This past winter, as a student teacher in a kindergarten class on the South Side of Chicago, I got the pleasure of hearing one of my students articulate the centuries old matter of black humanity within the context of whiteness and white supremacy. It happened during the beginning of the school year, and I sat cozily to the side as my lead teacher, a Black woman, began going over rules with the students. I was elated, as the whole process felt very democratic, at least as democratic as a classroom should feel. She had asked the class, “What rules do you think we need to make our classroom run well?” Ultimately, she was making the choice to co-construct the rules with her students, which is textbook best practice, but of course, when you ask students to talk, they will speak. And you better be prepared for what you’re about to hear. Accordingly, at one point she uttered, “One rule is obey. You must obey all adults.” I scoffed on the inside, firstly because the word “obey” rings with the oppression of a totalitarian regime. But secondly, I was having an internal dilemma about the levels of nuance we sacrifice in the effort of serving young Black youth.
What does it mean to tell Black youth to listen to all adults? What does it mean to obey all adults? Specifically, when many of those “all adults” have been responsible for the systematic erasure of Black bodies in the streets? If you work with children, you soon notice that they often do notice what you notice, and they feel what you feel. But they speak on the level that makes the most sense to them. In fact, all age and experience does is complicate and dilute what can be actually very simple truths.
And so, in response to my lead teacher’s command to obey all adults, Little Malcolm, from his square on the rug, with eyes full with purpose and intent, and a lowered brow, called up and said, “not white people.”
“No, you must obey all adults,” said my lead teacher.
“Not white people,” said Malcolm again.
My lead teacher moved on. I on the other hand was filled with joy. Little Malcolm had been my catharsis. Had spoken the truth that I felt, and even better, knew exactly what he was saying. When I asked him the next day what he meant by the comment, he suddenly seemed more confused,
“I don’t know.” He told me, “They don’t talk to me.”
At that point, I had no idea what his lived experiences with white people had actually been. I could not know whether or not the white people he had interacted with actually did or did not talk to him. But what I do know is that whatever was happening, he felt that white people did not talk to him. And accordingly, he already had made the connection that has proved fatal for many of our black youth. That is, if you don’t talk to me, why should I listen to you?
Tomorrow is the birthday of Ralph Ellison, who in his novel wrote that stirring line, “I am an invisible man…simply because people refuse to see me.” As we come upon the end of Black history month, I reflect on the power of his words, and how they so fully congeal with what Little Malcolm already knows at five years old, and what many Black Americans feel all over this nation. We are not being seen. We are not being heard. We do not seem to exist in this capitalist white supremacist apparatus, and therefore, no matter how many of us cry, it seems we do not make a sound. If we, Black folks, are still in the midst of a fight to be seen and heard and felt and loved as human beings, then we have a responsibility to make sure we are visible to each other. There are two battles we must wage: the fight with white supremacy, and the fight for each other. I’m not merely talking about the lie of “black on black” crime. I am talking about how systems in this country work together to keep us from loving and connecting to one another. How are we seeing each other? How do we love each other? When are we pausing to recognize the burdens of one another? We may not be seen, or spoken to, but we do have the power to see and speak to each other. In the midst of these multiple attacks on Black humanity, and specifically Black youth, than we must be taking care of each other. From Ralph Ellison to Little Malcolm, we will continually have reminders that ultimately we have no other choice.