Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Solution Was Always Easier when the Questions Were Posed in Terms of Black and White

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?”

“Why not?”

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?

17 comments:

Cheri Paris Edwards said...

You know, when my Mom remarried, I was raised in a small community and we were very sheltered. I was raised to be proud of being African-American, but didn't have all that much exposure to "my people" outside of our defined social group-- Gwendolyn Brooks poem, "A song in the front year," could describe my feelings. As a parent I've learned first-hand how difficult it can be to allow our children to explore life as they grow into young adults. It's probably more difficult with girls because I can imagine there are more worries about safety. Still, the truth is life is not secure, it's not safe, life is for living and parenting is about assisting our children in making the successful transition to adult-hood. Sounds like your daughter is asserting herself. Supporting her will let you assist her through the situation even if it doesn't work out-- But, who knows she may be just what that school needs. When I did after school "at-risk" programming, it was those middle- to upper-income youth who came ALL the time that helped give the program consistency and served as role models. And, on another note, I was really shy too and bullied by others throughout school, but though I couldn't articulate it in words, I had a passion inside to do something for "my folks..." Sounds like your daughter is trying to discover her passion too. That's good stuff, Max.

Smiley Face said...

Change begins with one...

Max Reddick said...

My wife explained it to me thusly: In the Civil Rights Movement, those families who allowed their children to be the first at white schools were probably going through the same thing I am going through now, but on a grander scale. It's perhaps telling that then we were afraid to send our kids into white schools and now we are afraid to send our kids into black schools.

But nonetheless, the program will not work and that school will be closed down if someone is brave enough and allow their children to attend. Certainly, I fear for her safety, and certainly I am concerned about the quality of her education, but maybe this is for the best. I don't know.

Emerge Peoria said...

Yes, but change at the risk of your child's education?

This school shouldn't be considered and you should not feel bad about it. You know in your heart this is not the "best" that you want for your child.

Sounds like it may be time for her to spend time volunteering in the black community.

Max Reddick said...

@Emerge Peoria

I realize your point, but first and foremost, education begins at home. Her mother and I are both educators, so I am not worried that her learning will suffer. Not only that, perhaps she would emerge at the top of her class because of the lack of competition. But it is her safety that I worry about. You and I know how cruel kids can be. And you and I know how kids seek to pick on and humiliate those they deem different. And she does not take criticism or teasing well.

I'm still thinking this one thru.

Smiley Face said...

You can't see it because she's your baby but she is emulating you.

Orchid said...

have you guys visited the school?

hmm...maybe she feels isolated in the white schools, and maybe she believes those feelings of isolation as a result of her color might impede on her ability to succeed. You're a parent, you want the best for her, and sometimes parents look at things in terms of the bare bones resources they can give to their children, like the right school in this instance. But what if finding the right school is more than just about how well the school is doing? what if the all white environment is impeding on her ability to focus on her future and she's trying to escape that? I know because I've been there, and she sounds anything like me, she is just looking for a place to belong. Are parents allowed to visit high schools before they enroll? Seems like they should, but maybe plan a few trips to some of the schools including the one she wanted. It helps to give her as much perspective as possible in order to responsibly make a decision.
I wish you both well!

A.Smith said...

I went to all white schools all my life. My mother bent the truth, schemed, plotted and outright lied to keep me in the best public and then private schools. In turn I ended up at a predominantly white university amused at my black friends who had never spent so much time with white people and who were scared.

What I remember is my mother, in action and deed, being afraid that I wasn't black enough. Forcing me to interact with kids who looked like me but had nothing in common with me (and even at 7, I picked up on that).

She took it as a really serious job to remind me that I wasn't white. Perhaps she wanted to nip it in the bud before I ran into black students who would tell me that in college -- in fact, in some ways, I became the teller.

It all came to blows one night when I was in high school, arguing with her to let me go to a party one of my white friends was having. She was wary of the part of town (all white part which she read as racist -- and her assumption wasn't baseless) I'd have to go to. "You send me to school with all these white kids and then get mad at me for making them my friends!" I screamed.

I applaud your daughter, Max. I never would've made this decision at her age. If she's ready to explore who she is and what that means, help her. It's no more easier for us as young adults (as I know you remember) trying to understand what it means to be black in an all white and constant white world when it feels like all the black examples we see are opposite of ourselves and our family.

Denisha said...

I went to schools in the 'hood of Chicago but this was before the metal detectors, security guards, etc. Shootings still occurred across the street or around the corner but I had to go to this school because it was in my neighborhood. I was in every gifted program offered to inner city youths because the education was so poor they thought I was a genius. I did have friends & was personable so I was never bullied. I was often ridiculed because I loved reading and got excellent scores/grades but it did not bother me too much.

I went to high school outside of my neighborhood (diverse area) and realized I was not gifted at all...I was actually behind because my neighborhood school did not have the resources to challenge me academically. Max, you are right, education begins in the home but my parents were not college educated and I helped my mom with her homework more than she helped me so (compared to my home) your daughter should do fine. The violence? My sons do not attend black schools in the 'hood but they still attend public schools as I did. I cannot handle the violence, the shootings, the weapons, or fatal fights in the black neighborhoods now. I would not say I am better than anyone else or my kids are better but they deserve the chance to focus on their education (and other school activities) instead of their safety and if that was a gunshot or a car back firing.

