How to Get to the Other End of a Dark Tunnel

People often ask me why I research black men and not black women. The answer to that is long and complicated, but it boils down to doing the work of what would be so close to my own life day in and day out, would be to live that life twice. I am so grateful and blessed by so much in my life, but there are many parts outside my control that do not need to be repeated.

It has been a painful year. It has been filled with tears and raging anger that bubbles up at times when it threatens to swalllow me whole. It has been a year of seeing some I love come undone by the news headlines and the carefully planned stripping away of black bodies, black presence, and black voice. They silence those who say what they don’t want to hear, and dead people certainly don’t tell their stories. I’ve inherited most of the calm, contemplative strength of my mother. It’s sometimes all that keeps me together, but I can’t quite press it down sometimes because I don’t do politness for the sake of other people’s comfort anymore.

I’d find myself in the midst of large groups of happy people and force myself to smile, because I felt like I should. White comfort often leads to black isolation, and I decided I would rather be silent in those situations than branded. But some labels are worn better and braver than others.

monachopsis: the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place

I have this thing about me that draws me to spaces and places that weren’t created for me. But I go there anyway because as token and as invisible as those places beg me to be, I can’t be erased. No, I was here. I leave my mark in the ways that I find how. You can’t forget something or someone that refuses to be forgotten, and to play by those rules.

Interviewing the eight young men for my case study opened up wounds that have never quite healed. It reminded me of the pain I feel deep in my heart when I think about my students I left for the ivory towers of a Cambridge graduate degree. There are a lot of days that felt hollow about that, but there would always come a reminder in the form of friend’s writing or conversation or an article that shook me back to the reality that the work I am doing is necessary. Not because I have convinced myself of this, but because in the journey of liberation, there needs to be liberatory practices within academia as well.

I have been encouraged in this journey too by amazing mentors, from my tutors and professors in undergraduate to Hliary, who was the supervisor I needed here. Hilary took a bright-eyed but cautious woman in October and helped her get to July without making compromises on her research. I remember one conversation we had after I had written an especially theoretically worded section of my second essay. She looked at me and talked about how sometimes when people come from a disadvantaged background and find themselves in places such as this, they are seduced into the rhetoric of the ivory towers that writing must be a particular way, but in reality that writing only does the job of shutting others out of academia. Oftentimes it was the ones who the research claimed to be for, but she eloquently spoke to me about the type of research that is done with the communities the research is about and not about them. The type of research that begins conversations that includes everyone. She never used my name, but I knew all of what she was saying was for me, and I have never appreciated her more. At an education conference in Chicago, a black male academic reminded a room full of aspiring academics of colour that when you make compromises when you want to be a compassionate researcher, working within communities and putting their trust and relationship with you as your top priority, you never stop making those compromises. He told the story of how he took hip-hop out of his final dissertation and even though it won many prizes, he felt it would have been even better–and more him–with it. Being in academia as a black woman is an act of resistance in itself. Being a black woman in academia who is there to make a statement that genius has many faces and mannerisms is revolutionary.

When I began editing my thesis, I told the people I gave it to look over that I would not compromise on the findings. I refused to cut the part of my work that came from the participants themselves. I had made a promise to them to tell their story as honestly as I could, and I would keep that promise.

How do you get to the other end of a dark tunnel with your head and your heart intact? The answer is you don’t. At least not by yourself. I thank God every day for flows of survivance, and for friends here and abroad who make me smile and laugh and dance. And they don’t know it, but those eight boys saved my academic soul. As they found ways to survive outside of a desire to forge identites in relation to the white dominant discourse, I was encouraged to continue finding my own. I didn’t just write this thesis for them, I wrote it with them…their lives guiding the pen and hugging me until the final words hit the page.

I feel grateful, again, for the chance to share their stories, and await a time when they don’t need me as a medium. But this…this job of being an ally, I can do, because I have survived and refuse to do anything but thrive, with and for communities of my people, and communities of love.

Winter Reflections

We live in a world of strong beliefs, whether religious or secular. There are those willing to die, and even kill, for what they believe. While those are extremes, it does make me think about what we are willing to sacrifice of ourselves on the way to wherever it is we are trying to go.

My beliefs are rooted in the lesson of Esau in the Old Testament that I often think back to: for the momentary satisfaction of a bowl of soup, Esau lost his entire inheritance. I fear that cutting paths will lead me down roads I am not meant to go down. And although work in education usually feels like a daunting, helpless task, I have to continuously believe that it is worth the long journey. Short, quick fixes won’t solve a century’s old and deep issue.

