in classroom discussions and in written work.

Malcolm X’s autobiography led me to the autobiography of Martin Luther King Junior[iv], and then to another of James Cone’s books where he synthesizes the thinking of these two civil rights activists: the one who had a dream, the other a life which he described as a nightmare[v]. James Baldwin writes, “As concerns Malcolm and Martin, I watched two men, coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions, originally, were poles apart, driven closer and closer together.”[vi]

Whilst James Cone’s focus is theology, black theologian Willie James Jennings[vii] writes on all that has been lost not just in theology but in wider education in the West by the years and years of de-valuing the voices, wisdom, experiences and cultures of those not white and western, challenging those of us in education to steer the rudder of this heavy ship into new, deeper and rich waters.

My pupils teach me much, too. Listening to an assembly on how religion can be pro committed gay relationships, I was surprised to notice a pupil who I thought would be delighted by the content, looking stony-faced.  What was wrong? He pointed out that the assembly presented a binary approach to gender and sexuality, instead of his own experience of gender as a spectrum. The assembly had made him feel that who he is was not being acknowledged, his existence not worth including. I heard profound pain and frustration. Later he eloquently channelled his thoughts into the creation of an informative booklet on sexuality and gender which the PSHE department will be using in lessons this term.

As a new academic year begins, I look forward to communion with those I will meet. Listening to the tragic news about Afghanistan and of the refugees who will be coming to live in Birmingham, I wonder if there might be some way in which my school can be a part of welcoming them into our community.

[i] Begun Summer term 2020, a direct response to the death of George Floyd in the U.S.

[ii] The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Penguin Books, 1965

[iii] The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone, Orbis Books, 2013

[iv] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr, Abacus, 1999

[v] Martin and Malcolm and America, James H. Cone, Fount Paperbacks, 1993

[vi] I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin, p.37, Penguin Classics 2017

[vii] After Whiteness, An Education in Belonging, WJ Jennings, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020

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