Against All Odds: Education, Race, and Chess

Adisa Banjoko & Arash Daneshzadeh


Teaching students, “The World Is Yours”

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at a high school for Black History Month in San Francisco, CA. Their original speaker had bailed on them, at the last minute. Rather than open my talk with a lamentation of US slavery, I focused on Dogon discoveries in Astronomy, and Moorish science contributions that served as the foundation of the European Renaissance. After citing the role of the African Islamic influence of Europe’s’ rise out of the Dark Ages, I asked the students how many enjoyed what they heard. Almost all the hands went up. I said, now ask yourselves this question: How is that you have been in school for at least 9 years and this is the first time you are hearing it? It is against all political, social, and economic odds that Black children are expected to excel.

As we approach Black History Month in 2016, I’m already torn between my genuine love in celebrating Black achievement, and the sad circus many schools turn the opportunity into. American schools have a long way to go in sharing the more dynamic aspects of African contributions to global civilization. For me, I tend to do my best teaching on a chessboard. It is almost impossible to talk about chess in America and not have race come up. I’m doubtful that this happens in China, for example. As Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) and an educator for more than a decade now (mostly in inner cities) I’ve watched kids argue about who gets to be white, who gets to be black and why. African American kids, often as young as 9 years old, out of what appears to be a loyalty to their team (race) often chose to be Black irrespective of the known reality– that it is harder to play as black in chess. It takes time to learn how to be black and expect to win.

In the medieval times, apparently white did not always start first. Historically speaking, the first chess books were written by Muslims. As Moorish sovereignty in Europe grew, Christians and Jews began to play and write about the game. One of the European authors said white went first (without explanation of why) and the idea seems to have stuck. The high polarization of racial issues in America seems to inherently make our kids consider that black starts from a place of weakness. This is not the game itself that does this. It is their experience as African American children, not chess players, that puts this feeling upon them.

It is what they observe in their lives, in the news, and in their history classes. It is the greatness of Black history that is deliberately left out- that ends up making them feel this way. I can’t prove it, but I believe that this inherent feeling that Black is at a disadvantage in chess is connected to racial disadvantages in life.

Dr. Frances Cress-Welsing touched on this topic of race and chess in her groundbreaking 1989 book,The Isis Papers. “White always makes the opening (aggressive) move in chess” she writes, “The black king and queen must move in tactical and strategic harmony with one another if they are to counter the white assaut successfully and defend their side of the chessboard effectively.”

The HHCF has always worked to use chess as a tool for racial and cultural transcendence.

Nevertheless, even some of the best things about chess seem to slip through our hands. On October 17, 2015, one of the greatest minds, a Black man, in modern chess passed away. His name wasEmory Tate and he died doing what he loved best, playing chess in the San Francisco Bay Area. Black American mainstream press didn’t report it. Nevermind that as an International Master he battered Grandmasters with seamless regularity. Despite the fact that the brilliance he displayed in countless games gave a slight sketch of the elite expressions of his cognitive function- his passing was ignored by Black media outlets. I personally watched Tate beat RZA of Wu-Tang Clan in 2009 in San Francisco at John O’Connell High School. Emory Tate and RZA spoke together to kids at length about the intellectual and moral benefits of chess for them. Emory Tate’s name struck fear in the hearts of his opponents around the world. Unfortunately, Emory Tate died in a time where what qualifies as modern Black “news” is often relegated to mostly Worldstar fight clips and Love and Hip Hop style gossip. These “news” outlets have largely erased genuine young adoration for Black intellectual and entrepreneurial achievement beyond the arena of entertainment.

Today, most Americans think of chess as an upper echelon “White” game. In fact, the game only made it to America after the Moors (African Muslim scholars) conquered Spain from 700 AD until 1400 AD and brought their books and chessboards with them. After teaching the game of chess to the Christians and Jews, it spread across Europe. The English loved chess and when some rebelled and settled in America, so too did the game. Colonial Americans such as George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson became obsessed with the game.

