Remembering Corey, Worrying about Omari

inwoodAs a sixth grade teacher in 1993, I was caught off guard by one of my young black male students, Corey.  He came in one morning, all excited, because he had made 10 dollars for a round-up.  I had no idea what that meant and assumed this was a Bronx colloquialism that I did not know since I was new to New York.  What Corey actually meant was a LINE-UP.  He didn’t even know the terminology. He and his friends were playing streetball (the norm when there is no grass or safe playground nearby where parents can be in viewing range).  The police came by and asked all of the boys who looked like Corey (dark-brown-skinned, skinny as a rail, and 5’4 tall) if they wanted to make an easy 10 dollars. All they had to do was come to the station and stand on a line.  I. WAS. HORRIFIED.  I think it took me a minute to even say anything.  For starters, I couldn’t imagine any person feeling threatened and needing to file a criminal charge against someone as frail as Corey.  All you had to do was sit on him and my man would be DONE.  More importantly, he seemed to have no idea that this 10 dollars was not a gift (but DID have enough sense not to tell his mama).  On the one hand, the naiveté of feeling safe with the precinct and police reminded me that Corey was just a child.  However, I was terrified of what would and could happen to him if anyone pointed him out as their “perpetrator.”  It was a tough conversation to have with sixth graders that morning, but I dived right in… and called Corey’s mother that night, a woman who worked two jobs, kept Corey locked inside the apartment with the exception of streetball downstairs.  Her sniffles on the phone suggested both fear and anger, all at once.

NYPDTwo years after meeting Corey, I started teaching high school: ninth graders.  They were not as naive as Corey, suggesting to me that, in the 90s at least, these lessons about racial profiling, violence, and surveillance came a little later in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives.  I have distinct memories of field trips where I always asked the one older white male in the building, an administrator, to join us.  All you needed was one cop to get a call about a Black or Latino male or female in a dark goose-down coat!  That was my WHOLE class.  That was ME!  And, at 24 years old, most people thought I was a high school student so I was never granted the status of TEACHER of the class.  If the police yoked up me or one of my students, it was straight to the precinct; I could not even be an “alibi.”  Like I have already said before on this blog, I was always criminalized alongside my students.

WoodsI was taken back to these memories today, with a mixture of rage and deep sadness, after hearing Denene Millner talk about Omari Grant, an 11-year old from Henry County, Georgia.  Apparently, he and his friends were trying to build a tree house from sticks, mud, and bark in the woods behind his house.  A woman in the NEXT subdivision saw them from her window and called 911. Two police officers came to the scene and approached the boys, one with gun drawn and forced the boys to lay down on the ground.  Omari did as the officers asked him to, because, in his words: “”I was thinking that I don’t want to be shot today.”

OmariIn a strange and ironic twist of fate, Omari represents a kind of progress from Corey’s naiveté.  Omari knew to be scared and knew the dangers ahead of him, unlike Corey. Today, an 11 year old knows he will be shot and demonized by police, law enforcement, and racial power.  I will go to bed tonight imagining this as the “progress” America has made.

“We are Not All Replaceable!” Hell Naw!

The things that you see on a New York City subway can sometimes defy the imagination.  I actually like public transportation (when it works, at least).  I grew up in a place where city buses came every half hour with routes that were not consistently accessible.  I  just can’t imagine living in a city like that ever again, I can’t imagine driving to get groceries, and I can’t imagine dealing with cars in rush hour traffic.  On the subway, you are with PEOPLE AND BODIES, not cars.

