Dr. Umar Johnson is considered a national expert on learning disabilities and their effect on Black children, as well as being an expert on helping schools and parents modify challenging behaviours that can ultimately lead to disorder diagnoses in Black Boys. He is a Certified School Psychologist who practices privately throughout Pennsylvania and lectures throughout the United States and the world. He has been featured prominently in all 3 of the popular Hidden Colours documentary series. He is also the author of a new book titled The Psycho- Academic War Against Black Boys.
On a recent visit to Montreal, Quebec in Canada, Dr. Umar discussed with Kentakepage his background, inspirations, challenges and his ambitious goal of establishing the Frederick Douglass Marcus Garvey RBG International Leadership Academy for Black boys in Lawrenceville, Virginia.Dr. Umar’s passion, love and commitment to addressing and offering solutions to Black peoples conditions was evident throughout this powerful discussion.
Born on August 21st 1974, in North Central, Philadelphia, Dr. Umar is the oldest boy of 11 eleven children (6 boys, 5 girls – 2 older sisters). He went to elementary and high school in North Central, PA. One of his ancestors is the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Dr. Umar attended a para military style high school. He went to summer school in Fort Bragg, North Carolina where he performed mandatory general JROTC duties. His father was a drill instructor in the United States Marine Corps. He credits his father for instilling discipline in him and his mother for developing his sense of compassion.
“I got my compassion from my mother. She is a very caring person. She would give you the clothes off of her back if she would need to. That’s where my love for people comes from. It’s from my mom. Sometimes it’s a love to a fault though because we can allow people to take advantage of us because of our desire to help so much.
With my father, that’s where I got my discipline from. Obviously, him being a drill instructor for the United Sates Marine Corps he was very, very firm… possibly even to a detriment. Sometimes I wonder if I came to choose the field of psychology because of how firm he was, but it was the balance. You had the extreme compassion from your mom and you had the extreme non-emotional discipline from the father.
I think both of them have benefited me because when I look at what is happening to our children even working in schools, it’s amazing the professionals I come across who really don’t care about the children they service. This is Black and white. I say to myself, “Why is this person a building principal? Why is she a councilor? Why is he a classroom teacher? A lot of people lose their love for the children as they move through their career. So my compassion I think, my sense of concern is probably one of my greatest assets that I take into work every day. The discipline is very important too because it allows me to stay focused on my goals. I don’t think I would sit here now, you know with 6 degrees, had it not been for that work ethic that my father had instilled in me early on in life.”
From 8th -12th grade, Dr. Umar attended Scotland School, where he graduated and then went to college for a double major and double degree in psychology and political science.
It was after graduating that Dr. Umar’s destiny began to take shape.
“It’s interesting how destiny kind of sets up your path because I wasn’t really interested in school psychology; I was always a clinician. But when I graduated on May 17th of 1997 I was accepted into Hahnemann University Master’s program in clinical psychology which is in Center City Philadelphia, the business district; it was extremely expensive. I said there’s no need to pay $20,000 a year for a Master’s when I can go back to my undergraduate institution. Having been a student leader, I’m sure I could land a graduate assistantship where they pay the bill and you simply offer some of your time in exchange for that bill being paid and you get your education for free. So for grad school, I was a resident hall director the campus of Millersville University. In a conversation I had with the director of the Master’s program at Hahnemann University, he told me if you are going to go back to Millersville, get your school psychology certification because they are one of the few schools who have it and if you get it you will be in a really good position to help children because even if you get your doctorate, if you’re not school certified you can’t be a school psychologist.
So I went back, came out in the year 2000 with my Masters in school psychology 2 days before my 25th birthday- I’ll be 40 on August the 21st, God willing- so it’s been about 15 years as a school psychologist. I went back to the school district of Philadelphia, worked in the same schools I grew up in and that’s when I came face to face with the school to prison pipeline in the form of special education and ADHD.”
Dr. Umar was now in a position where he had to label Black and Latino boys with “learning disabilities” without any evidence of the case.
Dr. Umar said to himself, “Something is wrong because yall sending me child after child and you’re asking me too conclude that he’s retarded or learning disabled or emotionally disturbed” and I’m seeing a regular kid just as normal as I was. The problem that I’m seeing is that these are children that simply haven’t been taught.
“At the age of 25, I was still an intern, my first year was as an intern and that’s when I saw what was going on. That was the connecting dot. It was the special education and the psychiatric medicalization of Black boys that I saw playing a pivotal role in the school to prison pipeline because once they get misdiagnosed with that learning disability, that mental retardation, that emotional disturbance, that ADHD, the school can now legally mis-educate them.”
