by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Some call it a biblical moment, when God, an angel or your subconscience speaking to you.
I’ve also heard it referred to it as a ‘gotcha’ moment, a trance-like frozen state of being during which you tap into your memory bank to find an answer, or a cautionary flag telling you to redirect your path.
I had one of those timeless moments two minutes into a speech before students at a Northside parochial school a couple of weeks ago. Time seemingly froze for what seemed like a few minutes, but in actuality was only a few seconds as my mind raced through a series of events and experiences which prompted me to change course, reexamine the direction of my speech from a road paved with criticism and ridicule, to a path of inspiration and challenges.
Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and as I reflect now on where my state of mind was when I began my presentation, it’s safe to say I was caught up in a mixture of prejudices, frustration and impatience.
I had let assumptions get the better of me, and my response tittered between anger and aggravation.
Normally when I speak to students, I try to inspire, educate or challenge them. This time, however, I almost let my emotions get the better of me. My first thought was to ridicule and verbally lambaste them.
Fortunately, my “ah-ha” moment brought me back to my senses.
So, what had happened leading up to my “ha-ha”?
When I was asked to address the students I was ‘warned’ that many of them were delinquents uninterested in education or civility. The school was in a state of transition with a new administration and, like far too many schools in Urban America, teachers spent an inordinate amount of time trying to maintain discipline instead of teaching.
As such, even though it was a parochial school, there was as much “preying” going on as there was “praying.”
I can guarantee that won’t be the case a year from today, But for the immediate future, there are many challenges that must be overcome, including instituting a code of conduct and academic goals and bringing in additional staffing that will focus as much on nurturing and cultivating as teaching the ABCs.
As I was being escorted to the auditorium, a couple of staff members further prejudiced me by explaining many of the students had discipline problems and were transfers from public schools or juvenile detention centers. Parental involvement was minimal, and since many of the students enrolled in the school scored very low on basic proficiency tests, they presented what seemed like insurmountable challenges for teachers confined to 181 days of teaching.
In the 10 minutes leading up to my presentation, I stood among the students as they filed into the room, intently assessing them individually and collectively as they milled around or found seats.
While many were well mannered and engaging, a small percentage was loud, brash and disorderly.
One group of boys were engaged in a profanity-laced conversation. One teen with a Napoleonic complex bumped into me as if to assert his masculinity and disdain for authority figures in general. One young lady was reciting the words to a gangsta rap song that was anything but ladylike.
As I was being introduced, the thought hit me that I should start with some shock therapy based on the actions of the few, instead of the polite and civil conduct of the much larger majority.
So, without thinking it through, I started off by asking the group to confirm their ethnicity.
“How many of you identify yourselves as ‘colored,’” I asked the befuddled audience?
“How many of you consider yourselves to be Negro? What about ‘Black’ and African American?’”
Finally, a few hands finally went up.
Then I hit them with the zinger: “How many identify yourselves as ‘the n word?’ You know, N-I-G-G-E-R,’” I quipped, spelling out the self-denigrating adjective.
Somewhat surprisingly, nearly half the hands went up. The response to that question seemed to shock several of the teachers, including one White educator. But it didn’t move me much because I assumed as much even before I asked the question.
So, without hesitating I said before their hands went down that their acknowledgement explained a lot, including how they acted out in school, why many of them are behind academically and why most are destined to become statistics.
It also says you have no respect for yourselves, your families or the thousands of Black people who endured to provide them with educational opportunities they now show disdain for, I said.
To take pride in calling themselves niggers, a vile and disingenuous term, “means you know little of your history. It also makes you pawns in a conspiracy that keeps Black people in a perpetual state of mental slavery and powerlessness,” I said.
Jaws dropped throughout the auditorium, and a couple of the kids starred at me with confusion written all over their faces.
A few murmurs broke the silence and knowing that I had their attention I was about to start playing the dozens when the “Ah-ha” moment hit me.
My mind scanned back to a family discussion nearly a decade ago when my late son, Malik, spoke of his frustration as a teacher with trying to encapsulate rites of passage, mentorship and educator into his eight hour day, knowing that much of what he instilled in some students would be undone when many of them returned home to violence, poverty, despair and apathy.
“The average person has no idea what many of these kids go through every day of their lives,” I remember him saying.
In addition to their socioeconomic plight, many of them come from homes where education has little value, and from neighborhoods where speaking proper English was considered “acting White.”
Malik lived by the creed that all children were special and possessed the wherewithal to be great. Children, he used to say, are like empty glasses waiting for a teacher, mentor or parent to fill it up with substance, cultural identity and spirituality. Unfortunately, most teachers don’t take the time or have the energy, ability or dedication to drain the glass of cultural impurities.
Malik worked hard at his craft and like many, if not most, teachers was empowered as he watched his students meet his lofty expectations. He was totally committed to his children, and immersed himself in their lives; a scenario that extended beyond the classroom.
That’s one reason why he dreaded the summer breaks, because much of what he poured into their glasses was diluted by the “street teachers,” which frequently included parents without parenting skills, gang bangers with pockets full of cash and reputations for taking what they wanted, and neighbors who are afraid to be neighborly.
There are also the stress factors that come with living in and around poverty, crime and abuse. Many of our children grow up without a spiritual connection to ground them, and must survive witnessing audacities that stunt their cultural and psychological growth.
Far too many of today’s urban children go to school hungry. Many of them are homeless. A large percentage is confronted with daily reminders of their status under a system of apartheid.
