For the eldest among us, it–this destination we call literate–is a state of ascension from the abyss of past pain, past harm, past violence and past drama…at the hands of whiteness at a confusing time in the midst of a chaotic history in a nation whose need to classify stops abruptly at an A vs. B existence…thank you Ms. Morrison for the reminder that what we have today is better than before but there is so much more we must do.
For the youngest among us, it–this destination we call literate–is a baseline from which we make sense of the awkward interactions of past generations…as they tip-toe around the obvious pain, past harm, past violence and past drama…at the hands of their own whiteness…at a confusing time in the midst of a chaotic history in a nation whose need to classify stops abruptly at an A vs. B existence…thank you Ms. Maya for the reminder that we must do today what was done in our former days…employing that survival apparatus at every possible chance we get to love and save and celebrate our selves.
So I write this…this something, like a poem, outside of others’ gaze…for KSC, SJT and the women leaders who lead and give us courage…to pursue racial literacy in a box made for equity even though it doesn’t quite fit…moving beyond the table to places of kinship and joy. This is for you. This is for us.
The conversation I see Yolanda (Sealey-Ruiz) having with us…I do not want to be too familiar on this journey…
How we start at the bottom of our selves…
Where we ask our selves to look at who we are in critical love, humility and reflection.
She calls this model, this thing that we can’t quite figure out, in spite of our own wonderings, our own wanderings, archaeology. Scientific and deeply personal.
The conversation I see Sonya (Douglass Horsford) having with us…I am more familiar with bound volumes than the person whose work inspires on this journey…
How we stand by and smell the stench of fire…
Where we sit in rooms among those in leadership asking our selves what social justice and inclusion look like as we imagine.
She calls this model, this thing that looks something like a staircase that we can’t quite figure out, in spite of our wonderings, our own wanderings, steps. Practical and deeply personal.
Then it hit me.
The eldest among us may start their journey with Yolanda as their guide. The youngest among is with Sonya. Hopefully we cross paths along the way and learn to walk together through the garden of my familiar…
Who in memorializing Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, reminded us of modern histories being erased from most textbooks, dying in the caskets of our elders, clouded by false progression and stifled by our hopes…did a great thing.
But it was not enough.
He took on another, more fantastic role in a universe of super heroes, fictional and not.
He brought to life a character in the Black Panther that was our collective character…
I needed to have you close, but you can’t be here prince…
My sun who moves cloudy skies…
It is raining.
I slept in your room last night so I could be comforted by the box of childhood toys hiding in your closet, peaking out if I looked…
Figurines of Black kings and superheroes mixed in among the cards and relics of childhood fantasy.
I needed to know that you are protected by my dreams for you…
I hoped as I drifted back to sleep that you would take care as you are out there fighting for your life, making good trouble in this moment.
I woke to a message from you…you heard the news too…
Don’t hate 2020 precious manchild, it is showing us who we are.
What a powerful word–union. It makes us think we are united with others, in association and in alliance.
But what happens when the strength is not shared between members. When links in the chain are broken or worn down?
What happens when leadership within those guilds (I see the synonym and like it) choose to advance the causes of their fathers and mothers, their fathers and mothers and the generations before them, which I know is rooted in security for them and their family…not mine? When memberships is tied to that history dictates the stories that will be told and the hands that will guide the lenses…what do we do? It is not lost on me that this Hollywood tale is not unlike what we see in law enforcement or teaching…in 1906, Black teachers stood together, sixty years later they were subsumed, fifty years later, where are we now, fifty plus one year later–we are only at the committee stage of any resolution acknowledging a culture of white supremacy among our ranks?
It is now 2020…at the beginning of a new school year…and I am not sure how unionizing is working, for anyone. Do we ask for life insurance coverage for the certain loss ahead? Do we organize in smaller cells who have our family’s best interest at heart? Black and Brown families. Poor families. Working class families. My families. I am all of these and none.
