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Raising Free People
Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work
Akilah Richards’ brilliant new book, Raising Free People: Unschooling as Liberation and Healing Work was published this previous month by PM Press. Below is an excerpt taken from the chapter entitled, “Birth of a Post Colonial Perspective on Parenting.” You can get a copy of the book at your local book store or buy it online.
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Four friends and I were walking home from our middle school dance; I was fourteen years old. It was around 9:00 p.m. We were in our own neighborhood, and all of us, except for my friend’s big brother (our designated walk-home-chaperone), were middle school students. A few minutes into our walk, a police car drove up, and the officer behind the wheel asked us where we were going. We said “home” in unison and sped up our pace, as we were accustomed to doing when we saw the notoriously racist White police in our predominantly Black, South Florida city. He drove alongside us and asked us more questions. We stopped answering because we knew better than to talk to the police. In response, he hastily parked his vehicle in our walking path and spilled out of his car, his eyes narrow and his chest high. His questions continued, and I asked him why he had driven his car onto the sidewalk, why he had pulled out his flashlight and shine it in our faces on the well-lit street. The next thing I knew, all 105 pounds of my body was hurled against the hood of his car. That officer did not see a student or a little girl, he saw a Black person and handled me accordingly. My right arm was twisted behind my back, and his left hand, in which he also held a flashlight, was against the back of my head so that my face would stay pressed against the car’s hot hood. My friend’s big brother pled with the officer to let me get up from the front of the car. I yelled that the heat from the hood was burning my face, and that he was going to break my arm. He tightened his grip, yelled at our chaperone in between hurling words at the rest of us Eventually, begrudgingly, he let me up. We all ran in silence, each dispersing in the direction of our house. I don’t even know how I got home, because I was so frightened and out of sorts that I was not even sure I was running in the right direction. My ears were ringing, I’m pretty sure that I had urinated on myself, and I wasn’t sure how my mother would react to what had happened.

When I got home and told my mother what happened, she was so angry and adamant that she even seemed angry with me! She was angry that her daughter had been violated. She was angry that I didn’t get the officer’s badge number. And she was angry that she could not stop it from probably happening again — not to her daughter, not to one of her sons, and not to any other Black person daring to be happy and human while living in America. Violence against Black bodies, and against all non-White-presenting bodies, is so normal in Western society that some Black people, myself included, internalized that shit, adopted it, and used it, along with school, as means through which we hoped to groom and educate our way out from under the tyranny of systemic, sordid white supremacy. I know firsthand that this “because if I don’t they will,” fear-based punishment will not protect my children from those set on doing them harm. I know from later conversations with my children how I compromised trust and respect in our relationship by being violent to them. Those conversations, coupled with those memories, along with the dots Kris [Akilah’s husband] and I connected through my assessment of Toya’s1 experience, cemented the new normal; we were never going to hit our children again.

We were never going to hit our children again. I had reframed what it meant to explore discipline with my children, which rooted our respect-based parenting practice even more, this time addressing issues of bodily autonomy that went way beyond whether or not our girls had to wear bras2. I began addressing my own recollection of times when my young-girl body didn’t feel safe, like the incident with that South Florida policeman. Surely, what Kris and I were doing at home wasn’t the same thing, but it certainly sat inside the same beliefs. I saw that unschooling wasn’t just about my daughters but was also about my participation in a way of being in the world and about being honest that I, just like that Broward County cop, was using my position of legal and physical power over a person to frighten them into doing what made me comfortable. As their parent, I was acclimating my daughters to violence from a loved one, which meant they could reasonably expect other people who loved them to be physically violent with them. At that point, Kris and I questioned our options for responding to the moments when we felt our daughters were out of line: Didn’t children who weren’t afraid of their parents end up as entitled, spoiled, ill- adjusted adults? What was the respect-based way to deal with our daughters’ instances of resistance?

These particular questions led me to look at the history of the ways certain groups of people’s bodies had been colonized. The ways that my own people’s bodies were perceived as land that was to be groomed and used for the benefit of the people in power and not regarded as worthy of respect simply because they were the bodies of human beings. Instead, in practice, those human bodies were viewed as and reduced to bodies that worked as those in power saw fit. Now, the questions I thought and wrote about looked more like this: What were Kris and I forcing our daughters to do for us to be comfortable and them to be impressive?

I began to reframe parenting, and this is when I began seeing and proclaiming my parenting as part of my inter­sectional feminist practices. In June 2016, I wrote a piece about intersectional feminist parenting (it was published on Ravishly.com). Here’s an excerpt:

My beliefs about people’s rights, including my own, are a significant factor in how I define myself, how I identify, and how I treat other people. And since I am, in fact, raising people, my approach to parenting must reflect those beliefs too. Otherwise, I risk robbing my daughters of the same sense of personal agency and social responsibility that I believe promotes more confidence and compassion among people in the world. Our society treats children as a group that cannot be trusted and that needs to be guided, usually through punishment, physical violence, forced education, and little to no input into how they spend the majority of their time. I disagree wholeheartedly, and I don’t want to perpetuate that narrative. Essentially, I see intersectional feminist parenting as a solution to the lack of spaces where young people can build con­fident autonomy in all aspects of their lives — even when their choices and lifestyle go against the beliefs, power, and inherent privilege of the adults in their lives. I’m talking about resisting the power and privileging of adulthood over youth (which some people call “adultism”). Parents who identify as feminist or as supporters of feminist parenting have different means of applying this idea to their everyday choices. The life topics are pretty similar, though — body positivity and autonomy, open communication, embracing diversity, practicing compassion and respect for oneself and others, doing away with gender-based roles, and embodying confident self-expression.

