Walking the Talk: A Conversation With Tash

I Walk With Natasha March, Baylor University (Photograph by Marissa Elaine Photography)
I Walk With Natasha March, Baylor University (Photograph by Marissa Elaine Photography)

Since I left my teaching position last summer to pursue my Master’s in Theological Studies, I have struggled to find a new route to take with this blog. Over the course of my three years in the classroom, it slowly turned into my reflections on teaching. The intent was always to make this a space to inspire people with stories, and I’ve been thinking recently of how to do so through others’ voices, especially millenials who often receive undue criticism and baseless stereotypes that seek to degrade us while we work to become who we are in this world.

I asked Natasha (Tash) Nkhama, a former student, to share her insights about an incident that happened in her first semester at Baylor. Our conversation is below.

Start with the story of what happened to you.

On Wednesday November 9, the day after the election, I was walking to class near the sidewalk of the Judge’s house [on Baylor’s campus]. A young man I didn’t know went out of his way to shoulder me off the sidewalk and knock me into the grass. He proceeded to say, “No n*****s on the sidewalk,” and as someone behind him confronted him about what he had done he replied, “I’m just trying to make America great again.”

What did that moment elicit in you?

Initially I was shocked and angry and didn’t really know what to say or do, so I went to class.

Afterwards, your peers organized a march on campus, called I Walk With Natasha. How did this march come about in response to that moment?

My friend Jaileen Garza urged me to share the video I had made [about the incident] on her Twitter because she believed that more people would see it. Which was true. A fellow Baylor student, who I had never met before, organized the walk. Her name is Gabrielle Metoyer.

Did you expect that many people to turn out for the march? How did that day feel for you?

I had no idea. In all honesty I was expecting about 20 people, maybe less and I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an overwhelming amount of love and support as I felt that day.

What was Baylor’s response to the situation? Were you satisfied with it?

As far as the Baylor community, I think students and staff are really trying to make a difference after what they’ve seen and I guess that’s all I can really ask for.

You made a really impactful speech at the end of the march, and you made a point to say that you prayed for the student who pushed you and made a racist comment toward you. What motivated you to say that?

In that moment, I decided throwing more fire to the flame wouldn’t help the situation; only love can do that. And even though that person was wrong, God continues to show the rest of us grace and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be shown the same amount of grace.

During the march, I spoke with someone who works at Baylor who talked to you after the incident. She said that you were less concerned with finding the student who shoved you and made the comment and more concerned with raising awareness. I have to be honest, I feel like these students should be punished by the institutions they attend and made examples of, but I know, too, that one example doesn’t uproot structures of racism from campuses. What was your reasoning behind your reaction?

I think he should be expelled as well because I would never wish that kind of vulgar treatment on anyone. But him being expelled doesn’t change what happened. It happened, so now what are we going to do to make sure people realize that such actions aren’t okay, you know?

There are a lot of stories circling the internet people of color are being urged to forgive quickly after racially charged incidents, or trying to show how easy it is to “be the bigger person.” How does that initial moment of racism against you stay with you, regardless of everything that came after? Is it important to you that people know the march was a powerful moment, but it doesn’t erase what happened? Or do you see it a different way?

It is really really really REALLY hard to be the bigger person when you didn’t do anything wrong. And it hurts that it has to be that way, but it is. Especially as a person of color. I imagine it was easy for people to support me because I didn’t respond in an angry manner, but what about the people who do? They should be shown the same amount of support because moments of racism are NOT their fault. The march was a powerful moment and I will remember it for the rest of my life. But so will the girl with the hijab who had eggs thrown at her. Or the boy who had “No N*****s Allowed” written on his car. All actual events that happened after the election. I think the march is an excellent reminder that we should stand together against hate, but we should also remember that stuff like this happens every day even if it isn’t happening to you.

I retweeted the video you made after the student shoved you, and a random Internet troll doubted the validity of the whole thing, saying, “I’m sure that really happened.” I was furious, but then I checked my privilege because I’ve never been doubted for telling stories about bad things that happen to me. I don’t know what that’s like, especially when bad things don’t happen to me based on my race or gender or any other identifying factor. Is this a common experience for you as a woman of color, or did you receive any other reactions like this? What’s your response?

Unfortunately, I did and I’m lucky to have people like you and other friends respond to such comments so I didn’t have to. In all honesty, I feel bad for people like that. That they are incapable to see the world through the eyes of others because we have so much to teach each other if we just listen.

How did life change after the march? Have you seen attempts by your peers to push Baylor forward after this, or was there a return to the status quo?

Being called a role model or a celebrity is kind of weird because I’m just me haha. I’d like to think that everyone does the right thing given the opportunity. I think this has given people a great opportunity to have those conversations about race that need to be had, especially on campus. And others genuinely want to be educated about issues that don’t necessarily affect them, but affect those around them. Campus is definitely changing, slowly but surely, race relations are being brought more to light.

How do you think this moment, both the incident and the march, is going to impact your life? Does it influence the work you want to do in this world?

I don’t think I’ve ever been more motivated to make change. I feel a responsibility to not stop here and be content that people were there for me. Now it’s time to be there for others. Now it’s time to continue to educate others and advocate for the change I want to see in the world.

For more insights from Tash, you can follow her at @melanin_medicin.

March photograph by Marissa Elaine Photography. Her work can be found here or on Instagram at @marissahyland.

Artist Statement: Without Boundaries

 

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In the fall I began to struggle with mental health concerns that have plagued me since childhood. They bubble to the surface every few years, and this past semester I felt them in new and worse ways due to the changes in life that moved me away from friends, my students, a good paying job, and an overall steady lifestyle. Graduate school, financial concerns, and other issues set me on a path for hard days, and I finally sought out professional counseling. Because of the negative stigmatism around mental health issues, I had never pursued professional help before, and the assistance I received has put me on a path for better management of issues in the future.

I wouldn’t typically share this kind of information, but I have grown more honest as my mental state has improved. There will be time to go deeper into this subject, because it is one I feel passionately about, but I am writing for different reasons today.

In December, I released my first album in almost five years. Because I was on a path to dealing with my mental health issues, I wanted to put these feelings on record. I wanted to write to understand myself, as I always do. I wanted to make music that would inspire others going through mental health issues of their own by showing them that they were not alone, they were not wrong for feeling this way, and they could be honest and vulnerable in their struggle for better self-care. I wanted to contribute to the end of the stigmatism surrounding mental health.

