Having recently had the privilege, joy and absolute honor to engage in intentional, purpose-driven conversations with each of my young cousins (pictured), over the course of this pandemic – I have been blessed to occupy a front row seat to their keen insights along with the full breadth of their divine light/beauty, effortless genius, rejection of all things mediocre and a stunning Wakandan reminiscent, futuristic (and uniquely grounded) approach to the future. The unspoken security they possess with respect to their own pivotal place in the world, is certainly counter to the mainstream narrative of our young people’s academic deficits, of their all inclusive selfishness or of the supposed tragic loss of their potential. Quite remarkably, and this is undoubtedly no surprise to other educators, the biggest takeaway we can all be blessed to walk away with following our daily work and intimate engagement with young minds . . . is profound hope. For the record, it’s worthy of note that these are not your private school educated, affluent or white privileged adjacent young people. To be honest, the most impressive amongst the wealth of our most charming, self-assured and promising group of young scholar-leaders is our regular degular, garden variety, home grown and unassuming Black students who have not (and will likely never), be irreparably broken by this abhorrent, racist and institutionalized system designed to break them.
My own personal and professional resolve to engage in the arduous work of dismantling mis-education has been strengthened by having targeted, close interactions with THIS Revolutionary generation of capable leaders. Namely, I spent the first few weeks of the pandemic engaged in reaching out to both my immediate and extended family from right here in Detroit to as far away as: Alabama, New Jersey, and Florida as we collectively resolved to stay in touch via Zoom across the miles and then routinely immersed ourselves in weekly wellness check-in’s, needs assessments and engaged in various milestone celebrations and/or mourning of family happenings and rites of passage. In fact, over time our weekly family meetings were so successful, that they later morphed into a series of oral (and now a permanently recorded) history of our warrior/abolitionist rich ancestry, heritage. We even launched into more action-oriented goals as we began engaging in entrepreneur, family legacy styled business meetings and pursuits to actualize the intentional pooling of our resources to invest in viable business, venture capital opportunities for our collective future. Despite the fact that I was initially elated that such a strong, steady contingency of our family seemed to regularly agree to check in with one another via my own enthusiastic coordination and small Black business anchored initiative and Zoom account – what was admittedly disheartening and seemingly an abysmal failure was the lack of enthusiastic intergenerational representation on our weekly calls. Save the occasional appearance of our resident WNBA young adult superstar baby, the coveted presence of my own recent college graduate young adult, a couple of our beloved HS/college aged cousins from Alabama or young parents and working-class cousins from here in Detroit – for the vast majority of the youth in our family – it was clear that the virtual method of connection had fallen flat.
Clearly, our carefully orchestrated family meetings would never garner the enthusiasm or stamped approval of either the Millennial Generation or that of Generation Z (22 and younger) – because even my own daughter would matter of factly proclaim “Mom, please…your weekly check-in meetings are corny and just how long did you say this mess was gonna last anyway?” Needless to say, I was humbled by the sting of her trademark youthful candor. But praise God, I was soon to be pleasantly surprised and unexpectedly affirmed by the promise that the universe had other, decidedly more promising, intergenerational connections in store for our pandemic imposed reality. Namely, it wasn’t long before I did inner somersaults after my “frontlines of the BLM protest lines; beautiful, bad-assed, and multitalented” cousin in her 30s asked me to use my educational, small business expertise to work with her daughter, my baby cousin Courtney. As destiny would have it, before long Court and I were connecting regularly in an unscripted one-on-one format, to collectively devise of a curriculum to strengthen her money management and admittedly areas of weak or otherwise low-interest core curriculum skills. As such, even as school was indefinitely in hiatus as a result of the as a rising death rate of the pandemic, given this organic bond with family and my then ongoing work of bringing a high school ELA curriculum to life via a series of weekly, asynchronous recordings-my life was purposefully thrust into the realm of my divinely inspired calling to teach, learn and share space with the bouquet of beauty that is humanity. Seemingly overnight, my great fortune to be blessed with meaningful, anti racist work as an educator and position of engaging with this brilliant baby cousin of mine, is credited for solely saving me from the slow decline and death toll that this pandemic had in store for Black people. Courtney inspired the tapping into my own, innate teacher spark of light, purpose and creativity and I sat in awe of her teen wisdom, impressive small business owner acumen and the meticulously well thought out plan she had already plotted for her future, even as a HS junior.
