Five months before Michael Brown’s death, African-American students at his St. Louis high school gave one educator a striking lesson in the importance of empowering role models. The national debate since then continues to miss the point.
Photo by Gerry Lauzon via FlickR
In March 2014, I received an urgent e-mail request from a high school teacher in St. Louis, Mo., to visit her international literatures course. She wanted me to address a class of juniors and seniors that was comprised mostly of black male students.
“They don’t believe that they have futures,” Ms. R. wrote. Her tone in the message was neither incredulous nor dismissive. Rather, her language exuded a complex modulation of compassion, care and, most of all, concern.
Her sentiments echoed those of Maya, then a rising senior in my university “Politics of Education” course the previous fall.
I recalled the pointed pushback that Maya gave me in her class when I had protested the notion that black youth were hopeless. Her challenge foreshadowed Ms. R.’s invitation.
“But they are worried,” Maya firmly responded, while looking me squarely in my eyes from across the seminar room.
I thought about it. Maya spoke to “what is,” while I was wedded to “what should be.” Her words also suggested that young people nowadays did not need “role models” in their lives. Rather, they would stand to benefit from those of us with resources to listen to them, and to employ our assets in accord with their interests.
My visit to Normandy High School a few weeks later was uplifting, even rejuvenating, for a number of reasons.
First, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the school’s campus; it is nothing short of majestic. At the same time, I was somewhat puzzled by the St. Louis region’s grand investment in the school’s largely black student body, especially given the metropolitan’s peculiar racial past and present.
It then occurred to me: This school was not built for these students, but for the now out-migrated population of white students whose families had left their black neighbors largely red-lined and sequestered.
This observation notwithstanding, the pervasive joy and enthusiasm that I observed throughout my winding tour across the campus en route to Ms. R.’s class reminded me of the disconnect between the lived realities of these students and the popular representations of the same via sound bytes and video clips perpetrated by the mainstream news media.
And, as anticipated by my 30 years of working in schools that were similar to those that I had attended as a child and adolescent—both segregated and sequestered all-black schools and desegregated and diverse schools in the Bay Area of northern California—in Ms. R.’s class, I was met, at once, with words that evinced a sense of joyful intellectualism and curiosity, along with others tempered by informed doubt and suspicion.
The former views were shaped by the students’ implicit embrace of their self-evident capacities; the latter, by their lived experiences as young people who happened to be black, mixed, white, male, female who hailed from various working-class families After a period of a richly—and playfully—informed discussion, I posed a question to the class: “How does one ‘make a way out of no way’ and enjoy the quality of life that he or she desires?”
Answers ensued: “You’ve got to go along to get along”; “You’ve got to play the game”; “You’ve got to pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” to which class members individually responded, both agreeing and disagreeing with different measures.
We were at an impasse when a student, a 12th-grade African American, made the following observation: “We need a cast of characters.” He went on to explain that young black people, both back in the day and in the “here and now,” not only survived but flourished by having diverse people in their lives, some emotionally close and others, somewhat removed, who worked in their best interests.
These were people who provided affirmation, pushback, insight, protection, opportunities and other essentials necessary to assist black youth (especially) to combat the oppressive forces they encounter that too often derail them. These would be folks of different ages and backgrounds who believe in these students and tacitly understand that their lives matter in a world where they do not appear to.
Five months before Michael Brown died at the hands of a police bullet, he was a senior at Normandy High School. Although he was not in Ms. R’s class when I visited, I have wondered since whether he might have been one of those who were similarly pessimistic about their futures. Certainly, in retrospect, the tragedy of this young man seemed to anticipate the mobilization of a youth-led diverse cast of characters that we’ve come to know as “Black Lives Matter .”
Yet, as has been the case with similar casts in the recent and remote past, today’s cast has been met with disapproval and fear-mongering by the political and media elites—an attitude further reinforced by black civic and faith-based leaders whose television and Internet performances seek to persuade black children, youth and adults to comply with their intransigent racialized perspectives..
For example, some national politicians and pundits derisively compare Black Lives Matter to the Black Panther Party, evoking fear among uninformed citizens of an imagined past. Yet, such a comparison should inspire hope across the U.S. in times like these.
For instance, in addition to challenging police brutality, the Black Panther Party launched more than 35 Survival Programs and provided community help, such as education, tuberculosis testing, legal aid, transportation assistance, ambulance service, and the manufacture and distribution of free shoes to those who had previously gone without these resources. Particularly noteworthy note was the Free Breakfast for Children Program that spread to every major American city with a Black Panther Party chapter.
To the chagrin of F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, the U.S. government adopted it as a federal program that has survived into the 21st century.
Further, from the outset of its founding in 1966, the influence of the Black Panther Party assumed a transnational character that went beyond the creation of support groups for the organization. We see similar patterns today, as groups around the world employ as their model Black Lives Matter to mobilize in support of the U.S. group and to address oppressive forces in their own lands.
Garrett Albert Duncan
In short, to paraphrase the poet Kahlil Gibran, Black Lives Matter—like the students in that Normandy High School classroom—may very well be the arrow that flows swift and steady to transform futures in the interests of personal and social justice. And, like Ms. R. and the resourced individuals and groups that support Black Lives Matter, those of us who care for our future, who desire to transform it into one where all lives truly matter, must be the bows that are strong and stable.
Garrett Albert Duncan is Associate Professor of Education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He holds an appointment in African & African-American Studies and courtesy appointments in American Culture Studies and Urban Studies, and is a frequent commentator for national magazines and broadcast outlets. He welcomes comments from readers.