There is a struggle here. Something I’ve struggled to put into the words that even feel appropriate enough to share in a public space.
I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone except Black Men, but we struggle with relationship building. I think I get a double dose of it as a SGL (same-gender-loving) guy. I see and analyze interactions a bit differently than my straight and gay identified counterparts.
I shared the story of my neighbor (in the video) because it just befuddles me how, after realizing that you stay in the same building with someone, you can see them on the street and look past them, regularly. Like imagine me walking on the street, walking past the guy who lives in my building. Looking him dead in his face/eyes, giving a head nod, and him carrying on with his business. This specific interaction with this guy has happened… enough to the point where now I just laugh when I see him. I walked past him on the street yesterday, and he just looked at me, and I just shook my head and laughed.
To be clear, Black men aren’t the only people who struggle with relationships. But as a Black man, I’m most impacted and struggle with talking about and dealing with my relationships with other Black men – the most. Sometimes I think I’m too open and friendly and invested in the idea that everyone is a great and valuable person.
But I also know that part of our own downfall is our inability to recognize the strengths and value we can place in each other. Like the super duper gutter petty part of me wants my neighbor to be locked out or just need something that only I can give him one day. I really want to challenge myself to reach to my inner depths of petty to just ignore the fuck out of him and rub salt in his face for his inability to get out of his own way and open the door for… at the very least a platonic acknowledgement of existence… Something other than us walking past each other every damn day day ignorant of what we may actually be able to add to each others’ lives. If that day ever comes I’m kind of mad that I know I’ll probably choose to be bigger and just, engage. Even though at this point, I don’t want to.
I just really worry about us sometimes. Beyond the present – like no one really gives a damn about me and my neighbor’s relationship. But as a cultural…thing – like why are we so good at pushing each other away? Why do we value each other so little? Some of y’all may not be able to relate to the specific situations, but I wanna challenge you to think about areas in your own life where this may be applicable. I know that while I’m focusing on my neighbor here, and more loosely my ex and other men I’ve just had to deal with in life. I too am responsible for overlooking Black men in my life. Constricting myself to a “certain group” of people that I feel are acceptable to bless with my presence, and my friendship. Communicating in a way that shows certain men they are valuable to me and others that they aren’t.
What do strong relationships look like for you and the Black Men in your life? How do we develop relationships where we trust each other and support each other just as human beings here on Earth? Is that too lofty to think about?
I know its not, but I just wonder sometimes how we can make this different. We have so much to offer each other. How do we each begin to do the work to cross the bridge to connect? I don’t believe in a powerful and fully capable world where Black Men don’t and can’t connect with each other. I don’t want to live in a world were that is the only reality that exists. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
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A classroom and email conversation with two Black-Male students
I recently received an email from a Black male student asking me to explain life to him. He’s an older student and this is the first time I’ve taught him at the school. This was a first time I’ve had a student reach out for such poignant information. The following day, before I could respond, he told me that he and a friend, also in my class, were riding the train the night before talking to each other, and they kept saying the word Nigga.
Somewhere through the journey they confessed having made an older woman cry due to their reckless public vulgarity. It was then that I found out why my student had reached out to me about life the evening before.
Both students told me inconsistent stories about the events as they happened in real time, jokingly placing blame on each other, in a denial-deflection-comedic-confession with each other.
In the moment, there was work to be done, so, I expressed sincere dissappointment in their actions and inability to manage their behavior in context, and specifically with regard to the elder, then redirected them to their work with intentions to reply in detail via email.
The following was my email response:
What’s up y’all.
Ok, my bad that it’s taken me so long to respond. I wanted to make sure I sent something thoughtful back. Here’s some feedback.
Nigga Response –
It’s a dreadful word. It’s used to describe a group of people stolen from their land, and bred to be enslaved-captured people here in the American continents. The African people when I visited don’t call themselves nigga. The enslaved Africans were renamed Negroes by the European and other geographic people. It has been so ingrained that those African people have now taken to calling themselves Negroes instead of what they truly were and are. That’s why it’s a bad thing to hear so many Black/African people say Negroes/Nigga/Niqqa/Nicca. It’s a word of negativity and weakenss. The moment you stop calling yourself and your loved ones that word you start to get a stronger grip on the world, your history, and your role now in it. I hope that made sense. Here is a link to some phrases/meanings of negro throughout our recent history. I found this really useful for my own knowledge about 4 years ago.