When unions make us stronger, we feel like gold braided into a plait, only seen when the queen sporting woven crown turns her head in the sunlight…
…like drugs and candy…trying to come up, they are dying in these streets, in these schools, on these blocks, at these parties…
They don’t know that not all words belong to them or us, we can’t reclaim what was never designed to honor us…ever. It was language designed, created, invented to keep us down…so, in 2020 the thought that we can “run the jewels” and kill our masters using his words…is just…
We wear the mask that grins and lies, it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes; this debt we pay to human guile; with torn and bleeding hearts we smile; and mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise, in counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ our cries, to thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile. Beneath our feet, and long the mile; but let the world dream otherwise, we wear the mask!
–Paul L. Dunbar, 1895/1896
Near to the sting of slavery’s institutional clutch, Paul Laurence Dunbar likely understood why his literacy–his ability to read and write using the conventions of standard English–were important. Born in 1872, he was less than one full generation away from emancipation. In 98 words, Dunbar reveals our resistance to the world’s gaze–the performative nature of our being…masked from view…as protection while we rise…moving Up from Slavery like that 1901 work…steadily improving…in the name of freedom.
Fast forward to 1922, monuments to the “lifting the veil” sentiment of the day celebrated reading as agency while also memorializing the shroud of secrecy that was still expected at that moment. With heavy pages resting on his lap, we get the sense that the younger man was being protected by the elder as he developed and learned. Anticipating that he could emerge strong in form and in fashion, the kneeling young body would rise stronger in stature through sharpened mind. Literacy was then and remains a threat to domination…which is perhaps why the elder statesmen took time to reveal the younger greatness of educated and liberated humanity. Revealing to the one standing before the cloaked body, the brilliance of the person beneath the veil. Revealing to the one crouching beneath the cloak, his own more enlightened self…allowing his own pupils to dilate gradually as this new status was being established.
it is not separation (segregation) for selfish purpose,
it is not the source of a supernatural strength or power,
it is its own protection from premature or over exposure
to the dangers of what lies beyond the veil…
…though to the one beneath the curtain
it may feel like being cast into gripping blindness or suffocation…
by an out-of-touch generation.
Freedom’s Journal (1827 – 1829) tells this story…of cloaked literacy…the public and still closed societies that fought to be fully literate–telling stories beyond oral tradition but permanently making marks on paper that stand until this moment. Pre-legislated, freedom was about knowing what the master thought you didn’t know. Post-1865, literacy is the rhetoric of freedom made public in the 1863 presidential clauses that proclaim emancipation. There exists now, like then, a less obtuse reality that no one secures freedom if they cannot read and debate with reasonable acuity and political reference. Knowing reveals a landscape of change: the geology and geography of evolved spaces, the sociology of change and the culture of change provide a road (like a map) that leads to greater understanding of deeply embedded treasures that may be unlocked by literacy.
Literacy has always been its own activism, especially wherever freedom bells toll, like in Philadelphia (See Bacon & McClish, 2000). Many cite Frederick Douglass’ story of literary prowess and ingenue…I agree that his words and letters, speeches and narratives are inspired and inspirational. I however want to amplify Sojourner Truth whose 1851 “I am woman rights” speech at Akron was doctored, appropriated, published and rebranded as “Aint I a Woman” in a language not quite her own. Alas, “even when marginalized rhetors employ the forms of the dominant class, their rhetoric does not necessarily conform to prevailing societal norms. Acts of appropriation should not be seen merely as “borrowing” but as reinvention and transformation” (Bacon & McClish, 2000, p.21).
Dr. Gholdy Muhammed extends this explanation in her work Cultivating Genius by painting a picture of criticality that allows us to know a tertiary purpose in being literate: “to detect sophistry or falsehood or fallacies contained in the language of others…putting intellect into action” (p. 115).
Liberatory praxis–practices of freedom–embraces literacy. These literacies–language, racial, media, technical, scientific and numeric–require disciplinary criticality and reference as norms. Not like chains for compliance but models that shape paths. Whether you cite bell hooks or Bettina Love–the elder statesperson or the younger mentored mind–theory makes us free. In embracing theory, we acknowledge powerful histories, values, beliefs and practices that were designed to incubate greatness. Being free will always be better than becoming free.
