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One of the most intriguing aspects of being black today is sanity.
How can an individual living in such desperate times exist alongside insane denial of said existence?
How does one remain sane in an insane world?
One that denies we matter?
At the start of my new school in the second grade, my new teacher gave me a nickname.
No one can say your name, she explained, so she’d call me by my initials, DK.
And that’s how things remained for years.
I grew to love that teacher and my classmates, many of whom studied with me until graduation 11 years later.
Needless to say, our small class got to know one another really well.
It’s that knowing of others that I draw upon now to stay sane.
See, I know white people.
I’ve grown up in a diverse world, one where all our differences were brought to light and respected.
I learned that my teacher – then a middle-aged, middle-class white woman- had marched alongside Dr. King in all his major marches for his struggle for Civil Rights.
I knew Jewish kids who I learned were seen as outsiders like me.
I learned that Catholics were marginalized in our city, despite being the largest health care providers.
I learned that the poor white kids where, too, regarded as others.
I saw that not all the black kids could escape.
I learned that despite the school’s efforts at integration, life would segregate us then and now.
As soon as the last bell rang, race and class separated us once again.
We all went to our respective neighbourhoods,
And have largely remained in our respective places as adults.
Now, I as an adult, I am ‘diversity’.
I accepted that you can never judge a book by its cover.
See, in my state, the rural areas are generally considered backwards- and this is taught to us city kids as a fact.
We even had a biology teacher in high school who told us that she’d taught in the hills of Kentucky and the people were in fact born stupid…damaged by oxygen deprivation.
I listened to what was said about ‘them’
But what I heard was the same shit that had been said about us.
No, it didn’t destroy my ability to trust white people,
But it did give me pause for thought:
How is it that ‘they’ could arrive at respect for my people, but then turn around and diss others who are struggling?
This was all just one more piece of the puzzle I was putting together to help me understand society’s cruelty towards me as a kid.
Why did I grow up in total fear of how strangers would react to me?
It’s like a sixth sense that I honed and developed throughout my life- this is one of the many benefits of being a minority.
But tis sixth sense suggests that we live in a world that is largely unsafe for people like me.
That’s the burden I’d like to ease for those who come after me.
I want to develop the implicit assumption that Black Lives Matter.
Unquestionably, unapologetically and unconditionally.
Blackness is no excuse, nor whiteness.
Racism erodes empathy.
A song for Terry.
Terry was just six when he died.
Not a long time spent on this Earth,
But enough to make himself known to the universe.
There were many obstacles in life waiting for boys like Terry.
If life is a vast ocean, then he only sailed a meager ferry.
Terry was born in a place, in a time and
In a body that didn’t count much –
A poor, southern Black boy and such.
He was loved, for sure,
I’d see his grandmother kiss him every morning,
As she sent Terry off to school.
Terry’s household didn’t look like those on TV.
None of ours did.
There weren’t any of those Cosby kids.
But Terry was like my brother, my dear friend.
I looked forward to walking to school with Terry each day.
He always had something interesting to say.
Terry and I were in the same class.
He lived across the street,
And our school was just a few blocks away.
There and back,
I wanted to be by his side.
Sometimes I would walk to my grandparents’ after school,
And momma would pick me up after work.
No sooner did we get home and settled did I ask to go outside and play,
Our story was short-lived.
Two kids on the block,
On the poor side of town,
We lived cocooned in a world of luxury:
We were cared for and we were safe.
Everyone on the block looked out for all the kids;
There were no strangers around home base.
But, we also lived
In a time and place of misery,
Where things like poverty,
Would determine your destiny,
And all the dreams we would dream,
Would have to fight the sun to live.
A handsome little brown boy,
And a finely picked mini ‘Fro.
An easy smile,
And an easy-going way about him.
Terry was a nice guy.
And did I mention he was loved?
He was not the most popular kid in class –
Naw, everybody feared that guy!
Terry was the one everyone liked.
For Valentine’s day,
The whole class exchanged heart-shaped candies and notes with one another-
All in pink, my favorite color.
My one time of year to shine!
I was so excited to choose one especially for Terry, my brother:
Will you be my Valentine?
Even the teacher got along with him.
Terry never got in trouble.
He got sad-eyed when any of us got marched off to get paddled.
At lunch, I’d always sit with Terry.
Terry got free lunch, and
Peanut butter and jelly is what I got when momma packed mine!
We’d hurry to the front of the line,
And finish our food quickly,
So we could go to the play area the rest of the time.
I didn’t like milk, but Terry did.
And he didn’t care for apple sauce, but I did.
Sometimes we’d split:
Half a piece of pizza for half my sandwich.
We didn’t keep score, but
We were always even.
There, right in the middle of the cafeteria,
Smack in the middle of the school,
Was a large, carpeted recreational area.
There, we’d play and everything was cool.
After lunch, but also before and after school,
We could climb and crawl,
Spin and jump,
Run and hide,
Seek and find,
And holler as loud as we’d want.
Teachers would monitor from nearby, but
They left us alone and took their break-time.
Our teachers would even rotate who had this monitoring job to do.
We weren’t a rowdy bunch,
So, there were no fights to break-up.
There were neither hoops nor balls to tussle over.
No nets, no bats –
No competition and all that.
Just a space…
Where us kids could be free.
We were free.
Terry died in the middle of first grade.
We had found out from our teacher that Terry was sick,
We’d all heard of sickle cell, many in our own families, like mine.
But none of us knew what it means.
We knew Terry was not always sturdy.
One time he’d had a bad bout with asthma.
Our teacher helped him take his inhaler,
That she’d showed us where it was kept in her desk drawer.
Now, she was telling us that Terry was just spending a few days in the hospital.
The whole class avidly awaited Terry’s return.
She didn’t know more than that,
I needed to know when Terry’d be back.
I knocked on his door, one day
On the way home from school,
To tell his grandmother I hoped Terry’d be ok.
I knew my grandmother would be heartbroken if anything like that happened to one of us.
Kids that little aren’t supposed to die.
Not here, and not of diseases we can’t even see.
Even at that age, I knew this just shouldn’t be.
And yet turn on the TV,
Every day we see signs and symptoms of little Black boys’ morbidity.
Whether from war or starvation in distant lands, or
Dilapidation and disease on these burning sands.
Just like what was happening to Terry:
A casualty of a neglectful society.
I didn’t get to mourn Terry,
Didn’t have some cathartic corral with our classmates about
The fun times we had or how much we missed him.
There was no school counselor coming to our class –
No one explaining the cycle of life, nor
Asking us about our feelings.
I knew how I felt.
I loved Terry, and knew the way I loved him was seen as peculiar;
I couldn’t let anyone know about this one-sided affair.
I was sad, and all this was unfair.
What would I say?
We were only 6 years old, and
Terry was the first boy I ever loved.
In memory of Muhammed Ali, another Black boy who survived those same streets and corridors.