Photo credit: Odenton Patch A picture of a neighborhood similar to where the student in my story lived.
When I was student teaching outside of Fort Meade, Maryland, there was a Black teacher on my grade-level team who asked if she could take me on a field trip after work. “For what?” I asked her–I was taking 22 credits that semester, and every single minute of my day was precious. “Just say you’ll do it.” I did, because I really admired her. I was excited to see what she was going to do. She had me shadow her that day, and during her lunch shift, she sat down next to a child who was in sore need of a hair cut. Indeed, he had tears in his eyes–he was being picked on because he hair hadn’t been combed out for days.
“Are you ready for our trip today, little man?” She asked him, sitting down next to him after his table was dismissed.
He sniffed, looking in his lap, “Yes, Ms. [L]” He replied. He must have been a 6th grader…I can’t remember, now.
After school, the young boy came to her classroom, and we dismissed students to their buses. As soon as the last bus left, we all hopped in her jeep–filled with papers, and folders, and coffee cups and all of the other signature items of a middle-school teacher, and we went driving toward Fort Meade. I had never been so close to the Fort before, but I have seen the type of infrastructure that can be found around such areas: Lots of liquor stores and pawnshops, lots of other unseemly places. And little communities where people live…not thrive, but live.
When we pulled up at the Barber shop, the Black Barber shop, I smiled. I’d never been in one before (the places where Black men get their hair done are sacred places…womenless places…). The young boy in the back seat looked at it in wonder. It wasn’t his first time ever getting his hair done, but this was certainly a place that he didn’t grace often. She took him out of the car and held his hand gently. The men were waiting for us when we walked in.
“Hey, little man! Good afternoon!” The men greeted. They stopped what they were doing, fist bumping our young ward, shaking my hand and nodding in warmth, greeting Ms. L with a respectful bow of the head.
That sweet little child climbed into the chair, and cried as the man picked out his hair. Silent tears, tears of pain, tears of appreciation. I watched as the man slowly, carefully, lovingly, picked out that child’s hair. I watched it transform into something beautiful…and I shed a few tears myself. It was the tenderness of the action–this was more than a business transaction for the man who was doing this child’s hair. Then I watched him as he took the clippers to bring it down to size then finished up with the hand sheers for shape. It took over an hour to do that child’s head–that’s how much he needed it–but when they were done, he was transformed. He was magnificent.
The men all came and shook the boy’s hand, clapped him on the shoulder, gave him nods of approval. “Looking good, man!” They said to him. Ms. L paid and shook a few hands herself. Then we were out the door and into her jeep.
Tender headed, that sweet child sat in the back of Mr. L’s car and probably would have fallen asleep if the ride home hadn’t been so short. It only took a few turns, and we were in the heart of tenement housing, surrounded by some sad looking dwellings. It was growing dark, so no one was outside out the door where the young boy lived, but he got out of the car, took his backpack and his key, he said a very grateful Thank you to Ms. L for the tenth time, listened thoughtfully as we instructed him to do his homework and then we watched him walk to the door. The door opened to darkness, but there were people inside. He turned and waved. “We’ll see you tomorrow,” Ms. L called as we pulled away.
“He’s got 10 siblings in that house. His mama doesn’t have time to take care of his head,” She said.
I tried to look again at the dwelling as we turned the corner. It couldn’t have been much larger than maybe a 2-bedroom apartment. I couldn’t tell if it had two floors or not.
Ms. L drove me back to the school so that I could get in my car and drive back to campus. We were silent for most of the way, until she asked me what I was thinking about.
“I’m thinking about the other kids in that community,” I replied. We got one kid a hair cut that day. But there were more kids, kids who went to our school, and they each had needs. How could we possibly meet all of their needs, I wondered. I don’t recall if Ms. L. had an answer for me.
As we reached the parking lot, I told her I was grateful that she brought me. “I don’t know why you chose me, but I’m glad you did.”
“I wanted you to see the real work, [Kay],” She said to me with grave seriousness. “I wanted to show you something that would stay with you.”
There are so many parts of this memory that are fuzzy: The way the shop looked, the way the neighborhood looked, the color of the car, the outfits we were wearing, the faces of the gentlemen in the room…but crystal clear are the tears, the grateful whispers of “thank you”, the transformation of hair and spirit. The gesture and the importance have stayed with me. The power of that gesture, how much it meant to that child, will always stay with me.