I am writing this today because I could not have made this album without immigrants.

That seems like a strange statement to make, but I want to state it bluntly. The nine beats on the album were made by three men who have become some of my closest friends in recent years. They believe in what I am doing, and they shared their music with me, because they simply love me and want me to have the ability to pursue my passion for music. I am better for knowing them, and I hope that I support them in the same way.

All three of these men are here because one or both of their parents or grandparents immigrated to America. Those who came before them believed in the promise that America makes, in the dream that it purports to offer to all. Because of the efforts of these preceding generations, their children and grandchildren get to live free in America, making art and doing whatever else they choose to do.

To say I am indebted to these generations and to these friends is an understatement. They do not have value merely for what they were able to give me, but without recognizing what they have done for me, I act as though I owe them nothing for helping me grow into who I am today. In a sense, they are physically here because the generations before them immigrated, and I am here in a different way because they immigrated. I cannot imagine my life without these friends. These relationships, and what we are able to accomplish together, are the purest form of the American dream.

What Trump is doing, by telling us to fear immigrants, is evil. There is no other way to describe his fear-mongering and hateful rhetoric, and I am not here to argue that. What I am arguing is that, as someone who condemns his words and actions, I feel compelled to create an opposite reaction, a sort of Newton’s Law of Resistance.

Because I am indebted to my friends, the children of immigrants, American artists, I have spoken with each of them and have decided to donate 100% of the proceeds of my album to the ACLU, an organization committed to fighting for immigrants to live here, among other worthy causes. I initially decided to do this for a week, but I have decided to do this indefinitely. I do not want to profit from this, so as a show of good will, I will not even cover my own cost to make the album. 100% of what you pay to hear this piece of art created by immigrants and a friend of immigrants will go to fighting for the rights of many to pursue their dream of living in America without fear, without walls, and without boundaries.

You can purchase the album here.

Sincerely,

Ben Taylor, Holy Smokes
Casey Ramirez
Brandon Alva, Dumbstarr
Danny Hajjar, DJ Critical Mass

Soundtrack to my year, v. 4

Every year, I like to reflect on the albums that got me through the year. In 2016, I spent more time trying to listen than talk, and I felt these albums offered the space for me to reflect and understand the nuances of the experience of others. Each title links to where you can purchase directly from the artist (in most cases), and a few of them are even free.

Honorable Mentions:
16. Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!
15. Anderson .Paak’s Malibu
14. John Legend’s Darkness and Light
13. Solange’s A Seat at the Table
12. BANKS’s The Altar
11. James Blake’s The Colour in Anything

  1. Pharrell’s Hidden Figures Original Soundtrack hidden-figures-the-album

Numbers 11-16 were all in heavy rotation this year, but Pharrell swooped in near the end with his infectious, joyous music to create a soundtrack as playful as his work on Despicable Me, but more in-tune with Pharrell’s purpose to bring light to the world through powerful stories. Using other vocal powerhouses like Janelle Monae and Alicia Keys, Pharrell not only celebrates little known figures in history: he might just be re
writing history better than any textbook could.

  1. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo

the_life_of_pablo_alternateNumber 9 is a low spot for Kanye in my book, but TLOP was my least favorite album by him. Sloppy in places, unfocused in lyrical content, and missing not just opportunities for social commentary but outright missing the mark on being conscious (a chance to talk about the racism employed against West in the infamous Taylor Swift moment turned solely into an irresponsible, misogynistic quip), TLOP disappointed in many ways. But Kanye is a complicated being beyond what the American public allows him, and throughout 2016 I kept coming back to TLOP for the patchwork it makes of his sonic career as he lifts the voices of friends over himself. The best verse of the album, by Chance the Rapper, stands as the ultimate example of Kanye launching an already successful career into the stratosphere. Kid Cudi’s and Rihanna’s hooks are the best they’ve ever been. And occasionally, through the messy, unexpectedly successful, ultimately confusing year that Kanye had, his own voice remains unquestionably unique and insecure as ever, as seen on album highlights “Real Friends” and “Pt. 2.”

  1. Beyoncé’s Lemonade

beyonce_-_lemonade_official_album_coverI have a confession to make: I didn’t listen to Lemonade that much after the first month of its release. It is undeniably Beyoncé’s best, but it follows the narrative format that so often turns me away from albums, since I know how the story will end the next time I start it again. That being said, this was one of, if not the most important album of 2016. It’s been said better by plenty of other writers more qualified to say it, but Beyoncé made a statement to start the year: anyone is free to listen to black artists, but it is now going to come at a price. No longer could mere pop fans sing and dance to singles like “Formation” without wrestling with the demands and ideals of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As many “fans” stormed out on the Queen, and conservative news outlets almost forgot they weren’t E! News, Beyoncé sat atop her throne with a visual album that will place her in more than music history courses, and cement Lemonade as the first album of 2016 to raise the stakes on the conversations we have about music.

  1. ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP

a5b417_105c18285e7d41af99fda3e4d210cf83mv2At the outset of ScHoolboy Q’s sophomore LP, Anderon .Paak’s voice interrupts the cacophony of voices talking to announce, “Trade the noise for a piece of divine.” And a piece of divine is just what you get throughout Q’s album, as his narratives weave circles around other rappers to prove his place among (and even above) most of the top emcees of the moment. Beyond the catchiest song of the year with Kanye, “THat Part,” Q shines most when approaching heavy topics like police brutality and community action against oppression. At some turns, he ironically boasts about the kind of violence you can expect if you cross him and his friends: “one of the homies got slayed so we bang at the King parade.” At others, his real fears about the shortness of black life peak out through his expert writing skill: “I wrote these rhymes days apart/most of us get caught before we can expand our thoughts.” ScHoolboy Q is a heavyweight, and Blank Face LP measures out just right.

  1. Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool

088055831Between the apocalyptic scenes on A Moon Shaped Pool, Thom Yorke describes everyday scenes that threaten the same magnitude of disasters as invading spacecrafts: “Hey, it’s me, I just got off the train/a frightening place, the faces all concrete gray,” he mutters on “Glass Eyes,” before explicating what this moment elicits in him: “and I’m wondering/should I turn around?/buy another ticket?/panic is coming on strong.” A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s quietest album, full of small moments like this where Yorke utilizes Johnny Greenwood’s disarmingly eerie-calm soundscape to express fears about the modern world, from climate change to fear-mongering politicians. The scenes are all grandiose and overwhelming, yet Yorke is unafraid to bark back at societal ills with just a few words: “Why should I be good if you’re not?” It’s a paranoid soundtrack for our times, and if it’s too quiet, it is only a warning of what might lurk in the not-so-distant future.