Theophilus Thompson of Frederick, Maryland is one of the first African American chess players known by name. Despite being raised in the violence of the Civil War era he authored a book of chess positions that were respected by all the players of his day. You can even see one of his brilliant games played in 1874 at The Chess Drum, the world’s best site for Black chess news around the globe. Even the most remedial chess player can see Thompson’s style unleashed a horrific series of psychological landmines and traps, forcing his opponent to resign. Sadly, he was rumored to have died at the hands of the KKK who held big numbers in Frederick at the time. America has never been a safe place for intelligent Black men daring enough to display critical insight publicly. It is in the spirit of Thompson’s bravery that this piece is written.

One of the amazing things about chess is that it is a proven tool in raising scores in IQ testing and academic exams. Additionally, in 1979, Chinese University in Hong Kong shared a study by Dr. Yee Wang Fung. It reported that chess players showed a 15% improvement in math and science scores. Five years before that a study in Zaire by Dr. Albert Frank of 19 students aged 16-18 stated that chess players showed significant advancement in spatial, numerical and administrative-directional abilities.These improvements held true regardless of the skill level attained. Simply stated, your child doesn’t need to be a Grandmaster in chess to benefit greatly from the impact it can have on your mind. In a country professing to be so STEM and STEAM obsessed the recalcitrance of the American school system in making chess a daily class (just like English or Math) borders criminality- not mere hypocrisy.

Democracy and illiteracy are not synonymous. To ensure that the future of our democracy is sustained and elevated, literacy has to be its indestructible root. If chess was good enough to enlighten George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Jay Z and Tupac it is good enough for the American student- irrespective of their grade level.
Fear of a Black Planet
“If you want to understand any problem, focus on who profits from that problem, not who suffers from that problem.” -Dr. Amos Wilson
There is a relationship between the literary stories that represent “triumph” and historical accounts of oppression. Who tells the story, how they tell it, what details are selectively removed, which others are emphasized or outright falsified, determines how one interprets history. In the enduring words of Hip Hop artist, Inspectah Deck, “life as a shorty shouldn’t be so rough”. American schools have played a prominent role in manufacturing an image of Black youth as “other” than human-destitute, needy, unruly, savages. There’s something troublingly ironic about an education system that perpetuates the myth of a normative achievement gap, while minimizing the role that COINTELPRO had on normalizing Black pain. The criminality of Black youth in the United States education system is proportional to the perceived danger of Black resistance, self-definition, and independence. These three variables are forged in the mantle of critical storytelling.

In the wake of Black History month, we revisit a discussion as timeless as Dr. Amos Wilson’s hallowed words above. That this, power and privilege determine the relationship between teaching and learning. Who gets to tell the story is just as important as who plays the role of hero in an epic saga. Students internalize perceptions of their learning ability with their existential power. Storytelling, with the hopes of transmitting parables to youth, has been a common vehicle for teaching historical literacy since time immemorial. Historical literacy, of course, is paramount to unpacking the truth about where we come from. Particularly, in any society that blurs the atrocities of transatlantic slavery and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. You may recall a recent case in Texas, in which a textbook manufacturer referred to enslaved Africans as “workers”.

It is important to remind administrators, teachers, and students that teaching historical accounts and positional power in the classroom are not mutually exclusive, but symbiotically paired like the effect of location upon real estate prices. If you are teaching Black youth from a space of intersecting privilege (example: White, heterosexual, upper-middle class, male), it becomes important to center students in the texts so that your unearned privilege does not derail a potentially uplifting moment of historical literacy. Too often, individual icons such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are superimposed onto Black students as passive and inanimate props for White integration stories.

