Remembering Corey, Worrying about Omari

inwoodAs a sixth grade teacher in 1993, I was caught off guard by one of my young black male students, Corey.  He came in one morning, all excited, because he had made 10 dollars for a round-up.  I had no idea what that meant and assumed this was a Bronx colloquialism that I did not know since I was new to New York.  What Corey actually meant was a LINE-UP.  He didn’t even know the terminology. He and his friends were playing streetball (the norm when there is no grass or safe playground nearby where parents can be in viewing range).  The police came by and asked all of the boys who looked like Corey (dark-brown-skinned, skinny as a rail, and 5’4 tall) if they wanted to make an easy 10 dollars. All they had to do was come to the station and stand on a line.  I. WAS. HORRIFIED.  I think it took me a minute to even say anything.  For starters, I couldn’t imagine any person feeling threatened and needing to file a criminal charge against someone as frail as Corey.  All you had to do was sit on him and my man would be DONE.  More importantly, he seemed to have no idea that this 10 dollars was not a gift (but DID have enough sense not to tell his mama).  On the one hand, the naiveté of feeling safe with the precinct and police reminded me that Corey was just a child.  However, I was terrified of what would and could happen to him if anyone pointed him out as their “perpetrator.”  It was a tough conversation to have with sixth graders that morning, but I dived right in… and called Corey’s mother that night, a woman who worked two jobs, kept Corey locked inside the apartment with the exception of streetball downstairs.  Her sniffles on the phone suggested both fear and anger, all at once.

NYPDTwo years after meeting Corey, I started teaching high school: ninth graders.  They were not as naive as Corey, suggesting to me that, in the 90s at least, these lessons about racial profiling, violence, and surveillance came a little later in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives.  I have distinct memories of field trips where I always asked the one older white male in the building, an administrator, to join us.  All you needed was one cop to get a call about a Black or Latino male or female in a dark goose-down coat!  That was my WHOLE class.  That was ME!  And, at 24 years old, most people thought I was a high school student so I was never granted the status of TEACHER of the class.  If the police yoked up me or one of my students, it was straight to the precinct; I could not even be an “alibi.”  Like I have already said before on this blog, I was always criminalized alongside my students.

WoodsI was taken back to these memories today, with a mixture of rage and deep sadness, after hearing Denene Millner talk about Omari Grant, an 11-year old from Henry County, Georgia.  Apparently, he and his friends were trying to build a tree house from sticks, mud, and bark in the woods behind his house.  A woman in the NEXT subdivision saw them from her window and called 911. Two police officers came to the scene and approached the boys, one with gun drawn and forced the boys to lay down on the ground.  Omari did as the officers asked him to, because, in his words: “”I was thinking that I don’t want to be shot today.”

OmariIn a strange and ironic twist of fate, Omari represents a kind of progress from Corey’s naiveté.  Omari knew to be scared and knew the dangers ahead of him, unlike Corey. Today, an 11 year old knows he will be shot and demonized by police, law enforcement, and racial power.  I will go to bed tonight imagining this as the “progress” America has made.

“When They Reminisce Over You, My God!”: Reminiscing Racial Violence, In and Out of School

Thank you to Crystal Belle and the organizers of the Trayvon Martin Effect Conference at Teachers College for this weekend’s events and for inviting me to attend!

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
—Audre Lorde, Sister Ousider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

The stories that I am telling here all began with the image that you see above of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.  When I pieced the images together, all I could hear in my head were the words of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from their 1992 album featuring T.R.O.Y./They Reminisce Over You, dedicated to their friend Troy Dixon.  It’s the end of the first verse and C.L. Smooth’s last two bars that propels the stories that hits what I think is at stake when we let everyone know that we refuse to forget Trayvon or Jordan or Emmett or any black boy:

Déjà vu, Tell You What I’m Gonna Do

When They Reminisce Over You, My God!

It is the way that CL Smooth hits that last bar, the way he uses sound of his voice to achieve the emphasis he wants to make.  He is making a promise to the world that the weight and impact of this death, via the reminiscence, will be felt for generations to come… because you see, for me, that weight and that re-remembering is exactly what I think schools quite actively and deliberately keep us from doing.

