Exploring self-image through art

Photo illustration by Michele Abercrombie

When Jayanti Demps-Howell was 9 years old, he was suspended from school in Flint, Michigan, for a cartoon superhero drawing he had made at home and brought to school. 

He had done the same thing plenty of times before — drawing artwork at home and then bringing it to school. When he was upset about receiving a bad grade, he expressed his feelings through his drawings. He drew a cartoon strip of a teacher entering a classroom giving out bad grades, and a superhero blowing her up.

He was suspended for three days for “threatening a teacher.” 

Dawn Demps, his mother who has had a career in education for much of her adult life and is currently earning her Ph.D. in education policy and evaluation at Arizona State University, said he was expressing himself in a healthy age-appropriate way, and was concerned that this “threat” would show up in the future.

“It makes it look like he came in there and he threatened the teacher,” his mother said. “Like he never spoke to the teacher.”

Jayanti Demps-Howell experience isn’t an anomaly. A 2019 study by Princeton University found that Black students are four times more likely to receive suspensions than white students.

This was the beginning of the now 15-year-old’s aversion to school. His mother remembers his attitude towards school changing after the suspension. 

Dawn Demps said her son isn’t much of a talker, and when it comes to serious stuff he expresses himself through art, so she asked her son to draw self-portraits of how he views himself and how he thinks the school views him when he was 13.

Jayanti Demps-Howell drew himself as Goku — his favorite character on Dragon Ball Z. 

“What I was saying is that I perceive myself as being awesome and being cool, to me in my own eyes,” Jayanti Demps-Howell said.

But when he drew himself from the school’s perspective, he drew himself reaching for a graduation cap with a target locked on his chest. He said it represents how people don’t want Black men, like himself, to succeed.

“And as an educator, that kind of hurts. But as a researcher, I understand,” Dawn Demps said about her son’s feelings towards school. 

That drawing led Dawn Demps to construct a project asking other kids who had been suspended to draw the same thing. She found that most kids saw themselves achieving their dreams, but thought the school viewed them as failures. She is currently writing an article about her project to discuss the results.

“These kids are very deep. They are not lost on what’s going on,” she said. 

As part of her dissertation, Dawn Demps is studying the Black Mothers Forum, a local Arizona collective of Black moms working to dismantle the school to prison pipeline. When Dawn Demps shared the artwork with the group, Debora Colbert, executive director of the Black Mothers Forum, said it showed how many kids, especially Black kids, feel predestined for prison.

“Imagine being 5 years old. And having your hands handcuffed behind you because a teacher said you were a threat,” said Colbert. 

A student’s drawing from Dawn Demp’s project in Flint, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Demps)

A 5-year-old in Arizonan did get handcuffed for this reason, and the Black Mothers Forum helped the family advocate for themselves, Colbert said. When Dawn Demps’s son was suspended a second time from his Arizona high school, the forum helped the the family as well. 

Colbert said a big focus of the group is empowering parents to advocate for themselves and their children when it comes to school discipline. Currently, they are helping parents navigate the reopening of schools amid COVID-19.

In the wake of closed Arizona schools, Dawn Demps is working to create a curriculum to educate her son through experiences rather than a classroom. Part of this curriculum is connecting him with successful Black men in the community to show Jayanti Demps-Howell a variety of career paths.

The first man he spoke with was Ronald Young, who goes by Chef Ron. After their conversation, Jayanti Demps-Howell made an Instagram account — @jaycookz_04 — to showcase his cooking, and Jayanti began looking into culinary schools. His mother said this was the first time he showed interest in education after high school.

Dawn Demps said that even if schools open back up, she’s not sure if she wants him to return.

About her son being home, Dawn Demps said: “I know my son is safe. I know nobody is targeting him. I know nobody is stereotyping. I know nobody is going to call the police on him for him doing something that teenagers do.”

Source photo courtesy of Dawn Demps

Chloe Jones is a master’s student in the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. In 2019, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Cronkite with minors in philosophy and Spanish. Jones, who is from Tempe, Arizona, previously covered sustainability and immigration for Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS, where she reported from Mexico, Peru and Panama. Her 2019 multimedia investigation of a sewage crisis on the Mexico border won first place awards from the Online News Association and Associated College Press. A photo of migrants in Peru won a Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence regional contest. Jones also worked for KJZZ 91.5, the NPR affiliate.

Gabriela Szymanowska is a recent graduate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she majored in journalism and electronic media. She worked as a multimedia reporter and held several editorial positions including editor-in-chief of the Daily Beacon, the university’s independent student newspaper. Szymanowska interned at the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2019. While studying in Australia, she worked at AltMedia, a local news organization in the Sydney area. Her stories and photos won multiple awards, including second place for investigative journalism at the Tennessee Associated Press College Awards and first place for feature/news photography for Best of the South.