Have a cup of coffee or get your munchies, lean back, and I'll share a few stories of struggle, betrayal, and survival.
I'll begin with school by saying that teachers and professors can set up their black students to fail. Many don't even know they're doing it, especially the white ones, but our own people can fail us too. All of them are there to teach and give you the opportunity to learn, but sometimes they transmit a subtle negativity toward the black kids in class.
There's a white blogger named Macon D. and he writes candidly about the white perspective in a wonderful way which I've learned from. This week he described a conversation he had with two white strangers at a restaurant. They were both teachers, and clueless in how their attitudes were related to their black students poor performances. Macon enlightened them, and I thank him for that.
What he said reminded me of my most memorable incident. It came, however, came from my black history high school teacher. Except for being a star in my English class, I generally got C's.
It never consciously occurred to me that this black woman was prejudiced against her own black students. I used to sit next to a Jewish boy who always got A's. Everybody wanted to sit next to him. Guess why.
He generously allowed me to peek at his paper. I copied a lot of his answers, but knew one was incorrect. As a result, I got a 96 and he got a 93.
When the teacher returned our tests, my friend and I both blinked when we saw that he was given a C while I got an A. We sat in the front, and at some point he timidly walked up to her. I heard their conversation.
He showed her his paper and said, "Um, I think you made a mistake. Shouldn't I have gotten an A?"
The teacher snapped, "No."
He glanced at me, back to her, then said, "I don't understand. She got only three points more than me and she got an A."
This black woman glanced at me coldly, then back to him and said, "I expect more from you. A low 90s from you is a C because you can do better. She can't."
Oooohhh, that hurt me... and a few other black kids who also heard it.
My teacher actually thought I was stupid. She didn't know I was bored out of my mind in her class, or that I read a minimum of three meaty novels per week, or had been reading Psychology Today magazine since I was 12, or won a city-wide poetry contest once, and knew the names and facts of nearly every animal in the world. She just saw a black girl looking at the clock and waiting for the bell to ring, and probably knew I cheated. The words "she can't" rang in my ears for a long time.
Her cold and incorrect assessment of me should have been a helluva wake up call. For whatever reason, it didn't, and I graduated high school with a mediocre 2.1 GPA.
My father shipped me off to a huge mid-western university that he always wanted to attend, but back in his day they didn't admit blacks. It was payback time, and he was determined his children would live out his unlived dream.
Two months later I was having a bitch of time with my courses. I called my brother crying.
"It's true! It's true!", I sobbed. "White kids are smarter! I never wanted to believe it! I don't know half the stuff they do! I want to come home, but I'm scared Daddy won't let me!"
I boo-hoo-hoo'ed some more.
My brother's voice was full of pain. "It's not true!" he said. "Most of those kids went to better schools and had better books before they got there. They're not any better than us, just better prepared."
He's much older than I am and had attended there too in the '60's. Talk about frontiers. Unlike my mid-70s experience, he was one of a dozen, not hundreds, of black students in an ocean of whites. He hung in there and endured the kind of in-your-face racism that you rarely see today. He graduated with honors.
I gave it another go even though I couldn't make heads nor tails of my history class. The culture of historical figures were frankly to alien to my life experience. Rather than fail it, I did what I learned to do in high school: I made friends with a white boy who let me cheat off his exams. This time, however, I did something different. I asked him why it was so easy for him.
"Oh. We learned all this high school," he answered easily. "This stuff is just a repeat."
I was dumbfounded. My high school history book didn't look a thing like his old one. Hell, in 11th grade, I had been cheating on the dummies version of history. No wonder I was so friggin' bored. Ironically, I love history now. One of my books is A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present, by historian and social activist, Howard Zinn (1980 and since updated).
A lot of smart kids don't study because they think don't they need to. Then they fall so far behind, that the course suddenly looks hard. They take those D's and F's too personally rather than associating it with not studying, and as a result, many of the sharpest black kids give up.
This low self-esteem baggage comes from the endless messages that we aren't as good as or smart as our white counterparts. Many decades ago, girls in general weren't thought to be as smart as boys and went through this too. Blacks are still going through this, and messages from the culture, media, and even our own communities and families kills many of us academically.
In Aesop's fables, the tortoise wins the race. I became a turtle, working slow and steady in my studies and determined to make it to that damned finish line.
I succeeded without cheating again or using the getting by strategy, then ran a new race for a master's degree at a black university. I got nearly all A's. I wasn't smarter, just more confident.
Now, years later, my daughter Casie will graduate high school in 2012. Today I don't have a dime to send her to college, but maybe by then I'll have a better-paying job where I can help her. I think how there are so many smart, black girls who live in families that are barely scraping by thanks to all the down-sizing, budget-trimming, and layoffs. They'll need scholarships and financial aid up the wazoo, yet our country's getting broker by the week.
I asked Casie over a year ago what she wants to do when she's grown. She's so damn pretty and tall that everyone tells her she could become a star in basketball or modeling, and then hook up with other celebrities and enjoy the best parties from New York to L.A. She does that eye roll thingy and this was, and is, still her answer:
That's her dream for making a life for herself. With or without me, I think she'll do it or something like this because she found that thing, that passion, under the sun. Her dream ain't new in the world of ideas, but it's new to her.