Self-Determined…and OF COLOR

colored water fountain 1I once had to mediate a complaint against a teacher who failed a student’s paper because it was plagiarized.  The student had lifted entire segments of each page from websites and the professor had a policy against this on his syllabus.  The student insisted that the professor was actually implementing his policy only with her because he disagreed with her political beliefs.  That’s a difficult thing to prove so she was out there on a limb with that one.  Because she was contesting her final grade (she was insisting on an A and that a B+ was the lowest grade she could ever accept) and not the plagiarism, I had to read the plagiarized paper and her corpus of work (most often lifted from other sources).  Her writing was stunningly weak, riddled with the most anti-black racism I have ever read from a college student, and strangely misinformed all at the same time.  In one section of a paper, the student wrote a rather lengthy diatribe against affirmative action and used, as her evidence, that Columbia University’s undergraduate student population is 40% “black”…”Colored” is what she called them.  She argued that Columbia had accepted all of these unqualified “Colored (i.e., black)” students over the white valedictorian of her class who was denied admission.  I was confused, to say the least, and thought she meant a different Columbia than the ivy league institution housed in New York City.  Columbia’s students are 40% black?  When the hell did that happen and why ain’t I workin there? Thass that hotness right there. I did get excited for a minute when I read her words but then realized that I was being foolish for listening to such a foolish student.  That just ain’t what Columbia has EVER looked like!  She did have a (cut-and-pasted) section from Columbia’s website in her writing.  The charts, graphs, and language did, in fact, show that Columbia was reporting 40% of its undergraduate student population to be OF COLOR (the majority population in that number is Asian).  I was astounded that the student clearly did not understand and had never really seen the term “of color” before.  She seemed to think it was referencing those old Colored Vs. White drinking fountains where “Colored” meant black.  Her white male professor looks like the first person who actually confronted her ideas and writing ability and she saw him as a race traitor of the John Brown variety, insistent on lynching him!  It would be funny if it weren’t so damn tragic.  There are no surprises here though.  This was a Christian, conservative white female at a Christian, conservative white-run college who had attended a Christian, conservative white high school. Imagine my surprise though to hear the exact same language from SOPHOMORE students of color at a “minority-serving” public college who attended predominantly Black and Latin@ public schools!  They too had never heard the term “of color.”  The same white political continuum operates in how they have been educated.

Contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, the challenges that I experience with students have nothing to do with grammar, skills, or any another lower-order concerns. Like last week: my students were assigned a lecture by Robin D.G. Kelley called “Becoming Engaged Intellectuals”  (I treat the lecture like any reading assignment where students must transact with the text in the same way):

Here is Robin Kelley, a brilliant and acclaimed historian, talking to a group of students of color at an elite state university about being young people of color while my sophomore college students have mostly never heard of nor called themselves people of color before.  I find myself growing more and more impatient with college faculty and systems who cannot seem to (or do not want to) grasp that young people of color need to have a sense of themselves in order to write themselves into being.

Colored OnlyLike always, I had students say things like they don’t think they are or can ever be intellectuals because English is not their first language or because they have an accent.  These are actual quotes from last week’s class.  And, of course, I have students, young black women, who unpack a discussion after class rather than in class because they don’t think they have a voice that people will hear… they will just be cast as that loud black girl in the corner again.  That’s a quote too.  Despite my early onset of racial battle fatigue, I realize that I need to sharpen my critique on the privileging of decontextualized grammar instruction.  I don’t centralize grammar instruction in my course so for many folk, this means that I do not teach it all.   If I thought grammar would alleviate the social and educational injustices that my people face (or even impact the students of color who I have described here), I would do it all day long.  But at what point in my people’s history did a grammar lesson ever resolve systemic oppression, institutional racism, and education inequality?  I mean, really, who thinks this simplistically? If all black folk needed was a grammar lesson for equality and social mobility in education, don’t you think we woulda BIN done that?  There is a real vile disrespect happening in this construct.

I am reminded these days that I must offer a discursive paradigm that communicates the historical weight of my students’ experiences, the dignity of their persons, and the political presence of the minds that no one has really allowed them to tap into.  I need a critical discourse, no matter an audience’s limited capacities, of the linguistic needs of students who have internalized the kinds of racism that I am describing in this post, an internalization that has everything to do with how you understand and actualize yourself as a writer.  I won’t relegate them to a separate water fountain by dumbing down my analysis of the spaces that marginalize them or only give them grammar instruction.  Haven’t we already had enough Jim Crow classrooms and drank from enough Jim Crow water fountains??

