Many of us have been literally and digitally "shouting" about the recent police killing of African-American men and women (AND WOMEN) across the country, but have we taken equal time to listen to our young people who will inherit this chaotic world and any of the problems we will fail to solve in our lifetimes? They are caught up in all of this as well, and if you are not sure how, then you need to read and listen to their urgent, heartbreaking and inspiring narratives about coming of age in America's darker corners (dark not because the sun isn't rising but because we aren't fully opening the blinds for them).
You'll find many such narratives in OUR LIVES MATTER, a the new story project book from students at Ballou Senior High School in southeast Washington, D.C. Buy this book. Share it with other young people and use it as a tool to educate yourselves and initiate conversations with others. Below is my foreword to the book, but it is in no way an attempt to validate what's inside, as these stories need no validation. They are all inherently worthy.
Socially, audacity is an oft admonished concept, but it is also the only means by which certain objectives become realized. Early last year, when the Dean’s Office solicited suggestions for my college’s speaker’s series, I threw in Ta-Nehisi Coates as his essay “The Case for Reparations” was necessary reading for the nation in 2014—especially those of us obsessed with deducing how exactly we have arrived at this point in American history. I never expected the administration to take my recommendation seriously, let alone actually offer Mr. Coates an appropriate honorarium to come (—the audacity—), but they did. The event was successful in ways I could not have anticipated, especially in the manner that Mr. Coates’ candor and incisive analysis spoke to the experiences of our campus’ small “black” student population.
He made one short yet profound point that I believe is important to keep in mind as you encounter these Ballou students’ testimonies and poems, that being that there is nothing inherently wrong with “black” people—particularly the oft maligned urban “black” population. “What is novel about that,” you might ask. Well, “black power” and “black is beautiful” are statements that come out people’s mouths as easily as the pathologizing tropes of “hood” and “bama.” (In fact, I would say that is how the term “ghetto” often operates in the “black” imagination—as representative of the majesty of, or in spite of, disenfranchisement and struggle.) But from the external perspective, shared by many of those who claim to care for young “black” children and make the policy decisions that shape their lives, these students’ “blackness” is perceived as something that needs to be fixed, corrected. This is not true. There is nothing about these children and their struggles that can or should be explained solely by their culture and ethnicity.
How the broader society—teachers, police officers, mayors, congressional representatives and presidents—chooses to engage with them and their culture is another matter.
There is a sad “you” that haunts this book.
“When I went to sit down next to you, lady, you looked scared.”
“You don’t know me, so you don’t know who I am.”
“You think I am stuck in southeast and I’m never going to go anywhere.”
“You think you know why we sell drugs.”
“You say we don’t care about anyone but ourselves […].
What about you. Do you care about us?”
If you read this book, you have to ask yourself how often you are within this “you” these students are evoking. The dismissive you. The resigned you. The judgmental or spooked you. You may even have your rationales for why you have been “you” at different points in your life, but a rationale makes none of it justified.
These children—they are children—do not deserve to meet and face and battle that “you” every day, but they must—in addition to fending off depression or raising siblings at the expense of their own childhoods and educations or surviving in homes with the barest of staples. All of those burdens are more than enough to juggle while striving for a realized future. The psychological weight of being criminalized and demonized (literally, lest we forget the testimony of Darren Wilson) in the American imagination only exacerbates what it means to grow up in the far eastern edge of the nation’s capital.
Despite all they encounter that announces, if not trumpets, “we do not care,” they have written their stories and feelings for this book. An act of audacity, I would say. You can reward their audacity by reading what is here and humanizing yourself. If their writing elicits no frustration or shame in you, you may still be wearing the veil of “you.” They are not waiting for you to divest—they have too much to do—but they would welcome the occasion.
~Kyle G. Dargan
Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing