Home » Working-class
Category Archives: Working-class
In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.
I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people.
I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who doesn’t speak about race in mixed company, at least not casually, and certainly not in any space not specifically determined for such a conversation. If the invitation doesn’t say ‘race’ in the title, then I most assuredly won’t be bringing up sexism, racism nor classism, nor religious chauvinism – even if social status is evident and apparent by the time we get there. It’s too complicated, and I’ve been the unwitting sounding board too often for too many illiberals, or just folks who hadn’t ever really taken any time to (attempt to) put themselves in anyone else’s shoes – not even as a mental exercise to forward their own understanding of our world and its complexities.
Hurt people hurt people
I am an empath, and so shifting through perspectives is more organic to me than seems ‘normal’. Empaths more naturally take that Matrix-style 360-degree snapshot of any given scenario, distinct from neurotypical folks. I am also ‘a black man in a white world’, a gay man in a straight world, a Buddhist man in a Christian world, so I supposed I have made it a survival tactic to see the world through other’s eyes, knowing full well most hadn’t even considered I’d existed. It’s only other empaths who aren’t so surprised how we all got here across our differences. I have not had the luxury of surrounding myself with people just like me, and yet this has rarely made me feel unsafe.
This snapshot is also a means of connection: I like people and usually see similarities between people where they usually show me they’ve only ever seen differences. This isn’t to imply that I am colorblind or don’t see across differences. Naw, it’s that I am more interested in sharing hearts, no matter how deeply one has learned to bury and conceal theirs. Hence, I usually respond with “why” when told something ridiculously racist or sexist, and ask “how come you think that,” when something homophobic is said; and then I patiently listen. I genuinely want to know. I’ve observed that this response can throw people off balance, for they’ve become accustomed to people either joining in or ignoring their ignorance. Really, no one ever purely inquired how’d you become so hate-filled!?!
I wear my heart on my sleeve for I know how to recover from the constant assault and barrage of disconnection. Yes, it saddens me that so many have been so conditioned, and convinced for so long that we are so disconnected.
They want our RHYTHM but not our BLUES
Now, with my elite education and global aspirations, I often gain access to spaces that explicitly work to exclude people from any non-elite backgrounds. It’s not that I want to pass as anything other than myself, it’s just that I am often surrounded by folks who rarely seem to have considered that someone could – or would – simultaneously exist in a plethora of boxes. I can’t fit into any one box other than human. Yet, I used to try to fit in, to avoid standing out as a means to shield myself from the bullying or peering eyes and gossip as folks try to figure out in which box I reside – a classic tactic of projection.
I am a dark-skinned Black person with a nappy head and a stereotypical bubble butt. I neither bleach my skin nor straighten my hair, so I am identifiably Black up-close and from afar. I don’t even hide my body under baggy clothes, so even my silhouette is Black. I’ve lived, worked, studied and traveled in North America, western Europe, west Africa as well as north, south and southeast Asia, so I’ve taken 360-degree snapshots of radically different societies ‘seeing’ a Black man, and oh how radically different the reactions. I’m becoming one of those Black people who notices this, but won’t speak about race in mixed company because as an empath, one sees how defensive people become when raising race. I went through a phase where I would more readily speak about gender, then draw the parallels to race and class, for most folks can only handle one form of oppression at a time (fellow Audre Lorde fans may appreciate that pun).
Hello, my name is: Diversity.
I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who never questions people when they describe their backgrounds as ‘good’, when all they really mean is moneyed, racially and religiously homogenous. Many get all defensive when I reveal that my entire education was radically diverse by design, from second grade through my master’s. I know I had a “better” education than them because I was taught inclusion alongside people who were similar and different from me – and we went to each other’s homes.
I don’t look in the mirror and say ‘hey diversity’; I just see the face I was given, and do with it what I can. Yet, I have often been called upon to speak on behalf of m
any people. I offer my opinion, or relay my observations, and suddenly I am a spokesman for the gays, or the Blacks, rarely just me. So, what’s it like being on the inside of cultures of power? Darnit, I shan’t ask that either!