  1. Saba’s Bucket List Project

saba-bucket-list-project-1478013093-640x640Even if 2016 wasn’t ready for the post-Drake days, I certainly am. Saba first came to my attention with his feature on Chance’s “Angels,” but seized my attention when the opening track of his new album took no time for further introductions: “I’ll pretend that all our friends still alive.” Lyrically, Saba proves that he’s not standing in the shadow of Chance but rapping right alongside him, covering similar ground but without redundancy. “It’s rarity in my realness,” he spits on my favorite song of 2016, “Church/Liquor Store.” When he starts the chorus of another song with, “I’m from the part of the city that they don’t be talkin’ about,” Saba is just acknowledging that the story he is telling is so honest it’s unlikely you’ve heard anything quite like it before.

  1. Bon Iver’s 22, A Million

985e010aWithout dancing around the topic, 2016 was a hard year for me. After making the decision to attend graduate school, the powers-that-be forced my hand to quit my teaching job in Dallas. As my first semester in grad school was riddled with financial woes, a real grief over the loss of a job that allowed me to positively influence teens every day, the death of my last grandparent, and a long-needed step to receiving counseling, no lyric struck me in 2016 quite like 22, A Million’s opening line: “It might be over soon.” Without defining whether this statement relates to joy or grief (it’s more likely both), 22, A Million is full of scattered pieces patched together that last as long as Justin Vernon allows them to, which is to say not long. At only 34 minutes, this album captured everything I felt in 2016, from the anxious moments, to the longing and the mourning, to even the immeasurable joys. On what can only be described as a gospel finish, Vernon both laments and celebrates the fleeting moment of all life: “And I walked it off: how long I’d last.” This album is the Ecclesiastes of albums, a balance forged out of uneven parts.

  1. Noname’s Telefone (psst… free download of the album on her site)

covdifeuiaiv__fAs Kanye’s musical output inevitably began to decline this year (I blame time and age, not the Kardashians), and I remain largely unimpressed with most of the new gods of rap, Noname carved a space in my weekly music rotation. “Check my Twitter page for something holier than Black death,” she raps on album opener “Yesterday,” an ode to lives and moments lost too soon. Although sonically the album sounds light, with Noname gliding over characteristic Chicago keys, her subject matter is anything but: “ain’t no one safe in this happy city/I hope you make it home/I hope to God that my tele don’t ring.” Where Beyoncé opened the door for black women to talk about grief, Noname stepped into the room and barely cleared her throat before stating her thesis. “Casket Pretty” is probably the year’s most haunting track, with lines like “too many babies in suits,” and although the album centers around black death, Noname breathes life into a necessary topic that people are already tuning out on in favor of mainstream rap without consequence. On album closer “Shadow Man,” Noname makes requests for her own funeral, asking for Kanye to read her eulogy, a fond remembrance of her bashfulness, and most poignantly, the prophesy that “my music was a church when my spirit hopped out.”

  1. Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book

artworks-000164666747-vw6nqr-t500x500In the same vein as Noname, Chance breathed life into heavy topics. Although he does not dwell on grief on Coloring Book, his joy is more earned than any other artist of the moment. Chance was successful before 2016, but his rise to the top this past year was the most worthy of celebration, as he scored numerous credits on his hero’s album (The Life of Pablo), changed the rules of the Grammys whether they’ll admit it was him or not, and continued to smile humbly through every bit of success that came his way. Behind Chance’s goofy smile is the serious mission to save his hometown Chicago through his various activist efforts, continually inspiring youth through free music and even giving them space through their own open mic nights, and being unapologetically faithful to a higher being in a cynical age. Where other rappers with faith have failed to capture my attention for no other reason than the word “corny” popping to mind, Chance’s feels authentic, hard-earned, and the result of someone who knows the world is broken but is crazy or caring enough to believe he can do something about it. “They’re screaming Chano for mayor,” he rapped on a b-side that preceded the album, but at this point I’m already screaming Chano for president.

  1. Frank Ocean’s Blonde

5f06f7f6After one of the most covered disappearing acts of a celebrity in recent history, Frank Ocean quietly returned in 2016, not to the spotlight, but to the business of good storytelling. After all of the hype and missed release dates bubbled over, Ocean stood waiting at the end of the noise to share two albums worth of material he had made during his public silence. In 2013, he hinted that he might not make another album but rather write a novel, and on Blonde that is basically what he did. As his voice varies in sound and tone, Ocean seems to create characters out of himself, wrestling for a version of permanence in the lives of some (“I’m not him/but I’ll mean something to you”), or just passing moments with others (“I know you gotta leave/take down some summertime/give up just tonight”). There is no song on this album that is not devastating, as the Invisible Man makes visible his attempts to understand the people whose lives he passes through. As the album title and content signal Ocean’s fluid sexuality, the person he seeks most to understand is himself. Leaving his major label to be independent (read: free) and purposefully leaving himself out of the running for the Grammys, Ocean’s story is one of liberation in a world, industry, and society bent on holding black, LGBTQ, and other oppressed populations down. “I ain’t on your schedule/I ain’t on no schedule,” he boasts on “Futura Free.” These lines are not mere braggadocio, but a man fighting to tell his story his way, free from the restrictive pressures of the modern world. The power of the best storytellers, from Salinger to Fitzgerald, is that their actual lives were as complex as the literature they produced. It’s why we continue to study them long after they leave, because the person—like the stories he or she tells—is larger than life. With Blonde, Ocean writes a story so compelling that, even if we never hear from again, he knows he is already worth his weight in words.

Click here for the music that I worked on last year, as well as my artist statement.

Neighbors or Nothing (Pt. 1)

As an undergraduate, I interned with several youth groups in local churches. When I started my first internship after my freshman year of college, I was 19. On the first day, the youth minister overseeing me and the other intern informed us he took a job in another state. He’d be gone in a week.

Most 19-year-olds are not given the responsibility of 50 teenagers on summer break (and rightly so), but there I was, learning the ropes of youth ministry with the other intern who also had little experience with leading youth before this.

