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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?
“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy”
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
Many of my students have never felt safe at school. I know because I ask. Early in my career, this thread of inquiry was prompted by students’ guardedness and/or surprise that I encourage dialogue, including debate and dissent. I insist that we all listen and endeavor to appreciate our distinct voices. I demonstrate that personal experience is as valuable as ‘book knowledge’ when both are subjected to criticality. This is distinct from the conventional objectiveness and alleged neutrality that we now know as universalising whiteness, maleness, bourgeois values (e.g. hooks, 1994: 16). If they hadn’t known, my students quickly learn what it means to bring the whole self into the classroom.
Many fellow educators have never known a classroom where teachers build a community of “mutual engagement,” through what bell hooks calls “radical openness” (1994: 205). I am frustrated that rather than transform, they opt to re-instantiate the dominance/subordination of conventional pedagogy. This dynamic “often creates a context where the student is present in the classroom to serve the will of the professor, meeting his or her needs, whether it be the need for an audience… or the need to assert dominance over subordinated students” (hooks, 2003: 91). This is intellectual sadomasochism (hooks, 2000: 165).
Unsurprisingly, that conventional banking’ model “where students are regarded merely as passive consumers” still receives credence in bureaucratic institutions worldwide (hooks, 1994: 40). Like abused children, many are eager to uphold that status quo due to “their cathected feelings for those adults” who were otherwise meant to care (hooks, 2000: 49).
Safe(r) in school
I have always liked school. From the memories I (now) select to represent the institution to me, it has always been a safe space of ‘radical openness’. The irony, of course, is that to love a place with integrity, one must know its opposite: I have experienced both love and terror within the classroom. I knew both by the time I was 6.
I continue to teach because I earnestly believe the classroom is the most radical space on the planet. It is the one space where there seems universal agreement that humans must grow. There is universal agreement that classrooms SHOULD be safe, though clearly there is no agreement on how that safety should be met. For example, I first realised I was gay inside a classroom, accepted it in another, and understood both its potential destructive and transformative implications in yet others.
In first grade, I had a crush on a guy named Freddie and a girl named Renée. In retrospect, I realised I wanted Freddie to like me the way that all the boys seemed to like Renée – the lightest-skinned black girl with the longest, bone-straight hair. Gay, right?
In 7th grade, when I was 12, I had two clear epiphanies during two separate chorus classes. First, an older classmate mocked my speech pattern as ‘gay’ to which I retorted: “Just because I talk proper doesn’t mean I’m gay.” He was one of the star basketballers on our school’s team; everyone looked up to him and laughed at his jokes. At that moment, it was hurtful and confusing. Crucially, however, that same classmate seamlessly continued to treat me like a little brother, and we grew even closer over the years. Teasing was his only means of discussing alternate masculinities. Typical jock, right?
Shortly thereafter, when our beloved chorus teacher went on maternity leave, her replacement was an effeminate Black man – what Brits call ‘camp’. Unlike our other teachers, he never said anything about his life outside the classroom – this was the Bible Belt in the 80’s. Yet, there was an immediate cathartic sense of identification that still warms me. I distinctly recall working out in my 12-year-old head that not only my school, but my state’s school system had to have approved of this individual. I was for the first time seeing someone like me ‘in the world’. Years later when I bumped into him at ‘the club’ I thanked him for his service. Representation matters!
That summer I participated in an enrichment program on the university campus where my parents and godparents all met one another. During one class, the guest speaker concluded his motivational talk by mocking an effeminate man who’d come to meet him after another talk. It was unclear why campiness had suddenly become the topic, so I asked a question to quickly change the subject. As the speaker began his response, another student muttered loudly “you’re talking to one right now”. No one came to my defense, including me. I couldn’t believe that a room full of kids and adults had allowed such a hateful slur. I felt terrified, yet held my tears for the bus ride home.