I spent my weekend reading more than 60 essay drafts and another 60 website sketches/plans.   By the time I got to J’s, I had really lost it and found myself emotional: a mixture of sadness and anger that I have not felt in quite a while…which always means I’m about to put clowns in CHECK!  J is an AfroLatina who is perhaps one of the best storytellers I have ever encountered and yet she won’t speak in class because her anxiety about her “accent” paralyzes her.  I. Mean. Physically. Paralyzes. Her. I should have used my course website to build more sound and multiple speaking voices there so she could HEAR herself and not just see herself.  I know that now…I also know that the fierceness with which I will go AFTER and AT all the perpetuators of such debilitating spaces for students like J has been renewed.

For Tiana & Black Children: AfroVisual/AfroDigital Love

8C8880633-tdy-130906-TianaParker2-tease.blocks_desktop_teaseLike most black women who I know, I was really upset this weekend when I saw the news coverage of beautiful, 7-year old Tiana Parker, a straight A student, as she shed tears when her school officials castigated her hair/locs!!  If you ever thought black hair could be politically neutral in our social world, then you may never truly understand these kinds of tears. After being continually harassed, Tiana’s father was forced to enroll her in a new school because her charter school banned all dreadlocks as inappropriate, calling Tiana’s locs a distraction from learning/thinking.

I talk/write/think a lot about the white violence and terror that black girls face in school and this example rocks me to my core.  I find myself remembering what E.M. Monroe wrote about her son’s (Miles) first day of kindergarten this fall in the post, “Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort.”  In the post, Monroe talks about the humanity of Ms. Malcolm, a teacher who can see Miles’s humanity:

I tell you, it was a damn good surprise to have someone who sees your black child as having a life worth preserving temporarily responsible for their keeping. She’s a model for how a person might demonstrate their liberal views: You want to prove to me that you aren’t racist, well then how about you showing me that you Always choose to be an Aide and not an Assassin.

Monroe captures brilliantly the kind of teacher and school that I think black children like Tiana so rarely experience.  It is clear to me that the adults at Tiana’s school belong to a kind of violent trajectory that Monroe discusses in this post that she relates to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Make no mistake about it: this demonization of Tiana’s hair— a part of black bodies— belongs to the same ideology that demonized Trayvon Martin’s black body.

Like what Ms. Malcolm offered Miles, Dr. Yaba Blay offered Tiana and black women a similar kind of witnessing.  Dr. Blay’s response has been the most brilliant with her focus on Tiana’s spirit.   She created what she calls A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.” The result is simply stunning (followed by a new facebook community).  Click on the digital booklet below that Dr. Blay left open for embedding and sharing across multiple platforms:

It’s an important reminder about the political power of healing and loving black children and the role of always offering them visual images for staking out who we are.  This digital care package also offers black communities a way to inhabit digital spaces outside of the white norms of collecting images and videos to showcase family consumption and bourgeois achievements— after all, that is the same kind of whiteness that left Tiana in tears.  E.M. Monroe and Dr. Blay offer us real images and processes of what it looks like to show and love black children in a digital age.  These are the only kinds of AfroVisual/AfroDigital spaces that can recognize our humanity.

Knowing When It’s Time To Leave…

The title of this post might suggest that I am talking about a romantic relationship, but I’m not.  I’m talking about knowing when it’s time to leave an academic job… and, yes, there are similarities to leaving a relationship.  