Violence is a constant companion, and they are never allowed to escape the reality of their poverty, which smacks them in the face when they realize their lives are regulated by needs versus wants. That’s why they value overly priced shoes, designer clothes and expensive technology. Those items mask their reality.
Sadly, in most cases there is no “village” raising them. In fact, it’s not even an extended family, as we know it.
Believe it or not, that entire conservation with my son and related experiences went through my mind in a microsecond. With it came a realization that these children were victims instead of perpetrators. They were born into realities that would challenge them throughout their lives. They didn’t need chastisement; they needed reinforcement, direction and a cultural foundation.
That reality was reinforced by a second image that brought a smile to my face. My mind flashed back to the good old days at Harambee Community School. Of a cultural paradigm that has yet to be completely duplicated.
Of parents banding together to form a true village, committing to contribute to the total welfare of the student body.
Harambee hosted parenting classes where we explored best practices. Parents volunteered at the school. Believe it or not students were always chaperoned no matter what side of town they traveled to because they were always within shouting distance of a “Harambee parent.’
Harambee children were empowered with a cultural grounding. The principles of Kwanzaa were a part of their educational indoctrination. They didn’t call each other ‘dog,’ but brother or sister.
Harambee didn’t have the greatest teachers, but they had teachers who made the students great. The Harambee staff had a sense of purpose, high expectations and strong parental support to reinforce their mission.
There is a correlation between each of those images, a thread that some of us fail to consider as we cite the failures of urban education, including a 50% Black high school drop-out rate, an embarrassingly wide gap between White and Black academic achievement and the low reading and math proficiency rates for our children.
If there is nothing wrong with our children, there must be another reason for this educational phenomenon. If it’s not them, maybe it’s the environment, the culture and us.
And how do you explain the success of some schools, teachers and systems, as failure exists all around them?
Or on a broader scale, why are the children of African and Caribbean immigrants at the top of the Bell Curve, while many sixth generation African American children are at the bottom? Is it the diet? Does poverty equate to failure?
The answer to those questions would seem obvious, but for reasons that defy logic have not sparked changes in the status quo. High expectations, nurturing teachers and a strong cultural foundation can overcome socioeconomic limitations, when and if those ingredients are matched with supportive parenting, caring villagers and a strong value/spiritual foundation.
Of course putting all of those pieces of the puzzle together is the Herculean task. And it doesn’t look like there is the motivation or desire from all of those affected to prompt a quick turnaround any time soon.
But there is something each of us can do that doesn’t take much energy or effort. We can fill some of the void by using every opportunity to educate, inspire and cultivate every young person we encounter. We must operate from the paradigm that our children are empty vessels, or in some extreme cases, like glasses half full of tainted water.
In that case we must purify, cleanse and to refill the glass with high expectations, a sense of purpose and an ice tray full of empowerment.
That’s what the revelation that hit me in mid sentence enlightened me to. And that’s why I quickly changed the scope of my presentation, using the opportunity not to chastise, but instead to educate and inspire.
So instead of lambasting them for their acceptance of a word they neither understood or linked to Black suffrage, I gave them a history of the term, along with bullet points on how great men challenged the word and its relationship to slavery, racism and prejudice.
I told them of the blood that flowed through their veins connected them to the greatest civilizations known to mankind, and how their African ancestors tutored the Greeks and the Romans.
Their ancestors invented math, science and medicine; they created the first known college and set the stage for Christianity and monotheism.
As such, each of the students is a pedigree, and academic achievement is easily within their grasp, they need only to apply themselves.
There were about 100 students in attendance, so it was easy for me to explain the statistical realities of Black life in Milwaukee: Nearly three of 10 of the girls will have a baby out of wedlock; and nearly eighty percent of them would be locked into poverty for the rest of their lives. Six out 10 of the boys will have contact with the criminal justice system before they are 21. Half of them will not graduate from high school. Seventy percent will live at or below the poverty level. Less than half of the boys will have a family supporting job for extended periods of their lives, if ever.
I went on and on for a full five minutes before I told them they can beat those odds. All it takes is discipline and a sense of purpose.
I also explained that there are people beyond the school walls who make a living exploiting those negative social indicators. There are people all around them who believe they are satisfied with the status quo, who believe they are lazy and incapable of making good decisions about their lives.
“There are people out there who think all of you boys are criminals, and wearing your pants down below your butt and a hoodie to cover your faces are indicators of your gang affiliation, or violent intent,” I said.
“There are people out there who believe the only thing you can excel in is dancing and making babies.
“You girls will have babies you will love, but not raise. And you boys will base your manhood on how many babies you can make, but not supporting or nurturing them. You will continue a cycle that forces them to build more prisons, to hire more social workers and buy more guns.
“What happened to Travoy Martin is rooted in those prejudices, I told them. You can prove them wrong; you have to prove them wrong if our community is to grow,” I told them.
Each of them can be great, not only because greatness flows through their veins, but also because they are the chosen people of God. God didn’t make them ‘n’s.’ Instead, God wants them to prepare themselves so they identify with ‘n’ words that spell out navigators, neurologists or nuclear scientists.
Based on my conversations after my presentation, I apparently struck a cord with some of them, including a teacher or two.
Of course my redirected presentation amounted to little in the universal scheme of things. It was but a few drops of rain on a seedling that requires daily watering if it is to grow.
And that’s something we can all contribute to.
If enough of us commit to cultivating these plants at every opportunity, to reinforce, inspire and motivate who knows, maybe we can chip away at the status quo and create a new paradigm for our community.
And that would be a “Ah-ha” moment worth revisiting.