The Talented Tenth have been having a conversation above most of our heads with seemingly no regard to the rest of us. Indeed, in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict over a month ago, it would seem that some factions of the Black intelligentsia (or leadership class, or whatever) have taken to talking at the lot of us, rather than talking with us. While there will forever be people the likes of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reily, who are only interested in increasing their ratings by perpetuating bullshit and propaganda about communities of color, there are some in the upper-echelons of Black society who are choosing to take up the same strategy: Shame us into change. Shame us into a “respectable” normalcy. I don’t know why Don Lemon has taken it upon himself to start talking down to his peers as if he is so much better, as if he has something worthwhile to contribute to what is an important conversation about the condition of the communities where our children learn and grow. I don’t know why he decided that the words that he should speak into the world should only be negative and trite. I do know that the blowback has been fierce and only sometimes constructive. I also know that none of it includes us regular folk. When the Talented Tenth decide to exclude the other 90% of us in conversations about our larger community, no one improves: Not our community, not the communities that choose to judge us from afar, and certainly not the governments that choose to regulate us with a ferocity that can only be changed from within.
I am finding that leadership has less to do with money and more to do with sincerity. While money is certainly helpful (oh, so very helpful), it has much more to do with the sincerity, the thought, the will and the follow-through behind the distribution that matters. The power of media matters, too, but the same rule applies. The problem with this debate about “Respectability Politics” is that it has everything to do with “othering” and loathing and nothing to do with uplifting. When deciding to talk about our community, just like many of their White counterparts, the Talented Tenth have overlooked the rest of us, the Silent Majority, who are doing the hard work of creating a positive future and community for the rest of us. One day at a time. One deed at a time.
I’m not really writing about the invisibility of “Normal” people. “Normal” people come of every shade and class: The people who wake up every single morning, do the right thing, and do right by their communities and their families and themselves. I’m writing about the silent and invisible people who wake up every day and make small but meaningful impacts. The mentors, the teachers, the philanthropists who give without praise. The pastors who don’t preach from mega-church pulpits, but instead spend their time in the dark and scary places of poverty and sickness. The athletes who donate their time and money without a single camera around, without a single interview to brag about it. The mothers who give all that they have so that their children have everything they need and a few things that they want. The fathers who work the two jobs and yet still have the time to speak to the youth on the corner (and who may or may not necessarily be with the mothers of their children). The Big Brothers and Big sisters who go to the places other people are afraid to go to in order to pull someone out of the scary places. The business owners big and small who hire people to give them a chance, who pay people a fair wage, who choose again and again to improve the communities where they do business.
Or the teachers who use their precious after-school time and their even more precious money to get a child who lives in poverty a haircut.
It is these people, the people who don’t need to be recognized but who are hungry to serve their communities, macro and micro, who are the silent majority in this country.
I’ve read the studies about female-headed households, poverty and diminishing school success. I’ve also sat at parent-teacher conferences with women who used their only vacation days (maybe only 2 or 3 a year) to make absolutely certain that they could be available to speak with their children’s teachers. Women who were studying for their own programs at the kitchen table alongside their children in order to assure their better future. I’ve also met some of the Martha’s Vineyard rich and powerful Black folk around here–the ones who barely spoke to me because I was not and will never be one of them. My work was important, but just not important enough for their time, efforts, or thoughts. Our problems as a community are up and down our scale of money and power. The powerful seem to be just a dumb, deaf and blind as the people they want to ridicule.
If we are a community that is judged only by the worst among us, then those who are the exemplars must spend their time uplifting with sincerity rather than chastising with impunity. Even our president and first lady, whom I love and respect with an immensity that I cannot describe with words, have taken opportunities that could have been spent setting a great agenda for the rest of us to instead talk about respectability. If the Talented Tenth wanted to do real and permanent, they’d give us a path forward: One that includes everyone and commands that each of us do something for the smaller communities where we live as well as our larger racial community. We each have a role to play: Through owning businesses, seeking elected office, building integrated communities, serving and leading in our military, teaching at every level of education, creating policy at every level of government, extending friendly hands to the struggling among us, and building a collective future. If Respectability comes through hard work and presentation, then our leaders should be doing everything in their power to set the best example and put forward a plan that works.
And bickering on Twitter or on news networks is not the way to do it.
I want to be called to action and inspired to do more. I want someone to give me a plan for a future and a vision for the world that my sons will grow up in and someday inherit. We need someone to take the spirit of the Civil Rights movement (the urgency, the sacrifice) and distill it into an innovative and encompassing new form of advocacy. We need leaders and teachers who will take upon themselves the call for raising up a new generation of great community activists and leaders. We need people who have the means to use their resources to give to real organizations that do real and good work in communities in need, not just large and older institutions.
We are worthy of more than ill-advised lectures and childish tweets. We are, as a community, better than this.