I look back on that summer and laugh often, how many mistakes I made, how much I got right by chance. I still call most of those teens (now adults) friends. I’m in graduate school with one. Another is my girlfriend’s best friend. One leads worship at the church I just started attending.

Lately, though, my mind wanders to one night that summer that could have gone wrong. Before the reader (aka my mom) worries, this story has nothing to do with the teens, and more with the aftermath of poor logistical planning on my end. Toy Story 3 released that summer, and many of the teens wanted to attend the midnight premiere. Most of their parents would not allow them to go to the movies that late without an adult, and somehow 19 years on earth qualified me for the role.

In the process of planning this midnight premiere, I informed the teens and their parents that they would need to provide their own transportation to and from the theater. Of course, parents were willing to drop their kids off at 10 p.m., but a lot less willing to show up at 2 a.m. As teens arrived at the theater, parent after parent after parent rolled down the window and asked, cheerily, “You mind dropping them off later?”

I was a rookie when it came to dealing with kids, and an absolute amateur when it came to telling parents no. I said yes to all of them. At the time, I had an 8-passenger Suburban (I don’t know why, honestly). At 2 a.m., I began the tedious process of dropping seven teenagers off at their city-spanning abodes. I was wise enough to practice the highly flawed rule of dropping girls off before boys, and everyone was home by 3 a.m.

Everyone, of course, except me.

After dropping the last teen off, I started the short route home. To say I was exhausted is to put it mildly. I had hung out with a large group of teenagers well after I typically go to sleep (for reference, I never once pulled an all-nighter in college). I am also an introvert, which does not always go over well when working with loud groups of young people. In short, I needed my bed about five hours prior to this drive home.

Because of this exhaustion, coupled with carelessness, I missed a stop sign on the way out of the teen’s neighborhood. Luckily, no one was on the road at 3 a.m., so I did not cause an accident. I carried on my way, oblivious to the sign.

About two minutes later, flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror. I may not have caused a wreck by driving through a stop sign, but a police officer took note.

After pulling over and rolling my window down, he asked, “Did you not see that stop sign back there, son?”

Having only been pulled over once for an expired inspection sticker, I had little interaction with police officers leading up to this. I also had nothing in the way of a “how-to-talk-to-police” lesson in my life, aside from generic warnings to “respect them”. At this hour of night, in my tired state, I also had little in the way of patience.

I tersely replied, “No, I genuinely did not.” I used the same tone that gets me in trouble often, with everyone from my mother to customer service hotlines.

“Well, you may have forgotten already,” the officer snapped back, “since it took me so long to catch up with you, considering you were going 40 mph.” I had no reference for the speed limit here, nor did I understand how it could take someone “so long” to catch up with someone going 40 mph. I could tell we would be at odds with each other. I said nothing back.

“What have you been doing tonight?” he asked, accusingly. “I was at the midnight premiere of Toy Story 3,” I retorted, resenting the implications in his tone.

“Well,” he paused, having nothing to say to the immediate specificity of my reply. “I’m going to need your license and registration.” After handing him my license, I placed my wallet between my legs while I searched for my registration in the middle console. He shined his light between my legs, and barked, “What did you just put between your legs?”

My wallet,” I said, condescendingly, like he was a child in uniform. I continued looking for my registration, turned away from him, digging through the console. When I obtained it, he walked away, leaving me to steam. A few minutes later, he returned, shoved my license and registration into my hand, and said, “You’re lucky I didn’t cite you for speeding as well, but watch for stop signs next time.” I sat silently, intentionally not making eye contact, and waited for him to leave.

Looking back on this incident, I was disrespectful to this officer. Listen: I am confessing to you how disrespectful I was. I was 19, and smarting off to a cop at 3 a.m. There is no justification for my action, nor was there any reason for him to only ticket me for one offense.

And yet, when I recounted this story to peers and older people later, they took my side. I didn’t blur the details. I didn’t paint myself as a saint. In fact, I told it in such a way that made it sound humorous how our interaction played out. In the story of Police Officer vs. Ben, who had the best diss? This story would not be funny if told through different eyes to a different group.

Every time I told this story, others told me that the police officer acted rudely and I should not have received a ticket, even though I only received a ticket for one of my two offenses. Many people within the church told me I should have mentioned I was a youth minister, and I would not have received any reprimand. No one said, “You are lucky to be alive.”

I am not haunted by this traffic violation today. People do not bring it up to question my character. Most people tell me I’m kind, that I’m a good person. I can confidently predict that even in telling this story on my blog, it will never be used against me.

But the key element in this story is that I am alive to tell it. I had no fear for my life the night it happened, and no one who has ever heard me tell this story feared for my life either. I have been pulled over several times after this, and not once have I worried about how I move, speak, act, or breathe. I act as I always do, under the belief that I should not be stopped for speeding, for this, for that. That above all, this stop inconveniences me.

I hesitate to connect what I think are obvious pieces here, but there is a deadly narrative that kills black people and leaves me to write and live as I please. I want to state that bluntly because for years on this blog I have danced around these topics in a careful way so as to not offend anyone and protect my position, but I have to surrender that in order to earn the privilege to speak in a public forum.

This narrative says that minor traffic violations offer insight into the miscreant character of African-Americans killed by police. This narrative reads, literally, “They had this coming.”

If I died that night, or died while writing this sentence, would you use the traffic violation described against me? Say it showed what I was about? Revealed my true colors? Who would you say I am?

This narrative says that the key to staying alive in interactions with police officers is to give them absolute and unquestionable respect. This reads, literally, as, “If only they had…”

If I died that night, would people tell my mom and dad that if I hadn’t disrespected the officer, I would be alive? That if I had complied, I would have made it home? Would anyone, not having seen it happen, speculate about my role in my own killing? Or would they mourn with my family, and share in their tears? Not offer an explanation, but just sit with them in that grief? Work with them to find peace through justice?