“So now if you are not learning, the school doesn’t have to take responsibility. They simply say it’s because he’s retarded; he’s learning disabled, that’s why he can’t read. So these labels were being used and are being used as convenient excuses to marginalize an entire generation of Black boys.”
“That’s when I began my crusade and after 5 or 6 years I couldn’t take it anymore because every day I was being asked to do something that didn’t sit with me in terms of my conscious. I became a school psychologist and an educator -I’m also a certified school principle- I became that because I wanted to help black boys, not oppress them. So after 6 years with the school district of Philadelphia, I resigned and I became an assistant principle at a charter school in Philadelphia. That’s when it really dawned on me, that’s when I had my great epiphany, that I could do more to help our boys by being a school principal than I could ever be being a therapist. The rationale being, as a traditional therapist, you spend 40 hours in therapy. So you see 40 patients a week compared to a school principal; you impact the lives of a 1,000 children every day”
“So, in terms of a quantity plus quality analysis, being a school principal, I came to the realization at that point when I was about 29 that I should open up my own school for Black boys and I began to formulate the concept when I was still an assistant principal. A position from which I resigned, so I resigned from the school district because I didn’t like what I was seeing and then I resigned from the charter school because I didn’t like what I was seeing there. Some of the instructional things, some of the things that were being done to Black boys. I regretted leaving when I did because I knew that as soon as I left, white female teachers were going to crush those Black boys”
“That’s exactly what happened. I started getting calls from the parents saying, ‘Why did you leave, they just kicked my son out.’ And I knew it. But it was a transition I had to make and I’m glad I did. I went into private practice as a school psychologist after I resigned from the charter school, so this is probably about 2007-2008 and I’ve been in private practice ever since. So it’s been about 7 years. In private practice I travel around the country; I do most of my work in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I evaluate children for public schools, charter schools, parents, attorneys. I do counseling, professional development. There’s nothing that I don’t do in the field of mental health and education as it relates to children so I fluctuate between being an educator and being a school psychologist.”
The culmination of Dr. Umar’s vision will be in the establishment of the Frederick Douglass Marcus Garvey RBG International Leadership Academy in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Dr. Umar is raising the funds and capital to purchase the historic St-Paul College campus which sits on 135 acres of land that will be developed for a school for Black boys as well as numerous other programs. Dr. Umar sees the school as part of the larger, more challenging needs for change in our communities across the Diaspora.
“The school was a necessity. As a psychologist, I use a lot of my experience and training to draw a lot of the conclusions I have about our reality. One of the central things I learned about being a psychologist is that it’s hard to change people. That’s one of the basic things you learn. People don’t change easy. Even when they come to therapy they don’t change. Even out of the people who come to therapy only 15% of them end up changing.”
Dr. Umar explained the complexity of bringing change to Black people:
“You’re talking about somebody dealing with a depression or alcoholism or a suicidality or anxiety… (but) when you’re dealing with African people; you’re dealing with inter-generational transmission of trauma that is contained in the double helix of our DNA. We inherit the shame and the pain, the grander and the guilt of our ancestors. It is in us. So to change that type of a situation it’s going to require a lot commitment a lot of discipline, and a lot of self and collective love that a lot of our people don’t have.”
“So how do you bring change? If the current psyche of the African in the world is due to his subjugation, due to slavery, colonialism and white supremacy… how did slavery, colonialism and white supremacy transform the African into the current one. It was through socialization. It was through the ritual of inferiority. We were socialized into inferiority. Not so much educated into it. What do I mean by that? A Black child is taught to hate himself in school, not because it says in a book “hate yourself”. Not because a teacher says, “hate yourself”. Through the non-verbal communication. Through the ritual of pledging the flag, through the ritual of worshiping white folks you come to the conclusion subconsciously that I am nothing! So it’s the socialization more than the education that makes us who we are. So if we were socialized into inferiority. If we were trained into it, we’re going to have to be trained back into superiority. We’re going to have to be trained back into our normal state of mind. That brought me into being an educator. That brought me into opening a school.”
“You can’t use the mindset that created the problem to eliminate it… So naturally, you do what? You don’t work reactionary, you work proactionarily. That means we have to go to the children. That means we have to work with children. That means we have to raise them and socialize them the way we need them to be. The children are not the problem. They are the solution.”
