We All Have Work To Do

Killer Mike’s Emotional Speech

I had a lot of conversations yesterday about the looting, the uprisings, and the expression of black pain. All the black people I spoke to, while certainly not wanting to get involved themselves because we’re all in our 40s or older, all had the same thought: Burn the s**t down.

Of course, I don’t want to live in a world of rubble and the destruction of buildings. But at the same time, I don’t want to live in a world made of the rubble of the systemic destruction of lives.

“But how will the white supremacists and unfeeling people in power respond?” my white friends asked. “The destruction will just make them behave worse!” But will it? What is worse than killing black people in their homes, in the cars, asking for help, going for a run, or just being alive? What’s worse than that, exactly? What’s worse than thousands more black people than white people dying from a pandemic because of having low- wage jobs where they can’t work from home, or from living in close quarters with many others because rent is skyrocketing and folks can’t afford to live in decently priced homes?

Killer Mike clears it up it out: what’s worse is having nothing when it is all over.

Part of my pain as a black woman during this time is shame and regret. I haven’t done enough to support my students in my school. Yes, in my class, I made sure to be an anti-racist as I could consciously be, by talking about race and class in class, by reading books by black and brown authors, by encouraging then to know their history, by incorporating rap and hip hop into my curriculum (I rapped in front of my kids, and they were both embarrassed and impressed), by showing movies that showcase black actors as leads and not background characters, by trying my darndest to figure out a TikTok dance (and failing), by reading as many books by black authors as I could.

But, here’s my secret: I don’t have very many black friends. I don’t hang out in very many black spaces (except, now, virtually), and often times, I feel as if my history as a black New Yorker isn’t “black” enough. Of course, that’s ridiculous. But it’s a feeling that I have sometimes, and that is also part of the shame. How can I support black and Brown people if I am daily steeping myself in whiteness and, indirectly, white supremacy?

I think that my doubling down on the “Burn the S**t Down” talking point is perhaps my way of trying to make up for my past failures to call out the racism, classism, ethnocentrism, ableism, and ageism I have seen all around me. I think I wanted to my s**t down.

I’ve been taking the easy way out.

What I love about Killer Mike’s speech is that he acknowledges the anger and he acknowledges the desire to destroy. He acknowledges the failures of the federal government. He acknowledges the racist history of his hometown. But he also recognizes that there are police officers in his family. That there are cities that have prosecuted police officers. And, most importantly, that you gain nothing from destroying your own “home,” even if you feel like destroying everything.

“Home” can mean all sorts of things. Your actual home. Your community. Places that provide jobs to your community. A sense of safety. The ability to believe that tomorrow could be better. These are things that you don’t want to destroy.

Now, There are those who are annoyed and don’t think that Killer Mike is doing Atlanta any favors. And as a New Yorker who pays scant attention to Atlanta politics, I don’t have the insight or research to fact-check Killer Mike or writer Devyn Springer of The Independent, but I can fact-check my own motivations behind telling people that I support destruction at this time. I don’t support destruction in any other situation. It’s strange that I would even say I support it now. It’s a form of acting in, and I’m taking this time to acknowledge it. It’s shame.

I want to be an anti-racist educator, but I’ve got to do better and let less slide when I see and hear casual injustice in the faculty room and at happy hour. Every faculty room in every school has it. Every happy hour at every school has it.

I’ve got to actively join and participate in a black community without fearing that I won’t be accepted (I’m still re-living can’t-fit-in trauma form the 80s, when it black folks who listened to rock or spoke Standard English without being called a traitor to the race or an oreo cookie or some nonsense). I’ve got to allow the black community an opportunity to accept me. It’s an old story, that I’m not good enough, and I need to toss it into the trash. Times have changed. We’ve had a black President. Everyone listens to rock and rap and whatever category XXXTENTACION and TeaMarr and Joel are. Ain’t nobody gonna call me out for “talking white.” Not anymore.

My email inbox is flooded with organizational manifestos promising to “re-dedicate” themselves to “being anti-racist” and “committing to supporting the community” and all sorts of conveniently vague action items. I hate vague. It’s lazy thinking.

So, as an educator and as a black woman, I specifically pledge to:

  1. Call it as I see it. No more protecting fragile egos from my frustration when I hear racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnocentric garbage in casual conversation with colleagues. Even if I love you. I refuse to erase myself. No me without we.
  2. Re-embrace the black community and actively join it. I love my people, but I haven’t been joining them as much as I should have been these past years. I see myself as a part of it by blood, but I need a black crew around me, and I need to support some black adults. I need someone to process all this life stuff with (from dating to books to shows to political uprisings), and I’m going to actively find those people. I have some already, but dang my current posse likes to travel. I need some folks near me so we can talk in person (from six feet away and with masks on). No me without we.
  3. Do the Work. While my primary mission–to help me develop my own solid footing in my own racial identity and history–is to deepen my understanding of my blackness. I am a teacher of all different ethnicities and backgrounds of children, and I need to have a stronger understanding of the literature, arts, and cultural expressions of ALL the children in my classroom, and yes, this includes white children. But also non-binary children, gay children, children with disabilities. We all have deep and important histories, and I need to investigate those more deeply. Right now this means reading literature or consuming media from PR, DR, and Central America and from their emigrants to NYC. This does not includes posting slogans on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or whatever new thing comes along. No me without we.
  4. Be humble. I need to bring a child’s mind to this work. Some white folks look at me and see expertise in race work. Ha! I can’t be seduced by that. I’m learning and must always be learning about this work. I need to acknowledge that I am no expert, just a learner who might be a little further along, but not by much. I need to learn from those who came before me in the anti-racist struggle. No me without we.
  5. Take care of myself. All of this stuff is difficult emotional work. So sometimes I have to let myself take a break and allow others to do the work without feeling like I’ve failed. I can’t push myself until there is nothing left of my emotional resilience. No one benefits from an educator who is too tired to be kind. So this means taking a break from the news when I need to. Not staying informed about every new injustice at every second of every day. Choosing my battles. Allowing myself some moments of humor when I’m in pain. Remaining steadfast in my belief that even if progress is slow, it’s still progress.

What work do YOU pledge to do?

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