Now all the teachers couldn’t reach me
And my momma couldn’t beat me
Hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me (Jay-Z)
I was speaking to a middle school student that I am mentoring through a non-profit in Chicago, and the student explained to me an event in his life growing up. He said last summer he was on his front porch and a drive-by shooting happened on his street while he was outside. He went through the fear of that day and how he thought that his life could of ended. This trauma experienced by black youth in their communities cannot be taken lightly. We all know that the story that the student expressed to me is not an isolated incident. We often hear about the national news highlights on the lives of certain black youth (Trayvon Martin, Derrion Albert, Hadiya Pendleton). However the American media only decides to highlight black youth in the national news when their stories are interesting enough to sell newspapers and airtime. The problem is we do not hear about the everyday exposure to violence and trauma that black youth are forced to experience. And more importantly people far too often choose to ignore this trauma rather than explore the impact it is having and the need black youth have for spaces to debrief.
What initially sparked the conversation that lead to the student sharing his story with me was an activity I created. I had the student watch Jay-Z’s December 4th video. The video is an autobiographical rap narrative, where Jay-Z basically tells his life story and struggles growing up. After the student watched the short video, I then had him write a similar version, about himself. The student wrote a concise and eloquent rap about his struggles growing up black and the impact that poverty had on his life.
Hearing his story made two things resonate with me. First off, hearing the reality about poverty, gang violence, and growing up “in the hood” from the mind and heart of a middle school student was one of the most honest depictions of our society that I have ever heard. Second, what stood out was the casualty in which students speak about the trauma in their own lives. Even though the student mentioned that he was afraid on the day the event happened, for the most part, it was spoken as if the incident wasn’t that big of a deal. As if drive-bys happen everywhere. The beautiful naiveté of the student made me both appreciative and frustrated. I was appreciative because even though he has been through rough times, the student knew how to take his experience and use it as a tool to survive. I was frustrated about the systems put in place to make this child feel as though the violence he is exposed to is…normal. It’s tragic, yet, amazing how students conjure up their resilience to make it through.
I think mentorship is so important for black youth for many reasons. But in this particular case, because it gives young people the opportunity to debrief about the most simple and most difficult/complex events in their lives—both equally important. It gives them the space to talk, be angry, be honest, and be real. When trauma does happen in the lives of a whole generation of young people, it will only be the mentors; the friends, the brothers and sisters, the caretakers, and the honest listeners that will be there to help each other make it through what we want to believe are temporary situations. If you have some free time (and if you don’t you should make some), find a young person and be a resource to them, you never know how you might be able to help.