Negro stereotype (the black brought over to be run over by society.)
I view y’all as so much more than niggers, niggas, you know all the spellings. In real life, I view myself as a young King. Everyday Paladin, the young King walks into the classroom. Everyday I’m greeted by young Warriors [Student 1] and [Student 2]. But as long as you’re calling yourself a nigger you’re never going to realize that. Nigger and King are opposites. Nigger and Warrior are opposites. Nigger and whatever you want to be known as are probably opposites.
The lady was probably mortified that y’all couldn’t edit the word out even if you tried. I get really sad too when I see kids out and they just can’t control it. We’ve been taught to say it. It has power over you. And that’s not good bro. But the good thing is it’s easy to stop. You just have to choose a different word to say. In college my frat brother started saying ninja, then we all started saying ninja. Then somewhere along the line I started saying homie. Now I even say bro. I say fam. I even say King. Choose something and roll with it. I try my absolute best not to call people that I love nigga.
Y’all ask me and I never really remember in the moment. I get a lot of stuff from thrift stores. My regular stuff is from Levis, American Apparel, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, stuff I see on Instagram, and sometimes the vendors on the streets. I normally check the sales. But will spend real money every once and a while for stuff that will last like jackets, bookbags, and boots. I rarely pay over 50 for a shirt or pants. Normally never more than 70 for shoes. Anything more prolly just isn’t worth it. Watch your money and save your money. A lot of my stuff is like 5 to 10 years old. When you buy stuff that fits well it lasts longer in my opinion.
Tutoring Time –
I’m available everyday during lunch:
Monday/Wednesday/Friday – [Location] – Lunch
Tuesday/Thursday – [Location] – Lunch
I also try to stay after school for at least 20 to 30 minutes trying to cool down and wrap up loose ends of the day. If no one comes I bounce. I hustle outside of work and get tired if I’m not on the move. Trust y’all are always welcome to tutoring and after school-time. Just come, and we’ll find something to do.
Y’all are smart. Y’all run the yard and I love it. But I need you both to step it up. You both set the tone for everyone else. I need you guys to work with me & [Co-teacher] in the classroom. Drive the attention to the learning. You aren’t horrible, but you aren’t hustling either. I need you both grabbing these knowledge points. Right now and even if you don’t have me anymore. You both have talent and like a team I need you to push your squad, and me and [Co-teacher], the coaches. Push your talents on the basketball court and in my classroom please. I definitely am trying to bring you my A+ work and I need y’all to help me be great by doing the same please.
Meeting with my fellows fellows, older fellows, and baby fellows… I’m able to see clearer that everyone engages in this work (teaching) through their own space, their own lens, their own context. Variation is the only constant. I think it really easy to forget that there’s value in variation. Yes, I’m the Black guy that teaches whose hair matches some of the students. And, yes that (my Blackness, not necessarily my hair) gives me certain entry points that serve as advantages over my peers. But, we all have entry-points at our jobs that can be taken advantage of. Not only is there value in knowing yours, but there’s value in being able to harness other peoples’ entry points as well. I’m still too deep into trying to really figure out my own advantages to have identified others’ yet. But, I do think that will be a focus of mine in 2014.
This is why I share my experiences. When I read Baruti Kafele’s manuals I feel like I get to live through and learn through his life as a successful school leader. I’m only hoping that my words inspire that same person now or later.
Big ups to everybody out there just living their lives everyday and making it happen! There are so many lessons to be learned and it’s a shame we can’t just learn at will whenever we wanted to. I’m pushing to be receptive to seeing other people’s entry points into whatever work they do, and figuring out how I can incorporate this knowledge into my own life. Sometimes I walk around thinking that even if I don’t know the answer, I (alone) can get to the answer with a little bit of brain power and a pad of paper. I often times have to check myself from being so mentally egocentric. Because in reality it would be virtually impossible for me to be successful at my job if I can’t to all of the people and signals around me. Everyone has something to give. The question is am I receiving it?