But what about the communities that inspired King and Parks? Their political nuances, critical development, and vast ocean of community influences are filtered through a netting that removes all texture–replaced with carefully curated aesthetic. An aesthetic which appreciates Martin Luther King for his eloquent rhetoric, and Rosa Parks for her searing opposition to a bus driver-rather than the radical story of how the community mobilized, despite painful opposition from the United States government in the form of COINTELPRO, prior to the bus boycotts and union walkouts.

While teachers often misappropriate Dr. Martin Luther King as an inter-racial sympathizer, the facts surrounding his death are often manufactured by an ideology, which seeks to destroy any implication that American imperialism was responsible for his demise and for the overall declaration of war upon the Black community. The irony behind this academic tampering: In 1999, the King family won a civil trial against the United States government for conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King. Why is this history lesson not as readily accessible to youth, particularly Black children, whose historical points of reference are still grounded in respectability and obedience?

Any remote association with Black resistance is engulfed, chewed up, and spit out as a breach of decorum and personal responsibility. Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Tupac Shakur and even rap artist KRS-One are prime examples of luminaries whose images were quickly vanquished from critical teachings in school. In January 2015, the Huffington Post reported on a teacher who was publicly attacked in Tucson, Arizona for incorporating what was deemed as “inflammatory” and “threatening” lyrics by KRS-One into their curriculum for an African American history course. The teacher attempted to unpack generations of systemic oppression through “artistic response”. This example of historical cherry picking presents a sterilized image of classrooms as neutral factories of compliance. Any inquiry, particularly from students well versed in historical literacy or anti-racist artistic expression, poses a threat to the fabric of reproducing society in its current image.

The truth is, our classrooms are political spaces where battles for representation (beyond the symbolic) are waged. Nonetheless, stories of organized Black revolutionaries are swept up like doll houses during a tornado, splintered, and dissipated like dust across a child’s consciousness. Education policy makers must examine whose power is squarely positioned at the center of our historical textbooks, and privileged as the aspirational goal for students. When discussing student learning, power reprises its role as inseparably married to the privileges wrought by being a teacher.

The chessboard serves as a microcosm for community. It also represents the fallacy in quotidian education that your success is inspired bybecoming King. An allegory lauding the merits of social isolation is a direct contradiction from the revolutionary bedrock of liberatory education, which invokes the collective power of community pieces, against a common enemy. This self-aggrandizing portrait of success is buttressed by the capitalistic notion encouraging students to surmount their cultural literacies, because achievement cannot be shared among peers. In the interest of this article, literacies is defined as the historical definitions of self, rooted in understanding race, gender, class, and other normative identities as constructed within a cultural ecology of synchronized domination and oppression.

In this society, we are trained to believe that academic “success” can be only hoarded, as our education system intentionally triages for patent winners and losers. One consequence of this reductionist view of collective solidarity is the normalization of divestment. Divesting from community. Sloughing entire layers of historical understanding is actually seen as a strategy towards success. We center Whiteness and settler capitalism by telling students that they were admitted into a college, “despite growing up in the ghetto”, which is pathologized as a proxy for Blackness. Similarly, in chess, students are told to count the most valuable pieces in accordance with a rubric of settler colonialism; rendering pawns as merely disposable players who make the occasional cameo during protracted matches. A Western framework that problematizes pawns, and makes Queens a transactional gambit to sustain the longevity of the King, barters with identity.

To perceive pieces as inextricably linked with achieving victory, one must frame chess pieces as more than individuals but an ecologically sustained community. When students, particularly children of color, in my classroom discuss chess, their initial impulse veers towards “becoming” King. As a result, they forsake the importance of other pieces, whose quantifiable values mirror the “desirability” as competing members of a chess community. This value system parallels a market-based society, whose racialized underpinnings, commodify Blackness as space to be charitably leveraged by or platform White sensibilities. In chess, White moves first and pawns are worth “less” points than Queens.

