It seemed so much easier when I had absolutely nothing and race was the only issue I had to deal with. Then the choices seemed much clearer. Then I knew exactly which side of the line I stood on, what I fought for and against.
But then enters the specter of class and suddenly the clarity of my vision becomes obfuscated by questions of practicality, of good judgment, of the actual meaning of progress. Theory holds that in order for change to take place, something must necessarily be lost; to build or improve a structure, the old must be destroyed in part or in whole to make way for the new.
Some time ago I composed a post about my two children. Their path through life has been much different than mine. I grew up in the black community, surrounded by black folk, immersed in black culture. They, however, have spent the whole of their lives in a mostly white environment, surrounded by white people, immersed in the mainstream culture.
This has not been a problem for my son. He is confident in himself and his abilities, perhaps overly confident, even to the point of being arrogant. He moves fluidly and easily between cultures. And as he does so, he wears his blackness like a badge, daring anyone to challenge him, to impugn his authenticity.
However, my daughter is much more timid, much shier, more taciturn. She is fragile and breaks easy. Her contact with African American culture has been fraught with peril, with pain. She has been made fun of for being different. She has been ridiculed for being intelligent, for enjoying reading, for “talking proper,” for not liking rap music.
And for a while she withdrew into a shell. She began to avoid contact with other little black girls her own age, and before long every poster of the many glaring down from her wall contained a white face. Naturally I began to worry about her; I became confused.
But then she started to gather her strength. She began to gain confidence. She began to assert herself. And just in time because next year she enters high school.
Recently we began to receive pamphlets from various high schools around the city, all competing for her. Three of the schools are the top college prep high schools in the city, one being judged as one of the top ten in the nation. One pamphlet came from the city arts school, again one that has been judged one of the best of its kind in the region.
And then one pamphlet came from an all-black high school on the other side of the city. For the past decade or so this school has been in a steady state of decline and has been deemed a failing institution. In fact, recently the state threatened to close the doors of the school if student achievement did not improve.
So to prevent this from occurring, about a year or so ago, school and community leaders were able to secure a grant which allowed the school to start its own college prep program. In this way, school and community leaders hoped to attract some of the better students who were being siphoned off to other, higher achieving institutions. This nascent program sent the pamphlet to my daughter with hopes that she would choose to attend.
But anyway, I gathered all the pamphlets together and called my daughter into the room. Proudly I presented all the pamphlets to her and instructed her to take them with her, read through them, and when she was ready to make a decision, come back and we would talk about it.
However, she didn’t go anywhere. With confidence and conviction, she plucked the pamphlet from the black school from my hand and held it out toward me.
“This one. This is the school I want to go to she said.” She didn’t even blink.
“Wait a minute. This one?,” I said. “Why don’t you go ahead, take them all, and think about it for a few days.”
I tried to muster my most persuasive style to cover the shock. But she would not be moved.
“I already thought about it. And I choose this one.” She still held the pamphlet up for me to see.
I tried to search for a credible argument. “But that school… That school is… Um… Why?”
My son chimed in with his own flippant comment. “Because it’s a black school. Right Uncle Ruckus?”
Before I knew it I had yelled at my son, and he slinked from the room hurt. But he could not have been as hurt as I; I don’t think I deserved to be called Uncle Ruckus. I didn’t oppose the school because it was a black school, but I opposed the school because of a plethora of other practical reasons. Or did I?
But there are a lot of things about the school my daughter does not know, could not have know from that pamphlet. She has never been to the school so she could not know that the school is surrounded by a fence complete with razor wire at the top and to even enter the school’s parking lot, you must first be cleared by a city police officer situated at the entrance.
She could not know that to enter the school you must first walk through a metal detector and then have your bags searched by yet another police officer. She could not know about the high violence rate at the school, the number of weapons confiscated from students within the past year, the shootings right across the street from the campus.
And I have it from a reliable source that the school’s college prep program is all but failing. The program could not attract enough qualified students, so in desperation, they just accepted anyone. Not only that, of the twenty-eight instructors selected and trained for the program, only eight remain. Most classes are now being taught by long-term subs. But she could not know this.
These are the reasons I oppose her attending the school, aren’t they? After all, I spent five years in grad school studying African American literature and culture, getting to know my people intimately, so there is no way I could harbor prejudices against my own people, is it?
And do you know how much time I spend volunteering in the African American community? How much I contribute each year to various causes? I do that out of the goodness of my heart. Or is it guilt?
Anyway, the shouting and slamming of doors and stamping about has all ended now. I am a few days removed from the incident, but the rift between me and my daughter has yet to heal. I was hoping she would change her mind but she hasn’t.
However, my son and I have made up. He’s sitting in a chair in the corner of my home office. I am sitting at my desk. The form I must sign indicating which school she will attend is on the desk in front of me. I must sign it and get it in the mail before Friday.
Finally, I sign the form, but I don’t check the necessary box. Instead, I just sit and stare for a moment. Sensing my continued indecisiveness, my son asks me, “Well?”.
I push the paperwork aside and put off the decision for another day. Maybe I can talk her out of it tomorrow. Or should I?