What must be emphasized in these hypotheticals is that I did not die, and I likely will not die at the hands of police, because although I disrespected that officer that night, I didn’t pose a threat to him. There are no negative media stereotypes about me. America writ-large does not dehumanize my existence on a daily basis: not when white males murder schoolchildren; not when white males commit terror acts on black people worshiping in their churches; not when white males rape females and “serve” 3 months in prison; not ever. The Constitution was written for people who looked like me, and continues to serve the same people over and above others. (When a black man is killed for “waving” a gun, but a white man goes on a killing spree with a gun and is taken alive, the Second Amendment is not applied with equal freedom.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose narrative has been whitewashed and revised to make us forget that he was a radical, confrontational revolutionary, once said, “[W]e have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”

He was speaking of technological advances in America, which can be read in today’s lens as these online forums that have given us the unique opportunity to come together. King warned that, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” We don’t talk to or with each other in these spaces; we talk at each other until we throw our hands up and log off for the evening. Some families aren’t able to log off when they go to sleep and someone is missing.

When a person is shot and killed and it is broadcast across America and the globe, do you get upset? Do you wonder if someone in your life might die in the same way? Are these people your neighbors or brothers, or neither? Another way of asking this is, whom do you side with in narratives of death? And what affords you the ability to side with that particular person or group? If we don’t wrestle with these questions, we won’t make progress. More people will die.

King went on in his speech to say, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” There are too many ought-to-bes, and not enough becomings. Our brothers and sisters are dying. Will we mourn with those who mourn, or all perish together?

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968. Congressional Record, 9 April 1968.

Identity: Capable

In the fall semester of 2015, I started a Master’s program in school counseling. Three months later, I hated it. I felt I was pursuing this path because it seemed like the logical next step in my career. My life has never followed a “logical next step” trajectory, and it felt dishonest to who I am as a person. I don’t say that to discount the wonderful work of counselors, just that it isn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself as a counselor ten years out, and that’s not a good start to a two-year program.

Three months is not long to decide to quit graduate school. You can imagine my embarrassment when family and friends asked how my first semester went, and only months after telling them I was going back to school, I was telling them I wouldn’t be returning for a second semester. When I cited that “my heart wasn’t in it,” I could see older adults give me that generational side-eye reserved for millennials perpetually “figuring it out.”

But my mind was made up, and I withdrew with only 6 hours to my transcript.

In the midst of this change of heart, something else was pulling at me. As an undergraduate receiving my Bachelor’s in Religion from TCU, I wrote my senior thesis on the intersections of hip-hop and religion, specifically Black Liberation Theologies made manifest in Kanye West’s and Jay Z’s 2011 Watch The Throne album. I am deeply passionate about these intersections, as anyone who talks me for five minutes can assess.

Every semester since graduating, my professor invites me back to his class to share my research with his students. For months I look forward to this day, spending hours tweaking and updating the presentation. When I step into his room, I get this certain feeling I struggle to put into words. For one hour every six months, I am given the space to talk about my passion in front of a group of students who might have their perspective shifted by my ideas. It is the fastest hour of my life each time, and I long for more. I believe this is what people talk about when they cite the cliché (that may hold some truth) that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

It is this feeling that I have chosen to pursue. In the spring, I applied for Master’s programs in Theological Studies, and I accepted admission at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. I am thrilled to attend this institution because they stand for the things I stand for, and stand for the things I want to stand for. My goal is to eventually become a college professor who spends his life geeking out over hip-hop with college students who need to see what passion for your work looks like.

Although I am beyond joyful about this decision, it has come with another choice that leaves my heart heavy. After three years teaching at my school in Oak Cliff, I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom. I had hoped to continue working there in the years it will take to receive my degree, but the cards did not fall this way.

I often see people criticize young teachers, particularly those who go through Teach For America (as I did), that we use teaching as a “stepping-stone” to the next thing. This is a valid critique in many ways. It was never my intention, nor was it my intention to leave the classroom this soon. My heart is breaking over the 100+ kids I have come to love in room P11. I’ve cried, I wrote and rewrote letters to my students, and for weeks I denied that leaving was the only possible solution. I even asked to become a part-time teacher at my school, but was turned down.

I am experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, as I am not sure whether I can comfortably put “teacher” next to my name anymore. I maybe won’t be called Mr. Taylor (or Mr. T or Mr. Benjamin) for some time. I thought I would have at least two more years with students I have taught every day since 2013, and now I don’t have one more day with them. I have been a teacher and a mentor and a brother and a friend. Now what?

A person who tells me hard and important things recently heard this spiel from me, and set me straight. They told me I have been a teacher longer than three years. They told me I was a teacher when I was 19 and interning at my first church. When peers look up to me, I’m a teacher. When my kids continue to reach out to me over the next few years (as I hope they will), I will be their teacher. As I attend graduate school for many years to come, I will learn how to be a better teacher and will use it. A classroom with my name on it doesn’t make me a teacher. Who am I makes me that.

These words roll around my head, working against my insecurities and sense of loss, some days taking the upper hand, some days disappearing out of sight. It is a terrifying thing to believe you are someone. The oft-quoted poem from Marianne Williamson holds up: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate./Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

I am afraid to follow my dream of becoming a college professor, hurt that it has already cost me a job I so deeply care about, worried that I will fail and face more than embarrassment amongst my peers.

But I cannot deny I am capable. I cannot pretend I don’t want this more than anything. I cannot ignore daydreams of writing books about rap and speaking before students with a hunger for knowledge. I want it. And I will fight for it.

Yesterday, as I was turning in my resignation to my school, I received an email from a student who recently graduated. The student needed help with submitting documents to the college they’ll be attending this fall. They were starting to worry. On Monday, I am turning in my computer and packing up my room. “Can you meet me at school Monday?” I asked. “You don’t know how much I appreciate you,” the student replied. And for once, I believe it: I’m a teacher, and I always will be. Where that takes me is anyone’s guess, but I don’t have to worry about who I am.

I am capable, and that is the most frightening and wonderful thing we can choose to be.

This blog has been dedicated to teaching for the better part of three years, and I know that most of my readers are here for my stories in the classroom. I will be shifting the tone of this blog to a broader perspective on my life going forward. It will include stories from more aspects of my life, but it will take on a particular focus that I will roll out in the next few days. Whether or not you choose to keep up with me, I want to thank you for reading this blog. I cannot tell you how often I read encouraging comments from old blogs. They kept me going these three years. I know they will continue to.

