’cause silence is violence (and other Ani Difranco lyrics)

The lyrics of my white, problematically lock-headed, high school musical hero echo in my head as I try to grapple with the events of the past two days. An American police officer kills a black man. And then an American police officer kills a black man.

Philando Castile

Alton Sterling

Say their names, because they were human beings, with names, with families, with lives, and with every possible right to life.

I want to pretend that the violence of the past two days is a violence that I don’t know how to handle because I have never known it before, but I have. We have. We have been living in this world my whole life, and my parent’s whole lives, and the whole lives of those before them. America treats black bodies as though they are on the one hand threatening and on the other utterly disposable. It is oxymoronic and yet it is the American way. We would not be the America that Trump supporters believe is worth returning to its original greatness if it were not for this great history of destruction and dismemberment of black and brown bodies since the beginning.

Ani Difranco spoke to me then because she was angry and powerful and in your face, and she speaks to me now as I scroll past the posts of white acquaintances who are “shocked” at one more American disavowal of the black body’s right to exist. Because she knew way back when (in the ’90s) that this violence and injustice was not new then, and it is not now.

If you’re not angry
you’re just stupid
or you don’t care
how else can you react
when you know
something’s so unfair (Out of Range, Ani Difranco, 1994)

Who are these ignorant police officers? my FB feed asks in consternation. Why do we let these bad apples undermine the pastoral peace of our American Dream? Sorry (not sorry), but there was never an American Dream that did not fundamentally depend upon the systematic, ongoing and normalized annihilation of the Black body’s right to exist as anything other than a tool of American capitalism, American nationalism and White supremacy.

I’m learning to laugh as hard
as I can listen
’cause silence
is violence
in women and poor people
if more people were screaming then I could relax (My I.Q., 1993)

I know that I am not screaming loud enough. It is hard to scream when tears choke my throat and rage makes me numb. But I know that I must use my voice, my very white voice and make some fucking noise this time. Music seems to help me get to the places that allows me to feel again. Ani for one, but also Tracy Chapman, Michael Franti, and more recently Beyoncé. I’m sure you have your own musical salve. I hope you use it. I hope you blast it as loud as you need to while you muster your own courage to start screaming with your own voice. I’m working on it.

Black friends, other friends of color, queer friends, female friends, friends and non-friends who are threatened by the white, heteronormative oppression that is so quintessentially American, but especially to my black friends: I want to be able to give you my body. I want to offer it to each and every one of you as accompaniment, as witness, to flop my arms around you like a human shield as long as you need it (and of course only if you want it). A hug-shield. As though my love could conquer the world, or at least some small piece of it. There are places in the world where the Peace Brigades International sends people to provide accompaniment. The idea is that the presence of observers will make local actors less willing to openly use violence against each other. This American war zone in which we live might benefit from a similar intervention. But in the big picture it’s just a band aid, a mitigating action. Not a solution.

I think about my legacy, being a child of civil rights activists who faced guns pointed at them as they registered black voters in Alabama, picked cotton side by side with share croppers in Mississippi or sat with Black colleagues at a lunch counter in Baltimore, and I ask myself, what about me? What will I do? What will our generation do? #BLM makes me excited. The movement is powerful. I cite Chicago as evidence. But as I held the hand of a Black friend today and cried, she reminded me that the movement will only make lasting change if white people show up. White people have to show up in voice and in body, to assert that yes, black lives do in fact matter to “us” as well, not just to black people.

Change happens through many avenues. My parents were friends with some of the Weathermen, but they did not choose that path. These days I struggle to condemn those that did. If you believe I have not yet figured out how to show up, I am working on it, but that does not mean I am asking you to be patient. There is no time for patience. And there is no time for silence. For today I am trusting in the music help me find my way. I thank the musicians and artists that reach with their art the places that I struggle to touch in any other way.

art is why I get up in the morning
but my definition ends there
and it doesn’t seem fair
that I’m living for something I can’t even define (Out of Habit, 1990)

 

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Oh, the places they’ll go

I wish I had taken photos of the top of each graduation cap that I saw on Monday. I can remember a few (and peruse student photos on FB for a few more).

First Generation Latina”

“Well behaved women seldom make history”

“Proud of my B.S.”

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“Brooklyn”

“Goal Digger”

“B.A.B.” (Bad Ass Bitch)

My former students are the quintessential critically conscious, self-aware, proud and bold young people that I dream of when I think about why I teach and who I hope to support young people in becoming. Pride is the wrong word for my own feelings because I think it implies taking some responsibility, and as much as I was present for their high school education, I know that it was them, their families and the community that they created among themselves that got them where they are today.

I don’t know what percentage of the 2016 graduating class from the selective public school where I used to teach in Brooklyn was first-gen college going (I’m guessing more than 50%, maybe close to 75%?), but I do know that 100% of the students got into colleges and many if not the vast majority of them plan to go and are excited about it. It’s not the realization of the college dream that filled me up at graduation but the love and joy that surrounded the students, their families, and their relationships with each other as well as with their teachers and yes, even administrators. Somewhere we did something right enough that they know how special they are, they know they are valued and they value themselves.

One of my biggest fears about being in graduate school is losing the motivation to be here  as I lose my close ties with young people. These kids that graduated Monday are my primary inspiration – so much of what I do is for them and because of them. I will never learn more from my peers and colleagues than I have learned from being close with this particular group of young people, especially my own advisory  who I spent three years with before jumping ship their Senior year. They have each pushed themselves and grown in ways that they never would have expected or articulated way back in 9th grade. Even last year as we began to work on college essays I watched each of them doubt that they had something valuable to say, a worthwhile story to tell. And yet they wrote, and they put their faith in me and all of their other teachers and college counselors and pushed themselves to do the work, submitting one application after the next, sitting for the SAT or the ACT up to three times in order to achieve something that was (and still is) totally unfamiliar – college.

College will be a whole new adventure but I am so impressed with their personal resources already. I spoke with one of my former students, a first-gen Latina woman with a fabulous ‘fro who is going to an elite private, predominantly white college about finding support systems when she gets there. She explained her plans to get there early for the students of color orientation, and to reach out to student groups on campus. She will be more than fine. But I do at times fret, and at other times rage, about what it means for a private, predominantly white college to offer admission without being able to offer acceptance, support, inclusion and validation. The children are ready to take over the world. But we have have some work to do if the world is going to embrace their brilliance. IMG_1496