As a twenty-five years old woman, I understand that this identity-work can be hard. Heck, I know that it can be downright frustrating and a struggle. In the language of my mother, “just be you”. Now, for the young-folks, life isn’t really this simplistic. We’re told to be this and we’re told to be that, but who are we?
So, what does it mean to be yourself? I guess it’s when you are totally comfortable in the skin that you’re in. However, this gets a bit complicated when you are a Black or Brown person. Struggling with yourself becomes a daily task. It becomes a full-time job. It becomes a location of emotional labor.
As a twenty-five years old, working-class Black woman in the United States, I am at the intersection. In being told by Black and Brown students that they fear their lives because of what they see on television and social-media, how do we not struggle? How do Black and Brown parents raise their children in this unfortunate reality of cameras catching the constant dehumanization of folks that looks like themselves and their children? How do we hold it all together when we can’t walk without being criminalize in some form or another? How do we tell our children to play outside when playing with a toy gun will get you shot and killed? How do we tell our children to simply listen to the police officer and to follow directions when following directions gets you shot and killed? We are definitely strange fruit.
Struggling with this skin. Struggling with this skin. Struggling with this skin. Struggling with being a Black or Brown person is a full-time job that doesn’t give you breaks or paid-vacations off. When mother tells me to be myself, how hard is that when being yourself gets you shot and killed?
As I stare into the faces of Brown and Black students, I understand their struggles. I understand how hard it is to be a child, but yet treated like an adult. I understand how hard it is to be child, but treated as if you are well into your years of adulthood. You are not child when you are Black or Brown. You are adult. You are not child. You can never be child. You will always appear older than your White counter-parts. You will be the exception. You will be the reason why their guns are pulled more quickly. You will be the reason why they will place you in Special-Education at a higher-rate than your White-peers. You will be the reason why you will be suspended at a higher-rate than your White-peers. You will be the reason why you will not be allowed to be child.
But my beloved Black and Brown children, you need to laugh. And you laugh loud. You need to scream out your names and let the syllables of your names perform gymnastics on their tongues. Make your movements bold. Make your presence known. Do not reduce yourself to fit their expectations. Do not be silent. Do not be scared. Be bold, my beloved Black and Brown children.
We have endured four-hundred years of slavery. We have loved in the trenches. Our ancestors birthed us through their pain. They birthed us in their pain. My beloved Black and Brown children, love yourselves and love each other. Let your stories be told in whatever language you have. Make your dancing become the artifacts for generations to come to remember you by. Be bold in your identities. Be bold in your love. Be bold in your Black and Brown. Be bold. Be bold. Be bold.
For this is the pedagogy of the oppressed.
For a few months, I explored the idea of moving to another place. Now, I didn’t come up with New York as my first option but it was at the top. In being at the top and really wanting to explore New York City again, I started to look into certification programs for teaching within the state. In stumbling upon a one-year certification program, I knew I had to make the move. I was quite certain that living in New York for one-year would be easy for me. Now, reality has definitely set in. It is tough.
In coming to New York with savings and a pocketful of hope, I am trying. I am alone. I am new. I am coming to realize the importance of trusting in yourself when you have nobody else to rely on. As I travel down side-walks, into subway stations, into Ubers and alongside strangers I meet, I am asked the question, “Do you have family here?” and my answer is a dim “no”. In giving my answer, the questioner sulks. They give me a fake smile and tells me that everything will be fine. For many folks, they give me advice on how to navigate the city and what to do. In some cases, I was given personal business cards and phone-numbers in case I need help or needed an ear.
So, no, I don’t think New York is this cold place with heartless people. On the contrary, most folks have helped me tremendously. Even in passing, people would often greet me upon the sight of the headscarf. I smile. I reply. In a post 9/11 world, things like this matter. I’ve scurried upon many blocks from walking and find my eyes in utter disbelief when I see people dressed in traditional clothing, speaking their native tongue and loud. Why did I mention loud?
