Jesse Williams succinctly and boldly broke down the imperative of the Black Lives Matters movement in his Humanitarian award acceptance speech at the recent BET awards on June 26th, voicing anger, sadness, and inspiration. So powerful were his bald, unabashed, raw truths, the Internet racist powers did everything they could to delete his words and the videos of the speech. For me, this was a further validation of the times we have always lived in as parents, educators, artists, organizers, and warriors. His outrage was proven to be true and timely in this last month of death and racism.
Jesse thanked his parents who taught him “to focus on comprehension over career” and make sure he learned what, “the schools were afraid to teach us.”
His words caused me to reflect on my involvement in my children’s education, both inside and outside of the classroom, when they entered a covertly racist and classist Berkeley, California public school system. I had chosen to work part-time since they were born, a strategy that had less to do with aprons and cookies as it did with what Jesse stated about his own parents’ values. I was afraid.
The first day of kindergarten I watched them traipse around the classroom with a mix of immigrant and US born Latinos, 5 white kids, and one African-American girl. The Spanish dual immersion program did not reflect the diversity of the school district. My attention was scattered because I noticed a good friend was not there and I couldn’t imagine why he would miss this amazing day in his daughter’s life. He called me a few hours later to say he was in jail. The cops arrested him in the middle of the night, taking his daughter from beside him and transporting her to her mother’s home. He begged them: “Please don’t let her see me like this.” He lived in a tiny flatlands studio rather than in the large houses that surrounded their new school in the hills with a spectacular view of the Golden Gate bridge.
I appreciated the view every week as I drove up to volunteer so I could watch and be ready to engage my children in comprehending what was occurring in a school with only one full-time black teacher. Joe was their art teacher, and he taught art with two rules: No rainbows and no white space. His words were quite telling when you think about it beyond art. The yearly art shows were spectacular. The art breathed depth far beyond what I ever created with my crayons and water colors. Unlike his classroom where he reigned supreme, the schoolyard told a different story.
Once, as I stood and watched the children during recess, I saw a teacher grab an African-American boy with a look of rage far beyond what was merited. It frightened me, as did this dynamic that remained true for the six years they were at that school – I only ever saw African American boys being singled out for punishment. The school adults were daily teaching my children about how race dictates consequences.
At home, I would sit with my twins to watch movies and TV. Each time a social-political issue emerged, I assessed their comprehension and passed along facts to aid their knowledge. One of the earliest lessons was about who gets killed first in movies. I knew the lesson had been learned when a movie followed the ‘first to die’ rule and I began to say something.
“We know, Mami. The African American man dies first.”
Even though they knew, I still wanted to scream every time. If no African American men were in the movie or show, then Latinos or women would breathe their last breath first. If it was Disney, the mothers were goners if they even bothered to show up at all. I remember sitting in the movie theater watching “Finding Nemo” and being unable to suppress my “Oh come on!” when his mother died early on.
How is this a legacy? How is this fair? They just wanted to watch their shows and tune out the police sirens that regularly vibrated throughout our gentrifying neighborhood. One foot in and one foot out. Privileged beyond measure from many of the families in their schools and hyper-alert as we stepped out of the car at night to trot up the stairs to our house, remembering that two of the other units on our property had been broken into, as well as having several stolen bikes and even a stolen lawn mower.
As the School Governance parent president through their middle school and first year of high school, my focus was to work on the structural side of racism while they were given evidence everyday by their mostly white teachers that today’s #blacklivesmatter is a movement steeped in years of disregard and oppression.
How does one teach comprehension over career? One of the synonyms for comprehension is apprehension, a low-lying anxiety I experienced every time I stepped foot on that campus of 3000+ students. When my twins started high school, they faced an ever-growing achievement gap where whites looked forward to Advanced Placement classes and blacks and Latinos were often shuttled to the alternative educational schools or simply dropped out. The demographics of the teachers remained unrepresentative of the student body and my apprehension increased each year, even though their curriculum was infused with issues of injustice and voices generally not found in other school systems.
At first my son remained loyal to a diverse group of friends and therefore I had numerous teacher-parent conferences about his ‘disruptive’ behavior. It was never about the teachers’ inability to build trust and deconstruct their unconscious bias. The youth were always wrong. As an outspoken advocate on multiple levels in the school system, I received a similar message when I disagreed with a privileged group – I was wrong and misguided when I challenged policies that kept the power in the hands of the few.
At the end of my year doing battle on the School Governance Council, I quit when my kids said: “You are so unhappy when you come home from those meetings.” I spent more time with them, laughing and playing Rock Band. I was usually the singer since they preferred to play the instruments. It was the only time they approved of me singing and I took full advantage.
One day in his junior year, my son told me that the boys who were failing were lazy. Having focused on making him aware of and giving him my interpretation of the race dynamics for years, I pulled back the retort on the tip of my tongue and just felt the sadness of the moment. Because the school was so racially divided, he had shifted, for his own academic survival, to doing his work and losing some friendships. I could not fault him and intuited he could not yet feel the pain of the system’s demands that he choose. Blame was the easier route and I trusted he would grow into another interpretation as he matured.
Because of my attention to teaching what the schools were afraid to teach, my daughter was well equipped when she was approached every two weeks or so by a different student at her small New York liberal arts college and asked: “What are you?” She made up gibberish responses and delivered them with a cool tone and eyes that cut right through their incomprehension. She knew she was being “othered” and she left them with their ‘need to know’ dangling between their lips like an unlit cigarette.
My work to point them again and again in the direction of justice and equity is a legacy that grows urgent day after day. We are up against a tidal wave; black lives are at risk, and our full-hearted souls are our only life jackets when the rage seems to crush our chests. In addition to teaching them to comprehend the legacy of racial inequities we swim in daily, I also infused a legacy of self-care that includes being surrounded by loving, attentive communities who will march in the streets when needed and then go have a good meal together to restore our hearts.
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