Bacon, J., & McClish, G. (2000). Reinventing the master’s tools: Nineteenth‐century African‐American literary societies of Philadelphia and rhetorical education. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 30(4), 19-47.
Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic Incorporated.
Reading an English translation of an 1890s essay titled “Our America” by José Martí, one day after watching Hamilton for the first time
Is an interesting morning journey.
Many lines from the work have given me reasons to pause, today, perhaps more than they otherwise would have…because I just saw the play (on TV) during a quarantine during a time of unprecedented tyranny (or so I thought)…this is a time of evolution within revolution…
This line “the resistance of the book against the lance” speaks of the metaphors used to describe the normalcy of war and violence and cutting (away) and pain and liberation and conquest and conflict and colorism and classism and fighting (among other references) during the Spanish-American War.
All of the systems are there: the invention of race, politics, economics, aesthetics, education, crime and punishment, associations, intimate life…so normalized in their tie to domination that any illusion of progress is impossible to see.
From 1894 to 2020, the narrative is the same: the harrowing dysfunction of tyranny by incompetent leaders is resisted by the people. There is fire this time. No duel. No lance. Just shots…fired.
We need to know because there are loop-holes that protect interests of those who know…for those who don’t know, well, they fall subject to “the extra”.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate in housing for everything imaginably relevant at the time, except, age. The rights of children are not included. The rights of the elderly are not included. Guarantors (cough, cough, parents) have no rights.
Owners are protected by this phrase:
“No exception can be made for financial hardship, academic changes, family matters, medical issues, roommate conflict or any other reason.”
Written before 2020, no date is indicated, this standard phrase keeps tenants locked into bad deals…
This clause–States that nothing in this Act requires that a dwelling shall be made available to an individual whose tenancy: (1) would constitute a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals; this clause…
Familial status is defined with numbers (<18) and a context. Living with a parent was not cause for discrimination but he sits in the shadows–older than 18, not technically living with parents and yet dependent…
Then there is the impotence of state-level legislation that includes statements like this:
“There is currently no state agency that enforces provisions in the Act, and because most landlord/tenant relations are private transactions, disputes that arise between landlord and tenants are generally considered private matters.”
What good is an Act or a law that cannot be enforced? This clause falls with the thud of a dropped phone on carpet. It is meaningless.
Laws are designed to protect capitalist interests of land owners, until they are written to protect the people.
With only a few months before November and days before my mail-in ballot is due, I review the work of progressive congressional representatives from my father’s home state of New York. Challenging Act 20 and 22 in Puerto Rico, Serrano, Velázquez, Grijalva, and Ocasio-Cortez demand transparency for Puerto Rico.
All of this brings me back to my two passions: my family sun-shine and my teaching/learning experiences.
The concept of fair housing in times of pandemic has brought me to an important understanding about a few things…still thinking…Hamilton comes on tomorrow. You say you want a revolution? Yes. In fact I do.
And turn the soil to expose hidden roots that creep
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
And sometimes imitating “good things” in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
Where cover turns things white ‘cause there ain’t been no light
No LIGHT cast on the goodness
No healing from your BRILLIANCE
So boy, don’t you turn back.
So manchild, don’t you stop marching
The promised land is ours to be occupied
Even though I fear for your safety
Knowing that no education of your mind or body in this system
Will protect you from her [false] allegations
Will keep you from his rage or fragility
Will minimize your threat to the weak…becauseyou are strong
Don’t you set down on the steps
Please, sit down
On those and in dem streets
Set your burdens down
On the steps that are at the courthouse if you are tired, needing rest,
Take pause and make space
BUT don’t give up
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
‘Cause you find it’s kinda hard
Don’t you fall now—
When you stumble, allow yourself to fall and get back up again
Like that old gospel song says
It is a source of your joy, our joy, my joy, Black joy…the memories in the car, singing…
But God is the source of your strength and
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’m still goin’ son,
I’se still climbin’,
I’m still climbin’
Even when they don’t really see me
YOU give me courage
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Did you see this Titus Kaphar cover in Time this week, son? You, my artist, my creative, my gift from God, my sun…being Black and blue…is less than I am, we are…we are Black joy. With eyes closed I carry you, I feel you, I love you more than my sadness mourns you.