As Courtney (far right in the photograph), and I commenced to re-connecting as beloved family and began delving into our collaboratively forged, weekly module of core curriculum and budgeting webinars/Excel worksheet companion lessons – she began to clearly, yet ever so optimistically share of her exciting plans for her future. By her own admission, the pandemic was boring af but otherwise ‘no big deal’, because tbh, she was sick of school anyway. What she absolutely loved (and seemed to miss the most), was the social camaraderie that school had naturally provided via daily access to her countless friends and ROTC peers. Over our weeks of working together, Courtney definitively admitted that she intended to soon forego college and enter her preferred branch of the armed service instead (this path runs in the family), even as she sought to amass wealth and the continual expansion of her small business. As a young entrepreneur, her leisure time pursuits as a (not yet licensed, but extremely naturally gifted), hairstylist occupied the bulk of her time outside of school. I was impressed and very well aware of her skills and attention to detail as she had long been credited with maintaining my own locs hairstyle (even before the pandemic) and was known for making house calls, upon request, on behalf of countless family members, friends and a growing list of clientele. So in other words Courtney seamlessly juggled school, active extracurricular involvement and a growing base of paying customers in her early teens no less. As if that resume were not impressive enough, she then later hinted that she wanted to follow in her successful Mom’s footsteps by being a young homeowner (sometime in her 20s) and though she planned to leave Michigan, as soon as it was financially feasible to do so, she couldn’t wait to explore an entire world of possibilities further. Before our collaboration came to a natural closure with her subtly expressed disinterest and an increasing obligation to engage in her high school’s distance learning program, she revealed that she ultimately intended to settle internationally and would enroll in culinary school (as this was her hidden passion and intended path for at least the past several years). The vivid transparency with which this recently turned 16-year old #Scholar #Boss outlined a clear visual to the next several decades of her life, left me utterly speechless with an incredible amount of pride and admittedly awash with joy and heartfelt admiration for her keen ability to wield such exacting insight into manifesting her best life. This was especially so since despite the fact that I may hold a doctorate and appear somewhat accomplished right now in my late 40s, all I was doing at age 16 was trying to convince my hardworking mother to significantly invest in sponsorship of my Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation” inspired and Pleasure Principle themed birthday party at our family’s favorite Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village, NY. Sheesh! Clearly there was no bar of excellence for future fixated goal setting in the 90s, beyond my/our generation’s immediate needs to feign independence and agency through Jackson family aligned fantasies. Alas, this generation has the remarkable distinction of exercising agency even in the right now midst of a Covid laced, oppression encumbered reality of marginalization. The central narrative of Black children is abject failure and a widespread lack of preparedness to speak the language of and navigate the new world order. When in fact, the inescapable truth is that in mis-educating and brow beating them so thoroughly with the reality that their Black lives amount to less than human in the eyes of the world – they are positioning themselves to show y’alls unbelieving asses that there really is NO ceiling for their potential to succeed and they’ve got their own Black lives and futures well in hand.
As if this affirming narrative could be even more convincing of the overwhelming promise of our ready for the Revolutionary cadre of youth, my brilliant, extremely well-read and academically high-performing cousin Gabe and I have similarly been blessed to engage in a depth of socially relevant and riveting conversations over the years which would rival that of any I have been blessed to have with peers outside of my own cerebral, activist inclined friends and educator colleagues. I mean this young scholar cousin of mine is swift. And given that he is not unlike his peers in being prone to zone out from the hip-hop laced soundtrack, gender roles stereotyped and sexually exploitative display of Grand Theft Auto styled video games. His hobbies are merely akin to the troubling pattern of brainwashing and desensitizing young Black men that they are solely criminals or fit for menial, soul depriving activities rather than nurturing their innate genius and natural readiness for leadership that they possess as a birthright. At first sight Gabe, like countless young Black men, might appear as average. Truly, be not deceived by the façade of normalcy that Black youth often outwardly present themselves with because for the record, we have been conditioned to bury our greatness under deep layers of armor, in order to ward off the inevitable targeting that systemic oppression routinely weaponizes against Black power. On the contrary in his presence, just like the thrill of engaging with other Black youth whose divine light has yet to be stomped out by the crushing power of uniquely American profiling and policing, reveals that their innate African genius is not readily discerned within our men. Gabe, as do many of his multitalented and still maturing Black scholar peers, can (and often does) think rings around the average adult on any day of the week when given the authentic opportunity to express himself without reprimand. He is deeply introspective, a critical