The Age of Solitude, Issue 1, April 2016

In December of 2014, I set out to share poetry with people via actual, physical mail. In 2015, I sent out 10 mailings to about 60 people. Over that span of time, I received mail from roughly 15 people, and texts and messages from many others involved in the project. In 2016, I vowed to keep the project up, but dropped everyone who did not engage with me in some format. The purpose of the project is, in part, that we are living in a time when we fake connections and I want to offer a chance to make real ones. Every month (or so) I send poetry that (hopefully) challenges my readers to reconsider a mindset held by society at large. I share some personal thoughts in addition to the poetry, and I have forged several excellent pen pals because of it. Above, you can see the new(s) format of the dispatch. I’ll be posting each on here a few weeks after sending them out via mail, but if you’d like to receive a physical copy and engage with me on a more personal basis, please email your physical address to therealbenshady@me.com. I promise not to show up at your door.

Looking forward, I would like to expand the dispatch to include the work of others. Reach out if you’d be interested.

You can follow on Twitter here.

Shadow Living

I recently turned 25, which is an age that seems like it would come with some additional amount of withheld wisdom or at least a senior discount at the movie theater, but so far has only made my students react with wide eyes and the confidence-building question, “But weren’t you really young when you started teaching us?” It’s been quite the ride.

In my 25 years on this earth, I haven’t ascribed much significance to ages. I didn’t start driving until I was 18. 21 didn’t find me at a bar. 22 did not feel like one of the Taylor Swift’s nights on the town. By all accounts, significant moments in my life haven’t come attached to specific ages.

I do frequently think about the 6th grade. In the grand scope of my youth, that was a defining year. That was the year I became my class’s prime candidate for bullying. I was invited into friend groups, only to be kicked out for “making them look bad.” I was asked questions about myself, only to hear the information retold later in jokes at my expense. I was a loser, a lame, that horrible f-word that has been used to degrade the LGBTQ community for decades now. I was pushed around when the teachers weren’t looking, the recipient of spitballs to the back of my head. Teachers assured my mom that they didn’t see anything. My principal asked if maybe I didn’t possess a sense of humor, if I hadn’t understood that “boys will be boys”? Most days, my mom would sign me out for lunch so that I could cry in her Chevy Astro van in the parking lot, a brief reprieve from the harassment.

It was a terrible, terrible year, but when the seventh grade rolled around, it was over. Nothing significant changed in me, but the class moved on to other targets, and I was safe at last. One would think that this was the end of all that noise.

If you look at my high school track record, the sixth grade underdog came up big. I was the class president and valedictorian, involved in Art, Theater, Student Council, National Honor Society, UIL Academics, and my school’s first-ever all-male “dance” team, the Crazy Cats. It was a classic Cinderella story, one that used to make me think that I was real cool.

Of course, life never leaves off where the happy ending in a movie does. There are always more dragons to face after the credits, and rarely do they go easier on you because of past victories. As I entered college in 2009, I was confronted with the challenge of making a new name for myself in a new place. This sea of 8,000 faces was an opportunity to make new friends and make the most of my four years as an undergraduate.

But that’s not how I viewed this new landscape. What I saw were 8,000 faces that could call me a loser again. What I saw was an infinite amount of scenarios in which I could reveal part of myself only to have it thrown back in my face as a joke. I felt vulnerable, exposed to the possibility that I could be hated again for no reason at all. I was standing in the shadow of my sixth grade self, or what those kids had told me about my sixth grade self, and I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to outlive him.

I’m not the only one who does this. I know people who have yet to outlive words people said about them what seems like lifetimes ago to everyone else, but just yesterday to them. I know people who have yet to outrun past mistakes because they can’t believe that grace extends to oneself. I know people who have yet to let go of missed opportunities, believing that life will never be as good as that alternate route they failed to take.

In some ways, we are all shadow people. We all live out, over and over, the words or actions that we cannot seem to shake for all of our successes and triumphs. I have lived a good life filled with so much joy and so much love, yet sometimes I am standing in a room of people I don’t know and am afraid to speak for fear of what they might think of me. I sometimes have entire weeks of feeling sensitive and remaining quiet, avoiding friends and interactions so that I can protect my bruised ego. I am always on guard for people who might belittle me and revert me back to that insecure boy who stopped trusting others to save his self.

For me, stepping out of the shadows of that fateful year is dangerous. It is a constant risk that I do not always perceive as worth taking. I am risking my ego, my feelings, my self-esteem that took so long to build up after that time, and ultimately myself. Whenever any of us decide to step out of the shadows we are hiding in, we run the very scary risk of losing part of what makes us whole.

But when we decide to stay in the shadows, to lick our wounds for our whole lives, to never trust that there is light for us outside of this darkness, we run the even scarier risk of never truly being whole.

I never fully left the shadows of my sixth grade year in college, and the consequence was only being left with a few good friends from that time, friends I can’t even say know the whole me despite how much I cherish them. I have met up with long-time friends to catch up, only to realize I never fully revealed myself to them, and no longer know them because they never really knew me. I have spent months with my guard up around people I could have loved deeper and received deeper love from, had I only let them in sooner.

We deserve to step out of the shadows. There is light on the other side of whatever darkness we wrestle every day.

We deserve to believe that there are truer, kinder words to be spoken of us by people who actually have our best interest in mind. Better stories exist if we only pick up the pen to write them and share them with our loved ones.

We deserve to accept the grace we extend to others. We can spend our lives paying for the past, but we’ll never settle the debt unless we learn to live forgiven.

Shadow living is a difficult and heavy way to live, but it is also incredibly easy, for it is a pain that is known, comfortable, and predictable. Living in the light requires more of us, is a challenge not everyone wishes to risk, but is ultimately a lighter load to carry. Its pain is the pain that James Baldwin describes when he says, “Love is a growing up.”

We deserve to step from the shadows and live in light, so that we may know love and give love and let go of the rest.

Being Brave

When I tell people I teach in Oak Cliff, I am frequently met with the same response. “You’re so brave,” they say. Occasionally they will add some variation of, “It must be so tough to teach those kids.”

It is an infuriating response. These are children whom I love, and this person who has never met them or heard a single story about them already assumes they are tough to teach, difficult to reach, and easy to label. And—amidst these kids’ impossibility—I am a brave soul for choosing to teach them.

Over the years I have made varied responses to this statement, everything from passive silence (I am ashamed to admit) to passive-aggressive quips like, “Isn’t every teacher anywhere brave?” Time and again, I excuse myself from calling them out on the implicit racism within their pseudo-compliment.