1970–the novelty of ‘Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud‘ had worn off and was drifting into nostalgia among youth transitioning into their roles as parents as they welcomed children of their own. Their edge being worn by the reality of life and mortality of [hu]man existence, a sentiment lifted by Kendrick Lamar, a Pulitzer prize winning rapper and Tupac, a dead rapper Black man. Revolutions are usually led by the young. Is that [still] me?
How did we get to 2020–my year of fifty–a year whose promise of clarity invoked by the health system code for good vision–has been opaque and layered, complex with interstitial moments of hard and soft, granular and strained…
I wonder, how we got to this moment? When Breonna was snuffed out by over-policing not in a school but in her home, with a [her] man in the house…who would be charged for attempt on an officer’s life, because he was willing to die protecting her. The legacy of “man in the house” policy–racist policy–strikes again. The paralysis of men who choose to be present…
As a teacher, for truly that is who I am (and what I am allowed to do and be), I am forced to reckon with the realness of my responsibility to
1. accept that I am shook, at my core by what is happening and
2. use what I do and who I am to put all of this in context for myself and for them…the ones who I teach and who I lead.
How did we get here–to a place when men, all under the age of 65–meaning, if they were educated in the United States or in a place influenced by the gleam of the American brand of education, they for all intents and purposes went to integrated schools, after Brown v. Board. Presuming that a child is about 7 when they must go to school, they would have started school at some point later than 1955 so…the experiment, should have been conducted over enough time that reliable results could be analyzed for effect. Let’s say, these same men who are now “serving” communities started school in the mid-seventies, the experiment of democratic and egalitarian multicultural schools was in full swing. The lessons and pilot studies from leaders like Jane Elliot were accepted as transformative and worth understanding. Then all of these men have been exposed to enough students NOT like them, that fear would not be the explanation for their casual disregard for people NOT like them–or is that the exact and precise reason why we are here?
This is how I think (from my teacher’s perspective) we got to this moment, this is what racism in schools does and looks like at each level:
Young families leave “the city” for a “safe” community where they can raise their family to have a diversity of friends
Families create lovely “play dates” with new neighbors and a few remnant neighbors from back in the day, carefully orchestrating birthday parties and outings so young children can be socialized “not to see difference”, the more well-resourced families ask guests to donate to a local charity (or they re-gift useless presents to Goodwill or donation bins) all the while teaching their privileged children it is better to give rather than to receive–perhaps planting seeds of savior-complexity that comes later.
The children become used to that ritual long enough to come to school and celebrate (appropriate) cultural traditions of the populations in the building, announced by flag-lined halls and bulletin boards. It is new and fresh and exciting and vibrant. By the third year of never being changed, students realize the showmanship of the display and barely even see it any more. Because teaching content matters more than teaching humanness, we care less about what is happening outside of the desk-lined classroom than the messaging from traditional voices (read classics, read canon, read White, read Christian, read male, read heteronormative, read able-bodied) that are upheld in textbooks where the biggest mirrors are upheld to all that tradition. This is the place where mirrors, sliding glass doors and curtains (thank you Dr. Reese) are betrothed to the others…the one’s that are dominated. The colonized-settler relationship of school is becoming apparent to teachers forced to carry things as a teacher in the form of curriculum, that even they find problematic, yet they teach whiteness and norms of American-branded education that marginalize many, maybe even most.
By fourth grade, testing starts and the “it” kids rise to the top while “those who ain’t it” fall to the bottom. The families with resources get support through outside tutoring and psych evaluations. Those with fewer (or no) resources, are dependent on what an overtaxed system gets around to identifying and providing. Counseling and therapy are illusive mirages seen through double-sided glass. Masks (as in “we wear the masks” not the current medical PPE but perhaps in the same vein as the “racism, vulnerability and pathology” that Dr. Benjamin describes) start being worn as every aspect of the school life and day separates and divides the haves from the have nots and curriculum violence rises in its impact. If we understand what is really being taught by the curriculum (explicit, null and hidden), we realize that we are being assaulted…and we are only 10.