thinker blessed with a laser sharp wit and his rather quiet unassuming demeanor is disarming. Yet, all the while he is capable of commanding any room and/or ideally leading the critical thought processes of the people in that room. As he is much more suited to quietly strategizing, not mindlessly responding to the expectations of a society built upon his annihilation despite being at the start of his life given his tender age. As a 17 year old bright, well-spoken and poised young man standing at (or above), 6 feet since his early teens, he has long grown tired of others’ stereotyped presumptions of his hoop/football, athletically endowed prowess or aspirations. Gabe has never been one for sports outside of swimming and he would much rather hang out in the comfort of his own home with his mom and twin sister, than take up space on anybody’s basketball court or football field – though this is not a slight upon those who aspire to do so. Gabe is like most of my former students and each of my beloved Godsons, in that he is a gifted scholar with a limitless well of potential who has a calling to be much more than anybody’s stereotyped ideal of the criminal minded, shiftless and all-around no account modern caricature of Black man. No, not hardly. After having been blessed to be his middle school principal throughout Gabe’s adolescence (smile), I know all-too-well the little known gem that he has been reading on the 10th (then after just a few months at our school- on the 11th grade level), since he innocently entered our institution as an already gifted since birth, and humble 5th grade, Black male prodigy. Upon his arrival at George Washington Carver Academy, Gabe immediately thrived under the warm, capable auspices of his Black man led classroom and in spite of never quite fitting in with his growing list of academically uninspired adolescent peers, he would soon go on to attend the highest performing, magnet high school in the city after testing off the charts on his entrance exam. Truly, my cousin Gabe’s future is only as limited as the artificial restraints that this society perpetually imposes upon our beloved Black men – in other words: save their own impending doom at the expense of valuing the sanctity of Black lives, the limit does not exist. Not surprisingly, in the storied tradition of the genius demographic of other young, Black men and women who master so many distinct areas that it makes it nearly impossible to self-select the divine, right path – it’s not yet clear whether Gabe will opt to follow in the well-worn family tradition of enlisting in the service (as did several of his uncles), or opt instead to bless our people with the long and similarly well-respected record of public service. Either way, I support him in opting to mirror the career path of his beloved grandfather who has long assumed a leadership role as a high-ranking law official, occupying the forefront of defense against homegrown terrorist acts of violence or in creatively forging his own path to greatness and distinction.
Lastly, over the past several weeks of the pandemic I have worked especially closely with the last of my three baby cousins, pictured above left, as she navigates the increasingly intricate precollege terrain of: submitting the Common App; crafting multiple, compelling college entrance essays; soliciting a solid number of teacher/advisor recommendations; aligning her burgeoning professional skills and past summer camp leadership experiences into her (already impressive) resume template. Ultimately, it has been my absolute pleasure and delight to otherwise assist Gabby in taking a slow, but deliberate stroll through her glorious adolescence and teen years as a relevant precursor to her greatness to come. Engaging with her has been an equally enriching and immensely rich experience in collaborating to unearth and document the countless gems of her own worth. As we have attempted to capture a fitting narrative of her readiness for leadership and capture her overall esteemed, scholarship worthy profile of excellence – the only challenge thus far, has been my helping my beautiful, brilliant scholar baby to see the glaringly bright mirror, of her own inherent worth and infinite potential. For me this is a practiced art, cultivated in years of teaching in exclusively Black schools and working with an all too often, written often K12 population to overcome the low-performing expectations of the outside world. You see while other people’s children have the benefit of wealth, privilege and even parents willing to risk a scant amount of jail time to pay their way into a charmed existence (humph) – Black parents and jegna’s (mentors), have the most frustratingly arduous task of holding up the mirror of Black excellence to our own gifted youth who have been educated and nurtured by a steady diet of being reminded that we have little to no self-worth. For Gabby to need such a salient boost in self-esteem, she still knew enough to call out the mediocrity in her own distance learning model. Despite being so disillusioned by the isolation, grief stricken and oppressed state of our family’s own pandemic imposed reality, she casually pointed out the inconsistencies in her own academic offerings in this, her senior year of high school. In a rather effortless manner, she calmly recounted the incredulous dysfunction she encounters everyday in her own high school, as merely one of many youth struggling with this newfound reality of a public school system which seeks to maintain student engagement in a distance learning model which places traumatized students in front of underpaid, overworked and equally traumatized, overwhelmed teachers. With further probing, Gabby then explained just why she struggles to get out of bed most mornings to even face the screen-fatigued malaise of the post-pandemic school reality. It seems that her supposed college preparatory