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The Brilliance of Black Boys: Cultivating School Success in the Early Grades

reviewed by Jevon Hunter - November 30, 2018

coverTitle: The Brilliance of Black Boys: Cultivating School Success in the Early Grades
Author(s): Brian L. Wright & Shelly L. Counsell
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807758922, Pages: 168, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

What happens when educators and educators-to-be use a language of “promise, potential, and possibilities” as a way of describing our Black boys in early childhood? As literacy educator Alfred W. Tatum (2009) reminds us, language has a powerful impact on ideas and subsequently on material actions. It is this transformative notion of moving from language to action that drives Brian L. Wright and Shelly L. Counsell to shine light on the genius of our Black boys in their text, The Brilliance of Black Boys: Cultivating School Success in the Early Grades.

The common refrain in the text of “promise, potential, and possibilities” serves as an organizing set of truths from which to build and support asset-based instruction for our Black boys in early childhood education. It is evident from the start of The Brilliance of Black Boys that the authors are quite interested in spotlighting the curiosity, excitement, and talents that our Black boys possess early in their lives. They advocate for teachers and teachers-to-be to acknowledge these ways of being in order to arrange and facilitate pedagogical encounters that are both intellectually and physically affirming and substantive. Wright and Counsell draw upon three conceptual frameworks, namely, sociocultural theory, anti-deficit achievement, and culturally responsive teaching, to organize and situate their overall argument for leveraging the strengths that our Black boys bring with them into the classroom to facilitate learning and human development.

To accomplish their goals, the authors move the reader through the regularly cited statistics that dominate the narrative that describes our Black boys. These statistics include overrepresentation in special education classrooms, disproportion rates of suspension and expulsion, and underrepresentation in gifted education. It does not matter how often these statistics are noted, they shock the conscience of those of us who are deeply concerned about and work side-by-side with our Black boys because they point to a dim sociohistorical context of neglect, abandonment, and systematic disempowerment. What is deeply dispiriting, as Wright and Counsell point out adeptly, is the way these statistics impact the development of our Black boys in early education. We should be reminded here that we are speaking of children from ages four to seven who have to live and learn (and be loved) within a narrative that characterizes them as problems, pains, pathologies, and in peril, with little analysis of the lack of adequate supports, be they social, emotional, or psychological, to ensure their success. When this dominant narrative is coupled with deficit-oriented perceptions from current teachers, future teachers, peers, and others, our Black boys find themselves entangled in an ongoing battle to reclaim their dignity and justify their humanity within a system that routinely blurs their childhoods, casting them as adults and criminals. Despite having to revisit these bleak statistics and problematize these deficit perspectives, Wright and Counsell remind the reader what those who teach and learn with our Black boys already know: Black boys are brilliant!

To illuminate this brilliance, Wright and Counsell contextualize their collective work by using a language of excellence that focuses on an asset-based approach to teaching our Black boys. It is here that readers will find concrete strategies for successfully engaging our Black boys through instructional practices and curricular activities designed to support their learning and identity development. The authors’ examples go beyond simply incorporating books that reflect the experiences of our Black boys. Instead, the authors borrow from both well-established and emerging research to highlight how culturally and racially authentic texts can be used to create rigorous and engaging lessons. No longer can teachers and teachers-to-be rely upon recycled, inaccurate falsehoods of what our Black boys can’t, won’t, or don’t do; Wright and Counsell have provided a text that displays forms of active involvement and learning that will stretch the intellectual capabilities, talents, and gifts of our Black boys.

Wright and Counsell make their strongest case for The Brilliance of Black Boys in the final chapters where they offer the reader strategies that empower our Black boys to take charge of their own learning. This part of the text is about agency. Grounding their work in what they refer to as a project approach to learning, the authors draw upon a rich tradition of educators and learning theorists to argue for practices that allow the diverse ways in which our Black boys demonstrate their expertise to flourish. The authors compel the reader to consider how movement and socializing during activities can help our Black boys develop lifelong learning skills. To demonstrate the benefits of this approach, Wright and Counsell include vivid examples of actual lessons. To close out the text, the authors present a robust set of resources that can be easily accessed by educators and educators-to-be who have an interest in preparing our Black boys.

Given the current sociopolitical context in which the hyper-surveillance and (threat of) control of Black bodies doing ordinary activities (e.g., studying, gathering for family cookouts, entering one’s own home, waiting for vehicle assistance) has become a prominent part of our national dialogue, The Brilliance of Black Boys invites us to reflect upon how dominant narratives persist, but more importantly, how they can be disrupted. I like to think that the brilliance of this book is that it serves as a beacon; a reminder that we are not simply teachers and teachers-to-be of Black boys. Our role is more significant than that. We are human beings intimately involved in the process of helping other human beings come into their own. Simply put, we are facilitators of human development. When we think of our roles in this way, how can we not be guided by and act upon the “promise, potential, and possibilities” of our Black boys?

Wright and Counsell provide us with an instructional foundation grounded in asset-based theoretical frameworks and supported by research-based evidence that affords us the chance to create pedagogical encounters that allow our Black boys to shine. By doing so, we as educators and educators-to-be will have the privilege of watching them glow and ensuring that while their light may occasionally flicker, it will never be extinguished.


Tatum, A. W. (2009). Reading for their life: (Re)building the textual lineages of African

American adolescent males. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 30, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22584, Date Accessed: 7/29/2021 11:59:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Jevon Hunter
    SUNY Buffalo State College
    E-mail Author
    JEVON D. HUNTER, PhD is the Woods-Beals Endowed Chair for Urban Education in the School of Education and an associate professor in the Elementary Education, Literacy, and Educational Leadership department at The State University New York, Buffalo State. He is a critical literacy educator who studies the ways literacies can be used to mis/dis/empower urban youth broadly, and African American males particularly. His recent publication appears in the School-University Partnerships Journal, a piece that explored how Twitter was leveraged to enhance the literacy learning outcomes for both high school students and literacy specialist candidates. He is currently working on a multiyear project that captures the literacy lives of urban youth through a series of student-led creative writing and research initiatives.
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