Adults stop forcing kids to play together, because they are tired of the charades and contrived ways they must BE “together”…it is too much work…besides, it is time to devote your time and talent and money toward extra-curriculars and college savings.
By the time of learning in middle-school, adult doubt in the experiment of multiculturalism resurfaces in lines of advice like “don’t bring _____ home, you know how your _______ is” reverberate through the child’s heart and mind, ringing in ears and spilling out of casual conversations online and in-person that on-lookers deem as HIB, all the while, the Black and brown peers of those who hear it, feel the widening of the gaps and slam their hearts, minds and mouths shut in nervous laughter with “I gotta go” declarations. Walking home, processing race in #TheTalk first about police brutality then about interracial relationships their own families gave them, Black and Brown children are simmering: trying to resolve racially stressful encounters (thank you for the language Dr. Howard Stevenson). It is all so confusing. Adults treat so many important life topics as taboo–we get sex because nakedness is kind of embarrassing for everyone but race and skin-color–is an external and very “social construct” right? Not quite…race, though defined in the context of social structures, is the dimension of power that makes racism so hard to process…it is a widely accepted/embraced infrastructure of e-VALUATION. Look at the faces of the children in doll study after doll study…words thrown around like “good” and “bad” are everywhere in school as if educators are resigned to using single-syllable praises. “Should” (as in what we should do), “Good” and “bad” (as in job), “right” and “wrong” (as in answers, behaviors, outcomes) could easily be moved to a “banned words” list like the books that have been cast away because fact or fiction, they present hard histories that need to be told like The Hate You Give…just why?
Then by 8th grade, we really start sorting students. The tracks are no longer narrowed or widened only, they are tiered and stacked. Catching up in the classroom…not likely. Maybe on the field or the orchestra pit??? We start allowing Black and Brown bodies to lead defensive tackle squads to protect the “smarter” more teachable quarterback…besides, they–those lean Bboys–are hungrier, run faster, jump higher, play longer, breathe better–they were built for that/this–to entertain and earn a scholarship right? Demands to be evaluated on different scales and accelerated beyond the common class have created all of this.
On a mediocre team, they will not be seen, even if they are the best on the floor. Can they read? Can they compute? Do they imagine life beyond the borders or their here and now…coach?
By high school…all the lanes have been fully drawn. For more than twenty years we have known exactly why all the Black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria: they are seen in the space with their peers. They are carving out an antiracist #fishbowl for themselves to be seen–admired and valued if only for the few moments they have between the overwhelming days of erasure and condescension, invisibility and overpolicing. All the while, the non-Black “friends” they had as children have been secret admirers and frienemies. Their Brown friends have become competitors trying not to get their own butts beat in the system–torn between the white-black bookends of the American racist narrative. Every encounter becomes awkward. Straight weird! There is no where for Black students to go until they find somewhere to go.
Then the biggest dividing force emerges at high school graduation day: life beyond compulsory education…the place where money separates us even further. Those families back in the first few paragraphs now celebrate “the hard work” they’ve all done to reach the elite institutions we call four-year colleges where class and willingness to incur ridiculous amounts of debt finally distinguish the privileged from the barely holding on…
This is how we got back to these moments when humans are lynched. This moment of tremendous loss and chaos where BM are feared, hunted and killed for simply being present on the planet by people whose own fragility, fear and rage fuels the fires that are fanned by social media. The technologies have changed but the techniques of de-sensitizing us to hatred are the same.
This is how we got to this moment when WF executives see themselves as more valuable than BM bird watchers who have the same if not more academic pedigree under their purple-label collar.
Schools and education are part of the problem. Educators are trench warriors, on the front lines, on both sides–the side of racist education and anti-racist education.
I can’t finish right now, because I need to develop a plan to build an army (if I cannot find one to join) ready for rebellion…some are in [comm]union with others trying to do this work. We have gotten to the place of writing public statements and organized for movements like Black Lives Matter at School…now we need enacted change. WE must mobilize beyond the protest. I am starting with my sphere of influence. It is not that large–my classroom, my school, my region…getting to work, again…