The Crushing Sense of Nobodiness Part II
Read Part I of this essay here.
I recently gave a writing workshop in a school that had a majority of Black and Brown kids. The students were 10 to 11 years old. Earlier in the year they had read excerpts from my novella, Heaven is a Place, so when I agreed to fly up and hold a writing workshop they were so excited to meet me. One boy in particular dressed up in a suit! I was told that this boy was suspended 12 times the previous year and has been given the title of some type of problem child. I was surprised because he was so sweet and willing to participate; in my eyes anyone who would sit with him for more than 5 minutes would realize that he is no problem, but just a young person growing into what his surroundings supply him with. During the workshop this boy was called out of office, and I was told this happens very often. When he returned at the end of the workshop, he did not have enough time to participate in the writing portion. He had his head down and was visibly upset and was way less participatory.
I later found out he was taken out to be talked to about sexual harassment because he was caught on film dry humping a bus bench in public. I was appalled in general at the idea of surveillance and letting him know he, an 11-year-old Black boy, was being watched. Criminalizing him like that so early, deeming him “bad” is toxic. The principal and some white teachers are supposed to be aware of statistics, especially the ones applying the squeeze of the school-to-prison pipeline. Their is a low funded school, so the students already have a sense of their place in the world. Apparently a teacher reported what happened saying the manner in which he did the act was “pornographic.” This boy is 11. He may have acted out inappropriately, but it is NOT OK to sexualize him or other children in this manner.
A small group of teachers, mostly the only POC teachers, are
constantly fighting these situations and are finding it hard to find traction
or support. I applaud all the teachers and educators who are finding the energy
to fight for youth and teach adults at the same time. The next crop of youth
are so smart and will make for great leaders. We can see this happening and we
have the educators to thank in large part for this – if we don’t fu** everything up before they get there, that is.
You must also arm them against racial prejudice.
My friend teaches kids in the south-side of Chicago, and not one of her students is white. She asked the class about the mayoral candidate and a kid said “Let the white people vote, they are smarter than us anyway.” She asked, “Why do you think that?” And he responded, “Look around us.”
Seeing and hearing internalized racism like that is hard, and ground shaking. This is about marginalized people, especially those in Black, Brown and trans bodies, who feel powerless in a system that was built without us in mind. It is important that there are visible examples of smartness and beauty within marginalized communities so younger people know that we are NOT defined by the violence that surrounds us.
We’ve been here, not long ago.
Walking out of the sense of nobodiness, we face fear. It is fear in the form of awareness of our mortality or the idea that our physical selves may be harmed, but when we acknowledge this fear we are liberated in facing our mortality as well. Our struggle may result in death or worse, but as Audre Lorde said, “we were never meant to survive,” to see that life in us is something we may have been missing. Acknowledge self-debasement and cast it aside, reject that they can own our fear. In the 1967 Newark Riots, a boy was stopped and interviewed. He said, “‘we have lived with the slave mentality for too long, it was always 'Jesus will lead me and the white man will feed me.’ Black power is the only basis for unity now among us.” This was from a boy under 18. The youth know. They are powerful and we can use this same idea as fuel to teach them how to create their own light.
There’s a part in The Fire Next Time where James Baldwin talks about going to France. He thought leaving the states would be the answer, but it led him straight to rootlessness and alienation because the struggle and the fire were more natural to him. Some of us were meant to stand much closer to the fire and people are afraid of that and try to somehow push us back through fear and imagination. While they might get to rest in reality, structurally Black and Brown people sit in both the past and the future. When I speak of nobodiness, we cannot feel ourselves when we are further from the fire. You will feel the fire because you will feel your mortality, your body, your risk of living. We’ve been here. We’re still here and we by necessity have to be somewhere else too for survival.
People will try to calm you with neutrality.
Stitch your anger into a flag to wave above your head.
Keep planted in your beliefs, keep your bleeding heart.
When you start to spark see how fast they run to warm their hands by the fire.
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