Why Abbott Elementary Matters

By Say~It~Loud!

February 25, 2022

Abbott Elementary, the brainchild of creator/actress/producer Quinta  Brunson made its debut late this fall season. The show features the  misadventures of the overly earnest character Janine Teagues (played by  Brunson) as she adjusts to life in the Philadelphia school Abbott  Elementary.  Author Philip McKenzie

Since its premiere, Abbott Elementary has seen its audience  skyrocket, and it is a breakout hit of the new season. The success of Abbott  Elementary is a testament to solid storytelling and a cast of savvy veterans  like Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams, and Lisa Ann Walter. Looking  deeper, Abbott Elementary is a significant cultural moment, and its success  matters beyond what ratings and views can tell us.  

I did not have one Black male teacher in elementary or junior high school. I  was a 15-year-old junior at Brooklyn Technical High School when I  encountered my first Black male teacher. A fond shout out to Mr. Brereton  for Building Construction! After Mr. Brereton, I would have to wait until I  was a freshman at Howard University to be taught by a Black male again.  To have academic instruction and guidance administered by someone who  looks like you is all too rare for Black elementary students.

Stanford’s  Graduate School of Education estimates that only 2% of America's  teachers are Black men. Abbott Elementary prominently features actor  Tyler James Williams as a relatively new substitute teacher. Of course, the  show's heartbeat is star Quinta Brunson, but her inclusion of Williams'  character is brilliant. It is a hallmark of the type of cultural fluidity necessary  to appeal to audiences in a context that resonates. I am far removed from  grade school, and seeing Williams' character week after week reflects an  academic reality I wish I had experienced growing up. 

TV shows set in schools are not necessarily uncharted territory. From  Welcome Back Kotter to Saved By The Bell and even the more recent  Glee, the growing pains of students are fertile ground for television. Those  shows and most programming feature high school students and their  stories. Abbott Elementary flips this by setting the show in an elementary  age environment, and of course, the teachers are the show's stars. Of  course, the cute kids are in the background, but the attention is squarely on the teachers and how they navigate the bureaucracy and pressure of being  educators.

Schools and school boards have become battlegrounds. Conservatives  have channeled their unfounded hysteria over critical race theory and mask  mandates into a new culture war. Pushback against the most minimal of  diversity initiatives after the murder of George Floyd has become the  source of white parental grievance aimed at schools. Under the guise of  freedom and parental rights, teachers are under siege merely for doing  their jobs. Mainstream media distorts this as the actions of concerned  parents. A more critical examination reveals that the concerns of Black and  brown parents are excluded from the discourse. Articles and think pieces  that reference "parents" are merely using shorthand for the circumstances  of white parents.

Abbott Elementary is not a political show, but by showing  the children of Black and brown parents not embroiled in the culture wars,  they are performing a political act. Some communities want the best  education for their children, and they are rarely seen or heard from. Abbott  Elementary centers their stories rather than those fighting against justice  and safety.  

Abbott Elementary is a city school but does not allow itself to be trapped by  the conventional thinking of a what a "city school" is. Abbott does not allow  itself to be reduced to an inner-city stereotype of the liberal imagination.  Abbot and the city in which it resides, Philadelphia, is depicted as a  complex urban environment. While they face challenges, the staff is more  than capable and willing to meet them. Just as the ratings are thriving, so is  the fictional school --- with a bit of grit and imagination. The show ably  mines the problems that inevitably surface when confronted by the ongoing  neoliberal project that defunds education at the expense of everything else.  

Abbott Elementary, in taking culture seriously, operates quietly ---- almost  invisibly. Its power lies in the fact that it knows the world it inhabits so  authentically it can craft a world and shape perceptions in a way that feels  both familiar and fresh. When you empower creators like Quinta Brunson,  you open your aperture to a broader, more vibrant narrative. Abbott  Elementary has just begun, but it is already succeeding on multiple levels.  While the laughs are on full display every week, the show's significance is  still unfolding and taking viewers on a far more meaningful ride. 

Author Philip McKenzie