Fresh out of college, I moved to Philadelphia and joined AmeriCorps. It was easily one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.
I found myself–a young, middle-class, white woman–walking through the toughest neighborhoods of Philly on my way to improve literacy rates among kids. It was daunting. I imagined all sorts of crazy scenarios, but I quickly learned that no one cared about me. No one was going to bother the white girl in her pickup truck, and the schools all had strict security protocols. Funny where your imagination can take you if you let fear guide it, but recognizing that fear and where it comes from makes all the difference.
Every day for the first couple of months, however, I came home feeling sick. The kids I worked with lived in terrible circumstances, and while I got up close and personal with their daily struggles, I got to walk away from them every day. I got to return to my quaint brick building and eat sundried-tomato hummus from my local co-op.
I wasn’t used to being around extreme poverty, and it made me ache. One of the elementary schools I visited regularly was surrounded on three sides by projects and the fourth side by derelict buildings full of squatters, as evidenced by sheets that hung in random windows. There was a high fence all the way around the building, and inside that fence, at one end, was a small playground that was nothing but blacktop.
One sunny afternoon a boy cried when he learned that it wasn’t his turn to work with me. He had told me the previous week that he watched his mother die of an overdose. He was eight. He was black. He had the sweetest heart you can imagine, but just a few years later you’d probably see him as a thug. Because that’s what happens to black boys. They hit puberty, and we decide they’re dangerous. That may as well be the end of their lives.
At Benjamin Franklin High School, the ninth-grade class I worked with read on a third-grade level, yet they all had passing grades. They weren’t being taught; they were being kept off the streets. There were three pregnant girls. One of the boys who’d done the impregnating strutted around the room while the books provided for them sat in plastic baskets in the back, books about Arthur the aardvark, little boys learning how to play baseball, and monsters eating homework.
When we worked on a project that required us to walk around the neighborhood, drug deals went down right in front of them and they didn’t bat an eye. Maybe they were busy thinking about what Arthur the aardvark might be up to.
Every Monday I spent the afternoon with a group of middle-school and high-school Latinas at a Catholic community center. It was my favorite part of the week despite always needing to go out and move my truck closer to the building before it got dark because a car down the block had been set on fire with a person in it a month before I started. One evening when I went out to move my truck, someone was stealing the car in front of mine. I just pretended I hadn’t seen anything.
The girls were lively and fun and full of ideas, but they were also full of the most heartbreaking stories. One girl told me that her uncle had molested her since she was eleven. I had this idea that two super-smart sisters could do well in school and get out of there, but then I learned that they had no concept of getting out of there. They’d never left their neighborhood. Their mom was an addict who lived and worked on the street, and they lived with their dad and his girlfriend, who was always threatening to kick them out. The older one, in eighth grade, lost her boyfriend when he was shot in the head because he had the best corner.
All of the girls wanted to be Jennifer Lopez, but other than that, they had no thought of moving beyond their neighborhood. It was what they knew. So I tried to nurture their inner JLo. I helped them write about their lives, taught them about acting, and choreographed a dance performance. Every Monday they got a little break from their daily struggle to survive; they got to laugh and sing and dance, which is what living is about.
That was fifteen years ago, and I have no idea what happened to any of those kids. I don’t know who made it, who’s dead, who’s in prison.
I think about them a lot, especially when yet another unarmed black teenager is shot by the police.
I probably didn’t do very much for those kids in the long term, but they did a lot for me. They showed me the reality of poverty and racism. They showed me how the justice system didn’t (and still doesn’t) work in communities of color, how authorities and the media have let down communities of color over and over again. Sometimes I knew about violence that didn’t make the news for some reason. Sometimes it made the news in a way that was utterly different from the story I’d heard from people who were there.
I will never stop fighting for racial and economic justice because I know the lives of kids depend on it. But sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do, especially if you’re white and middle class.
If there are demonstrations in your city, go to them. Connect with the people there to work on real change for the future.
If you work with low-income kids, find ways to nurture their creativity, which can give them solace from the difficulties in their lives and effective ways to work through those difficulties.
If you lead camps or workshops for kids, find ways to make them accessible to low-income kids. Make sure your group is diverse in terms of economic background and race/ethnicity. Get white kids accustomed to diverse environments so they question situations where everyone is white.
If you’ve got some time to volunteer, find an organization or collective that works with kids in low-income areas. Read with kids. Let them sing and dance and paint.