Thus far, this has been the only time someone has called the cops on me – excluding those late-night noise violations at university for my 21st birthday parties. Plus a few routine traffic stops back home, two of which involved routine racial profiling. I’m lucky. There are far too many stories when these police encounters didn’t go well.
What if Ms. Angie had notified the guard, and he’d then decided to take things into his own hands? What if the police had come in pointing guns as they are want to do? What if my mother weren’t clasping tightly to my hand – as far as they knew – a senior citizen in need of (their) protection, a long-time customer of the bank discussing the mortgage on my grandparent’s old house? I have to wonder about these possibilities, to be sensitive and aware :-(. To be Young, Gifted and Black :-).
Like Charles Ramsey, “I knew something was wrong” when I saw two cops circle the bank and enter from two different directions. They weren’t there for banking and there weren’t any other customers. This was hubby’s (then boyfriend) first visit to my hometown, so I’d explicitly warned him to sit down while we waited in the lobby for my mother to handle her business. It was a small branch, yet still, like many banks at the time, the safe sat wide open, as if for inspection. Hubby was hovering. I even gave him change so he could get a lollipop from the charity pot sitting on several teller stations. You’d think someone would come over and offer a tour.
I had entered the small office once or twice. I greeted the agent speaking with my mother, then let momma know where we waited. Meanwhile, hubby insisted on wondering around – he’s generally restless. He was looking at all the posters promoting the bank’s services. Incredibly high-interest rates! Few savings options! He’s fascinated with the levels of credit exploitation permitted in America; the average German has net assets while most all us Americans have debt! He couldn’t even understand how a nation would let its population not have access to a basic bank account – as a right. He measured everything by good German standards.
How do people in America live with such instability! At that time, all this was totally foreign to him. At least in our neighborhood most folks were homeowners, so hubby and I understood one another on that. We’d both grown up taking care of our family’s homes and helping the neighbors. We’ve mowed many a lawn and trimmed many a hedge. We still do now.
Angie Smallwood’s branch has now closed. After being heavily frisked, ID-ed and having the car license plates checked, the manager told us that Angie Smallwood had been involved in “5 or 6 armed robberies.” He explained – in that managerial tone where you know you’re being handled – that Angie had become suspicious because of hubby’s foreign accent. I found that part hilarious and yet most plausible then and there, in Louisville, KY. In spite of their constant romanticization of their European roots, they couldn’t communicate with one actual F.O.B. standing right in front of them. As a European, hubby needed this education about his own whiteness.. He even came up with his own phrase for the phenomenon “those are not my white people.”
I suppose the manager was suggesting that Angie Smallwood was trigger happy. Or, perhaps he was just trying to elicit our sympathies. It’s not as if we were going to cause a scene, the cops were still standing menacingly by. Of course, my husband blurted out why they’d placed someone so traumatized on front desk duty anyway? I am also not certain if they expected my mother to continue her business with them, or if they even cared, but the cops did ask hubby and I to leave – as if my mother was just going to go back inside. At least the manager could have apologized to my mother. He could not.
“Like I said, we just got a call about a potential crime.”
What if my mother didn’t have outstanding credit, or relationships with other banks, and therefore didn’t have other options? Angie’s antics would have just ruined that. This was the most disrespectful part – their staunch, comprehensive reminder that there’s systemic power behind their individual prejudices. Their silences. My silence.
My silence: I had already policed myself. I dressed for success, sat calmly in a visible area, not made any noise and not touched anything save for the flyer next to me on the table. I used my best diction and inside voice when I made sure to smile and greet every staffer I could see. I showed them my teen as if to announce “I’m not a threat.” If all that hadn’t disarmed them, it occurred to me – yet again- that they could not be appeased.
No level of respectability would protect me in public – we were all a part of a system, and as far as they were all concerned, everyone was just doing their job. Imagine, not only could the cops not offer any apology, they couldn’t even stand down from their hostile posture and tone. I actually felt sorry for them – as big, armed and trained as they were, they acted threatened by us!