Both my walking to the subway and my ride on it often result in one verbal expression that I seem to never be able to control: OH HELL NAW, pronounced more like oh HAYelll naw.  It’s like a sneeze.  I don’t know when it’s coming and I can’t really stop it.  It just comes out of me and kinda sits there.  I can be walking to the subway and a cold wind slaps me in the face sumthin real disrespectful and I’ll just yell out: OH HELL NAW.  It’s really not intentional.  It just happens.

horse costumeA few years ago, my partner and I were riding the train and a man, lit up from the floor up, entered wearing a horse costume.  The horse head and body protruded about 2 feet in front of him, like an adult version of the child’s costume pictured here.   He shook his cup of change while walking through the train, singing “Oye Como Va” very loudly.  I’ll give him credit: he dropped it more like Tito Puente’s version than Carlos Santana’s re-mix.  Of course, I like both versions but nothing sounds like those mamba-style horns that Puente orchestrated, a sound the man re-created masterfully with just his voice:

Towards the end, the singer dropped that line, “Oye como va, mi ritmo/Bueno pa’ gozar, mulata,” and started dancing and moving the horse so that it looked like each of them was doing the butterfly (yes, the Reggae Dancehall version). I sat speechless… well, only at first. When he got to me, he directed his dance in my direction as if I were the woman/”mulata” chronicled in the song. I just couldn’t help myself and yelled out: OH HELL NAW.  My former partner gave him 20 dollars and so he sang and danced some more.  According to my partner, I just yelled OH HELL NAW even louder, a few more times, a comic moment this partner seems to never forget even though we are no longer together. Like I said, you can see some things you never imagined on a New York City subway train and these memories will stay with you.

subway carMost recently, I was leaving campus and going home when the double doors where I was entering the subway did not open.  Only one door worked.  At 6pm in New York City, at least 40-50 people are moving in and out of each set of double doors at the same time.  When only one works, it takes forever and you could miss the chance to board… and this was a day when I was tired, having left home at 7am, and just wanted to get home.  Obviously, I wasn’t alone in the sentiment because the sistah a few steps away and I yelled in unison: OH HAYELL NAW.  It was destined!

subway insideWe ended up standing next to each other the whole ride home (there were no seats left).  She is an administrative assistant at one of the posh law firms near my campus where they have cut all assistants’ vacations and overtime possibilities.  She starts work at 9:30am each day but arrives to her destination at 8:45am.  She goes to her favorite spot for tea and maybe a light sandwich each day, takes some quiet time for just herself to enjoy her tea, and then enters the hustle and high pressure setting in which she works.  Like her, I arrive to campus almost an hour before my classes, just for the quiet and the time to center who I am going to be and what I am going to do with my students for the day. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about this woman’s mental and spiritual morning practice (yes, I consider the quietness that she gifts herself each day a spiritual practice). Apparently, her bosses/the lawyers learned of her ritual and started coming to her spot to discuss their ideas for new projects, etc. with her even though her work clock starts at 9:30.  Yes, you heard that right and can probably guess my automatic response: OH HELL NAW!  Faced with her new reality, she did what any self-respecting intelligent woman in high demand would do: found herself a new spot where them fools couldn’t find her! We shared many stories like this about work, disrespect, black women, and exploitation.  In fact, it seems safe to say that the conversation that I had with her was more politically charged and ideologically introspective than most conversations I have on college campuses and yet, these are the “critical theorists” who supposedly have some kind of deep knowledge.  Don’t think so!

We were so engrossed in conversation that she almost missed her stop.  I will always remember the conversation, especially her final salient point.  In the current economic climate, where black folk, once again, fare worst in unemployment rates, we can be bamboozled into a very dangerous party line: you are lucky to have a job, as if we have not been workin since slavery. When has luck ever worked in our favor with the jobs we have done in U.S. work history? The purpose of this party line is to scare you into thinking that you must simply accept whatever treatment gets thown your way, because, as the party line goes, there are countless others lined up for your job.  And while this latter point is true, them countless others cannot necessarily do the job that you do.  My train comrade reminded me that we need not be fools: “WE ARE NOT ALL REPLACEABLE,” recession or not.  Though her bosses are not required or culturally expected to acknowledge her worth and the work she does that keeps them afloat, she seems real clear about her contribution and value… and is sending out her resume as we speak.  I like to think of the look on them fools’ faces who take for granted that she will always do what they need. I imagine her each morning, at a quaint local coffee shop, gifting herself some quiet time, before she goes to a job where she is carrying everyone on her back, fully aware of her time and worth. It makes me smile.  Irreplaceable, indeed!