Teachers are not brave based on where they teach. My children in Oak Cliff are just as good and bad as the children I grew up with in a small town in the suburbs that has no reputation, just as good and bad as the children who grow up in the “rich” neighborhood 15 minutes up the highway.

I don’t mean to be a reductionist, because certainly not all children are dealing with the same issues. But my point is not about what children are going through, but how “teachable” different children appear to be to people. And to that point, children are children, regardless of differences. They have curious minds, breakable hearts, and a propensity for making mistakes. Adults are the same, albeit many tend to lose their curiosity.

Teachers are also not brave just for being teachers, as my passive-aggressive quip once suggested. In my three years in education, I have met teachers from many different schools. Unsurprisingly, some teach for the money, some look at their kids and only feel malice, and some push packets onto desks every day and tell the kids not to bother them.

It’s a funny thing about the world that we have failed to grasp: being in a profession doesn’t make you good at it. There are bad teachers, bad police officers, bad mechanics, and so on. Professional labels are not as simple as the Village People made them out to be. Our world would benefit from learning not to treat a critique of a profession as a damnation of everyone who works within it.

So what makes a person brave?

Hollywood has a dangerous model. The most successful movies are always the ones where superheroes fight evil on larger scales with every sequel, or extraordinary humans survive the escape of dinosaurs in theme parks or intergalactic oppressive regimes. How many of our professions call for us to pull off such feats? (Seriously, if you’re dealing with escaped dinosaurs or intergalactic oppressive regimes, please reach out with more info.)

Even the movies about teachers romanticize the classroom, building up big breakthroughs of kids who once seemed unreachable. They play like highlight reels of teachers’ lives, when more often than not my life as a teacher would end up in very unentertaining deleted scenes and bloopers.

At their best, these movies can inspire us to live braver in our daily lives. But when we get caught believing too heavily in the Hollywood narrative, we can easily feel like something is wrong with our lives. A bad day turns into a bad year. A relationship didn’t turn around like it does in the rom-coms. The student standing up for himself at school didn’t transform into the hero getting back-pats and high-fives in the hallway. Where is the happy ending? The deus ex machina?

Charles Bukowski has a poem about the athletes who aren’t the all-stars, and ends with this reflection:

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

Perhaps bravery has less to do with who we are (or what we call ourselves), and more to do with our daily choices.

Bravery is the single mom or dad who wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to make lunch for their child before working a 10-hour shift.

Bravery is the kid who is called names every day, and looks at himself in the mirror and knows better. Or, on days when he doesn’t know better, chooses to love others anyway.

Bravery is the woman afraid to speak in front of crowds, who stands up and inspires audiences of hundreds and thousands (or even just ten).

Bravery is the social justice advocate who continues to fight for the oppressed even as their personal character is attacked for attempting to help the hurting.

Bravery is anyone who wakes up in this world today and decides to spread positivity amidst all of the negative energy emitted by the human population at large.

Bravery is more often found in the small details of the day than the larger victories that only come around a few times in a lifespan.

Another dangerous definition of bravery is the phrase “putting on a brave face,” often advised when people should hold in their negative emotions to pretend they are fine. But what if the bravest face is the one that cries in front of others in a moment of vulnerability so rare in our modern age? What if the bravest face is the one dealing with depression, and openly talks about the experience of living with a terrifying chemical imbalance that gets stigmatized by society?

We need to redefine the brave face. It’s not the one smiling through the pain, swallowing sadness to look ‘presentable’. The brave face is feeling what it feels, and sharing it with others. Let’s not call people brave for tucking their true emotions away.

Let’s call people brave when they wake up on their worst day and still go to work. Let’s call people brave when for struggling with this beautiful, broken thing we call life. And let’s call ourselves brave when—having failed—we look in the mirror and still call ourselves loved.

Don’t make bravery synonymous with a certain profession, with Hollywood heroism, or with concealed feelings. Bravery is, simply, making the effort to live well in spite of the overwhelming amount of reasons not to.

If we start to see bravery as a daily choice to make the most of our smallest and most unrecognized moments, then maybe we can look at each other and say, “You’re so brave,” and it will finally mean what it should.

Bukowski, Charles. (2007). “Bruckner.” The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Soundtrack to 2015

Music in 2015 was good to me. I like to reflect on the albums that impacted me over the course of a year to understand myself, and others, better. Continuing my yearly tradition, here are my top albums and what they meant to me.

Honorable Mentions:

Adele’s 25, Miguel’s Wildheart, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf, mewithoutYou’s Pale Horses, Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind, Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$, Of Monster and Men’s Beneath the Skin, CHVRCHES’ Every Open Eye

  1. Depression Cherry—Beach HouseBeach_House_-_Depression_Cherry

I only bought this album recently, so admittedly it is a last minute addition, but I feel like it will easily climb this list as 2016 progresses. Beach House know how to create a feeling with their lush instrumentation and singer Victoria Legrand’s dreamy voice, and that all begins with the opener ‘Levitation,’ in which Legrand lamentingly accepts, “You grow up too quick/then get over it.” The album is full of these melancholic musings, and you can’t help but get lifted in the process.

  1. Coming Home—Leon Bridges

Coming_Home_Leon_BridgesMy Fort Worth bias may heavily come into play here, but Leon Bridges is undeniably talented and only starting to show what he is capable of with Coming Home. Throughout the short 10-track debut, Bridges shares his family history (‘Lisa Sawyer’ and ‘Twistin’ and Groovin’’), swoons over girls (‘Coming Home’ and ‘Better Man’) and preaches the gospel (‘Shine’ and the album’s highest moment ‘River’). All of these songs capture an old-fashioned sound (the Sam Cooke comparisons are so frequent they no longer need noting) that perfectly embody an age where vinyl and vintage are peaking, yet what will keep Bridges here for the long haul is not his nostalgic sound but the authenticity in his writing and voice.

  1. Seeds—TV on the Radio

WheTvotr_-_seedsn it comes to a breakup album, TV on the Radio don’t think sadness necessarily calls for heavy music. “Could you care for someone above your bright lights?” singer Tunde Adebimpe asks, over a boisterous horn section. Even when the album makes less noise, the feelings of a love lost are felt deeply (see ‘Trouble’). On the title track, Adebimpe details the initial feelings of a new love (“I told your sister that you’re all I ever dream of” is one of the most romantic lines ever written), and it is clear that this album will not let pain over heartbreak stop hope from coming (“rain comes down like it always does/this time I’ve got seeds on ground”).