If there are more eye-opening lessons I have been taught at Cambridge it is that I feel more aligned with academia that manifests itself in applications of those without the privileged access to the Ivory Towers of academia. There is no joy for me in being able to ramble off theory after theory in beautiful phrasings without knowing that someone will use my work with it to make shoves against the tyrannies of the world. There are those who wish to be allies of the disadvantaged and believe that knowing what is going on makes them ‘there’; that they have ascended to levels not obtained by the other less informed.

Even some of my very ‘liberal’ white friends are unaware of the ways in which the thick, pervasive smog of social constructs of race and racism had permeated aspects of their thoughts and actions. Not to say that any one of us is perfect. But some of us are more willing to face that head on in real and lasting ways.

Yesterday, I chose not to complete the final round of a job application process. I was initially excited about work that would place me back home in Indiana and pay very well, in the field I love. However, once the job released more information on the specific project I would be working on, that joy disappeared. Everything they stated was everything I am against in education. I was torn. I want to make the plunge into policy and I need money after a year on the pound and transitioning post graduate school this summer. Arguably, I could get my policy experience and go deep behind enemy lines. But at what price? What was I willing to pay?

I meditated and I prayed. I also did what I always do—I called my mother. I ultimately came to the decision to withdraw my application. I could have finished it just to see if I would have been accepted, but I knew in my heart that I could not take it. At this point in my life I have seen too much to pretend things do not exist. Too much that has shown me that all the little decisions adds up. I have seen good people go in to do one thing, wanting to get out in a few years, and still be there. And it would be hard to love the person in the mirror if she was in her own ways helping to push forward what she considered to be harmful to others.

I guess in the questions of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, it becomes more a question of whether or not you plan to live in that house, because you may just destroy yourself in the dismantling. As a friend said to me the other day, when one works with the Devil, you don’t change the Devil, the Devil changes you.

In the last chapter of one of my favourite books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller reflects on what it will be like when he dies and goes to Heaven. He muses that he will dine with God at great feasts and he will be excited to tell God the story of his life, because he spent the time crafting and telling a good story, one he would be proud to share. And God would tell him ‘I know.’

That’s beautiful. I want that.

Dr. King, Selma, and the Search for a Legacy

Over the holidays I took a walk along the calm rivers of the White River in Indianapolis. I thought of its name and its literal representation of the line between white and black in my state. I looked out over the river, and I thought that in this great nation the one thing that we can all be educated about is how to live together. There is enough for everyone, and if there is not, we have to fight for it. No one said it was going to be easy, but I agree with Thurgood Marshall when he said that we would regret it if we did not keep trying. (Notes from one of my undergraduate research papers, December 2008)

I think one of the most beautiful things in the world is the ability to dream. The ability to imagine places and ideas and realities that have yet to be borne into existence. Over the past year I have found that some dreams become harder to hold on to. And that’s actually when I need to hold on to them more.

Today is the birthday of Dr. King, a beautiful dreamer and a powerful fighter for freedom. Dr. King was a black boy who dared to reject the notions of what he should do with his life or what would become of him, and became so much more than anyone could have imagined at the time. The greatest tragedy to his legacy is when we thought the battle he fought his whole life was over, and the greatest memorial are those who never stopped or have now taken back up the banner and march towards freedom and hope. I have tried throughout my life to remember Dr. King’s words that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends towards justice. Sometimes I get tired working on moving along that bend, but there are worst things that could happen if none of us did that work.

Today is also the day that Oscar nominations came out, and Selma, a film based on Dr. King’s work in the city in Alabama, received no nominations for its visionary black female director, Ava DuVernay, nor for its formidable black male star, David Oyelowo. This is the whitest Oscars since 1998 explained one news story.

And so DuVernay’s dream of portrayinig this particular moment in Dr. King’s life is shut down, forced to sit in a corner because she would not play by the rules of the game they thought they so clearly marked out for her to follow.

What happens to a dream deferred?

As I contemplated Dr. King’s legacy today I was in the midst of researching about young black boys who have trouble with the law and in society as a whole. After some time, the research got to me, and I began to feel the familiar feeling I have grown to recognize since coming back to academia: the feeling of being overwhelmed at the work that needs to be done, and what role could I possibly play in doing it. Each researcher I read noted the large presence of feelings of low self-esteem and hopelessness in the young males in their research, and how they felt that even the basic goal of survival was one they had to fight for. A people cannot progress if they are worried about something so basic as mere survival.

And then I thought of a student I will refer to as J.