“If You Don’t Like My Peaches, Then Don’t Shake My Tree”: Life under Institutional Racism, Part I

peachesAs soon as I hear someone say it, I bust out laughing: “If you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.”   I love the self-assuredness and, well, the bit of threat and warning that come with these words. I consider this a very nice way of saying: YOU BETTA BACK UP! I AIN’T HAVIN IT!

I have always heard these kinds of expressions from working class/working poor black folk (these lines were ubiquitous in the Blues in the 1920s, what we call floating verses from the black oral tradition, but these lines still float now). Many still make the sad mistake of relegating that to some kind of “folk wisdom,” which is just a white, western trick of pretending to value you but really marginalizing you and calling your wisdom subpar instead. There are many things that you can learn from this philosophy that shape how you understand and do your daily living:

1) don’t mess with something you have no business (or talent in) trying to shake up;

2) if you know those peaches have nothing in common with you, your tastes, your likes, your life, then move on… otherwise, it will be assumed that you WANT to get it started;

3) when that shit falls on your head—and it WILL— that is the consequence that you shoulda KNOWED you had coming.

Because, you see, that peach tree (and the person who uses this expression) is rooted and strong enough to NOT care nuthin about you and bend back on everything you try and touch.

There are so many contexts in which you can use this expression, it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, but for today, I would like to discuss one specific context that is related to the maintenance of institutional racism in colleges and universities where I have worked: white women who (attempt to ) correct my language.  At each and every institution that I have ever taught, a white woman has, in some way, sat me down to explain to me the inappropriateness of my language and/or my “allowances” with students of color, an occurrence always more pronounced at public universities than at private universities.  There is always some kind of overture where they explain academic discourse and academic writing to me.  Now, don’t me wrong, if you have some good advice for me on how to publish more than I already have, I’ll listen with deep seriousness.  However, in each case that I describe, the speaker did not have a Ph.D., OR had never published any academic writing (and by this, I am talking in terms of an R1 discourse so I mean research articles, not poems or novels), OR had not published anything rigorous or significant on this side of the 21st century.  If I did need some advice, these wouldn’t be the folk who I would go to, so now why on earth would these fools, who so obviously KNOW they do not like my peaches, think they should and could shake this tree?  Credentials and experience in academic publishing, online or print, clearly aren’t how these people construct their knowledge of academic writing. Biological whiteness and occupation at a university seem to be their sole practice of academic language and since I disrupt that, they seem to think they can come colonize the way the peaches grow in this orchard.  Except, of course, it just don’t work that way.

rappersdHere’s just one example. In 2005, when I was finishing graduate school, a white female professor overseeing a professional development project I was part of, told me that she thought I was using too much Hip Hop/youth language in what I do.  She wrote me an email detailing my “slippages.” Yes, you heard that correctly. She called herself an expert because her 17-year old white son was an avid consumer of Hip Hop so she knew that language.  Yes, you heard that correctly. And, yes, she got her feelings hurt. For a little chronology here, I’ll just say that I was 34 years old at the time when I received her email. For some more chronology: 1) I was eight years old when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979; 2) that was 10 years before this white professor even met the sperm that become her wanna-be-hip, white, suburban son; 3) that was 26 years before this woman’s son discovered Hip Hop by listening to Jay-Z.  As to whether or not I use Hip Hop language to semanticize my life is open to debate since this is not deliberate or conscious, but like I said, The Sugarhill Gang was my Sesame Street; Native Tongues gave my morning college lectures so, yeah, they are the soundtrack to which I hear words and I am proud of it.  All this is to say, I haven’t been copying white kids in white suburbia; they have always copied us and I let this woman know as much in my email reply back to her.  I also gave her a detailed analysis of the many things she had gotten wrong in the articles she had published, years before, about black culture and black language, since the white editors and white reviewers of this journal let her get way too sloppy, an obvious fact since she was thinking, years later, that her doofus, white, privileged son was the center of Hip Hop.  To this day, I look her up, every now and again, just to make sure she hasn’t published something out-of-pocket about black people in case I need to get at her ass again.  She hasn’t.  Like my family and communities taught me long ago: if you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

