I am a child of Hip Hop. One who distinctly and joyfully remembers listening to Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” on the radio for the first time, kind of in awe, realizing that my life and the world would change forever after. I felt a shift, an introduction to a new but achingly familiar narrative, I imagine, the same way my ancestors did as they danced and drummed in Congo Square to what we’d later baptize as jazz. I was an awkward, quirky, “uncultured” Black girl who stole Latifah’s flow and banter on respect and queendom when I wrote my first rhymes. I wanted to be an emcee, much like the children Michelle Obama addressed in her recent commencement speech at Bowie State. Those rhymes became poems, that went on to become essays, which eventually earned me scholarships for college. Those scholarships afforded me, the granddaughter of sharecroppers and a first generation college graduate, an opportunity to earn an advanced degree in literature.
In a recent departmental meeting with our president, faculty members were asked why we chose to teach at our HBCU, which caters to underserved Black youth that may not otherwise have access to a college education. I replied, tearfully, that I saw so much of myself in those students I instinctively wanted to not only wrap my arms around them with hope and love, but also show them that their beginnings do not dictate their destinies. I’m living proof. Many of us are.
Everyday I teach the young Black men that FLOTUS believes “[fantasize] about being a baller or a rapper,” and that POTUS deems necessary to remind there is “no longer any room for excuses.” Yes, many of them have aspirations, like I did, to be rappers and ball players. Actually, some of their journeys may find them becoming those sorts of artists and athletes, but many more will become businessmen, pharmacists, and educators like myself. One thing is certain however, the last thing any of them need is another someone, especially someone that represents the pinnacle of Black excellence, to chastise them on how they are failing, even as they stand at the summit of success.
I don’t find it fair or admirable that FLOTUS and POTUS one day appear teary eyed while sitting next to mothers who have lost children to gun violence in Chicago–offering sympathy and hope–then months later admonishing those same youth. I find those two aims contradictory and crowded in a privileged elitism I’d hoped we’d put to bed as we document, over and over, how it is us who are failing our youth and not them failing us.
I’ve been fortunate to learn that regardless of how lazy and self indulgent I, in moments of frustration, feel ALL our children are, I have a choice to either be a part of the problem or a part of the solution.
This semester I taught a composition course that was 90% young Black men–athletes, emcees, ex hustlers, technology buffs, and poets. Their pass rate was the highest of all my classes. One of my students who struggled significantly during the semester because he had no desire to read or write what was required, wrote a final research paper that covered Post Modernism, Alice Walker, Hip Hop, and Saul Williams.
I became a better teacher, and hopefully a better human being, when I realized that I had to admire my students for who they are and not who I wish they could be. It’s a lesson I’d gladly pass along to our well-intentioned president and first lady.
— From a joint post with me and other educators and public intellectuals Eddie Glaude, Lester Spence, Imani Perry, David Leonard, and Kiese Laymon. “Rhetoric We Don’t Believe In” via The Feminist Wire. Read more here: http://thefeministwire.com/2013/05/rhetoric-we-dont-believe-in/