J came to me in my second year of teaching. He was angry, in and out of school, and scared the other students. J was always a storm waiting to explode in a brooding face and hostile walk. J even went as far as trying to kill himself during one of our class periods. When I finally got some time alone with J I began to realize the deep unrest he felt about who he was as a young black male, and the deep disconnect with his family and community. He was an outcast…a stranger in his home, and an even greater stranger from society. The only way I found to help J was to sit and type his story for him as he spoke out loud of the path that life had taken him down that had brought him to the edge of a great cliff. J still precariously lives on the edge of that cliff, and it is for him that I do this work, to see if I can help take his hand and guide him back away from it.

I don’t know what my own legacy will be, but I hope it has something to do with helping young black boys like J. Boys who have long since stopped dreaming because they have seen such dreams deferred time and time again. Maybe they just need some reminders that even seeds sown that don’t bloom through multiple winters can still be nourished until that faithful spring.

Thank you Dr. King for your legacy. Thank you for reminding me always of the importance of education. I hope my own search for a legacy can complement your own.

Exactly Where You’re Meant to Be

“Moving on is easy. It’s staying moved on that’s trickier.” – K. Klemer 

Something strange is going on. It’s mid-August, and I am not in a flurry of butcher paper and books and PD’s. There’s someone new in that apartment on Wayne Avenue. I am not having a drink at Lou’s or Rock Bottom, nor am I breathing the fresh ocean air. Someone else is planning out how they will decorate the walls of 3085. There are new/different names on my students’ rosters.

And me? I’m sitting neck deep in social theory books from my pre-reading list for Cambridge, and running around securing funding for the start-up. 

They are two different lives. 

Today was the teacher retreat for the high school I used to work at in Miami. Even writing the phrase ‘used to’ feels strange, other-worldly. The summer felt normal, as I was on a break the way I would be during a normal school year, with a summer job to tie me over. But now that summer is coming to a close, and the number of texts and calls and emails I receive from students increases, the reality of not returning hits me just as hard as the initial physical leavetaking did in June. 

I have found over the years that there is a significant difference between wanting to go back to what you were doing because you honestly made a mistake with your new path versus the difficulty of continuing on the road of moving forward with new journeys. The two can seem and feel eerily similar. When remnants of the familiar float to the surface, it makes sense to grab at them for a variety of reasons. You may not feel like you were finished with your time in that place, you may not know what will become of those you left behind, or you may be filled with fear for the journey ahead. Or a combination of the three. I even want to insert myself into the narrative from my distance: Hey, read this book. What will you do with that student? Oh that’s so _____ to do that. But I’m no longer a central character in that story. I have to open the pages of my new novel, and archive the former. 

My life looks and feels much different now, but not in a bad way. I made the decision to leave, and I still stand by it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be on my new path. And I am very excited. I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. YOU are exactly where you are meant to be. 

Because at the end of the day, all decisions are rooted in truth and want–the truth of what you know you need to do and the want to go out there and find it. So you owe it to yourself to not just move forward into this new journey, but to reaffirm your decision each day by staying moved on and committed to this new way of being and doing and living. 

A Different Type of Signing Day

Today I was greeted with the news that anyone planning on not being at Northwestern in the fall would need to give in their letters of resignation. For many reasons, I did not want to have someone bring around a form to me to fill out and sign and I decided to fill one out online myself to print out. As I sat there staring at the form, the blank lines of reason for leaving stared back at me. Reason for leaving–that’s a loaded response.

I don’t think there could ever be a way to fully express all that I would put into that line, both positive and negative. I could talk about my reasons for leaving being my diverging vision from the literacy department at my school, or I’m leaving because the phrase ‘follow through’ has never meant less in a given space. But those are all lessons learned. All food for thought on any night when my mind churns about what real reform in our urban school systems could truly look like. And that too is reason for leaving I’m leaving because just as I want my students to continue to grow and learn, I too wish to do the same. I’m leaving because I need to seek out more solutions to the problems I have encountered, and I want those solutions to impact more and more students because I LOVE my kids.

But what does this letter mean in the scale of the word ‘resignation’? I haven’t resigned myself to the fact that education cannot be equal and meaningful and life-changing for all students across race, class, and gender in America. I haven’t resigned myself to the belief that intensive students will forever stay in that track and are incapable of the type of rigorous learning and work production as AP level students. I could never resign from relentless hope and and one day at a time optimism and hard work. And I would never resign from my students.

All it means is that I’m resigning from this current course–that my sails have shifted and caught the winds of change. But I won’t forget the harbor I have sailed from, nor the ones who helped me build the ship in the first place.