I’ve decided that when everyone listens the result has to be harmony. When we listen we are called to adjust. When we are called to adjust, we react.
What power does YOUR variation bring? What specific skills do YOU bring to this just because of who YOU are and what YOU’VE been through? What is the power of the variation YOU are exposed to everyday? Are YOU listening to and learning from the variation(s)? Specialization is key, but YOU’LL never know how you can specialize if YOU can’t identify the power of the vary.
There are so many varied experiences here. There’s value in all…
Here is another paper I turned in for one of my graduate classes earlier this summer. Thoughts and comments are welcomed and encouraged below.
Dressed within the Cloak of Privilege
Throughout my life I’ve seen that it is uncommon for black men to receive their bachelors degree, hold self-sustaining employment, pursue a graduate degree, and understand their culture in a way that pushes them to give back in a focused and direct way to their community. Being a special education teacher for a high school with a 55% Black and 45% Latino student body, I see younger versions of myself each day. It’s empowering and devastating all in the same breathe. My students come to me older than the average high school freshman. Most enter my school as freshman at 16 years old, two years behind their age peers, many years behind academically, and are expected to earn their high school diploma at 20/21 years old. Approximately 50% of our students have Individual Education Plans (IEP’s). Most students I have come across present as learning disabled, emotionally disturbed, and many struggle to maintain regular attendance.
The student I chose to focus on for this project is the son of Jamaican immigrants, and moved to this country himself at a young age. I’ve taught Keanon each trimester this school year and have been frustrated, disheartened, amazed, inspired, and humbled by his ability to make a fortified stand in various situations. The once standoffish young man has come into his own and begun to play with knowledge and academics in front of my eyes. I see Keanon anywhere from 1-3 times each day throughout the week, so I benefit from getting to observe him frequently and often.
Growing up in the midwestern version of the Cosby house in Chicago’s south suburbs afforded me countless opportunities that my peers didn’t have. My father, is a retired Illinois State Police Officer, part-time community college professor, two-time small business owner, and nonprofit volunteer. I fondly remember watching my mother, a devoted Illinois Department of Children and Services social worker, sit glued to the dining room table into the wee hours of the morning where she completed schoolwork toward her two masters degrees in Social Work and Education. Being first generation college students completely shifted the trajectory of my parents’ lives, and resultantly the lives for my sister and I. Growing up I was told I was going to college. This expectation, so heavily ingrained in my adolescence, makes me feel unaccomplished even today. Earning my first graduate degree serves as the first major accolade I will have conceived and achieved on my own accord.
Understanding how class, sometimes known as privilege, can unfairly shift one’s trajectory of life is a common realization in the black community. It is apparent to the individuals that find successful ways to enter and flourish through class mobilization, the family members they leave behind, and most importantly both groups’ children, which is where I myself fall.
I’m from South Central, LA, a place that’s historically impoverished and pretty marginalized. I come from a low-income family, I’m a first-generation college student, and I’ve kind of seen how just by the fact that I left for school, in another neighborhood, I got access to all these other opportunities, and just sort of had had a different trajectory. And I’ve known that both, from on the ground level and becoming a researcher and understanding the policy level, sort of the higher level. That there’s sort of a system that’s in place that works against what it is that you would want everybody to be able to obtain, which is success. So, the way that I’ve kind of framed success for my own personal use is the ability to influence and impact that system from a lot of different vantage points. (Gordon, 2013)
The blazing contrast between my childhood, neighborhood, and education compared to those of my cousins is etched in my memory. Each time I went to visit family members we departed on an hour-long excursion out of the suburbs, past the large ominous rows of government housing (projects) as they cast down shadows on the expressway to my family members’ homes. That exit out of, and entrance into – always triggered my senses in a way that was foreign from my suburban haven.
I cannot guess what goes on in Keanon’s head. However, he is a proud Jamaican, first, and American second, if at all. He describes Jamaica as 3rd world, but pulls strength and energy from his heritage. It is a badge of honor for him; and it empowers him socially, which helps him push for achievement academically. Keanon, as many of my other students, doesn’t believe he can trust people. In fact most of my males felt as though they couldn’t trust people. Growing up, I never knew a world where I didn’t feel safe, largely because everynight I went to sleep with a police car parked infront of my house. The privilege of growing up in the middle class has in many ways blinded me to the strife and challenges the many black young men must overcome to succeed. This thought repeatedly plays in my mind as I create my teaching identity.
