Special Editions

Season 4 Episode 03: Black Educators Making a Difference: Stories of Inspiration and Impact with Ellwood Johnson.

Igho Ekakitie 0:03
Hi, everybody, welcome to another episode of the igowithIGHO podcast. It is so good to be here with y’all. It is Black History Month, or first and first I tell everybody every month is Black History, love it. Yeah, but we have February specifically for Black History Month in America here. I have a very special guest as well to Mr. Edward Johnson as an educator himself. Mr. Johnson, welcome to the igowithIGHO podcast How you doing today?

Ellwood Johnson 0:28
I’m very well, thank you for having me.

Igho Ekakitie 0:30
Thank you for coming on the show. I’ll let you do the honors. Tell my audience about yourself something exciting about you. What do you want us to get to know about you?

Ellwood Johnson 0:39
Yeah, sure, so as you mentioned, my name is Elwood Johnson. I currently teach English and Chair of English department here at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School here in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to chairing a department and teaching English there, I also teach English and writing at a number of colleges throughout the Baltimore, sort of Washington, DC metro area. And my background is sort of literature, right, English literature, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, academic wise, I’m sort of interested in 19th and 20th century British fiction, post colonial studies and black diasporic literature and studies. So that’s sort of my academic interest. And those things sort of inform my teaching, right, my approach to teaching topics that I teach with students and in the classroom. So again, I’m happy to be here, especially during this black history month.

Igho Ekakitie 1:34
right? It’s absolutely great to have you here. What is Black History mean to you? And why is it important for us to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements and the contributions of black people?

Ellwood Johnson 1:46
So to me, Black History Month, is about awareness. For me, it’s about awareness of black people here in the US, specifically, but I think more than that, it’s about the awareness of sort of black cultures and black peoples globally, throughout the world. And I think that’s reflected in sort of the change from African American History Month, which is sort of how right this month sort of started to what it is right now, which is Black History Month, which I think in some ways, is more in many ways. It’s more compensated, right. It’s more compensating of like, who was included, right in this marker of black, right, and blackness. So to me, I think it really is about awareness of how far we’ve come, right, a people, sort of African descent or black people globally. And I think it’s important to celebrate Black History Month, because that’s celebrating is a way of ensuring that we can continue, right, this legacy of awareness, I think, celebrating it, not about dedicating a single month, per se, but it’s really about making sure that we use this month to be intentional about awareness of sort of right, political gains, educational gains, sort of all of the gains that black people globally have sort of fought for, so that we could be where we are today. And so I think this month again, to me, it’s about awareness and sort of being intentional about celebrating that history, not just so that we can view it as history. But I think so that we can use that history to inform choices and decisions and sort of goals for the future.

Igho Ekakitie 3:21
Absolutely. Great. Great. Thank you for that. And so what are some of the black leaders, activists, educators and pioneers that have inspired you, specifically? And why are they significant? In your view,

Ellwood Johnson 3:34
sort of pre civil rights, I would say, black intellectuals of the earlier 20th century, I would say people like WEV, Dubois, philosopher, thinker, sociologist, first sort of black PhD graduate at Harvard, WB Dubois, because he sort of theorized right came up with a framework for the struggle of black people in the 20th century in this country, specifically, this idea of like the double consciousness, this idea that because of slavery, because of racism, black people are always constantly looking at themselves, right? Through the eyes of other people, right? There’s this constant sort of blit and how they understand themselves, and the way that they understand the world to see them. So I think people like Dubois, for sure, of course, civil rights leaders, right. Martin Luther King, I think about educators like Shirley Chisholm, who was sort of an educator during the sort of 70s 60s and 70s. And she really sort of advocated for educational policy changes and sort of urban black communities right at a time when we were sort of thinking about the space race, and sort of all of these other things that the country could invest money in. It was a moment where a teacher also sort of involved in invested in politics and sort of advocating for for educational change alongside all of these national and global and international issues, the English teacher, and as a person who was deeply interested in the connection between books and culture and literature, I would have to say, Toni Morrison, just as a sort of writer who has channeled the black American experience is that hadn’t happened before and haven’t happened since her writing, I would say Toni Morrison as a sort of pioneer for celebrating a model of black history, from within right from thinking about what things do we as a community value us and about ourselves? And how do we uphold those things and celebrate those things without sort of looking right, looking in, right, so not thinking about what other people outside of the community value, but the things that we value for ourselves? So how do we sort of claim this space that somehow is marginal and make it the center? So I will say, again, Dubois, Martin Luther King, Toni Morrison, and then there are so many other people, like I said, Shirley Chisholm, as an educator, Bell Hooks, who we recently lost in 2020. A list of people who I think are constantly on my mind, as I, as I do the work of teaching today.

