My childhood could be summed up by one activity: playing basketball. It was the thing to do. Within minutes of being off the bus, it was over to my neighbors where we played two-on-two until sundown.
And this is where it started. While balling with my brother, our neighbors continuously banged hip-hop beats. These sounds were far from PG, so for a young suburban white boy I was enamored.
We mostly rocked to New York hip-hop, with a tint of some Southern slang. It was the 90’s and early 2,000’s so Jay-Z, Nas, Cam’ron, and Outkast were always on repeat. I didn’t know half of what was being said. I didn’t know how my neighbors got their hands on these rhymes. I didn’t really care. But I do know this was when I began to fall in love with hip-hop and basketball. For years I listened to the loud thump of bass coupled with slick rhymes as I bounced the ball off the blacktop- channeling my best Iverson crossover- and putting up shot after shot. This was my childhood.
Which brings me to this past week.
As a prelude to Black History Month, senior English started with a unit centered around activism, art, and the power of language. Being that I’m not black, and the fact that I barely recall being taught about black history in high school, I had to be creative in order to honor my students’ requests to incorporate black history into the curriculum.
And this is where activist and educator Paolo Freire’s model of education begins: with the teacher and student both entering the learning environment willing to learn from each other; entering with a willingness to listen to new thoughts and speak from a place of experience and understanding. This is what an authentic education looks like.
So now the stage was set. We would analyze rhetorical language strategies, break down examples of artists as activists, and identify how political movements for equality balanced the individual voices in the movement, to the collective voices of the movement.
First up: Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 Grammy performance. The class was live as they watched, but in typical Kendrick fashion, there was only so much they could take away upon their initial exposure. His ideas needed time to marinate.
At lunch, I caught up with a student to ask for an honest opinion. The last question on the handout focused on whether or not his political art was effective at communicating his ideas to a larger audience
“I think the black people seeing it get it because we go through this; this is our reality. We understand what he’s saying with the criminal justice system. We understand what it’s like to walk while black. But I’m not so sure about white people. Honestly, I’m not sure if they’re all interested in hearing his message.”
At this point, I’m used to hearing her honest and consistently spot-on perceptions of society. I’ve only been a member of this North Philadelphia community for seven months. But my background is with basketball and beats. My background is grounded in writing on inequality in education and the justice system. All of that gave me a better understanding of the struggle these young adults face. But I’ll never truly know what it’s like no matter how much I write; yet, it has provided me with a starting ground, a baseline to get closer to the truth of how our society is structured.
“See Mr. Brian, you got an idea about this because you’re into this stuff. But you 'white-black.' You know what I’m saying?”
It wasn’t the first time a student has called me this, albeit sometimes with different words.
Our conversation continued, and she told me about some of her “black-white” friends, while we broke off into how our social and economic backgrounds shape our worldview.
It was a deep conversation for lunchtime. It was a conversation reminding me of the importance of finding a starting ground, of finding commonality in a world that is still racially and economically divided.
I have hope that my students will find their individual voices and continue fighting for the collective. I have hope that more people will bridge the gap and learn more about cultures they barely know- and art will be the catalyst.
Most importantly, I have hope. And I hope you do too.