Dr. Umar acknowledged the need for Black history, but brings a strategic approach when it comes to addressing the needs of African people:
“History is critical, it is absolutely essential in rebuilding ourselves but we can’t just do it for celebratory reasons. It has to be instructional as well. In my school, in the Fred Douglas Marcus Garvey International Academy, we are going to give the celebratory and we are going to give the instructional. We need balance. Maat should exist in everything.”
The sense of urgency to our issues is being lost in complacency according to Dr. Umar:
“We don’t have the luxury of being one dimensional… even though we are in a state of crisis, we don’t act like it. We are very nonchalant about the fact that we are being targeted for extermination! I’m seeing Black folks more concerned with what they wear, more concerned with how they dress, more concerned with how expensive their car is, more concerned with the internet, more concerned with the shows on TV than I am about their existence. How do you explain the nonchalance in the face of danger? Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder. We have been socialized to be desensitized to our own dehumanization. We are the only people who can look at our own pain and trauma and neglect it. Not even neglect it, but laugh at it.”
“Our greatest problem after white supremacy is ourselves. Our Achilles heel is self-hate. It’s always the elephant in the room. The resources are there, the expertise are there, the degrees are there, the personnel is there! So why aren’t we doing it? It is the self-hatred. The “ego of the negro” is keeping us in our situation.”
It is perhaps the sense of urgency and progress that has drawn Dr. Umar to his favorite period of history:
“I’ll give you my single greatest period would be the 19th century hands down. Pan Africangly speaking all across the world. From 1801-1899 that was the greatest period of African people since our fall from greatness. We did more from 1801-1899, than we’ve done from 1901-1999 and that it looks like we’re doing from 2000-2099.
Pan Africanism was birthed in that century. The Haitian Revolution in that century. American slavery ended in that century. The birth of the Black Womanists Movement. Many of our first authors, our greatest inventions, most of our wars, our slave revolts our independent communities, the Black wall Streets, Reconstruction, Shaka Zulu, Yaa Asantewaa. Many of them come or were born in that century. Marcus Garvey was born in 1887. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad was born during those 100 years.
So from a personality as well as an organized progression sort of a stage, many of our leaders were born in, birthed from the 19th century and many of our greatest sustainable movements came alive in that century.
At such a young age, it may be too early to be speaking about his legacy, however when asked how he would like to be remembered, Dr. Umar said:
As someone who tried his best. On my tombstone: “I GAVE IT MY ALL”. And I literally do. Every lecture, every event I give it my all. The thing I’m most happy about in life is going to bed knowing that I’m trying to make a sincere change for the people. That clean mind at night. Some people they walk around with guilt for having done things to people and I know being a psychologist people expose those guilts to me. We all have our privations, but for the most part, I can say I live an honest life.
Sometimes I’m too honest. If I can do it over I don’t know if I would have made my personal life as public as I have. Because people have tried to use that to destroy me, the fact that I’m not married and that I have two children… because I have nothing to hide, I just share it.
As hard as you are working for progress, you got people working just as hard to tear you down. That’s the only disconcerting thing about my work. The jealousy and envy is real. It’s not just the young people it comes from elders too. But I don’t want to make it more than what it is. 99.9% of our people support me. That small 1% of the detractors, they make their voice heard.
Turning 40, I really got to get serious. Buckling down on everything. Family, health, life… because I’m at that transition point. So for me, my 40s are going to be synonymous with focus. At this point the people that are for you are for you. The people who are not are not. If you are going to make your mark, make it. So, focus is where I’m at right now.
Finally, Dr. Umar shared this story with us on the lessons he is learning from life:
“Number one as a Leo, I’m pretty impatient. That fire demands results. I’ve had to learn the wisdom of being patient and the wisdom of uncertainty. One of the things that keeps me going more than anything else is comments I get from our elders. At the end of lectures I’ve had people say some of the most remarkable things to me. I remember one elder, I think it was New York City, he came up to me and said, “I’ve hear them all. I’ve heard most of our great leaders speak,’ He was a very old man. ‘and I’ve never heard one like you.’ When you hear something like that, you don’t forget it. I’ve heard elders say, ‘The energy you have, no one else has it. You’ve been chosen for this day. You’ve been chosen for this time. Don’t you let us down. Don’t you ever sell out.’ I’ve been told things by elders in my ear that would almost make me cry, have made me cry and makes me feel that I didn’t choose this, it chose me.”
Coming soon: More of Kentake Page’s interview Dr. Umar Johnson as he discusses several more topics!
Extra Special Thanks to One Full Circle for facilitating the interview.
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