Fighting education stereotypes

Mays Endowed Chair Joyce E. King builds platform to challenge bias in urban education, learning and leaders

“Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.”  — Benjamin E. Mays (1894-1984), president of Morehouse College

Joyce E. King lives out that quote as she holds the endowed chair named for Mays in Georgia State University’s College of Education.

On Fri. Dec. 2, she shared her unique and distinctive expertise in the student-led lecture series, “Soul Searching Sessions:  Discussing the State of Urban Education.”

Her current work stresses the value of “heritage knowledge” for prospective teachers and today’s students, as an antidote to the “crisis of knowledge” throughout the educational system. Grasping a more complete history of diverse cultures gives all people freedom from bondage to stereotypes and bias.

For instance, King said, African-American history curricula should begin with the African civilizations that built pyramids and formed complex written languages. She introduced “Songhay Exposition,” a new gaming app that challenges players to use ancient African symbols to break a code.

“In school, we just get it laid on us that our history begins with slavery and that ‘our African brothers and sisters sold us into slavery,’” she told students. “These little ideas seem innocent but they contain powerful mental maps that prevent you from making change and recognizing injustice.”

The session took place at GSU’s Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Education Excellence, which receives funding through the GSU Foundation. Past donors include UPS and Turner Broadcasting System.

King spoke with the GSU Foundation, which administers endowments such as the Mays Chair, about the local and global impact that this funding has helped her make.

What do you consider your most significant accomplishment as the Mays Chair?

I am most widely known in academic literature for a concept I developed in the 1990s for teacher education. Google me and you’ll find a lot of people, nationally and internationally, writing about and quoting me about “dysconscious racism.” That concept is very much informing what is happening across my field.

Being an endowed chair gives me more time for research and a platform to develop lines of work in my field that might be more risky to someone trying to establish themselves. The benefit, more than money, is the prestige of being selected and the affirmation that prestige brings.

The Mays chair also gives me flexibility to make a broad international forum for my work, to bring people to Georgia State and to go out into the world to represent Georgia State.

What is dysconscious racism?

This describes the limited and distorted understandings that many people have about inequity and cultural diversity – understandings that make it difficult for them to promote truly equitable education. My work challenges students who are prospective teachers to examine what they know and believe about society, about diverse others and about their own actions. At the core, my work asks, “How are you going to educate the black and brown children who don’t look like the prototypical schoolchildren 50 years ago?” It’s still difficult to navigate through all that.

How do you represent the legacy of Mays?

This work is my special calling, as he stated and which his life epitomizes. Secondly, he was known for giving Atlanta the opportunities to provide the best education possible, including desegregated education. My focus is on African heritage and African-American heritage as a resource for urban education, and as a most important resource for the education of anyone.

What do we learn from studying Africa and African language?

With GSU graduate students, I have created a pedagogical lab with middle school students at a local charter school, the University Community Academy. Our program’s pedagogical focus is recovering our heritage knowledge, “From the Nile Valley to the Niger Valley to the Neighborhood.” The children experience the continuity of the development of the world, of Africa, of African-Americans and others in the diaspora, all the way to their community.

Our after school program is called the Songhay Club, named for the last great classical empire of West Africa. With the destruction of Songhay and other empires, slavery took off.

Understanding that story helps us see our history and values in more positive terms, instead of feeling ashamed. And it makes all people understand the truth and relevance of that history for human freedom and cultural democracy.

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424