On being present with black & brown youth today
I don’t know, man. I woke up this morning with the heaviest feeling of impending doom in my belly. I received a text message from a middle-aged white man I met earlier this year, who I’ve grown to truly love as a person that read, “I am terrified. I love you.” I knew what that text message meant before even checking the news. I knew he might not have felt so compelled to somehow apologize for the sickness of his ancestors through these words had what many called “the lesser of two evils” won. It wouldn’t have seemed so urgent, probably, to comfort a black woman he just met earlier this year in this moment the only way that he knows how. And I don’t blame him, really. To his credit, he also verbally committed [to me] that he intends to continue to fight against this racistsexistcapitalisthomophobic white supremacist system as best he can. As a white man, he says he is going to fight the powers that be on behalf of the marginalized friends of his who he loves.
Half of me was moved by this gesture. The love behind it, I guess. The other half of me is still a pot of boiling water that could give a damn about a promise coming from a person encased in his privileged white body. In this moment, I am reminding myself that I have a right to this anger. This anger that I have had to be too careful with for so long. This anger that I’ve had to keep safe so as not to make many who look like him feel uncomfortable. Who I am around when I expressed it. Who might stare back strangely in silence when I’m identified as some kind of ridiculous anarchist who is becoming too far gone to participate in a lot of this system I feel entrapped in. But really, what greater discomfort is there to live in a body constantly told it doesn’t belong anywhere? And why, in that existence, should that body’s concern have to include the comfort of those who are systemic accomplices in its continued harm? But I digress.
I didn’t wake up in tears because of this man’s text message. Nor the fact that my heart was already heavy because, life (beyond all of this I’m out here trying to love somebody in spite of the dark the world is). The anger that I felt most, maybe, was opening a news story from a viable news station to confirm the results of the 2016 election so that I could mentally prepare myself for what I would do and say when I stood in front of my students.
As a writer and teaching artist, I do this thing where I am contracted by schools to enter classrooms to use art to help kids make connections. To help them make sense of the information given to them and how to apply it critically in how they see themselves and navigate the world. I come into these spaces decidedly full of both optimism and the intent to challenge my students to free themselves with the knowledge they obtain and seek out for themselves. I do this specifically to provide black and brown kids with the tools they need to know how to make their own choices and advocate for themselves. To create fertile space.
So I feel challenged.
I am challenged by how I am going to stand in front of them and lead a discussion about America’s choices. About white supremacist choices. About a system’s strategic choices to defend and uphold the power of bullies. What I realize as I prepare for this is that I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything about hatred or greed. Not in the intimate sense. I don’t have an explanation for it. That is not what is in my heart. What I know about is love and service and how to feel. What I know is doing what I can so that while you and I are alive on this earth, we still somehow can live.
Today, though, I don’t plan to enter my classroom with answers — though I feel young people are deprived every day of the simple satisfaction of honest answers. I plan to enter my classroom with both silence and transparency. This is a shift. To be honest, I began this school year often discouraged by the confusion and defeat I witnessed in my students when given the opportunity to choose. I came championing freedom of choice thinking they would jump at the chance to say what they want and truly express themselves. But several of them just stared back at me hoping I would give them something to write about. They looked back at me like I had done the absolute worst by tasking them with the burden of thinking for and about themselves when, most of the time, school had never been about that.
For many of them, up until now, school had meant they were to come to this building every day to obey rules and tell those in power what they want to hear — to appease authority, even if it had no connection to what they wanted out of life or their actual futures. But this isn’t just about the education failing my students. This is about an entire system failing future young adults and how they actually feel about it.
What I know and have witnessed countless times is the silencing of black and brown youth. They are silenced in their rage and even their joy, unlike small football town teens of white suburban Americans who we’ve seen trash their own streets and nearby cop cars when their team loses. Black and brown youth are used to being silenced while having every reason to be loud. While having every reason to look at what they are walking into as they approach graduation with a resounding "WTF." Never mind the fact that several of their families have struggled since migrating here. Never mind that the fear of being deported for being Latino in a Trump America, for them, is real.
My students have historically been silenced in this, thus threatening the kind of freedom they can experience once they learn how to think and speak for themselves. The kind of freedom they will need to dismantle a system that’s been a threat to their families since before they were alive. The internet has been noisy. The world is an exploding cry of clap-back memes and empty commentary. Young people are over it far beyond what they have yet to discover the language for.