Elizabeth Nelson; Jason Koski (UPhoto)
Elizabeth Nelson; Jason Koski (UPhoto)

Investigating the Lived Experience

by Jackie Swift

Noliwe M. Rooks, Africana Studies, knows that the lived experience can be the spark that leads to scientific insight and award-winning scholarly writing. “The personal is political,” she says. “And it’s appropriate for scholarly investigation.” Rooks’ stance may not seem that odd in today’s academia, but back in the mid-1990s, when she was a graduate student about to embark on her dissertation research, it was unheard of.

Hairstyles Cast Light on Race, Class, and Gender

Rooks helped change that mindset with her dissertation, which became her first book, Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women (Rutgers University Press, 1996). In the book, she looks at the relationship between race, class, and gender that is embodied in African American women’s hairstyles. The subject matter resonates with Rooks, who came to it because of a personal experience in graduate school when she overheard two older African American women talking about her at a bus stop. “I had just started to get dreadlocks and my hair was in a completely unattractive stage,” she says. “I heard them say, ‘What is she doing to her hair? Do you think she knows she looks that bad?’”

Rooks was immediately reminded of her southern grandmother, who emphasized aesthetics as a way of signaling peaceful intent. “My grandmother was all about never going out of the house without looking put together,” she says. “You never give people a reason to think you’re not upstanding and civilized. When I heard those ladies talking about me, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s right. I’m breaking all the rules about how Black people learn to survive.’ Right then I decided I had found my dissertation subject. I wanted to figure out why I knew those messages about hair. Where did the relationships between race, class, and gender for Black people around hair come from?”

Using the advent of Black hairdressing as its backdrop, Hair Raising delves into the economic, psychological, and social impact of a burgeoning industry run by Black women for Black women, and its emphasis on hairstyles as a means of survival. The book went on to win the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Book and the Outstanding University Press Book Award of the Public Library Association. It also helped open up a new avenue for scholarly research in the humanities and social sciences. “I consistently hear from students and colleagues alike that Hair Raising gave them permission to do the kind of scholarly work they wanted to do,” Rooks says. “It gave them the approval to center something that was deeply personal to them and showed them a model for how to do it in a way that made their work reach beyond personal narratives to become understood inside the academy as having merit.”

Segrenomics and Failing Public Education for People of Color

Since that successful beginning, Rooks has continued to explore the roots and legacies of seminal experiences in African American communities. For her fourth book, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education (The New Press, 2017), soon to be released in paperback (The New Press, 2020), she turned her lens on the story of public education for people of color, from kindergarten through high school.

“There’s been no period of time in our history where the wholesale education that poor Black or Brown students received bore any relationship to the kind of education that middle- and upper-middle-class white students got,” Rooks says. “There have always been narratives that say we can’t educate Black children in the same way as white children. This is even before you put Black and white children in the same classroom. The forms of education have to be different for a variety of reasons often because Black people are said not to value education, to only need vocational education.”

“There’s been no period of time in our history where the wholesale education that poor Black or Brown students received bore any relationship to the kind of education that middle- and upper-middle-class white students got.”

Rooks looked at school funding and showed that there is a profit to be had from segregation. She coined the word segrenomics—business models that rely on segregation to turn a profit—to describe the situation. “There have always been entities going back to Reconstruction that have managed to help their bottom line by proposing idiosyncratic and unequal forms of education for Black communities, poor communities, Latinx communities,” she says. “But the business model doesn’t work unless you have high levels of economic and racial segregation.”

The Problem with Cyber Charter Schools

As a modern example of segrenomics, Rooks highlights the surge in cyber charter schools, where children are given computers and told to learn at their own pace, often with little human contact. The majority of school districts with this setup, such as those in inner-city Philadelphia and rural South Carolina, are poor and overwhelmingly African American. “The companies that set up these cyber schools give the narrative that poor families will have broadband, the children will be given laptops, so this will help poor people and people of color to keep up technologically,” she says.

What actually happens is that children fail to get an adequate education, while the real incentive for school districts is money saved on teachers’ salaries and benefits, and the company that set up the school makes a big profit, according to Rooks. And segregation is the driver of the situation. “For some charter schools, the sweet spot is what they call 90-90-90 schools,” Rooks says. “That means 90 percent people of color, 90 percent poor, 90 percent below standard educational benchmarks. Those are the schools where they can make the most money. The model wouldn’t work in a community that’s better off. In 2011 and 2014, 100 percent of the kids who went to cyber schools and then took state-mandated tests failed them. No one is saying those schools provide quality education, but no one is putting any stops on them.”

Addressing the factors that make segrenomics viable will take a change in the narrative about what types of education are right for certain children, Rooks suggests. “We need the philanthropies that are funding a lot of these idiosyncratic educational efforts to say, ‘We’re going to make sure poor kids are educated in the exact same way as wealthy kids,’” she says. “It shouldn’t be okay for a company to make money experimenting on these poor communities. These are unproven ideas. I ask that people notice that what we think is okay for the least of these is not okay, and that the basic benchmark should be to educate everyone the same. We’ve tried so many things, but we’ve rarely tried that.”