Anna Renee said...

Hi Max! My son is now 28years old but when he was a kid, my ex and I did all we could to get my son into "better" schools. For that reason he attended Catholic, Muslim homeschool, Afrocentric school, schools in the white community using my mom's address and I even homeschooled him myself--all to keep him safe from the madness that was happening in the public schools in our community, and that was almost 18 years ago. His schooling was all over the place, but he's alive, and never been in jail! Because I worked in the library, I was able to expose him to everything I knew about black culture and have tried to teach him how to learn about his culture. We had him the the YMCA which had a very good program, the Boys and Girls club ditto. Does your daughter dance? or write? There are probably some programs where she can learn about herself, other than a dangerous school. If you feel the school's not safe, you're going to be worried at every moment about your daughter. She may learn something the hard way, but there may be an easy way! AS you know, children think they're smarter than their parents, but just because they feel that the "black" school is the best doesn't mean its so. If you think you're right you may have to put your foot down and not let her go. School is not the only way to learn about black culture--a good black church is one way, black culture programs is another. Brother Max, who said that one has to experience degradation in order to be black? Metal detectors, razor wire? What? This is the stuff that demoralizes black children, its not a badge of blackness even if some say that it is. Why put her in a failing environment? Blackness is not in the broken places only. If she was my SHY daughter, Id put her somewhere else. If she comes to the fullness of her blackness later on, so what? President Obama did! There is no reason to feel bad about wanting the best for your children. We blog all day about the problems in the black community, so we shouldn't feel guilty about not wanting those bad things for our children. It's not a rejection of blackness to want the best for your kids, if its not in the black community. Im so sorry for rambling but this touches my black spirit.

Max Reddick said...

@ Orchid

Not only have I visited the school, the school is one that I consult, so I know exactly what goes on there. There are some good students and teachers, and there are some good classes, but these are far and in between. Mostly what I witness there is a bunch of students unconcerned about learning and achievement. Foolishness is the order of the day.

@ A. Smith & @ Denisha

My education experience was similar. At an early age I was taken out of the hood and sent to schools for gifted children and private schools. But in the afternoon, I returned to the hood, and in the process, I learned the rules of the hood and the mainstream, and like my son, I was able to move fluidly between cultures. I knew the implicit and explicit rules of both.

But she has never had the opportunity to learn the rules of survival in the inner city. However, I do realize that they she may be picked at and ridiculed because of her difference, usually kids will leave her alone if she is not all up in the foolishness.

@ Anna Renee

My daughter is most interested in musical theater. She is a walking catalogue of Broadway shows and show tunes. She has been a part of a number of large productions in the area. That is why I'm surprised that she did not choose the arts school. She has expressed a desire to sing and act as a career.

But I suspect she is giving in. I suspect she is attempting to be what she thinks those around her thinks she should be. But I have tried to convince her that there is no singular definition of blackness. But she remains firm and the decision is no easier.

Jem said...

I applaud you for giving your daughter the option to decide, but why is she being given the choice here? You're the parent and if you want her to go to a specific school, shouldn't that be your call? My Mother never gave me choice when it came to schooling... I am eternally grateful for that.

Anna Renee said...

Max, you have to consider also that the school may corrupt her. She may start acting out in order to fit in with the negative flow. She may start acting "dumb" to "be accepted" Then you will have many many more problems! Im sorry brother Max!
Just my opinion.

Max Reddick said...

@ Jem

As my children have grown older, we have endeavored to make them part of the decision making process, especially when it most directly concerns them. Usually I am clever enough to nudge them in the direction they would like to go, however.

In this instance, I thought that we should include her because whatever school she goes to, she will more than likely be there the next four years. So I wanted her to go to school that she felt like she had a hand in choosing and where she would comfortable and feel safe. I had no idea she would make this choice.

@Anna Renee

I have considered that as well.

md20737 said...

Its great your daughter has gotten her confidence and interest back up in black people. But should that determine her education.

Education is too important in life. Its a right that we have now, that some take for granted, its a requirement to have a decent quality of life.

Also the inner city/urban schools where I grew up they are killing each other there. Literally stabbing, beating (jumping people), and everything else thats illegal. I would be so worried about my child there.

As a parents we have to use our wisdom and decision making skills to send our kids on the right path.

And if shes intent on the black experience there are plenty of HBCU's ran very black!! lol

ProfGeo said...

Max, you pose tough dilemmas...

If your daughter goes to her school of choice, you'll be worried about her physical safety as well as her education every minute. If she goes to your school of choice, she may not talk to you for four years. Both of these things may be about you as much as about her. What, in your parental judgment, is best for her?

I know that my parents would've opted for the best education, period, and let the rest sort itself out. But you're not them.

What does your daughter think she'll get at the failing school? Is it the blackness thing or something else?

Oh... and will your kids be reading these responses?

leedevious said...

Hey, I think this is only the second time I've commented on your blog, but here goes. I never had the option to choose my high school, so I went to a pretty poor public school. I wish I had a choice though because I was not well prepared for college. I never had to study in high school, and graduated in the top ten 10%. As a result, I am a pretty mediocre college student.

I cannot relate though, because I am surrounded by people my color all the time. I still think going to a good high school would be a valuable experience.

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