But don’t go in thinking you can save them. They don’t need to be saved, especially by a white person. Think of it as skill sharing or knowledge sharing. You’re going to share what you know with them, and, in turn, you’re going to learn a hell of a lot about the rest of the world.
And then share what you’ve learned with other people. Apply it to your work. Use it to change systems that have long been mired in racism and aren’t doing anyone any good. Use it to increase diversity among decision-makers. Don’t let kids get out of third grade without meeting appropriate reading levels. Question why law enforcement is mostly white in a mostly black city and the effect that has on both police and those being policed. Use strategic creative action.
When I look at pictures of Michael Brown, the young man shot in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, I see that eight-year-old boy crying because I don’t have time for him that day. What do you see? Don’t let fear drive your creativity and overrule your empathy. Look beyond the characteristics you have been taught to fear. Imagine that little boy and how different his life could have been.
“But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”
–Richard Wright, Black Boy
I’ve had friends tell me that they can’t imagine wasting their time with fiction when there is so much going on in the world that they need to learn about, so they read only nonfiction. I don’t understand why we need to make such distinctions, but I say, if you really want to understand an experience, read fiction. Susan Sontag once described reading as “an education of the heart.” She said, “Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. And it takes us out of ourselves, too.”
Imagination often gets trapped in the realm of fear mongering. Over and over, we see carefully constructed images that are meant to stoke fear in our hearts, and our imagination runs wildly through the forest of racial profiling, xenophobia, nationalism, etc. If we deconstruct those images instead, we find common ground, people who love and mourn and work and play just like we do. But that takes a different kind of imagination.
Iris Murdoch wrote: “In intellectual disciplines and in the enjoyment of art and nature we discover value in our ability to forget self, to be realistic, to perceive justly. We use our imagination not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” In other words, through art, we are reconnected to the world–we gain empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in the life of someone whose experience is very different from ours and to feel what they feel.
I’ve heard from white people who have a hard time seeing the problem of race in the murder of Trayvon Martin, the police response, and the subsequent trial of George Zimmerman. Since it’s clear to many of us that there is pervasive racism involved, from beginning to end, I can only guess that these folks don’t have a good understanding of systemic racism and have not put themselves in Trayvon’s place, that is, have not fully imagined what it might be like to walk down the street as a black boy in a world that criminalizes black bodies.
I’ve also heard from white people who do see racism in this case and keep thinking about the experience of boys like Trayvon and their parents. One of my good friends, who is white and has a white baby boy, said last night that she thinks of the parents of black boys and the fear they must feel as their sons grow up. One of her black friends once said to her that she worried constantly about how best to raise her sons in an environment where they are set up to fail.
Like black girls, black boys have no voice. They are silenced. We, as a culture, do not seek metaphor in the language of black kids; we hear only noise and shut it down. (See Rachel Jeantel, for example.) Our institutions have created a fictive black boy that permeates our consciousness and convinces us that black boys aren’t worth saving, or even worse, they are worth killing.
I include the arts, particularly in terms of popular culture, in those institutions. A few years ago, The Guardian published a piece on the lack of popular fiction for black men, and the author, Aaron Akinyemi, said: “When [Michael] Obiora pitched his novel to a television executive, the producer liked the story but told him bluntly that mainstream audiences would be unwilling to see a black character without a gun in his pocket.”
bell hooks wrote in Reel to Real: “The process by which any of us alter the way we look at images is political. Until everyone can acknowledge that white supremacist aesthetics shape creativity in ways that disallow and discourage the production by any group of images that break with this aesthetic, audiences can falsely assume that images are politically neutral.”
Assuming these images are politically neutral is like believing that race played no part in what happened to Trayvon Martin. In light of the violent death of yet another black boy and the subsequent absence of justice, I offer some fiction, poetry, and film that can help us understand why these things happened, and continue to happen, because Trayvon is only one of many. May these works counter the usual images, enhance our empathy, and encourage us to fight fear.
- Native Son, Richard Wright: Wright’s novel chronicles the story of Bigger Thomas, who feels his fate has already been determined by his social conditions.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison: This novel, by the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved, follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, just a few generations removed from slavery.
- Fruitvale Station, dir. Ryan Coogler: This film, about the death of Oscar Grant at the hands of an overzealous cop, stars Michael B. Jordan, who played Wallace in The Wire, and just opened to excellent reviews.
- “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmet Till,” Gwendolyn Brooks: These two poems were inspired by the death of Emmett Till.