For me, I grew up in a family that is expressive. For many Black and Brown folks, we come from homes that are loud. We listen to loud music. We get excited and speak loud in conversation. We like to adorn ourselves in different ways that are bold. Naturally, we are like this. For many of us, we are unapologetic in this. However, in coming from Kansas (my last home of residency), things are a bit quieter. Not only quieter, but a bit boring. Now, I’m sure that folks from Kansas may disagree with that statement, but I’m very much used to loud music being blasted from stereos, young kids playing in the street, women sitting on the porch gossiping, the smell of food from the next house over, seeing young girls with barrettes in their hair, and etc.
For over a year, I lived in a place that distanced me from the little joys that I took pleasure in seeing. For me, city-life is a part of me. Yes, for many that knows me, I lived in suburban environments for a good portion of my life. For me, the suburbs have/are a hard place for me to be in. Why? Back in 2015, I traveled to a suburban area in Kansas one night to drop off a friend. In being the young-adults we were, we just decided to talk before separating for the night. However, a White-man passed us, pulled into his driveway and approached us. He said that he noticed my Missouri license plates and wanted to know why we were in the area. He stated that he was a part of the Housing Association for the community and there’s been a string of house-robberies. Of course, we were scared and taken aback by this man’s approach. In being tired and unwilling to go through emotional labor with this man, I told him to leave us alone and go away. He didn’t. So, he started yelling and then his wife came to see what was going on. Upon reaching, the car, she started to jump in too. After seeing that we weren’t welcomed within the area of which my friend lived in, we simply separated for the night to avoid further confrontation. For me, I was bothered. I was angry. I was on the brink of risking it all because Black and Brown people are frequently harassed and questioned for their presence within certain areas. So, I wrestle with suburban areas for the most part. I wrestle with them because of the segregation that exists throughout many American neighborhoods.
So, what does all of this have to do with New York? Everything.
New York is interesting from my lens. Why? As I stumble upon different areas within Manhattan, I saw the difference in neighborhoods very quickly. Gentrification is a reality that has stumbled upon many urban-areas including many segments of New York. In coming from the airport, my Uber driver, Mohammad, told me that the city is becoming very gentrified as the years pass. He mentioned the unfortunate truth that Black and Brown people are being pushed into the Bronx while Harlem is becoming more expensive and unlivable for many poor, Black folks. In visiting Harlem back in August 2016, I was enthralled by the cultural and historical artifacts. I remembered reading about the Harlem Renaissance and actually wanting to see Harlem, New York in person. In coming to Harlem again and getting another snapshot of the area, it is becoming a place of gentrification. So, what does this mean? It means that people will soon get displaced from their homes in search of another home at the expense of real-estate developers.
In coming from Kansas City, Missouri, many folks know about the Troost-line as being the dividing line between White and Black folks, between the ‘hood’ and the ‘good’ area. White flight was a real reality in the city. Now, as years have passed, Whites are coming back into the city which increases rent, property value and a displacement of locals. Of course, schools aren’t excluded from this political arena.
In the last two years, I’ve worked within the Kansas City Missouri Public Schools District and the school I worked in is a part of the gentrification process. In the past year, real-estate was being bought, surrounding apartments increased in value along with increase rent and the education within the school was being sold for those wanting to move into the area. Midtown is a bustling segment of Kansas City, Missouri that is conveniently located in the midst of the action of the city. However, Midtown is also very much urban and not too far east is where you meet the clash between wealth and poverty. East of the Troost line is where you find many working-class Black folks while to the West is where you find many White folks that are middle-class.
So, yes, gentrification is real. Gentrification is a form of violence.
Now, what does this have to do with education? Absolutely everything. As an educator and social-justice advocate, it is vital that students are taught to think critically and to problem-solve. We are living in a time that demands that people and communities come together to work towards equity on all-levels.
And to this, I say, the fight is long from being over. There’s much work to be done.
I can’t tell you how many educators I have heard say that poor, Black kids can’t learn and that poverty is their deficiency. On top of that, poor, black parents/guardians do not care about the education of their children.
I, for one, grew up as a poor, Black kid.
I, for one, see how poor, Black kids can, will and have always excelled academically. See, it takes educators that are there to teach with high expectations that will push all of his or her students, no matter the background.
Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.
Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.
