Holding Two Stories, Holding Two Miracles
This was not supposed to see the light of day, as it is possibly the most intimate things I’ve ever written. But it just seems appropriate to share this in its entirety with whomever is concerned. This is a followup grad school essay to the one featured in Dressed Within the Cloak of Privilege. The following represents about 98% of the original paper turned in to my professor, I tried to keep as much here for transparency’s sake as possible. Context: The format of this essay is that of a letter I wrote for myself in the future.
How are you? I hope you’re free from stress and worry, and enjoying the people and things in your life that make you happy. The date is June 27, 2013. Exactly two months before your 28th birthday. Time is flying by quickly! The scary thing is I’m still not exactly sure how successful I’ve been in creating the life that I’ve always dreamed was possible for myself.
Yesterday was the last day of teaching, and today will be our last day of what I consider the first year of graduate school. This letter is actually the final assignment for our summer course TAL 812 – Lives of Adolescents. The assignment is to continue to reflect on the relationship with Keanon, my Jamaican immigrant student that has transformed from a shy and quiet kid in the back of the class to a student who sits up front, leads conversations and tones in classrooms, and received 4 out of 6 awards at the end of school gathering yesterday. I knew he was the truth when I didn’t even have to mention his name in the award discussions, everyone else did. I was filled with so much pride to see that elsewhere in the building, Keanon was commanding respect from all others that he interacted with.
Yesterday’s celebration was a true vision into how students can grow. Or perhaps how teachers misperceptions of them can drastically change over the course of one year. Here he was playing the kongas, winning awards, bopping to music, smiling, and basking in positivity all day. I was simply elated to see him in this moment. I had planned on pulling him aside yesterday and telling him how proud I was of him for all he’s accomplished throughout the year. But, I decided to lay low after he picked up 4 his awards and movie tickets in the raffle. It was his day and I just wanted him to be able to enjoy it without any deep conversations ruining the moment, LoL.
I often wonder if Keanon is proud of me as a teacher and hopefully role model. I try to be a role model for all of my students, but Keanon is one of what I would consider my three work sons, or probably little brothers… I’m too young to have sons. They were all a part of my first class that I taught back in September. It was a small 8-student section of the reading intervention classes I ended up teaching this year. Keanon, Mason, and Jabari were three of the male students that I instantly made connections with. I’ve taught them all for the full year, so the bonds have been allowed to grow from infancy and have remained unbroken. They’re my little wolf pack. I request the most out of them in classes, and am not afraid to challenge them. They’ve been exposed to my growth as a teacher, and I guess give me respect for what I do. I think what makes our relationship special is that since they’ve had me all year they’ve seen my highs and lows, and they have actually offered me opportunities to reflect on my own teaching and learning practice in class with them.
As I’ve grown as a teacher, my thirst for knowledge about life for Black men in general has grown as well. I’ve become hyper sensitive at spotting news articles, books, and other resources that I feel can give me a better sense of who I am as a Black man and what that means for me as a 27 year old Black man, my 17 year old students, them in ten years at 27, and how the lives we specifically lead are really not in our total control.
…During his few extra days in jail, in the throes of heroin withdrawal that his young system wasn’t handling well, Joe met a local kingpin who taught him how to be a more efficient junkie, and a more effective criminal. Or as Joe puts it now (in his always-impeccable phrasing): “This man created a pathway for me to negotiate the street environment in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. It was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me…
So in the span of a few years, Joe went from a stable household to a single-parent family. From a middle-school honor student to a street-corner addict. From the grandson of a businessman and great-great-great-grandson of slaves to the son of an absent father, and a future deadbeat dad himself. It was a jumble of inputs—bad parenting and bad policy, misguided culture and tragic history—resulting in one clear output: a woefully lost kid…
But first, a few words about the world Joe comes from: the world of low-income black men. Why talk about this world? After all, it’s simple enough to ignore. We can safely tuck these men away in our inner cities and allow them to interact largely among themselves. We can rush past them in front of the gas station, murmur silently when the nightly news tells us of a shooting across town, or smile when we meet a nice, inspiring man like Joe. We can keep them in these places. It’s safe and easy for us.
Yet if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that when one single group of people is conspicuously left behind, it never bodes well for society as a whole. In many ways, black men in America are a walking gut check; we learn from them a lot about ourselves, how far we’ve really come as a country, and how much further we have to go…
The facts are a bit overwhelming, but not in much dispute. Africans were imported to the United States as purchased goods beginning around 1620. By 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a free black man, spilled the first drop of blood in the cause of the American Revolution, nearly 18 percent of the American population—almost 700,000 people—were slaves. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, that number had exploded to over 4 million.