Igho Ekakitie 6:20
What role do you think education plays in preserving and promoting the legacy of black people? And what steps do to need to taken to ensure that Black history is accurately and fairly represented in the curriculum we have today?

Ellwood Johnson 6:37
The role of education is to make sure that we understand black history, but also our collective history, especially thinking about America, right, as you mentioned, at the start of this interview, is inseparable from from American history. And so thinking about in terms of math, or science, or whatever the content area is the role of education is to make sure that current generations and future generations sort of have access to education. And think when it comes to black history, I think that needs to be a part of it. Right? I don’t think you can have American history or history in schools, with education that includes the history of black people. And when I think about the sort of whole discussion about critical race theory, I think what we’re realizing is that education is powerful, and the people who attempt to restrict access to education, or who attempt to draw lines around what teachers and students can learn in the classroom. I think that speaks volumes to the power of education, because right there, they’re recognizing that education has the potential to create change, right. And so if they can get their hands on, and sort of in shape it doing is shaping future minds, shaping future outcomes, future countries. And so I think it’s really important that we, we make smart decisions, and we make thoughtful decisions about curriculum and about how we educate our students, with an eye toward our goal for the future.

Igho Ekakitie 8:10
Yeah, thank you for sharing that, you know, when we look at the history, from where we were slavery, to where we are today, a lot has changed. But not fast enough. Not good.

Ellwood Johnson 8:20
It all starts with awareness, ultimately, right? And a second ago, how far we’ve come from the founding days of this country and from sort of slavery. But what black people are doing and need to continue to do, and become aware of that history and the struggles and the problems that face right. So we’ve overcome so many challenges and obstacles, and that sort of tremendous, and that’s noteworthy, it’s really important to sort of continue to remain aware of like, the struggles that we once faced, right, knowing that we overcame those struggles. And I think that it’s important to educate ourselves about what are the financial thought problems sort of facing black people right now? What are the social issues plaguing you know, black people right now. And as a global black community, as black people all over the world, we sort of, we need to think about those issues, the issues that we face on a day to day, we need in places and have people who are aware of those issues, sort of rally around them, and attempt to think about how to create change. I think EB Dubois is concept of the talented 10th. And we can debate this whole idea about is it just 10% of the global black population who is responsible for sort of feeling the race, right, leading black people through these issues that we face, but his point in the talented 10 was this idea that a portion of right the black group, right, the black populace must sort of be in sort of shaping our concerns about the challenges of the day. Whether it is raising awareness through a podcast like Igowithigho or whether it is through making sure that we resourceful on health disparities in the black community, whether it’s raising awareness of sort of how to sort of models for financial sustainability and success, who sources and have the means and the education sort of, or not really to, to the community, you do owe it to the community, but I think you owe it to yourself in a way to write that you’ve accumulated this knowledge and this information, question becomes now what do you do with it? Are you going to take it and write and spread it? Right? Are you going to give it back? Are you going to help other people sort of gain access to the same information or resources that that you you were able to have? So I think it’s really about awareness and collaboration, about what what things can we do within our control? And I think policy is one part of that. Right. That’s the biggest issue of sort of policy and legislation. But I think there are many grassroots things that people of color all over the world are already doing, sort of suddenly and slowly, changing, changing the course of history. I think you said it a second ago, how sort of, you know, it’s not happening as fast as we, as we want it to, but I certainly think it’s happening.

Igho Ekakitie 11:17
Yeah, I’m glad you touched about policy. Because I’m very big on policy, I believe that policy is nice. It’s one thing to push for it. That’s why today, I’m excited to see lots of black people in Congress, because we have our first, you know, Vice President, a black person, you know, we’ve had our first President Obama, there’s so much things to do. If you notice, when whenever they say there’s an improvement or a step forward in black history, always like five steps, pushback from people of other colors with regards to the successes we’ve made. And it’s not just a matter so how can we ensure that the legacies of black leaders of black educators of activists and pioneers is passed down to the future generation?