Conversely, students must forgo an appreciation of community in order to position themselves at the mantle of dominance. As well, domination is advertised as a political dividend that requires a divestment of cultural literacy, because our communities are problematized as anchors to our long-term prospects. And our success is propagandized as a marker of innate worth. In chess terms: If you became King, you achieved it despite the distractions and convoluted machinations of other (read: less important) pieces on your side of the board. This raises the question of education as a tool for inculcating societal value systems that may actively oppose indigenous and Black diasporic foundations.

Taking a more critical lens, we must peel from the layers of historical rust that stifles a student’s social mobility. Miring students in the minutia of political and social competition, moves the illusion that they are individuals first, and communities are merely instruments for self-marketing. Black history is hijacked, reconstructed, and expelled as a finite canon of individual transcendence. Black excellence is merely a reflection of individuals who demonstrated personal “grit” or perseverance, despite overwhelming odds. As a result of the grit narrative, individual successes throughout Black history fails to consider the manner in which oppressive ideology overly determines policy that shapes community outcomes.

Teaching Black history as more than a positivist and towering beacon of more-to-less stakeholders, flies in direct opposition to the perception that power and privilege are independent of one another in the classroom. “Ubuntu” is a Zulu word that means “I am because we are”, and captures a liberatory strand of teaching. This model posits that our position as individuals is gained by our appreciation of the stories and critical understandings of our ancestors. Without exercising liberating and critical literacies, students tacitly amputate a political connection to their cultures. A connection, that renders them as powerful partners within an intergenerational war for the redistribution of provisional wealth. In his groundbreaking work, Developmental Psychology of the Black Child, Dr. Amos Wilson distinguishes between schools that subsidize a highly educated servant (to Capitalism) and those that seek to promote Black mobilization. He writes that the Black child is taught to have a sense of dependency on her historical storytellers (i.e., schools) and thus, can only exercise enough power to perpetuate the desires of those who center an image of Black domination and youth control.

A note about Pan-African teaching. Look at how many miles separate Greece and England. English universities have no problem teaching students that Plato and Socrates are their intellectual ancestors, yet Anglo-Saxons didn’t directly descend from Greece. Thus, it shouldn’t be absurd for Black children to learn about Pan-African philosophy, history, and contemporary intellectual inspiration. The Book of the Dead, Kingdoms of the Nile, Kush, Nubia, the Mandingo Empire, Senegambia, Duse Mohamed Ali, and Henry Sylvester Williams. I could go on, but the battle for Pan-African narratives, is to cobble a direct conduit to intellectual ancestry for Black youth.

In Whistling Vivaldi (2010), eminent social psychologist, Dr. Claude Steele explains that the threats to Black student identity are external albeit internalized. He adds, that if people on the street heard someone whistling classical musician, Vivaldi, that the violence prone, “unrefined” Black youth image would not reflexively come to mind. What’s more, even other Black youth are less inclined to assume a Black peer is the whistler. Our values and images of “high white society” will always emerge in the classroom. Black children are 18 times more likely than White children to be incarcerated as adults and comprise 58% of all children sentenced to prison as adults in the United States (Poe-Yamagata & Jones, 2007). Black students are “personally responsible” for their actions at an age when white students still benefit from assumptions of their innocence. A school environment that conditions Black youth for perpetual “fight or flight” mode, cannot offer time for reflection. As a result, we must not think of Vivaldi as the metric for what distinguishes an academically “successful” Black child from her peers. Instead, it is incumbent upon educators and radical scholars to wean from the phantom value systems that commercially, and socially, distinguish between Vivaldi and J. Cole. Until then, pawns will never live to be Queens.

Originally posted at the Hip Hop Chess Federation’s blog.
Adisa Banjoko is the Founder of the Hip-Hop Chess Federation (HHCF) and author of Bobby, Bruce & Bam: The Secrets of Hip-Hop Chess releasing Feb 2016 on Young Lions Press. Arash Daneshzadehis an HHCF Chess Instructor and Doctoral Candidate at UC Davis. Learn more about HHCF.

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