One month after I published that piece, undue police violence against Black people would affect my life yet again. This time, it wasn’t my physical body that was attacked, it was the bodies of two other innocent people, men who were partners, fathers, and loved/loving members of their community. Their deaths were widely publicized, and the message behind their deaths further internalized by many of us: we are not safe, our children are not safe, there is no safe space, and, therefore, no real freedom, if you are Black in America. Because my body is not behind bars or contracted to a place that drains my mental energy all day, I don’t experience myself as enslaved. I am definitely dependent on modern conveniences and am not living off grid growing my own food, but I am free. I am free, and I also know freedom always costs something. In a legal system molded at the hands of forefathers who did not see non-White people as human, as trustworthy, as having a right to life, liberty, and all that, I have to deliberately carve out my postcolonial life. Reason being, everything ain’t post­-colonial! Legal processes, academic structures, the medical industry, all examples of far-reaching industries still rooted in and governed by written word and expressed sentiments mirror those of the most effective of colonizing nations.

Seen through the conventional parenting lens, the one most of us raised in Western culture think about when we think of parents, children don’t just become adults, they get molded into adulthood — responsible adulthood if the adults that own them do right by them. Seen through the adult-centric lens, children are widely viewed as beautiful but soft clay to be molded into a responsible adult status. To not mold a child is to neglect them, to shirk one’s responsibility. Our children are ours, legally and morally; we are in charge of them. As such, we’re responsible for giving them the best step-up into adulthood that we can manage to eke out. Looking through that lens, one could summarize that we own children, and we owe them. What we mainly owe them is a good education. And, somehow, that does not require their approval or input, because our adulthood qualifies us to decide on their behalf until they reach age eighteen.

Postcolonial parenting showed up for me as part of my deschooling journey. It speaks to my need to examine, question, and confront what I’ve accepted as normal parenting practices, so that I can see the ways some of them are reactions to being part of a group of people who were colonized and whose identities and beliefs were and are shaped by white supremacy, and who are, therefore, emotionally, spiritually, and physically harmful. The term made and makes sense to me, because it says, simply, how I parent is heavily informed by my decolonization work. To raise my children as free people, I need to be versed in freedom. I need to recognize it, know when it is threatened, and trust myself to act on what I know. If I viewed my children as fertile land to shape and design without the partnership of their own choices and curiosities, then I would be colonizing that land, those children. I would be the oppressor in this instance, just as I was when Kris and I stood by the school system instead of Marley and Sage. Postcolonial parenting is my assembling of the scaffolding I will continue to need as I learn more about the ways colonization has affected me personally, as well as the ways I affect the people and environments around me. If I am ignorant to the harm I’m causing, then I will keep causing it. Just like I kept hitting my children until meeting Toya Graham helped me consider if and how my parenting was being informed by some shit I didn’t even believe — that hitting children does more good than harm. I went back to that slave master behavior theory Lisa had shared with me back when I was pregnant with Sage. The imprint of the level of fear instilled in my great-great-grand whoever influenced subsequent generations so deeply that I was holding those same fears and resulting actions, without questioning them. I was now responsible for decolonizing my relationships, starting with myself and my children.

Viewing my relationships with Marley and with Sage as postcolonial allows me to go beyond adult-centric ideas of what it means to mother or to parent. It reminds me of the need to consider Marley and Sage as their own sovereign land, still needing Kris and me for some things but never needing to be controlled. Sometimes needing to be guided, dissuaded, hugged, reminded, forgiven, seen, heard but never needing to be controlled. It was not my intention to acclimate two more women on this planet to oppression — not two Black women, at that! Postcolonialism as a lens, a reference point, is, at this stage in my deschooling, incredibly helpful.

Today, I realize that the effects of Philando’s and Alton’s murders3 — the impact of the losses of those two men in their families and communities — catalyzed a level of activism in my life by way of messages from Black families all across America about whether or not we and our children could ever be free and what it might cost us to get there. I’m not saying these discussions are new, I am saying they were new for me, especially because more people seemed willing to talk about this out loud, repeatedly, and with solutions, not only venting, but as part of shaping the intended outcomes. Now, more people were adamant that they couldn’t surrender their children to toxic schools, for reasons that included but went beyond Whitewashed curricula and over into the ways their children were being forced to internalize their own degradation. People, not just parents, were afraid and angry, and people were also ready to do more than acknowledge the ongoing influence of colonization. They — we — were willing to do, and in some cities, were already doing, something toward that freedom. And what we were doing was deepening our decolonization work by examining and working through the ways that colonization was still informing the people who helped raise us, as well as our own actions and fears. Change was not only due, it was being called in, drummed in, loud and insistent, and I gathered myself and my resources to set out to amplify these voices of change and remind more people that we could figure out how to get free, if we first stopped tapping into the tools of oppression that had been forced into the hands of people before us and would be forced into ours, unless we intentionally let them go.



[1] Editor’s Note: earlier in the chapter the author writes about being on NBC’s The Steve Harvey Show with a group of unconventional parents, including Toya Graham, “Toya is the woman who was widely known across America for knocking her teenage son Michael Singleton upside the head and berating him for being present at the Baltimore uprising following the death of twenty-five-year-old Baltimore resident Freddie Gray...”

[2] Editor’s Note: in the previous chapter the author explains, “When I recognized that I was fear-focused, I changed my focus and got brave. Bravery in this instance looked like researching the medical need (or lack thereof) for bras... and being honest [to my daughters] about my own misinformation on breasts and bras.”

[3] Editor’s Note: see, for example, “Two Days, Two Deaths: The Police Shootings Of Alton Sterling And Philando Castile”