Ellwood Johnson 12:00
I think, you know, I think one of the most powerful ways to preserve you know, things that you’re talking about, right? These are black sort of politicians, right? The all of the sort of, you know, things that are happening outside of education. I think that’s where intellectuals come in, I think thats where our black artists come in, our are black, sort of cultural thinkers come in. History belongs to the person who tells the story, right. And so I think that’s where our music our arts come in, right, all of these people who are capturing me, right, so right now you’re talking about Kamala, you know, being the first sort of black female vice president. And there’s, like so many black first, even right now, and Sad to say, the 21st century, still ahead in black. But here we are, but I think, you know, we owe it to our historians to you know, write those biographies to sort of, you know, make the art so that, that all of these things that we have achieved? Fine, right, I think if we if we don’t record them, and then we’re sort of leaving that history open to somebody else. And I think partly, you know, partly that’s where education comes in. But as you can see, it’s hard to sort of mandate what stories be told within the curriculum in schools. And so I think, up to the community, it’s up to, right, the people like you who are recording podcasts and making sure that we have these conversations. And one of the biggest ways that this, this has passed down, and I think we’re seeing it from everywhere from Music Awards, right. Again, to black first, right in the White House. And you know, people are people are writing their books about it. That’s happening right now. And that’s reporting this history, not fiction, necessarily even nonfiction. So I journal the cultural workers, artists, or intellectuals, and then right in our houses, with our kids, our families, our communities, I think we all sort of have a role to make sure we spread this knowledge. Um, it doesn’t always have to be formal, right? It doesn’t always have to be connected to a degree to say, I think home in the community. With the job, there are places or spaces where we can sort of share this information.

Igho Ekakitie 14:23
Yah if there is anything I’m big on, its people voting. Please, vote, vote vote where you can it’s the power to change everything that you want to change. So please vote. You know, it 21st century. We have a first black first today. Super Bowl two black quarterbacks are playing in the Super Bowl, the first time salutely.

Ellwood Johnson 14:45
And I think, you know, I think it’s your right to that point. I think our sports journalists and all the people who are out here covering today, I’m certain that they’re talking about. Right, please the black first and the quarterbacks right now. Even at this game that’s happening today. And I think that an amazing world right now with with technology where, even 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, it would be hard to record some of the stuff that’s happening because we have to wait for the media to pick up a story and for it to make its way to the headlines of the newspapers. But right now, I think I’m a sort of cultural harbinger of like, right of these stories and information. So for instance, something can happen in one part of the world. Right, right. And then, and then it can get to us right, wherever we are, in this moment. And so I think we just are in such a ripe space to sort of receive all of this stuff that’s happening. So I think it’s important that we take it in, and that we sort of internalize it, and do some right, talk about it, report it, write it make sure that it’s there for our right that we record our own sort of history. And I know I say our own history, but it’s all of our history, right? It might be black history, but there’s no real way to insert to sort of separate black history from my from any other any other history.

Igho Ekakitie 16:11
I agree. I agree, completely, what experiences, personal story that has shaped your understanding of Black History, and your lived experience as a black person in America.

