That’s what 14-year-old Jordan Shumate’s English teacher told him after he recited Langston Hugh’s poem “Ballad of the Landlord” in his normal voice in Falls Church, VA just this past week. He’s the only African American student in the class, and he has been called upon multiple times to speak for and explain “blackness” to educate the rest of his all white class. This so-called “education” and “explanation” included explaining why black people like grape juice and rap music so much. It also included calling on him to “rap” out one of Tupac’s songs.
Ok. Ok. Ok. So isn’t public education the supposed to be a first line of defense against racism? Isn’t this where kids are supposed to learn that blanket generalizations about black people, white people, asian people, any group of people (…) is just a bogus generalization that cannot possibly fit the group? It flattens and distorts identity into a box–a box that doesn’t actually correspond to reality. The teacher was asking this poor kid to perform her stereotype of black people so that the white kids could “understand” what that so-called identity means (apparently centered around grape juice, because that’s the HEART of blackness…)
Now, I don’t want to deny that something called blackness exists. Certainly, all blacks in this country experience at least one thing in common: racism. In so far as all people expect black people to fit into a certain identity, all black people feel the restraints of that identity. But no matter how one wants to contest “blackness,” when you put it into such crude terms as a way of speaking, or grape juice…well, you’re having the conversation wrong. And, I also want to grant, all races are fit into identity-stereotypes, as a genders and generations. But there’s something about the command “read it blacker” that hits a chord that’s just a little more sensitive in me.
The centuries of slavery, followed by the century of legal discrimination, followed by the half-century of “i-swear-we-dont-have-racial-problems-if-we-just-dont-talk-about-race-racism-will-disappear“…which includes but is not limited to: social alienation, defacto segregation, economic imbalance, mutual misunderstanding…the list goes on…these things are probably what makes “read it blacker” just a little more sensitive than “read it like a man.”
In short, I’m embarrassed for VA. We should be doing better than this. Teachers shouldn’t be allowed to teach Langston Hughes if they’re going to expect that one member of her class will have special insight into the poem because he was born with black skin. That is an expansion of racism rather than an abation. Disgraceful. If you’re going to have the conversation about black identity in high school, GOOD! But having this conversation anywhere requires a level of respect and nuance that this classroom discussion clearly lacked. We can get deeper than grape-juice. C’mon, let’s get it together VA.
aight, enough depressing stuff. Enjoy the sunshine sheBOMBers!