Credit-Card-Identity-TheftHere’s what I mean. At my first tenure-track job, I designed a college-credit-bearing course for high school students that would use the history of African American literacies and education within an intensive, rigorous reading and writing curriculum.  The idea was to get students so caught up in what they were learning that I would take that momentum and build in intensive college-readiness reading and writing competencies.  I had an elaborate multimedia, project-based curriculum with tutor trainings fully planned out. The upper level administration offered full support while my lazy chair and disaffected colleagues offered, at best, lip-support and questions on how I would incorporate math (Yes, math, even though I am a literacies and composition researcher; even though no one else was expected to cover materials outside of their expertise).  On one occasion, I was supposed to meet with my chair to go over the project details before my presentation to the vice provost. She straight didn’t show up because her dog was sick and so couldn’t bark and wake her up in time… yes, this is what $160,000-per-year for a chair can look like (and yes, this is the same chair who orchestrated “disciplinary meetings” that I have previously discussed). I canceled the project when the necessary departmental infrastructure was nowhere foreseeable.  At this point, my chair proceeded to tell everyone in the provost’s office and in my department that she had designed the project herself and that I was only the person she CHOSE to execute it so that I could teach a class related to my research— according to her, this was her project and it belonged to the department.  Did this chair have any background, experience, or research related to teaching black youth or studying black histories?  None. Was this someone with a national reputation and body of substantial research? No.  Was this someone who you could even call mentally and psychologically stable? No. Did anyone challenge or question her?  No one.  Needless to say, the project still has not happened and that was my last year at that university.  After having successfully—maybe even masterfully— passed my third-year review, many were stunned that I would leave the university.  They hadn’t originally thought a young woman of color like me would meet the publication requirements with teaching and service expectations for tenure at that caliber of university; when I announced I was leaving, they thought it was a low self-esteem issue, that I didn’t know how tenurable I was in such a tough place.  Now let’s say this was my partner and let’s also say this partner stole my credit cards. The thinking was: hey, we are together, we need to share everything, so her credit cards must also belong to me.  Now imagine that this fool has NO credit whatsoever so is going to just use what I have established and spend frivolously, without even asking me.  You see, it’s real clear here: I need to change the locks, move if I need to, go get my cousins and meet this fool someplace dark, do whatever I need to do: this fool has GOTS to go… using me, stealing from me, without the kind of moral core to know any better, all while telling me that I am stupid because I am black and a woman.  Of course, it doesn’t have to even be this extreme to get up and leave but the point remains: if I stayed in this kind of relationship, it seems obvious that I suffer from self-hatred and need serious counseling.  So then why would I stay at a job that treats me like this?  You don’t stay somewhere where people keep their foot on your neck so you can’t ever fully shine or grow, thief all your stuff when they need it, and are surprised that you are intelligent and accomplished… and will TALK BACK.  Raise up and move on out.

Just like in a relationship, getting out is not easy though.  You gotta plan and prepare.  In the case of academia, it means you need to stay relevant, keep publishing, stay on the grind, and go out on the market which is basically a year-long application-and-interview process.  If you keep complaining about your situation but refuse to do anything about it, then you are your own tragedy.   Like with relationships though, when you get back out there, you take the past with you so the challenge is to transport the lesson, not the old wounds and negativity.  I certainly learned a lot in that first job but not enough to circumvent the poor choices I made next.  I got fooled by an attractive outward shell, saying all the right things, with no real substance inside.  But I did learn something: take good notice of how you are being treated rather than being swayed by the nice words you are told.

whites-only-sign-sojourner-truth-detroit-apartheid-segregationHere’s an example. At a recent interview, I was asked repeatedly if I could teach something other than African American content.  In my eight years as a tenure track professor, the majority of classes I have taught have been broad and in the seven years before that, still broader.  So in 15 years of college teaching, I have, unfortunately, taught very few Africana-centered classes as clearly shown on my CV.  Given these obvious facts, I saw this as a request to de-blacken myself in an incredibly lily-white faculty space. I was also asked questions about whether or not I could accommodate the specificity of their curriculum and yet no classroom that I visited was doing something that I saw as challenging for the 21st century or to my own teaching abilities.  I was questioned about whether or not I would actually do the commute but why would I go to the interview if I weren’t interested?  (I suspect a white male colleague in my field told some of the interviewers these things, but if those interviewers thought this white man could ever know ANYTHING about me or any black woman, then that’s just even more offensive and stupid). I was the first choice candidate and the offer was amazing but in the end, it IS like a relationship: you can’t be with someone who does not see who you are, does not really want YOU, and squashes the fullness of who and what you are/do/think.  They seemed to need someone like me to forward their specific agendas, but they never really wanted me.  Don’t be fooled by people and spaces that seem to be saying the right thing, but not meaning it.