Ellwood Johnson 16:24
Yeah, there, I’m just trying to think there are many sorts of experiences that have sort of shaped me, personally, but I think, you know, I hate to be so cliche about it. But I think it has been a really, really key figure, the way I think, and thinkers and intellectuals, actually, but also, she has been key in sort of my perception of myself. And my relationship to and I’ll explain what I mean about this in a second. But she’s been key in shaping my understanding of sort of myself as a black American person, and sort of my action to write other black globally. So I’ll say a little bit about me, Morrison was sort of born in the river city in Washington, DC for undergrad where she studied English and theater, receiving English at for now. she, she is at colleges or universities, she was the first black woman to win Nobel Peace prize in literature, first black woman to hold a senior editor role at Random House, which is a major major publishing company. And she played a key role during the Civil Rights Movement and sort of bringing black artists and writers into the business like she was he worked with people like Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, she was the sort of he felt like she wasn’t on the lines of the civil rights movement, sort of doing the groundwork. And so for her, it was really important as a senior editor to make sure that the stories were getting recorded. And so she was sort of pitching and soliciting the black writers and intellectuals so that they have stories could be recorded, and make it into mainstream publishing. And so let’s think of, you know, just this idea, as a teacher, I sort of am thinking about what is within my purview, right within my scope, what resources do I have, that I can make available to the students that I have today, right, like sort of how I’m making sure that I give them access to resources, that I may not know, that they need right now, but can use them as our next black leaders and thinkers. So in that way, you know, I always think like, you know, how important is teaching English in a, in a time where, you know, so much is happening politically and economically? And I just sort of think about, well, what’s the importance of books, right? What am I what am I trying to do with this, but I think you asked a second ago, you know, how do we make sure that this history is sort of preserved and passed down, right. And so I see myself in that way is like Toni Morrison, as an editor as the sort of cultural I, you know, not icon, but as the sort of cultural figure who can do the work of, you know, making sure that people have a space, a seat at the table, making sure that voices get represented. And, and really key in this sort of idea of thinking about how to preserve, right, the history as a community. And then I will say this last point, I think she you know, also so she all she’s always sort of been great about incorporating into her black American fiction, this sort of global black perspective. So having, you know, these moments in her fiction that forces you to think about, what does it mean to be American in the 21st century, when we have people who are still sort of migrating right from so many African countries? Where are the overlaps and the points of convergence? You know, she had no answer to that. But she sort of forced me to wrestle with and think about what, you know, the complexity of black identity, I think, especially in the 21st century right now. And I think, for me that shapes a lot about, you know, how I interact with other groups of black people who may be black Americans who may not be black Americans. Right. And so they are, but I think, Toni Morrison, certainly James Baldwin, it’s been a lot years who have made me sort of think about, you know, what blackness means to me, who am I, as a black person as a black American? Where do I fit into the larger image of black people in the diaspora, in general, which I think is key to thinking about the future of, you know, black people in America specifically.

Igho Ekakitie 20:52
Even as it’s you know, what you said now, I am a black immigrant in the 21st century, to America, what does history have for me, you know, and it comes that we see each year, each month daily, we have new stories to be told. And we hope that they will be told in a way that benefits the people in what we hope will be turned away. That’s when the future generation reads about it. They can say, Hey, folks, before often the great job does where we idolize Mandela, MLK, the rest of them, you know, we hope the future will be kind to us. Before,

Ellwood Johnson 21:21
around every year, right? Every year, what we do is we point to a specific sort of historical moment and we say, Oh, the civil rights movement, let’s celebrate those thinkers, or we say the Harlem Renaissance, I celebrate those fingers, or we say, you know, people at the early 20th century, let’s celebrate those people. But I think sometimes we forget how much history is being made in between black history month that we celebrate from year to year, right. So I think there’s so many black people globally in the US and other places in the world who are making history right now. And so let’s not forget to include them and celebrate them that this black history month, right or next black history month, next year, because of lots of history is being made between one year and the next.

Igho Ekakitie 22:09
I agree. I agree. Thank you so much. Well, it’s the month of love. It’s amazing how Black History Month falls in February, the month of love. So is there anyone you want to give a shout out to? Or People you want to give a shout out to? Alos what words of advice do you have for any black kid out there? Wondering, I’m struggling? What? Next for them? What words do you have for them?

Ellwood Johnson 22:32
Yeah, absolutely. I want to give a shout out to my family, but to my husband, Shawrn and then of course to my students, I have to give a shout out to my students, as a teacher, and as an educator, they forced me to learn myself, right? Because as I think about how to educate my students, or how to help them have meaningful educational experiences, I have to go out here and read and research and do the work. And so in some ways, as much as I you know, as much as the teacher relationship is about teaching the students, I have to say that they really do teach and enable me to sort of be this thinker to be this person who I enjoy being. So to students, to my students, just students, in general, is to find something you love, right? Find something that you love to do find something that you feel is meaningful, or valuable to you, and go after it, it might be something as simple as sort of finding a line of work. Or it might be you know, more complicated than that. But I would say find something that you value and find something that you’re interested in and surround yourself with people wants to hear those things and want to exchange ideas with you. I think if Black History Month is a month of awareness and amount of love, then I think we have to spread awareness that we have to spread love. So we have to take those things and we have to surround ourselves with people who are interested in hearing what we have to say but who are also interested in sharing their love and their awareness with us.

Igho Ekakitie 24:23
Oh, there you go. Thank you so very much. That was a wonderful way to wrap up this episode. Thank you. Mr. Johnson thing was great to have you on the show. Thank you so very much.

Ellwood Johnson 24:35
Thank you. I’m so happy to have to be here. It’s a pleasure. I enjoyed talking to you as always. It’s absolutely so next time, same here.

Igho Ekakitie 24:42
Thank you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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