She's already running with it by staying on the honor rolls and secretly rolling her eyes at the occasional teacher who, for whatever reason, is inadequate in general or doesn't connect with black or Latino students that dominate her school.
She expects some of her teachers to be horrible. My parents didn't teach me this. Like many Jews who lived through the Holocaust but wouldn't talk about it with their children, my parents were too pained or embarrassed to talk much about their past school blues or frequent on-the-job humiliations from racism that was far more overt and common than now.
Before I wrap this part up, let's return to my Jewish high school classmate who was always getting those A's. From my understanding, Jewish tradition, more so than generic white tradition, heavily embraces education. This was the baggage - good baggage - many brought to America when they arrived to Ellis Island by ships and their eyes rested on the Statue of Liberty for the first time.
Blacks on the other hand have a different type of baggage. During slavery it was illegal for whites to teach blacks how to read. Afterwards we were still discouraged. It wasn't uncommon for our school houses to be burned to the ground. This occurred even up to mid-1900s.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a friend of mine who lived in a rural area in the South was constantly harassed by the white librarian whenever he showed up. She 'policed' this public place. Even though he was bi-racial and could pass for a white child, the she knew exactly who he was. His presence was barely tolerated, but his white mama watched his back, and he was the only black child allowed in there.
My grandmother used to care for me during weekdays when I was four thru six years old. She took ill when I was seven and I returned to living full-time with my parents. I had to change from a pretty decent black public school to a horrific one in my own neighborhood. This was in the early 1960s. My 2nd grade books were Dick & Jane, worn, tattered, and dated in the late 1940s. Thank God for my parents ordering those monthly Dr. Seuss books.
My point is that the many of the young adult blacks today have parents and grandparents who were discouraged from learning and told, for the most part, they (along with women in general) were too stupid and didn't need an eduction anyway. This cultural put-down wounds our collective self-esteem.
The late 1960s era of Civil Rights and Women's Rights did a lot for us, but we're still playing the catch up game. This is one of many reasons why half of all black kids still don't graduate high school.
But half do, and dammit, it's up to us to encourage the rest of our brothers and sisters toward literacy anyway they can hear the message. In the words of one favorite funny video, tell your homeboyz and girls who ain't down with learning to read a mo-fuckin' book.
Relationships are another area filled with land mines. Expect heartbreak and disappointment.
My son's new girlfriend is a case in point. I'll call her Stephanie, and this lovely 19 year old Dominican-American had a different boyfriend in 2007. They started off well but the relationship became strained from an unexpected pregnancy.
Her mother gave her the boot, but her father said those magic words, "Come live with me." Stephanie was thus lucky in the sense that she's had some family support. Many young, single women who get abortions don't. It is this abandonment by the baby's father and retraction of love and shelter from the family that often results in the termination of an accidental pregnancy.
Stephanie was three months along when her boyfriend was busted. He had been riding around with his broke-azzed homeboys when one had the bright idea to rob a convenience store with a knife. Her boyfriend didn't think fast enough, and stayed in the car when he should have run like hell as soon as the driver got out to do the crime. He was lucky as luck goes in the 'hood; since he wasn't that involved, he got less than two years.
She, on the other hand, had to go through this pregnancy without her man. I asked if she'll go back to him when he gets out. Her face screwed up with disappointment and disgust over all that went down, and she said, it's over.
We'll see. You know how these things sometimes go.
Today my son interviewed for a good job and afterwards was pacing the floor, waiting for the phone call that says he's hired.
"If I get it, I can take Stephanie and the baby out more often," Xavier said thoughtfully. "She'd like that, 'cause she don't want no trifling nigga who just wants to lay up with her. She wants the package deal. I'm cool with it. If things work out, I'll marry her. That's how I feel."
Heh-heh, this I gotta see. My lil' nigga was gangbanging with the Bloods two years ago and giving me the blues. Now he's ready to go corporate, get hitched and push a baby carriage. I'm lovin' what love, hope, freedom and maturity will do for a young brotha.
Growing up is a choppy process, though. Yesterday he was dressed in his I'm So Hood attire and talkin' mucho trash about taking out the trash. Today he's wearing a crisp white shirt, tie, black slacks and thinking like a man. Lord I hope they take their time.
Meanwhile, his girl Stephanie can't work because a minimum pay job won't pay for daycare. She's poor and worried and wondering what life would've been like if she and the baby's daddy hadn't been careless one cold winter night last year.
"Babies often come at the most inconvenient time," I offered. "That's the time for you to put other things on hold. You'll be fine. They don't stay babies for long, and then you can move forward with your dreams. You got dreams, don't you?"
"Yeah," she said shyly. "Plenty. I really want to go to community college."
She suddenly hung her down like she was ashamed. It reminded me of the days I felt - no, believed - that I might be stupid.
"In time, you can do this," I said gently. "When you talk, it's so obvious that you're smart and I know you like to read. You're a good person too, and very special. You were before you had him and still are. Ask him."
She smiled at her son. At six months old, he has spectacular social skills - which is an indication of her parenting skills - and smiled back. I like to watch her interact with him. Way down in her heart, Stephanie knows she's not stupid, but like so many girls and young black women, she needs validation.
Young black women and men, I love you. I see myself and friends in so many of you. Keep loving yourselves and try to stay strong. On days this isn't possible, remember that tears are like rain; they help us grow, and then the sun feels so good.