Though the connections I am drawing here between an academic job and a relationship are intended to be comical, I do believe that the things you are willing to put up with at home match up real nice-and-neat to the kind of foolishness you are willing to put up with at work. I am reminded of a partner who I was with for three years.  After the last and final break-up, this fool was ready to change to be with me again and wanted to get married.   Then this fool went and made me a playlist to show regret and included music only by artists like Usher.  Now I think Usher is talented but if you want to get a sista like me to even consider taking you back, you gon need to do better than that: Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us”… Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes “The Love I Lost”.  There was no Dells, no Delfonics, no Stylistics, no O’Jays, no Teddy Pendergrass, no Luther… …I could go on forever here.  Just imagine excluding something like the Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her” below:

More than thirty years after the original recording, these brothers still sound good and, if that were not enough, be out here rocking mustard-yellow, three-quarter-length suits with matching church shoes, vest, hat, tie, and silk scarf.  Now this is MUSIC!  “Have YOU Seen Her”?  Well let me tell you, that fool I was with for three years didn’t SEE ME!  Today, this knucklehead claims confusion: why couldn’t we just be friends?  After sopping up all of my time, attention, and support, giving very little of that in return, why would I need this fool’s friendship?  It’s not that different from the experience at that interview. On the surface, it all looked good but I knew that there could be no room for me at a job that: 1) keeps talking ONLY about the people they already have or have had, ideas and decisions that are all opposite to who I am and what I bring to the table, and; 2) requests that I change, mute, and de-blacken who I am, all while benefitting from my unique gifts and talents.  I declined the job and trusted that something better would come.

16976869-a-cartoon-man-cries-many-tearsPut most simply, there comes a time when you need to just get up and leave a bad situation whether that is a relationship or a university position and you gotta be ready to leave it all behind.  After the abuse and neglect, don’t expect apologies or acknowledgement from these folk, that’s not who they are.  If they had valued you, were interested in doin you right, you wouldn’t have raised on up out of there in the first place.  Cull a lesson from my past mistakes: I left my first job very angry. I had every intention of taking a photo of my naked behind and mailing it to everyone in the department with a  detailed description of what they could kiss. A friend, however, explained that this could qualify as some kind of punishable crime so the photos were never mailed.  Banned from that possibility, I never really healed and landed at a second job that I grew to hate even more.  This time though, I am getting my own closure otherwise I will miss new opportunities in front of me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just go to youtube and read the comments section on love songs (I visit these uploads often to get music that is not mainstream) and you will see grownass people begging for the return of their babymommas/babydaddies/ex-lovers (with Maury Povitch-styled paternity issues in full tow). After getting dropped on their heads (and wallets), these stupid fools be out here publicly professing a never-ending, undying love…online youtube-dedicating or posting various renditions of “Don’t Leave Me” or “Lost Love” about an ex-partner’s “Dark side” who, in fact, was nothing but an affront to all humankind anyway (“you are my heart, my soul, my inspiration… I will miss the passion… you were the one… my guiding light” ). Why would anyone say these things to their predator/oppressor?  The same goes for the new job: you can’t hang on to old abuses as something that was ever real or ever about you or ever about real intellectual work or social change.

origins by carmen kynardThere are serious issues related to race and gender in these stories I am telling here and I will certainly be unpacking all that as I start thinking about a new category on this website: Black Women in the Academy.  Today, though, I was inspired by Crunkadelic’s words at the Crunk Feminist Collective.  There is a different kind of charge and commitment to naming names and isms in this new era of the post-Zimmerman-verdict. Here is Crunkadelic on that:

This is a time for fighting, agitation, mobilization, and organizing for systemic change—yes. Absolutely. But this is also a time for reflection, reading, soft beds, self-care, and saying “no!” to time wasters and soul crushers. This is also a time for laughing, lovemaking, singing, crying, wailing, dancing, and holding on to each other tight. This is a time for potlucks, cookouts, BBQs, picnics, cocktails, karaoke, concerts, house parties, blue lights in the basement, slow jams, and dutty wines. You feel me?

Yeah, I’m feelin you.  We got some fighting to do… and getting our minds, hearts, and bodies right and IN THE RIGHT PLACE is a good, first step.