How it feels to be…

20 Jul

Last week, I spent some time with thirty black high school students from rural Alabama as a part of a summer enrichment program. After leading a session discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s “How if Feels to be Colored Me,” I had the students break into small groups to talk about how it feels to them in 2010. I mean, Zora talked about feeling “so very colored” at times in the 1920’s, what does it feel like to be a young black person in 2010?

There were lots of interesting answers. Some of the students were excited about the Obama family being in the White House, others discussed the pressure to do well in school and prepare for college, and still more talked about violence and drugs plaguing their communities.  When I asked,  “how does it feel to be a young man or woman?” don’t you know that the floodgates opened up?! Now, generally, a teenager’s favorite subject is themselves, but the already deep conversation got even deeper. Let me share a bit of what they said.

One young woman said, “It’s really, really hard being a young black woman. We have to prove ourselves in ways that boys don’t have to.” Many of the girls heartily agreed and gave examples from personal experience. Without having read Frances Beales or Kimberle’ Crenshaw, these women were able to articulate notions of intersecting oppressions that could give some of my college students a run for their money. In another group, a student answered the question saying that as a young black man he was greatly offended by folks immediately thinking he was uninterested in school, a juvenile delinquent, or that he intended to be a “deadbeat dad.” “Those aren’t my goals,” he said. “I may be a kid, but I’m a responsible person. I don’t want to be stereotyped before someone even gets to know me.”  What could I say? I mean, that’ll preach itself.

In both cases we talked about how these inequities made them feel and discussed strategies for dealing with racism and gender discrimination. Invariably the notion of “working hard” and not letting things get to you came up. But I was also interested in how many times the students amended that advice to acknowledge that working hard was not enough, that it helped to have a supportive network of family, friends, and teachers behind you. I thought to myself, the sooner you learn this, the better!

Listening to the different narratives being shared in the various groups definitely gave me pause. I mean, on the one hand, a whole lot hasn’t changed since I was in their shoes fifteen years ago. Indeed, in some ways these kids are under pressures that I didn’t have to deal with in quite the same way.  I mean, being a kid during Reaganomics was not cute, but neither was growing up under Dubya. Add in the current state of affairs–endless wars of attrition, an economic depression…er, um recession, an effed up environment, and so on–and the future–their future–looks like a hot mess.

On the other hand, my spirits were somewhat buoyed. I felt like, damn, this next generation has a rough way to go, but there are some sharp critical thinkers in here with feminist politics, even if they may not identify them as such. That just made my heart sing as a feminist educator.  I remain committed to being an advocate for them because, like I said, working hard is not enough. I may not have any children (I know my feline furbaby doesn’t count), but I am definitely invested in helping the children in my community doing well.  And after what I’ve heard working with young people, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.


6 Responses to “How it feels to be…”

  1. Sweetilocks July 20, 2010 at 2:47 PM #

    This is precisely why I would never give up on the youth. Regardless of how shallow and unconcerned they appear on facebook and other such stages, I was able to tap into their depth as a tutor over the past year and a program leader the years before. This is why teachers deserve NBA-caliber salaries because they have to navigate those layers everyday to keep the kids motivated. It’s hard dealing with a society that constantly doubts them and sets them up for failure, i.e. people assuming all young black boys want to become deadbeat dads. I commend you for challenging them to think about this as they develop. A lot of the students I worked with initially resented the questions I presented them every week, but eventually they got into it. It made me realize that they aren’t allowed to exercise they’re brains often enough. Thanks for this piece, I will definitely share it with the young people I know can identify and use it to wake up the ones who aren’t yet aware of their own layers.

  2. Sweetilocks July 20, 2010 at 2:49 PM #

    Oooh, can’t believe I wrote “they’re brains” like that! Bad tutor! Correction: “their brains.”

  3. Roobee July 20, 2010 at 7:17 PM #

    This is a great post, especially since it speaks to ways of being a scholar-activist and public intellectual through your work.

  4. Simon July 21, 2010 at 11:41 AM #

    Great post! Keep up the good work of feminist educator.

    Kimberle Crenshaw is one of the sharpest legal minds in the world. She should be on the United States Supreme Court. Considering the cowardice on Race, by the Obama Administration, Crenshaw’s nomination isn’t forthcoming. Kim would intellectually kick Chief Justice John Roberts’ ass.

  5. Monita B. July 21, 2010 at 11:05 PM #

    What an inspiring post, Susiemaye! 🙂 It’s especially timely because, just a couple of months ago, my 13-yr-old stepson got a chance to see the Soweto Gospel Choir perform. He was amazed and said it made him proud to be black–for the first time in his life! After being told once, in CHURCH, that he couldn’t borrow a handheld game “because black people steal,” he internalized that prejudice and even turned it on peers at times.

    Even in 2010, young black people are still facing Jim Crow-esque prejudices, but we have to keep communicating with them, educating them, and encouraging them. Keep it up, lady!

  6. Melonee July 21, 2010 at 11:26 PM #

    I think the most unfortunate thing is that this dialogue will not continue throughout the remainder of their education. So many of our young people live truly in their heads and usually have few and far in between moments to breathe and share and grow in these intersecting & intellectual moments. This is even more so in rural areas in the South. Just as Monita said, we must “keep communicating with them, educating them, and encouraging them.” You never realize how powerful sessions like these have a major impact.

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