Beneath these sterile facts lay a grisly reality. Blacks were systemically dehumanized for hundreds of years, a practice that had unique social and psychological effects on men. They were worked and whipped in fields like cattle. Any semblance of pride, any cry for justice, any measure of genuine manhood was tortured, beaten, or sold out of them. Marriage was strictly prohibited. Most were forbidden from learning to read and write. The wealth derived from their labor—the massive wealth derived from cotton, our chief export throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries—was channeled elsewhere. (DuBois, 2013)
[In class] We’ve been learning about secondary trauma experienced in the workplace, and interestingly until yesterday I couldn’t see how the theory applied to me at all! However, I realized that teaching itself, and perhaps the fellowship has been a traumatic experience that we are currently passing through. It’s been hard to identify/label the experience because I’ve been exposed to it for such a long and continuous period of time. To me yesterday, and really today, signifies that I’ve been officially broken in as a first year teacher. Something most people would rejoice at. But not me, I’ve lamented three times over the past 4 weeks over issues related to this fellowship. I’m not sure how you are now… but in the past, we haven’t traditionally been the type to weep, LoL! My tears haven’t come from the workload, late nights, “scary students and parents”, or “unsafe neighborhoods” as some of my peers would say. Our tears came from the parasitic education about systematic racism, social racism, institutionalized racism and the prejudice and privilege they create, specifically targeting individuals that look like and are ME right now, and whatever we look like when you’re reading this.
I can only imagine the new things you’ve learned over the past few years. If you can, leave me a note somehow or someway so I can learn from you. In a nutshell, the fellowship has exposed me to more information and made me connect that information to my everyday life in explosive ways. My fear is that not everyone is benefiting from this level of growth in knowledge, practice, cognition, reflection, and expectations for themselves, their students, families, friends, everyone! The challenge is that it extremely difficult to process that and explain it to a classroom, professor, or principal on the spot.
Currently, as a Black educator, it’s important that my students, family, and peers see me as someone that constantly takes opportunities to listen, learn, grow, educate, and push myself. I know this seems redundant, but its one of the responsibilities I feel obligated to shoulder for my community. They know I’m in graduate school, I also have shared-ish with them that I read a lot of books, am writing a book, created my own scholarship for my alma mater, organized a live art battle as a fundraiser for the scholarship, and that I’m documenting the process of becoming a teacher for future Black educators who are to come after me. I need the subliminal effort to rub off on them, so I put in the effort to really push myself to engage in a lot of community and self-building activities.
Paladin, with all that we’ve learned, it’s imperative that we continue to push ourself beyond the stars to the edges of the galaxy. The world is full of accessible images of pity and sorrow for Black people, students, and most of all men. Being a young Black man learning about the strife of your people has been simply devastating. This is the reason for my sobs over the past few months. Being a teacher, I’ve been exposed to the educational institution, which currently isn’t set up in a way that the boys I teach, that look like me everyday will succeed if left to their own devices. Regardless of fault, I am a representation of a system that back in the early 00’s struggled to produced 1/6 “successful” young Black men, my own numbers, not scientific. Realizing, through academic inquiry and employment practice that young Black men seldom succeed in the long run, coupled with the constant images of negative depictions of African American males and families in media has made me sad to be me. The more I learn about the world, the more the world shows me that my people are struggling. To learn about ancient civilizations, and see that throughout histories different people and cultures have struggled for various reasons, and to equate that in this day and age MY people are those struggling people, makes me sick.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Black unemployment for May 2013 is 13.5%. The Black male unemployment rate jumped almost a full point from 12.6% to 13.5%. For women it was 111.2%. Black youth unemployment also got worse, it went from 40.5% to 42.6%. The overall Black unemployment number is virtually the same as it was when President Obama took office. In February 2009, the Black unemployment rate was 13.6%. The number has hovered around 13% for most all of 2013. The overall unemployment number for May 2013 was 7.6%… The worst number for Black unemployment during Bush’s eight years in office was 12.1% in December 2008. The “best” number for Black unemployment during the Bush years was 7.7% in August 2007 and February 2007. (Burke, 2013)
Its important that I expect that whatever version of my future self finds himself reading this letter, that he be doing more than what I was doing at the time this letter was created. The example we set for ourself will help others set an example for themselves. I believe the tears come from a place of the sheer enormity of the issues that dampen and suppress minority people around the world, but more specifically, we Black men in this country. I can’t separate myself from the knowledge that even as I obtain this Master’s Degree, people on the street may see another statistic. However one thing I am grateful for is the ability to continue to learn from all of my experiences here, good and bad.
Through all the ignorant jokes, comments, and incidents—I learned how to persevere and focus on what’s really important. Learning when to fight back and when to grin and bear it is something that marginalized individuals know all too well. I will be living a life where I must constantly learn to pick my battles. Going to a [Predominately White Institution, (PWI)] was pivotal in developing this understanding. I could name many more things. But ultimately, if your identity exists anywhere in the periphery of society, graduating from a PWI is a feat of Herculean proportions. At times, some of the foolishness I’ve dealt with has left me wondering why I didn’t retreat into the relative safety of an HBCU, but still, I’ve gained so much social and psychological resilience that I feel fit to take on the world. Indeed, when you are a marginalized individual who graduates from a PWI, resilience is arguably what you actually majored in. (Talley, 2013)
Paladin, one way I know we can continue pushing ourself is by constantly questioning and recording our progression over time. This will help us track how we have become a better educator and leader for ourself, our students, our family, and even our peers. Take a second to write down your answers to these questions. Maybe even staple your answers to this paper. Over time we can compare the answers to each other to see where we have shifted in our learning.
- How have we made sure that we have been happy?
- What decisions/actions have we taken to take care of ourself?
- How has our knowledge grown and continued to change?
- How has our push to educate our people grown, and become more effective?
- How have we continued to make our life positive and purposeful in the quest to push ourself, our people, and all people to see that Black is not bad, dumb, handicapped, ignorant, angry, threatening, savage, etc…?
- How have we helped other people connect deeper within themselves?
- How have we sought knowledge?
- How have we actively and passively shared our knowledge?
- Has there been a time when we did not speak up for ourselves? What was the outcome?
- How have we exhibited grace, courtesy, and poise?
- How have we continued to challenge ourself?
- What questions/problems do you forsee having to tackle in the near future?
- How are we continuing to think positively in all settings we are in?
I’m frustrated writing this because I just feel too rushed. I need to process information and let it sit in my mind before I have to share it with other people. The nature of this assignment just doesn’t allow that. It’s difficult trying to bridge the formal with the introspective. Especially considering my first year wont be complete until this afternoon, 45 more minutes to be exact.
In writing this paper and thinking about some of the classroom sources I get frustrated because of the incongruences I feel I must navigate in my mind, as a black male. For instance, one point I agree with in regards to racial identity development theory is –
“If one has more fully explored one’s racial identity, might that contribute to higher levels of academic achievement? Is a student who has a complex understanding of their “Blackness or “Whiteness” or “Puerto Rican-ness” more likely to have elevated academic potential?” (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2010)
Keanon and I are examples that yes, this serves to be true. However, in the very same book we’re asked to become familiar with William Cross’ model of Black Racial Identity Development, who when I googled was a White man. As a Black man, how am I supposed to learn about my journey of understanding my race from someone who has been labeled as not having a race? ***Does Not Compute*** Let me say that his race is not the issue, the issue arises when I connect my prior knowledge of say – whitened history, or the creation of race to begin with as a result of misguided Academics. How am I supposed to trust a model of racial identity from someone with no race, especially when comparing the model to my own journey highlights little to no correlation, except an example of what not to think!? On an even grander scheme, realizing that this model is part of the education for future educators, and professionals in the world who have no first hand knowledge that this theory is perhaps not the method I would endorse they use to learn about racial identification within a Black person.
Having multiple identities has helped me pinpoint disparity and how culture itself impacts our encultured belief systems. I am Black, and will not ever experience a day when I am not Black. However, I am also gay, and have known so since very early on in my life that this was also true. Having these multiple identities allows me to see that negativity can be positioned in proximity toward minorities involuntarily. Without knowing or trying everyday, people say, accept, affirm, put down, and assume on behalf of our minority populations. It makes me wonder why and more-so how White individuals have escaped “identifying” themselves, and in turn identified others. My multiple identities leads me to believe that those with single/fewer identities find it harder to identify challenges they may encounter due to their ascribed difference, or in the majorities’ words normalness.
Keanon finding himself as a young Rastafarian, as he encounters sex, gender, sexuality, spirituality, academia, all at once – compares to me finding myself as a young Black and Gay man. In a lot of ways we’re going through the same journey. He is I and I am him.
I’m saddened that I have to end the letter this way, but it speaks to the craziness of the year. I’ve audibly grunted several times at this point, but I need to go back through to edit and connect a few dots before I submit within the hour. Of all things learned this year Keanon has taught me to believe in myself. He is who he is, and he is not afraid to present that to the school community. He’s winning because of it! I am who I am, and I can’t be afraid to present that to my students, my fellow fellows, and the world. This is how we learn, this is how others learn, and I cannot continue to deprive myself and others of opportunities to learn through each other. Future self, please continue to push for personal enlightenment and sharing it with all that may benefit.
Peace, Blessings, and Ambitions!
Stay tuned, Part 5 will be posted tomorrow.
– Works Cited –
Burke, L. V. (2013, June 07). Black unemployment virtually same as feb. 2009: 13.5%.
DuBois, J. (2013, June 19). The fight for black men. Retrieved from
Nakkula, M. J., & Toshalis, E. (2010). Understanding youth – adolescent development for educators. (3rd ed., p. 05, and pp. 8-9). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
Talley, A. (2013, June 13). Lessons learned from attending a predominately white institution. Retrieved from http://www.blackyouthproject.com/2013/06/lessons-learned-from-attending-a-predominately-white-institution/