Such incidents at 12 years old convinced me of two things: 1) The classroom is the safest space for radical openness, and 2) I had to leave Kentucky, as George Michael sang in Flawless: “You know you’re wasted here, wasted here/And there ain’t no miracles happening any time soon.”
I am an exile, yet at home everywhere else in the world where there is a classroom. Students generally appreciate my honesty and willing openness about my life’s journey. As educators, we tend to forget that unless challenged, students somehow believe that we were born like this – as fully formed teachers. Share your journey; it allows them to map their own.
For more inFormation
– (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.
– (2000) All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Marrow and Co.
– (2003) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident, we are the products of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are White. If we are Black we are products of the history our ancestors most likely didn’t choose.”Kevin Gannon, 13th
And many of our cities in Britain are this melting pot due to the very same history our ancestors chose / didn’t choose; and the reason Britain has a variation of different faces is much to do (but not only) because of Britain’s colonial ambition.
Episode seven of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? was on TV entertainer Sharon Osbourne. Her family were victims of the Irish Potato Famine. Whilst the episode skirts over it, saying it occurred due to crop failures (with no real explanation), some would suggest that it was due to heavy-handed (British) colonial rule which assured those crop failures, leading to mass migration, starvation and death. For a show that is basically a series of history lectures, it does a good job of tiptoeing around uncomfortable (truths) bits of history.
As the late Jamaican philosopher and academic Stuart Hall said, “We are here because you were there” and we are now all here together, the products of our ancestors’ choices. I’ve been following this series of Who Do You Think You Are? with great interest and fascination. Almost every episode has had me hooked. And this latest episode with Sharon Osbourne was heartbreaking, with her great-grandmother Annie being the sole survivor of her six siblings, after disease and weakness took them.
The family emigrated to Massachusetts, USA in the mid-19th century and they worked in a cotton mill, the biggest in America and the second biggest in the world, only dwarfed by one in Manchester, Lancashire.
What irked me was the lack of contextual explanation around cotton during this time. Why wasn’t there any explanation regarding the history of cotton in the United States? Moreover, that relationship between American cotton and the mills of Lancashire and Cheshire (some 4500 mills in Lancashire and southern Scotland). What about the Industrial Revolution and how colonialism and the enslaved Black people that paid for it?
In a country still living in the aftermath of The Slave Trade, you cannot talk about cotton in America without talking about where the cotton came from. The same cotton made into cloth in Massachusetts would have came from cotton plantations, whether picked by African-Americans slaves (pre-1865) or “like-labour,” post-Civil War – since after abolition, the establishment entered into something called convict leasing. Prisoners loaned to plantation owners for a period, which (in itself) was legalised slavery. A loophole in the 13th Amendment stated that you could not be a slave, unless you were a criminal and imprisoned, thus America enters mass incarceration.
Black people in America were arrested for minor crimes like theft and vagrancy, and then imprisoned in mass. These prisoners were “rented” and put to work on plantations through the South – sugar, tobacco, cotton and more. The fact they didn’t feel the need to mention the context behind cotton in America is astounding, nor how the American cotton trade impacted Britain, for example the Lancashire Cotton Famine (1861 – 1865).
Yes, this episode is about Sharon Osbourne’s ancestors, but they were part of a longer story – a subtler history – the other half of cotton’s history that isn’t taught at school. And in places like Mississippi, where cotton was sailed down the Mississippi River by paddle steam, the local planters said:
“Cotton Is King.”
In Britain, we learn about spinning jennies. We learn about water frames and the Child Labour Act (1833), but not where cotton came from. This is American history and British history. It’s also working-class history. But in addition, it’s Black (British) history.
We are here because you were there; this is the history our ancestors chose, if you are White. But if you are Black, it’s the history your ancestors didn’t choose. And the least we can do is tell it right.
13th. Dir. Ava DuVernay. Netflix. 2016. Streaming platform.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.
Olusoga, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Macmillan, 2016. Print.