I began the work of slowly telling my students in small groups that I am leaving. It is by far one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and some are not dealing with it well. In the face of this confession, however, one voice struck a chord with me. One of my students James when asked by a close friend of mine in front of me how he felt about me leaving said that he was sad I wouldn’t be there next year, but that he wasn’t angry because I was leaving to pursue something that would better me and I was being a role model for them to do the same. He said that I was going so that I could help them and others more.

I know leaving can never be easy, never be a perfect cut of a chord, but if all my students can know deep down that I want my vision to be true for so many others and they would always be a part of it—leaving could at least hurt a little less, and mean a lot more.

Time Out to Read

Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books  -Richard Wright, Black Boy

 

Today I caught up on my teacher email account. I was rewarded with an email that made me sit in my room crying with joy over the things one must always remember really matter. It said:

This school year has been very challenging for me. When you told me that I was reading on a eight grade reading level my heart was melting. Seriously. I love to read i really do, but lately i haven’t had enough free time to read anything I desire. Then, when you started letting us read in small group my reading level jumped from an ”8” to a ”10”. Thanks to you Ms. Younge I managed to increase as a reader and a student.

It always amazes me just how controversial it has been this year to run diagnostic reading tests and continued progress monitoring tests on my students this year. Moreover, those in charge have tried to push my back into corners over something that I thought would be the cornerstone of my class: reading. I am a reading teacher. I work with the lowest performing students in the building. Their issue is “simple”–they cannot read on grade level, so they struggle to perform on state standardized test that are on grade level texts. More than that though, when all a class does is prepare students for a 55 question multiple choice test, they obliterate the redemptive powers of literature. One of the reasons that Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy continues to be one of my favorite books of all time is because of the solace Wright found within the pages of the books he so dearly clung to when all around him his world fell apart. And through books, he was able to pick up the pieces and start a life for himself. And as he wrote, he found more of his self-worth and began making meaning for himself. Wright wrote, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” 

My students are feeling that gnawing sensation, the kind that makes you want to know more, to be more. The kind that makes you wonder if everything you have ever just swallowed should truly be what nourishes your mind. And it is in those moments that they connect the words on the pages to the words being written by their life outside the classroom that the lightbulbs go off and school ceases to be about memorizing useless facts and figures, but about something that connects to their daily experience–something that can help them reshape and redefine their existence.

So why then would I not want to help my students become the best readers they can? Why would I ignore the simple principle that to be a god reader, one must keep READING. So I give, untouched, each class those 25-30 minutes of independent reading.  I watch as my students lit up upon knowing that they were growing as readers, unlocking more potential than ever. And I think to myself that it was indeed a battle worth fighting, even if the battlefield seemed ridiculous.

I hope that as my students test this week and next that they will do their best. I know they will do their best. But more importantly, I know that they value, even if only just a little bit more, taking time out to read.

If You Come Softly, Part II

“And the rich between us shall drink our tears”

The most vivid instant message I can remember ever getting was senior year of college. It was the same year I thought that I could save someone from drowning and come back ashore unscathed. I was wrong, and I was marked, am marked by the tragedies of that year. On that night I remember receiving the message from my close friend pop up on my screen saying that he had come to the decision that life and living was not for him, and he was going to put an end to it, but he needed to know that I was going to be okay. Immediately I was frantically pulling on clothes and begging my roommate to come with me make sure that what I could never be okay with did not take place. My friend ended up being okay, and although there were rough patches on the road, he got the help he needed and the support he needed, and he made it. And I always tried to check in with him, remaining a listener and an observer on the journey.

I remembered this story because a student of mine came to me the other day and tried to come into class extremely late. I got annoyed and told her she would have to get another pass to get into class. The security guard brought her back, and I sighed and went outside to see what was wrong. She then told me she was in the bathroom sick all morning from the anxiety that has slowly started eating away at her daily routine this year. I instantly softened and asked her why she did not just say that to me. She replied, “I thought you would have gotten tired of me. Tired of my problems.” How could I ever grow tired of helping someone I love? But that’s what people think. They think their problems become the burdens of loved ones, without pausing to realize that the person’s love will lead them to want to be there for them in any way that they could.

Today I passed by the desk of one of my students who had written a suicide note that I had found in his homework assignment. It had been the day of my birthday dinner, and the starkest memory remains myself and that student standing on the steps of his home. I cried while I told him that I knew he was mad at me for telling others about this, but that I could live with that because if he were to hurt himself he would be hurting so many other people who loved him deeply. And today when I walked passed his desk I saw that he was reading a book: God’s Promise, for Every Day Life. I felt as though it was a sign for me and a sign from him as well.

I think he is going to be okay.