At the time I thought they’d refused to de-escalate the situation, perhaps pride? The cops had no kind words for my mother whom they’d found out was there on legitimate business. Naw, they escorted us outside and menacingly watched us drive away. Sometimes I feel that even screwball ‘Police Academy’movies from the 80’s showed more emotional intelligence than that.
Though hubby usually drives, momma insisted that she take the wheel under the cops’ eyes, worrying they’d then challenge the foreigner’s right to drive. Yet, now I’m convinced they couldn’t have de-escalated the situation. Cops’ weeks of training doesn’t routinely include conflict resolution. They don’t know no better. They just got a call, and so they could no longer be human.
Educate cops. Arm them with de-escalation tools so that the public sees their power. Arm cops with non-violence so that they model this behavior for our society. Teach cops to be able to identify emotional distress as much as any professional would. Don’t let a weapon be their only peacemaker.
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.
Originally written: 26 November 2001
I wanna be like Mike. Mike is filthy rich, in great physical condition, is well perceived by not only his fans, but also the wider public, and he’s even faithful to his monogamous relationship. Mike is generally agreeable, and you almost never see him expressing aggression towards others outside of the game. Mike has never been ‘exposed’ as gun-totting, neither bashing women nor gays, and he’s even pretty articulate. Rumors spread about his philanthropic efforts the same low-income communities where he grew up in a hard-working family. His best friend and biggest fan is his dad, and Mike is so sensitive and secure with his manhood that he wept before the nation upon his dad’s death. Mike’s at the very top of his craft yet never brags and never rests on his laurels. Mike’s humble and certainly a team player. “Nothin’ but net.” Mike works hard.
This is what America tells the world, and outside of this country (which is neither the center of the universe nor even this tiny planet) many believe that Mike is wholly representative of the American dream. For sleuths of Americans, he’s likely representative of the ideal American. I mean, I am not a sports gladiator nor was I born with a trust fund. Hence, in order to be like Mike, I am in school. I work hard. Thus far I’ve earned a degree from an elite university and am currently enrolled in another. I estimate that so far, my education itself has indebted me over one hundred twenty thousand; and I am nowhere near done. There’s little guarantee that I’ll be wealthy, or even employed. There’s absolutely no guarantee, and in fact, factors are working against me finding a lifelong stable monogamous relationship.
And I am quite privileged. Imagine if you will, most of the world. Most of us have received that chain e-mail which looks at the world population scaled down to one hundred folks. Imagine if this entire Earth’s population were composed of just one hundred people, there would be less than one person with the opportunities I’ve had. So then, how many would have those opportunities like Mike?
Don’t e’rybody wanna be like Mike?
Imagine now, that you have a happy, humble life. You work hard. You live in the south of France and you attend to the vineyard, just as generations upon generations of your ancestors have done before. What are your chances of ever being like Mike? Imagine that you’re a social worker in Kazakhstan with few resources to offer those who present themselves before you, regardless of their destitute. You work hard. Imagine you’re a child soldier in Sierra Leon who was forced to burn his village to the ground after being forced to massacre several relatives. You cling to the drugs your captors make you take numb you when they rape your mother and sister. You work hard. Imagine that you’re sitting with a doctor in Botswana as she tells you that you are HIV+. You join a quarter of Botswana’s population who live with HIV/AIDS. You work hard, but the monthly medical costs of a person living with AIDS is much more than a year’s salary for you and your husband, who is also positive. Now imagine you are their kids. You like basketball, too. And you practice every day with the plastic carton nailed to the tree out back. You work hard. Imagine you’re the same kid, with the same circumstances, only you’re in the ghettos of America, just like Mike. If you work hard, wouldn’t you become an Olympiad? Wouldn’t Obama present you the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House with the Gates? Couldn’t your image become a logo?
What are your chances of ever being like Mike? You work hard. Would it anger you that these images bombard your life? This world is big, but Mike’s dream persists…and penetrates every market on Earth. We’re all sold that version of that dream – that anyone, even a kid as regular as Mike, could be like Mike. If he can do it, anyone can (and you can with this can of cola, sports drink, burger, apparel, underwear, or other consumable… be like Mike) Don’t it inspire you? No rim! Don’t you want to be like Mike?