I am the product of gifted/honors/and AP program at my school. It was there that I was exposed to class disparities in education. Obvious to me then were inequalities in rigor, expectations, and the resulting productivity of general education classes as compared to more challenging courses. I was one of the few Black representatives from 4th grade, and watched subconsciously as each year fewer minorities filled the classes with me. One of my most memorable experiences occurred during my 9th and 10th grade years in high school. I decided, as a young adult, that I didn’t feel like doing math homework every night anymore – a staple in the honors math courses. My unrelenting rebellion caused me to fail Honors Algebra my freshman year, and half of my sophomore school year. The administration and my parents moved me to a general education algebra class. I was shocked at the culture of low expectations, rowdy behavior, and slow pace of the class. Here, I sat, having bought into my label as talented and bright and I still struggled to pass a general education course several times less rigorous and structured than my otherwise full load of advanced classes. I ended up going to summer school to earn my math credit through an insultingly elementary computer program.
Keanon like many of my students has low math computation skills. At 17, he again like many others, struggles with his basic times tables, mental math, number sense, and confidence with identifying and applying key pieces of information. My co-teacher and I try to keep an orderly classroom, but our more expressive students work their magic and ignite nonstop disturbances that must be managed and extinguished throughout instruction and independent practice. I can imagine this having a negative effect on Keanon and his peers. This trimester we have covered factoring, factoring and graphing, trigonometry, area, perimeter, and volume. Keanon is one of two students set to pass the course this cycle. However, deficiencies in his basic arithmetic are still present, and are being addressed in a separate computer math course that I also teach for Keanon.
As I develop my teacher identity I rejoiced at having built a connection with a student like Keanon. His strength, curiosity, steadfastness, and nobility emit from him each and everyday. Earning his acceptance has made me feel validated within my own self. He and I both respect what it took to grow our relationship to where it is. I am older, but I view Keanon as my partner and equal. In my mind we are currently in a space where we share knowledge and beliefs with one another. Keanon has begun sharing why his Rastafarian spirituality is so important to him. He allows me to respectfully receive his message, which in turn seems to make him even more comfortable being himself, and testing his own skin.
There must be a meeting of the minds if educators are to play an influential role in the development of their adolescent students. This meeting can occur around formal social interactions, depending on the goals for the “meeting.” They key is that the educators’ thinking be made as transparent as possible in order for students to access and connect with it or for them to contest and reject it in an informed manner. (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2010)
However, I can’t be blinded by Keanon’s social transformation in the school. His math skills still require serious development for him to enter this world fully suited to succeed. As a teacher it’s disheartening to know that throughout the school year we never created the opportunity to develop many of our student’s subpar foundational skills on top of their functional skills. Framing this positively, I feel empowered knowing I can use these growth areas to develop more specialized understanding of my craft including new and targeted instructional methods for next school year.
My parents made sure that I grew up with a strong foundation in humility and servitude. We understood that we experienced privilege. However, there are many people who do not, like my family members, many of my peers, and the foster children and families my mother often exposed us to. The fact that it is a rarity of African Americans to have consistent exposure to supportive educational, social, and class privileges such as these is mortifying to my soul. This serves as the primary motivation driving why I must always try to build others as long as I’m able. To many, this may seem disconnected, unrealistic, or too kumbaya as I like to describe. However, for me it is the foundation for why I am an educator, and the doubts serve to reinforce my fortitude for the craft. My life experiences have brought me to a place where I am knowledgeable, both theoretically and experientially, about privilege as a member of the minority group in observation. Through school and work experiences I can guess how those more closely positioned to the dominant class experience and are blinded by privilege. I know first hand how difficult it can be with and without a solid education for minorities that are expected to navigate their way, successfully, through institutions that fortify such privileges by luck, grit, and pulled up bootstraps. I try not to judge, but I do wonder how others, more heavily layered in privilege come to develop their own understanding of this issue, and whether it festers within their souls as it does mine.
