Reflections on a not so new reality
An Op-Ed written to an independent school newspaper...
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” - James Baldwin, 1961
I live a dual life nowadays. I live in the epicenter of the New York outbreak of coronavirus, Queens, New York, but also in the section of Queens with some of the highest rates of Black homeownership in New York City: Saint Albans (zip code 11412). Just south of me are the communities of Rochdale Village (zip code 11434), South Jamaica (zip code 11434), and farther south, Far Rockaway (11691). These communities, mostly communities of color and working class, share two realities: they have some of the highest coronavirus cases in the City of New York and are considered food deserts. The juxtaposition of disease and food insecurity has led to the physical migration of people from Southern Queens to my community in southeast Queens for basic needs like access to healthy food and quality grocery stores. This has manifested in my life, changing what I thought was normal. A simple grocery store run which once was a fifteen minute endeavor, has now become, at minimum, a two hour process most of which is spent standing in line with people from multiple zip codes, multiple realities and multiple hardships. Coronavirus has, in fact, created a crucible here in my community and across the City of New York.
And in this moment I have been able to reflect on this dual, yet troubling reality. I have had a moment to sit with my own realities and ask, what does this mean? I have discovered that the beauty of having educational access is that it empowers those who are willing to use their ability to question and observe societal processes to then motivate action. As we find ourselves in a moment of great angst and anxiety, I have found myself more so interested in how communities, particularly those that are historically and predominantly White institutions, are going to make sure that history shows that we all did the right thing in reconciling and healing the communities around us; particularly those communities that are struggling in this time majorly because they are of a certain racial, economic, and cultural distinction. In short, the novel coronavirus is exposing the intersectional racialized issues of the United States. What are we (students, teachers, leaders) going to do about it? Or, are we complicit in people suffering because they were born into this world not White enough, not rich enough, and not “American” enough?
I must lead by saying as someone who has lived life as a Black man and experienced life as a Black man my whole life, this piece centers on the Black experience because I resonate most with it. This piece is not meant to ignore the real lived experiences of any other marginalized group. To the above quotation by Baldwin, over the past four weeks, I have been sobered by the incessant messaging about the lack of understanding of the American condition of those that identify with the African Diaspora. We find ourselves in yet another season of challenge in this country where African American communities, especially those at the intersectional challenges of both socioeconomic status and race, are disproportionately suffering from the novel coronavirus. Of course, in this season I find myself partially enraged because these data points are not a surprise. Given the institutional policies, practices, and decisions the American machine has produced since its inception; the plight of African American communities should not be shocking to anyone. While this is of course angering, I have found myself more interested in the second emphasis of the statement Baldwin introduced over fifty years ago: preventing destruction.
My purpose for asserting these points is simple: (1) I hope to make space for students of color to reflect and find a moment of catharsis and (2) I hope to elucidate the realities of life in particular communities to our broader community, so that we might do better as we strive to be more inclusive and more just. The following two points are a charge, so to speak, in the spirit of self preservation that Baldwin presents.
While the novel coronavirus highlights the worst in historic policies in our country, there is capacity to make long lasting change.
From American chattel enslavement to the legalized dehumanization facilitated by Plessey v. Ferguson & the Dred Scott decision, to the unintended consequences of Brown v. Board of Education, to the racialized housing access policies of the late 20th century to the Exonerated Five, we can tell that historically America has presented challenges to Black folk. But in this moment, I find it timely to elevate and empower the voices of our Black students in particular. Just as the rich legacy of leaders before you highlighted the issues of their day and fought against injustice, I ,too, believe that you all are looking at your civil rights movement. To be clear, this is not a call for you to “do more work.” Rather, I hope this moment helps you clarify what you want your life’s work to be and enables you to develop a team of allies to do the work of making change. This team of allies does not have to necessarily look like you, but needs to believe that communities that do look like you are worthy and deserving of dignity and respect. While this charge is important, above all things make sure you take care of yourself and maintain yourself.
As independent school students, teachers, and leaders this tragedy is our moment to make our mission mean something.
As people that attend, work, and engage in elite institutions, we have to think deeply about how we are going to use our privilege. Our school, in particular, calls upon us to “Prepare a diverse community of students to lead great and giving lives. Strive to maintain a safe, secure, and caring environment in which mutual respect, mature behavior, and the life of the mind can thrive, and to recognize and celebrate individual achievement and contributions to the common good.” If this is the mission we commit to as a community, we have to think and act by speaking truth to power and making sure that coronavirus is not one more example of American erasure of a racialized history of discriminatory practices. The data shows, coronavirus is hurting the communities who have been denied the most in our history. Moreover, we must think intimately about how we are going to truly uphold the common good. Ironically, good is not all that common in a world that rewards individualism. But, how will you leave an indelible mark on the world? Will your mark be self serving and centered around personalized gifts or will your mark be using your callings and gifts to make sure your legacy does not live in a world worse off than the current one we live in. As Baldwin calls us to remember, the goal is not to destroy but to create a more just world. How will we as a school and you as an individual engage in this opportunity for rebirth?
Nonetheless, we find ourselves at yet another juncture in historical narrative. My question for us all is: What reality do we want to live in on the other side of this pandemic?