I believe we need to talk about race.
My longest friend is a mixed race, homosexual man. This is if I reduce him to his census data. Although “mixed race” is a term we constructed to make sure the one drop rule stands. And homosexual is a nice dot on a spectrum of sexuality that has ranges larger than four categories and connotations stronger than a dictionary term.
The rest is just unused data.
Because America designates that you must be this, or you must be this. I can’t speak for the world because I haven’t visited it, but I can speak for what I see in my country.
“You are this. You aren’t this. You can sit at the table. You may not break the bread. You ride in this seat. You are allowed to use this water fountain. You can participate in gender specific olympic events. You have too much testosterone. You can be medically reconfigured into a woman. But you were a man first, always remember. You stay in the closet. You stay in your own head. You don’t speak of the police’s interactions. You mourn the loss. You side with the white man holding a gun. You believe in thugs. You don’t. You think school is a pipeline to prison.”
I could write this list for days, through tears, and still not get to some root, or meaning, or end to the categorical boxes we’ve placed ourselves in.
And this is why I took up The Fire This Time when Clint Smith wrote about its publish date on his Twitter. I requested it from the library because I’ve studied Baldwin. I’ve read him to students in American Literature. My gut was filled with tension at the climax of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and in my most intimate friendship of seventeen years we spent an evening on ice, skating around race after he posted on Facebook pictures of Oakland protests, and called out white people for their misunderstanding of why African American’s are covering highways. And he still has not told me about his own encounter traveling west this summer with a white police officer somewhere over Kansas, maybe? I don’t even know because I am not someone he chose to talk to about it.
It could be because I grew up in Suburbia with literal picket fences in my neighborhood. And that our high school had to bus in non-white students from downtown so that they could call themselves “diverse.” It could be that I once said something that made him feel like I could never understand the walk in his shoes and that race is not something that should enter this friendship because it could inevitably end it.
And I can’t live like that, and I don’t think he can. I can’t be sure, but I think we’re ready for some critical conversations, and not just the two of us, but the communities we live in. Race can be a hot burner that we avoid or it can be discussed beyond the reaches of Twitter. So, I brought it to my classroom.
I read this quote in The Fire This Time, “Who I am is who I must be: a flawed human striving to live in a state of becoming.” Mitch Jackson in his essay “Composite Pops.” When I got through the first part of The Fire this Time and was well into The Reckoning, I read Clint Smith’s poem “Queries of Unrest.” I had followed him on Twitter for some time, retweeting his educational reform tweets (@ClintSmithIII), and liking almost any reference to SLAM that he posted. I had never read any of his poetry unless it appeared on youtube. But this poem, with its allusion to the classic children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein was where race would enter my classroom this year.
Last year, I used excerpts from Citizen by Claudia Rankine in my refugee unit and encouraged my students to buy it, but we didn’t do enough open dialogue with the book and ourselves. I find it interesting that I used a collection of writing about the black experience in America to talk about refugees due to Edwidge Danticat’s final essay “To My Daughters” in The Fire This Time where an immigration lawyer discusses the fact that “African Americans living in the United States could easily qualify as refugees. Citing many recent cases of police brutality and killings of unarmed black men, women, and children.”
(If you’re reading this like “this girl is only seeing one side,” then you should know that I’ve read the other side too. And I’ve read the academic journals. And I’ve studied the cases enough to be at a point where I need to talk about it to be okay with the person that I hold inside this body).
This year in our first unit for perspective we did it. “Queries of Unrest.” Step by step: We analyzed “Where the Sidewalk Ends” for its lessons to children and its lesson to adults. A lot of my students said it looked like the edge of where childhood ends. Or it looks to be a new beginning after a dark period. Or for adults, the sidewalk could end in death. Or for children, they could be forging a new path. There were many interpretations which is the proof of the power of words, and the power of poetry, and the power of English. We then read “Queries of Unrest.”
I just asked for meaning. Few annotations. A little interpretation. Initial thoughts. I didn’t need them to drown the poem. (Due to the fact that I don’t want anyone to have the ability to write my students off in this discussion, I teach in a high-poverty Title 1 school with a ton of students who are first generation college students. That’s not to say I don’t have students who live in neighborhoods straight out of middle class America where everyone rides their bike to the pool in the summer and stays there all day until their mother’s are home to make a meal prepped with every piece of the food pyramid. They do know the meaning of sidewalks ending though).
They gave me that.
We didn’t discuss it because they would discuss it in silent writing in a chalk talk. The chalk talk has three pieces of chart paper and three question bubbles. The questions are as follows:
- If every piece of writing is manipulation, then how is this poem doing that?
- What is your strongest interpretation of this poem?
- What does power have to do with justice and fairness?
The silent hum of markers on paper was monumental, but it wasn’t until I started getting single questions that I realized the tension was bubbling. A white student had written “people of color” as an umbrella term to categorize everyone that isn’t white in a statement. While this is the “politically correct” term deemed by media (who are mostly white and in power), the question should be asked that a. why do we even have a term that is for everyone not white, and b. how does the historical background of the word “color” in that phrase impact an African American.
And the answer came in the form of my students. The word color was unacceptable for some, particularly one of my more vocal students who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and I’m so proud of her for that. Others wanted to use it as something to embrace. At one point the idea of the phrase “I see no color,” came up, similar to “I don’t see race,” and in unison the agreement was that that’s not even possible and it disregards the great diversity of the classroom.
I’m not going to lie, it was heated. At one point, one girl stepped towards another, using her body as a signal of disruption. BUT it was a critical conversation. Sometimes in society, we don’t realize that people don’t come from a place of understanding or even knowledge, they come from a place of ignorance. And when that’s not the case, and they’re coming from a place of flat-out untruths then it is a responsibility of the other human beings (in my mind) to crack that “truth” wide open until it’s questioned. Sometimes all we can ask is that people question their own beliefs. Sometimes that’s a beginning.
My students came to the conclusion that the only acceptable truth in my classroom, for “umbrella terms” is that we call everyone “people of multiple races.” This was accepted and has been used since by all parties, even when those parties are in disagreement.
It is my belief that in the classroom, and in the street, we have to discuss things that are controversial and we have to be the cause for understanding. I tweeted this. I believe it. And I think it can take us down a path of knowledge and not ignorance. I believe it starts with more knowledge, and thus I believe that The Fire This Time is the strongest and most powerful book I’ve read this year.
I got a copy from the library and now it is dog-earred to oblivion for the next person. This book is strong because we are weak humans that often put blame where we like to keep it, in boxes that are tight and narrow and inescapable. We like to look at our side of the picture without viewing the whole thing. We like to have a perspective, and clutch it tight in our fists and never let it turn to liquid and move.
This book showed me where I’ve failed, where I’m still failing. It showed me my own bias. It looked in my face and told me I was wrong. This is the same thing that happened in my classroom on Thursday and the same thing that should be happening across America until the discussion is so loud, and so filled with every form of rhetoric, and has the voices of every American.
It is no longer valuable (and not acceptable) to sit in indifference.
I know that this isn’t “a book review.” But how do you review a collection of human truths? You can’t. You can only recommend it be the most borrowed book at the local library. It enters classrooms. It enters conversations. It breaks down the tight-knit boxes that we have shut so tight no air gets through / “I can’t breathe” /