In a break with tradition, there was only one keynote speaker at the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) Annual Convention this year. That speaker was Jeffrey Blount, award-winning author of the book, “The Emancipation of Evan Walls,” as well as longtime director of Meet the Press, NBC Nightly News, and the first African-American director of The Today Show. Mr. Blount gave a stirring presentation interlaced with stories from his personal experience as an African-American student who was accused of “acting White” because of his interest in academic pursuits. Early in his journalism career, he encountered another academically gifted young Black boy who was also mercilessly taunted for “acting White,” who became the inspiration for this book.
The book is a page turner, following young Evan Walls through the 1970s as his family fully disowns him, the Black community turns against him, and his Black peers at school completely reject him, despite the fact that he is the star player of the high school football team. It’s easy to hear the phrase “acting White” and imagine some gentle ribbing at school, or maybe a bully who takes it upon themselves to teach a lesson. This book will disabuse you of that naive notion.
Yes, there was a bully in this story, but this was no schoolyard tussle. This bully and his cronies sent both Evan, and on a different occasion, his white friend who stuck up for him, to the hospital for multiple week stays. The Black community turned against Evan swiftly and unequivocally by ignoring, maligning, and threatening him for daring to want a better life. He was not welcome at church, at social events, or even on his own family’s front porch. He was called “Uncle Tom” by his Black classmates and was shut out of his formerly tight group of friends. At his newly integrated school, Evan was caught between two tides - his Black classmates who pointedly ignored and taunted him, and his White classmates who generally feared their Black peers.
Evan’s own parents denounced their son, were embarrassed by him, physically beat him, celebrated his brother’s report card but not Evan’s straight A’s, withheld lunch money and other basic necessities, and were unfazed when Evan chose to sleep most nights in the cornfield rather than in his bed. If not for wise Mama Jennie and a practical mentor named Bojack, Evan would have been completely alone and friendless throughout his childhood, and even they were not a constant in his life. A couple of white boys befriended him at school, but quickly found that their otherwise strong friendship was battered by complex racial tensions and by the end of the book, it simply became too dangerous for them, and they, too, abandoned Evan. This was an impossibly difficult situation for Evan to grow up in, and most people would have succumbed to these intense social pressures.
More than anything, Mr. Blount’s keynote and his tremendous book reminds us that achieving equity in gifted programs, or in education at all, is extremely complex. In our field, proactive and unbiased identification of gifted students from all demographic groups is only the beginning. We must also provide meaningful gifted programming in every zip code that keeps gifted kids actually growing, not just paddling in place. Even with those crucial pieces in place, unwinding biases, stereotypes, and cultural trauma, as well as honoring the wide variety of values across different communities is going to be the hardest aspect of our work. This book would be an excellent choice for a book club at home or at school, and would stimulate meaty, insightful, and difficult conversations.
Mr. Blount’s keynote was a perfect opening for this year’s NAGC Convention. Equity was a popular topic this year, with a surprisingly large number of breakout sessions as well as the majority of the livestreamed general sessions focused on various aspects of equity.
This is a welcome shift from prior years. We are finally recognizing the existential threat to the gifted field if equity is not addressed fully, comprehensively, and most of all, quickly. Gifted programs will simply not be allowed to remain in existence much longer if we cannot solve the equitable access problems that have plagued them for decades.
In a field known for its lack of consensus on definitions, models, or best practices, I noticed hopeful signs throughout the NAGC Convention that leaders in our field are now rallying around equity, and perhaps even reducing their own personal dogmas a notch. A common goal we can all get behind would do our field a lot of good.
The NAGC convention was offered both online and in person this year. Recordings are available for registered attendees until May 31, 2022. If you’d like to hear Mr. Blount’s keynote, you can find it at 3:25 on the Thursday livestream recording, which is highly recommended if you missed it. Mr. Blount’s book, “The Emancipation of Evan Walls,” is widely available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, most bookstores, and your local public library.
Austina De Bonte is a consultant at Smart is not Easy, LLC (www.smartisnoteasy.com), President and Past President of the Northwest Gifted Child Association (www.nwgca.org), and co-President of the Washington Coalition for Gifted Education (www.wacoalition.com) Austina has a Masters degree from MIT, and did her thesis work in the MIT Media Lab's Epistemology and Learning Group, where Lego Mindstorms was invented, and is currently a doctoral student at Bridges Graduate School. Contact Austina at email@example.com