to put some things in context, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley when I was ten or eleven. I made it a point to read the 9/11 commission report front to back when it was published. On September 11th, I was 12 — and the only thing I could think of was: why does America hate Muslims all of a sudden? That is a story for another volume.
I also grew up in a place that, let’s say, was and continues to be less than diverse. I think the non-white population hovered around <4%. and the black sliver of that was <1%. And it was a small community, so it was very obvious.
What has been happening over the last few weeks, particularly after I wrote my last piece, has resurfaced a lot of feelings about what a poor education I received in “one of the top” school districts in the country. and this is no doubt, a reflection of the priorities of the administration, school board, the Department of Education (No Child Left Behind in the Bush years) and the storied history of this particular suburb of Philadelphia – and scores just like it around the country.
I had a very small number wonderful people as educators during my time from first to twelfth grade. particularly and singularly my second and third grade teacher, Miss Gilbert — a slight woman with a short blonde haircut who ate smelly bagels every morning, and drank water with a slice of lemon in it (I had never seen that before). And who couldn’t have been twenty five when we crossed paths. those truly beautiful and tragic two years aside, I also had some profoundly traumatizing experiences at the hands of the faculty and my classmates, that I am still recovering from today.
But that’s what therapy is for.
I will say that my education, as far as it concerned people that looked like me, was at best, surface level (an E for effort). At worst and probably closest to reality: a complete whitewashing and a disservice to all of us — especially the white students. Whenever February rolled around, I knew a lot of extra attention would be paid to the two or three other black kids and myself. As if they expected us as teenagers, to already know five hundred years of history of the very complex existence of black people in the United States. It was in our bones, but still.
Also, we were to appreciate the posters of black leaders that adorned the walls– the big three, Martin, Rosa, Douglas — and George Washington Carver (peanuts) and Thurgood Marshall. But their version were merely avatars of profoundly complex human beings whose stories and traumas had been sanitized in order tell the story of racial progress to generations of delicate white children — and a great many black children that found themselves in majority white institutions, built to educate white children, with mostly if not one hundred percent white educators. To their credit, slavery was mentioned, however in fairytale form. Roots may have also been on television (every February), but I had the book and knew the Toby line, but I wasn’t ready to see the Reading Rainbow guy get beat to death.
The tension was already very palpable at a young age, even if I didn’t have the language for it yet. I just thought it was regular ol’ childhood bullying and indifference from adults – now I know it was abuse.
Despite my Mother’s best efforts, I knew nothing of Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry. Perhaps I was just interested in other things – basketball, the internet, girls. However tI was aware of Toni Morrison (from my mom), Langston Hughes (thanks to Miss Gilbert), Spike Lee (my uncle’s boyfriend had written a book on him a few years prior). In school, we did take trips to some plantations (for some reason), specifically the one where they filmed the Oprah produced film adaptation of Morrison’s book Beloved. There, I remember my history washing over me. I could feel the ghosts, but also couldn’t help but notice that my classmates (some of whom were also black) were having a completely different experience than I was. I wouldn’t call it transformative, but it still sits on my mind. Maybe it was.
My mother and I essentially lived on an island of the social kind, among lush green trees, seven figure homes, shopping centers and quaint markets. This isolation gave me a great opportunity to educate myself on my own history, but it also provided very little to connect any of what I was learning to anything in my daily experience.
As I got older, and my hunger for hip hop grew, I wanted so badly to be a black radical in the spirit of Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Chuck D. But again, I was on this island — and I’m pretty sure I was the only person who knew who the X Clan was in my entire school. So I fought the power with one of my senior projects, juxtaposing the Boogie Down Productions album cover By All Means Necessary and the famous photo of Malcolm X standing at the window with a rifle that the album cover was referencing. I knew my history, but in a vacuum.
My mother encouraged me to go to an HBCU. Which at times I regret not doing. Particularly after reading how Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks about his time at Howard. How he saw the whole world of black people in one place. My black diaspora was my family, my church for a time, and the four or five other black kids I grew around.
When I was young, my mother took me to see Nikki Giovanni do a reading of her poetry at a small liberal arts college near where I grew up. I still remember how warm she was to me when signing a copy of her book with my mother at my side.
When my mom would take me to these events, all I saw were old people. And it remained that way until I became an adult. YouTube allowed me to experience these old people in their energetic, vibrant youth. It wasn’t until then that I finally saw myself.
beyond that, into college and into life, I began to see a world that looked more like the one I inhabited in my head. then, onto New York where I’d often remark to friends that it seems like it would be really inconvenient and cost prohibitive to be an everyday racist in a city like New York.
Since my late teens, I had spent dozens, maybe hundreds of hours on dance floors that look like where I lived in my head. So I knew it was possible.
I gave an interview recently to my friend Vivian for the Love Injection Fanzine where I said I didn’t have much faith in humanity to think that things would ever change. And this was before George Floyd and my knowing about Ahmaud Aubery, though the end of their lives were far too familiar.
When all of those things were blasted into the public consciousness, and the emotional pressure that had built because of economic losses of people who probably didn’t have much to begin with, mixed with the kerosene of cabin fever, a fire exploded onto the streets – pandemic be damned. At last, a new flood of hope subsumed me. Cries for Black Lives, Black Trans Lives, abolishing and defunding the police rang out in the street. Politicians out of guilt or wanting to stick it to the President — or both – moved swiftly to make pronouncements about their intentions to heed the call of the people. Emergency legislation had been passed, to some delight, but there was more work to be done. And platitudes would no longer pacify the people back into dormant states.
Change may come after all, I said to myself.
All of the people in the streets looked like me, like they did in the world that I lived in in my head. I realized that it wasn’t so much that I wanted to belong somewhere, but I wanted to be everywhere. I am no longer on an island.