Now, as an educator, a huge chunk of my identity is tied into my own experiences and benefits from privilege. I therefore see and weigh a lot more of my performance with my students based on the person I am to them and for them, on top of the role I play as their academic and social educator over the next few years. In many ways, as is evident with Keanon, I’ve learned that I have focused more so on my students’ social development, than their academic development. Keanon himself has shown that even with his natural gifts for leadership, compromise, and inquisition, he still needs the basic academic skills to navigate the modern world, successfully, and out of harms way. As with Keanon, my own identities often shift between student of education, professional educator, and that same little black boy that absorbed so much inherently from my surroundings in Chicago.
Currently, I feel like I must show all of my students and peers that I/we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. I frequently identify the links between them as high school students, and myself as a graduate student. I show them my frustration and unconditional love for them in the classroom. I let them know when they’re letting me down and vice versa. I show them what difficult assignments and work looks like for me, and discuss why its important that they persevere through their own complaints about scribing as little as a paragraph. I explain how my job and life intertwines with theirs’ and how the 10 years they view, as a separation in age is more of a proximity that should be explored and utilized to their advantage. I definitely use them to foster my own growth and knowledge development.
This summer, my challenge is to strengthen how I stimulate and support my students academically. Similar to Keanon, I enjoy the feeling of being roused into action. I enjoy the idea of constantly polishing myself into an even better teacher. This year I’ve seen Keanon go from being extremely closed-minded to being prophetic about the importance of school, teachers, and learning. I’ve tried to make the connection for my students that they are role models for their younger brothers, sisters, and cousins as I undoubtedly am trying to be for them.
My students are creating and experiencing foundational events that shape their adolescence and will guide their adulthood. I am no different, even at the current stage of my life as a young professional. As students and teachers, we are co-creating our identities. Interestingly, I view myself as the student, or rather, feel that even as a teacher, I have a need to be educated and nurtured by experienced veterans and mentors. I am a teacher, and I teach everyday as my profession, but my role in life is that of the student. Like Keanon, I am challenging assumptions and learning how to create an image of myself that most closely represents my idea of self.
In short, adolescents [and adults] are in a near constant state of constructing their lives. Far from assuming or growing into a particular stage of development or simply adapting to an environment that determines development possibilities for them, [people] are actively creating development itself. It is largely this process of creating [oneself] and the worlds [we] inhabit that we call the construction of [life]… Ultimately the meaning [you] make of [your] experiences is [yours], regardless of how it may match or conflict with ours… Given the magnitude of the consequences involved in self-construction, especially as [you] come to be realized in schools, the constructionist perspective is anything but academic or abstract. It is, rather the real-life heart and soul of [life] itself. (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2010)
– We often focus on our challenges, but have you taken a second to think about your privilege(s) and how they shape your view of the world?
– Privilege is just that… a privilege, something that not everyone is privy to. I’m not saying you should feel bad for the privileges you’ve attained or been born into. But, I do believe that it’s our duty to create a space for other people to benefit from the “access” our privileges have afforded us.
Be purposeful with your privilege(s), pay that shit forward!
The Art of War Art Battle was a success! My frat brother (right) and I (left) are the bookends in the photo. We teamed up with the two lovely ladies from CORE to hold a joint fundraiser. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was starting an organization – Creative Dreamers with my boy.
The art battle was a great way for us to introduce ourselves to New York City. I still don’t really know what to say about the event that hasn’t been added in previous posts. I’ll say that it turned out far better than anyone could have imagined. The visual artists were amazing and their original pieces were unique and great quality, the music acts showed up and showed out, the DJ was playing great music, the crowd was live and engaged, overall everything came together in a great showing of creativity and passion. I’m super proud of my group. Here are just a few pictures from the night. I have a tendency to fall behind the scenes and work work work – which is why you’ll only see me in a handful of pictures in the album. But I promise you I was there mingling and trying to keep things running smoothly for the guests and volunteers. Check out the rest of the pictures here: http://tinyurl.com/ArtofWarArtBattleSpring2013
Thank you to everyone that came out and supported the event! It was a labor of love that took 4 months to plan and implement from day one. My team met once a week to plan out each step of the event from the venue, the artists, the music, the photographer, the videographer, the graphics, personal investments, supplies, themes, etc…
Why did I do this event – I’m not a fan of being in the public eye, or the center of attention. But as I grow this platform or Skool Haze and Creative Dreamers I think its important to get comfortable putting myself out there and facing challenges and my weaknesses head on. Hosting my own event has never really been something I’ve wanted to do, which is exactly why I felt I needed to put my modesty aside and see what I could do when I pushed myself. I challenge my students all the time to do something they never thought they could do, and this was my version of that challenge for myself.