high school in Detroit has seen fit to enroll her in only 2-3 courses since the onset of the 2020-2021 school year. That alone wouldn’t be so bad if it were aligned to the need to limit screen time or instruction to meet the students’ needs. But it seems only one of the three courses she is currently taking online was a core subject area between: AP Computer Science, pre-Calculus and music, SIGH. You might think that most kids would be happy at the lack of substance and simply keep quiet about this overt mis-education. Yet, her own admirable pre-med pursuits to contribute in countering the health disparities that disproportionately impact the Black people she knows, loves and calls family/community, propel her to greatness and prevents her from accepting the status quo of unfit educational offerings. So this prompted both her mom and I to launch into a joint email/phone campaign to secure her courses reflective of her need for true college preparatory courses aligned with her future goals. To her credit, Gabby’s own extensive work experience, National Honor Society membership and pre-pandemic advanced placement course enrollment (and the fact that she has always tested well even on historically racist, high-stakes assessments), affords her the coveted position of a guaranteed slot in any one of the colleges of her choice. Ultimately, Gabby, Gabe and Courtney are proof positive, that our future is well in hand under the auspices of an informed, outspoken, visionary and inspired generation of leaders. So I am moved to document and share this affirming news of their collective readiness for the war against their Black lives that this country has unleashed, if for nothing else but to counter the predominant narrative of deficit, lack and Coronavirus tied gloom and doom where our young, gifted and Black scholars are concerned.
While education insists on providing a universal gallery stage of windows into other people’s (read white) privileged universe of unearned opportunity and Black labor, manifested as white wealth; we literally spend the bulk of our time using mirrors to undo the damage imposed by a society that refuses to value or even see our Black lives. Thus, we methodically engage in the practice of ensuring our children that they too are America, and are worthy, capable and infinitely prepared for such a time as this. Teaching Tolerance in its brief, critical lens upon the significance of literary windows and mirrors sums up the impact of a balanced anti-biased education in this way “Seeing their identities mirrored in texts can foster positive social identity development in students by increasing their pride, confidence and healthy self-esteem, and recognizing traits of the dominant culture, their home culture and other cultures (Identity).” Of course, it goes without question that given the incessant presence of windows into the single, white privilege aligned lived experiences and social, political, historical context of one’s oppressor only statistically guarantees the perpetuation of lack, marginalization, internalized oppression and disenfranchisement for Black youth like my exceptional cousins. Newsflash: It is neither our job, nor intention to reinforce your deficit narratives of our children’s worth. We will not partake in endlessly recounting the woes of this generation supposedly lost to a global pandemic or to even pretend to project the overarching theme of their more pronounced risk, due to the interminable end of business as usual in this nation’s schools. Hell, traditional school wasn’t working for us anyway, so good riddance to your sham of an educational system which otherwise served as the scene of the crime of the age-old institutionalized imprisonment of our Black genius.
Clearly, whether enrolled in traditional in-person settings or unenthusiastically languishing in front of impersonal screens – what is neither lost on this generation or unclear to those of us who know and LOVE them is the fact that their worth is neither limited nor confined by external studies, statistics and predictions. Their future is not tied to an age-old ingrained, white supremacist norm that seeks to ascribe the many ills of their racist, crumbling society on what they deem to be this sad lot of poor and pitiful youth. Instead, I/we irrefutably place the ownership and recurrent blame for the decades old opportunity gap (not an achievement gap as misnomered in status quo circles), as born of the systemic inequities uniquely prescribed for our Black and Brown bodies. I/we reject the notion that Black and Brown students who have suffered from disparate educational opportunities by design since their birth, should through no fault of their own, now be casually regarded as the unwitting cause and effect of the impending decline of America’s doomed economy and of a GDP inextricably tied to the failures of a right-wing, extremist imbecile who would sooner blame his irrational ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and anti-racist ideology than he would his own virulent racist, pseudo militant, Nazi proud boy, Klans member inheritance of psychosis. No, even those of us who are well-meaning educators, irrevocably saddled with our own inheritance of racist norms (or limited by the oppressive constraints of our own levels of internalized self-hatred), should opt to retire, resign or simply get out of the way of these babies who as demonstrated, have their own futures well in hand. If we, who are called to teach in such a time as this – are not fit to empower this next, Revolutionary generation to lead – then we have an obligation to simply walk away from them. We should neither preach, correct or even insert our own wisdom into the lives of this impressive, visionary and formidable generation of leaders . . . but rather we must simply agree to act as the affirming mirrors of their own natural frequency of innate brilliance and light.