I do find it curious that white women in the academy have been the ones who embolden themselves so constantly to correct my language.  When white men come at me, they always do so with a white woman on their side.  None of this is a surprise.  Every wave of feminism has witnessed black women pointing out to white women how their notions of gender equality are constructed for the maintenance of white supremacy.  Nothing new there.

peach-treesSince none of these women are people who I would ever call my friends, people who I would choose to hang out with, or people who I even want to have much conversation with, it is curious that they seek me out— I have never initiated any of these conversations. I mind my business, do my work, do it well, keep to myself, keep it movin, and only talk to the handful of friends who I like and trust, those folk who understand and theorize oppression.  These initiated discussions are an obvious and deliberate attempt at colonization and, each time, that I respond back, I get rendered as the angry, oversensitive black woman…or the mean, black girl.  The colonized are always rendered as subhuman, stupid (too stupid to know what REAL oppression is, at that), and violent when they resist/speak back to their colonization.  It is inconceivable to power that we might have an analysis of THAT power.  That’s how institutional racism in universities works, what we might call the daily microaggressions necessary to maintain racist culture, and there are always clear actors who deliberately maintain it.  It ain’t a mystery, it ain’t subtle, and it ain’t difficult to pinpoint.

At the end of the day, we can’t be faded though by white women with such limited ideological lenses and vocabularies that they need to label black women angry instead of analytical, loud instead of logical, mean instead of methodical, sensitive instead of smart. There’s only one message to send here: If you don’t like these peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

“When They Reminisce Over You, My God!”: Reminiscing Racial Violence, In and Out of School

Thank you to Crystal Belle and the organizers of the Trayvon Martin Effect Conference at Teachers College for this weekend’s events and for inviting me to attend!

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
—Audre Lorde, Sister Ousider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

The stories that I am telling here all began with the image that you see above of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.  When I pieced the images together, all I could hear in my head were the words of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from their 1992 album featuring T.R.O.Y./They Reminisce Over You, dedicated to their friend Troy Dixon.  It’s the end of the first verse and C.L. Smooth’s last two bars that propels the stories that hits what I think is at stake when we let everyone know that we refuse to forget Trayvon or Jordan or Emmett or any black boy:

Déjà vu, Tell You What I’m Gonna Do

When They Reminisce Over You, My God!

It is the way that CL Smooth hits that last bar, the way he uses sound of his voice to achieve the emphasis he wants to make.  He is making a promise to the world that the weight and impact of this death, via the reminiscence, will be felt for generations to come… because you see, for me, that weight and that re-remembering is exactly what I think schools quite actively and deliberately keep us from doing.

Remembering February: Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin

jordan-davisBoth Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin would have turned 19 years old this month.  That these two births are how I will always remember February is very telling for what Black Histories and Black Todays mean.

lalo iiThe verdict against Michael Dunn, the white man who murdered Jordan Davis for playing music too loud, does not ring with justice for me.  My heart was lifted when I saw and heard Jordan Davis’s parents respond to the verdict and the sense of closure they now feel; I want to make sure that I don’t dismiss or disrespect what these parents are feeling right now. At the end of the day, however, no matter how long Michael Dunn stays in jail, the right of a while male to kill black boys was upheld in the courts all over again.

Let’s be clear here: the jury found Dunn guilty of four charges, including three of attempted second-degree murder (the shots he fired and missed). But they couldn’t reach a verdict on the actual first-degree murder of Jordan.  I don’t know how to understand such confusion.  This verdict, along with Zimmerman’s acquittal, makes me read American justice like this: if you try to shoot black boys and miss, you will be incarcerated; but if you aim at a black boy and kill him good, you go free because you will have defended yourself successfully.

lalo alcarezI can’t help but think back to how confused so many people were by the 2012 creation of one of my favorite cartoonists, Lalo Alcaraz, after Trayvon’s murder.  In the cartoon, a black mother fears for the life of her son even though he is simply going out for snacks.  If anyone thought that was extreme, I encourage them to simply remember that Trayvon and Jordan should have been celebrating their 19th birthdays this month.  American white supremacy has ensured that never happened.