What was hard about the event – The hardest thing about the Art of War Art Battle was planning for the event every week. The planning itself wasn’t hard, and doing the work of finding and communicating with artists and volunteers wasn’t hard. But the event took a lot of effort to plan each week. At times I questioned whether I added too much to my plate, especially as the event drew closer. I would say the last week in preparation for the event was the most stressed I have felt throughout my entire time here in NYC.
How did I cope with the added pressure – Honestly, I just dealt with it. I don’t know if it’s the athlete in me, or the frat boy in me, or the determination within me. But I hate feeling like I don’t want to do something. I always feel like I’m missing out on something better and greater, which is a no-no for me right now. Once I realize I don’t want to do something because it’s challenging I usually am able to take that energy and direct it specifically at the challenge itself. I think it helped that I had a team of 3 people I was working with. It seemed like it was a challenge for all of us, but we were in it together to see it through.
Why I’m sharing this , Why would anyone care – Well I don’t know if anyone cares. There’s a good chance that some don’t. But, I think its important that people see that this is something I actually thought played to a few areas that I’m actually self conscious about. This event was a support for the scholarship which is something that I’ve wanted to do forever. I wanted to make sure that the scholarship became a reality and not just another thing on my own bucket list that I let sit dormant for decades without even attempting to make it happen. My hope is that you will see this, think about something you’ve always wanted to do in your life, and get energized to start making it actually happen. Whether its going back to school, finding a new job, starting your own organization, talking to someone you’ve been avoiding for a while, saving money, whatever that thing is that you’ve been holding off on doing……. DO THAT SHIT!
What I learned in the process – Well, I learned that with the proper planning and energy I can put together a super nice event. I learned that I need to be willing to drop the shy/modest card when trying to have a successful event/program. I learned that details are important when trying to put together an event with other people. I learned that my teaching/nonprofit/and pr skills come in handy when thinking of recognition, presentation, communication between event staff and volunteers/participants/guests/sponsors. I learned that it feels good to push myself and come out with something better than I could have even imagined. I learned that people LOVE to watch art be created live, LoL. I learned…. that me and my group work very well together, regardless of the behind the scenes disagreements we faced. I learned that facing a challenge could reap amazing results.
What are our next steps – Well, right now we’re continuing to build up Creative Dreamers Organization. We’re also thinking about our next steps in regards to programming and events. Overall, more challenges and more activities geared toward empowerment. And of course we’re still fundraising for our Creative Dreamer Award.
The other day I went on a 10 minute tirade in my Just Words class discussing the beauty of Art, and how everything we do in life is in fact, Art. In the previous class my students groaned in unison when I asked them to make a drawing for some of the key words we were learning. As a result I brought in the notebook I used for my summer grad school classes. Over the course of the summer I made quite a few sketches in class to help me pay attention to the discussion going on. I figured this would be a perfect way for me to share a bit of myself, and teach them something outside of literacy.
In my head – building my students’ confidence in their art is a sure-fire way to help them grow into confident learners, explorers, and thinkers. Its also a tool I want them to use to deliberately hieghten their ability to focus in important settings. Oddly enough, I remember the idea of doodling coming up quite a few times at my old job. The idea that there were studies produced that supported the fact that doodling during meetings helped people retain more information eventually helped me become better at recalling details in our team meetings. Plus it was just a fun way to express what I had going on in my head at the time.
Here are a few of the sketches I’ve snapped pictures of. I hope to add more this semester, so stay tuned. Oh, and I’ve actually been trying to encourage many of my students to continue to doodle during class, as long as they can prove to me that they’re able to pay attention while doing it. I try to use it as an in to learn more about them and engage them in something they clearly like doing.