Let me tell you, my parents never thought I was deficient. They never sent me to school saying I was an inadequate black kid because of poverty. They always told me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I can succeed in anything if I had the will to believe. We were broke and struggled at times, but that never stopped me from going to school and excelling. Sure, you may have been through some dark times but my parents didn’t want to see no bad grades. They weren’t about to have me sitting up in a school and not learn.
Let me tell you, my folks made sure to read to us. They made sure to see if I had homework and if I needed additional help. So, please dismiss yourself if you have the belief that poor folks, especially black and Latino folks can’t learn.
Let me tell you, most of us poor folk are serious about our education. We set high expectations for ourselves and the kids around us. In the words of my black mama, “I ain’t raising no dummies”. There you have it.
So, the next person that I hear saying that poor black kids can’t learn than we about to have some problems.
Let me tell you something else, these black and brown babies are pushing hard in these classrooms. They are pushing hard against the social-inequities within their lives. They are pushing against the oppressions that face them just because they are poor and black.
Let me tell you something else, if my black and brown students want to beat-box on the table, braid their hair back in cornrows, dab on it and everything else that screams “Black and brown” then go ahead. There’s too many people that wish to police them. There’s too many people seeking to silence them. There’s too many people that wants to see them fail.
We are not deficient. We are not going to silence ourselves. We are not going to fail.
We would not have gotten past the level of pure adaptation to the world if we had not reached the possibility, while thinking about adaptation itself, of also using it to program transformation. For this reason, progressive education, whether at home or at school, must never eradicate the learner’s sense of pride and self worth, his or her ability to oppose, by imposing on him or her a quietism which denies his or her being. That is why one must work out the unity between one’s discourse, one’s actions, and one’s motivating utopia. In this sense, one must take advantage of every opportunity to give testimony to one’s commitment to the realization of a better world- a world more just, less ugly, and more substantively democratic. -Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Indignation
In thinking about the words of Freire, I struggle daily to remind myself that I must never put out the flame of any student. I must allow the student to stay on fire, ready to light whatever comes their way. However, many schools are set up to tame students. Students are encouraged to act like cattle. In my conversation with a professor at my university, she told me that she was always full of life and never allowed school to put out her flame. She was that ‘loud, black girl that wouldn’t shut up’. In seeing how school would break the spirits of students, she was committed to being herself. She was committed to the fire inside of her.
As I engage with students on a daily basis within my primary-school, I am always thinking about this. I always remind students that there are limitations on their behavior, but they must never change who they are. They must always remain who they are, but grow intellectually. I think school can be extremely restricting and suffocating. It can drag students out of their vibrancy and breed a population of students that are complacent to rules and regulations. I refuse to teach this to students. I want to teach students to think critically. They must not feel obligated to agree with an authority-figure or a system. They must learn that citizenship doesn’t mean complacency.
Today, I experienced a teacher telling her students that they must honor this country’s flag,be respectful citizens and appreciate American government. I must say that this can be a good way to help students understand their role(s) in citizenship. However, I would’ve had a caveat to such a statement. I would have told them that there is a time to rebel and to say ‘no’ if injustices are present. Nonetheless, this caveat would need to be explained in an age-appropriate manner. Students are aware of the world around them. They see what is happening in their neighborhoods. They see what is happening in other neighborhoods. So, do not believe they are ignorant to the world around them. I believe many people tend to be overprotective of children. They aren’t given the chance to think critically. They are coddled until they are deathly afraid of the world. Teach them to think. Teach them to read. Teach them to question.
I can’t simply accept this notion that children are ignorant. I’ve worked with children and they understand more than you think that they know. They are observing the world just like adults. They are trying to fill in the gaps just like adults. They are dealing with the massive influx of information that adults are trying to get through on a daily basis. Do not believe that they are ignorant. I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that they are very intelligent. They are growing in knowledge, especially as consumers of this technologically-advanced society.
So, allow them to explore. Explore yourself to explore what they are exploring. Become aware of the things they are into. Do not hold them back from discovering new things. Yes, set limits. However, do not allow those limits that you set to prevent them from being the great individual that they can be. They can add to the collective and do much good. Just observe them. Let them show you the world through their eyes. They will help guide you in your knowledge of the world.