Back in my days as a middle school teacher, I had the opportunity to attend a conference for history teachers and I was too excited to take the day away from my classroom to go mix and mingle with my own. Being in Boston, the conference was mostly centered on teaching American history, which was just fine by me. I popped in and out of different sessions, nibbling on fancy hotel fare, then found myself seated at the back of a session being presented by a conservative writer. His thesis, presented in a detailed and official-looking document, proposed that “American identity” was being diluted and destroyed because the minority groups of our nation choose to keep our racial identifiers. By choosing “African-American” instead of simply “American,” I am somehow hurting the nation, disallowing it to progress because I am not allowing myself to fully embrace the “American Way.” He implored then that we History teachers, especially, choose to teach the major and “generally accepted” ideals of America and American life and to not emphasize divisive moments or tell the story in a way that separates the blocks of the great American quilt.
It was an interesting thesis and, as professionals, the people in the room listened intently and judged it on its merits. At the end of his presentation, though, I had a key question, which went along the lines of:
“How do you expect me to take this message back to my segregated classroom in a Roxbury charter school? I have students in my class who are Black, Hispanic and Cape Verdean and who are there are many reasons: racial and socio-economic being only a part of it, but all of that within a national and regional historical context. How do you want me to tell those kids to “just be American” when, in essence, everything about their lives screams that they are not?”
The presenter thanked me for my “bold and honest” question, but didn’t give me an answer.
So I took his materials, made copies for my students and made his material part of my end-of-the-year project. They needed to write me an essay that answered two big questions: “Is America a ‘just’ nation that is home to a ‘just’ people? Should the people of America identify themselves only as ‘American’ or ‘[identity]-American’?”
Being 8th graders, of course, they all fixated on the greatest and original wrong of Slavery and decided that the answer was a easy “no.” Being in the middle of their natural psychological identify-centered journeys, the majority of them also decided that being a [label]-American was more important and meaningful than only being American. Some arguments were more eloquent than others, some evidence used more compelling or interesting…
All four years that I gave the assignment, I was asked for my own answer. I always gave it after everyone gave their presentations. Most students were shocked by my answer.
Longtime readers who have been with me for my usual July 4th and Thanksgiving posts probably know my answer. I’ve made no secret of my love of country and my strong feelings toward it, imperfections and all. While I did argue that the racial identifiers that we attach to our “American” identities isn’t something to be spurned, but something to be celebrated, my students were always surprised when I told them, in spite of everything, I think that we are at our core a just nation and a just people.
And I’m writing all of this to you because, for the last two days, after seeing the Spring Valley HS video over and over again, I’m having such a hard time. Down deep, I can’t shake the seemingly bottomless hurt of it. Not just because of the brutal actions taken by this uniformed officer on this young woman in a classroom. Not just because the students around her sit there in their shocked silence, powerless to help their peer, probably fearful that they would be next. Not just because the brave individual who took the video was arrested on her own accord for the simple action of making sure her peer’s story would be told.
But because almost all of the commentary that I’ve seen about the video seems to skew toward the notion that the young woman was deserving of her brutal mistreatment. That somehow, on any level, it’s ok for that man to attack that young woman in that way. That in the age of cameras and protests and almost weekly calls for reform, police brutality doesn’t seem to be lessening and we are not, as a nation, becoming increasingly outraged with each act new act that comes to our attention. I’m pissed because we’re screaming that Black Lives Matter and it seems that the counter campaign to silence it has seemed to have taken hold of the national conversation and narrative. I keep wondering when Black Women and Girls will become precious, too. When will our bodies, our minds, our spirits become so highly regarded as so many other privileged groups? Black Women and Girls have learned this year that we’re not safe: we’re not safe is private places where we pay to be, in public places where we’re supposedly welcome, in churches, in schools, on the streets, in our cars driving from one place to another… We’ve learned that we’re sometimes not safe in our own homes or in the relationships that we’re in… where is our space in this world? Where are we precious, too? Where is our preciousness acknowledged, even honored?
Spare me arguments of what she was doing before hand. Spare me the words regarding cell-phones and refusal to move. Keep the nonsense of her “multiple opportunities” to “comply” with the order. Ask yourself, if those arguments really move you, at what point does that young lady cease being a child? human being? citizen of a nation? member of a community? student in a classroom? At what point does her quiet resistance, however distasteful you may find it, disqualify her of her humanity?
These are questions that go to the core of who we are as a people and as a society. It goes beyond question of whether or not we’ve given the right amount of authoritative power to the right people. We need to decide if we are still a nation that upholds the rights of the accused with the same weight of merit as the supposed righteous among us. (Which is a question that doesn’t apply in this case because she was not a criminal as she was not committing a crime. She was not under arrest. She was not part of the judicial system at that moment. She was a student in a classroom. A pupil and a citizen. Nothing more and nothing less at that moment.) Moreover, are we a nation that gives special weight to the defenseless, the oppressed, the minor, the voiceless? Who are we if we are not a people who can look at a young woman of any color and know that no matter what she may or may not have done before she could not possibly be deserving of that sort of brutal violence? Especially at the hands of a state-sanctioned authority?
Is a nation that asks its minorities to sit down, shut up, stop resisting, stop complaining…. a “just” nation with a “just” people? Is a nation that continually asks its oppressed people to “wait” for the system to work itself out and not to rock the boat in the meantime a “just” nation? Is a nation that values a certain kind of resistance over another, forgiving the overzealous authority before further subjugating the victim a “just” nation?
Is justice for that young woman only going to be the firing of that officer? Is it enough? Will there ever be enough justice for that young woman? For all of us who daily suffer as we watch this gross and wide-spread injustice continue to unfold?
If only I were still teaching… how answer would be so different now. I wonder just how naive my former students think I am…
See you Friday for Quiet Thoughts.