  1. Strangers to Ourselves—Modest Mouse

Strangers_to_Ourselves_coverStrangers finds frontman Isaac Brock still angry about the world and its follies. Brock tackles everything from environmental destruction (“pack up again, head to the next place/where we’ll make the same mistakes”) to the Internet age (“the way we feel about what we do is by who has watched us”). But the album really shines when Brock gets quiet and vulnerable, like on ‘Ansel,’ a reflection about losing his brother in a mountain accident, and the regret that comes with things unstated before it’s too late. On the album opener he muses, “we’re lucky we’re so easy to forget.” It’s one of many contradictions expressed, as much of the album hones in on the irreparable damage we’ve done. And yet, Strangers to Ourselves understands the human condition is contradiction, a long history of unknowing, anger, fear, and regret, but still somehow trying to manage and move forward as best we know how.

  1. Kintsugi—Death Cab for Cutie

Death_Cab_For_Cutie_-_KintsugiDeath Cab returns with a refreshing take on romance in modern times. Beginning with ‘No Room in Frame,’ singer Ben Gibbard asks an ex-lover, “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” It is a question about celebrity romance, but one that could reach into every broken heart burdened by an age when selfies reign over settling down. Throughout the album, Gibbard explores long-distance romance, the ghosts that follow you throughout life, and the constant reaching and not finding that he has always been so good at exploring. The standout is ‘Binary Sea,’ the final song, which narrates the day Atlas realized the world got bigger while he got weaker. “You took photos capturing his defeat,” Gibbard describes, “and messaged them to all your friends/and we all laughed at his expense.” The subject matter of the Internet’s effect on our compassion and connections has not been explored enough in music, and certainly not this well yet.

  1. Carrie & Lowell—Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan_Stevens_-_Carrie_&_LowellAs far as reaching into the deepest emotional places goes, Sufjan Stevens made the best album this year. Exploring the grief he is dealing with in the loss of his mother, Sufjan takes a headfirst dive into their long-estranged relationship, the reunion near the end of her life, and finally, her departure. Sufjan leaves nothing out on this sparsely instrumented album, from his suicidal ideation on ‘The Only Thing’ (“do I care if I survive this?”) to his feelings of abandonment as a child (“I should have wrote a letter/and grieve what I happen to grieve”). But what makes this album beautiful is that, amidst his grief, there is still so much life to be found. “Search for things to extol,” he sings on ‘Blue Bucket of Gold,’ and Sufjan has created a wonderful album for which to do so.

  1. How Big How Blue How Beautiful—Florence & The Machine

Florence_and_the_Machine_-_How_Big_How_Blue_How_Beautiful_(Official_Album_Cover)How Big finds Florence maturing into her big sound in all the right ways. Opening the album with the line, “Don’t touch the sleeping pills/they mess with my head,” Florence lets you into the dark night of her soul within seconds of the first song. “Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Did I build a ship to wreck?” she asks. When describing an abusive relationship, Florence surrounds herself with a choir and pulsing rhythm section while asking, “What kind of man loves like this?” This album shines through Florence’s incredible range of emotions, as she express her deepest regrets, deepest hurts, and deepest gratitude for life itself through the darkness (see the title track). It is the fact that she has felt pain so deeply that makes the listener feel her victories even deeper near the end of the album, on ‘Third Eye’ (“you don’t have to be a ghost here amongst the living”) and standout track ‘Mother’ (“mother make me a big tall tree/so I can shed my leaves and let it blow through me”).

  1. Beauty Behind the Madness—The Weeknd

The_Weeknd_-_Beauty_Behind_the_MadnessOn Beauty, The Weeknd embraced pop without compromising his dark, dark, dark lyrics. It’s hard to quote almost anything he says about the nameless women that move in and out of his life, but what makes this album complex is that—amidst his oft-regretful trysts with these women (“in my dark times baby/this is all I could be”), the voice of Abel Tesfaye’s mother weighs heavy on his mind (“mama called me destructive/said it’d ruin me one day”). She appears throughout the album as the good angel on his devilish shoulder, and as he wrestles with whether the fast life is the good life, we find that the Ice King of Pop is not rotten to the core. Nowhere is this more evident than the end of the album, when—his mother’s voice absent—he hopes for something real in a relationship and concedes, “but if not, I hope you find somebody to love.” Feelings, engage.

—-Between_the_World_and_Me
I’m currently reading Between the World and Me, a letter by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son on what it means to live free in a black body in America at this time. I am certainly no expert on the black experience in America, but these albums have done as much for me in seeking to understand it as my students’ personal reflections and my own independent reading have.

  1. Summertime ’06—Vince Staples

Summertime-06Vince Staples’ 20 song debut album describes the scene on Long Beach, California, where Staples implores if white people chanting his lyrics at shows are aware that he knows “they won’t go where we kick it at.” Whereas Kendrick’s brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly attempts to moralize many of the issues plaguing his mind, Staples strips the fight between good and bad from the conversation to offer striking insights like, “I never vote for presidents/the presidents that change the hood are dead and green.” The album challenges and engages as Staples does not attempt to be a model citizen for the youth, but rather describes what it is like to be a youth in the suburbs we are afraid to talk about, the ones we whisper about without thinking about the real children and parents and siblings there fighting to survive while we cast judgment and proclaim to know what they need. “My teacher told me we was slaves,” Staples sings, “my mama told me we was kings.” Caught in the middle of a world that is fighting over the value of a black body, Staples confesses, “I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we’re somewhere in between.”

  1. To Pimp a Butterfly—Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_ButterflyMeanwhile, Kendrick Lamar, amidst massive stardom, promised to bring Compton to Hollywood and the White House and did just that. In many interviews he talked about a nation that wants to use him—an exception to the rule of how many kids succeed coming from a neighborhood like his—by selling his body and value for profit, aka pimping a butterfly. Rather than settling for the totally justifiable route of simmering criticisms of corporate America (“I can see the dollar in you,” Lamar states in the voice of Uncle Sam attempting to buy and sell him), Lamar explores every wall that contains him, including the mentality that tells him he doesn’t deserve to speak for the people. “As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression,” he requests of the listener. Some articles said this is a specifically black album, and how are white people to take it? I find myself learning something new with each listen, not forming opinions based on empty politics, but from the perspective of a real human with real hurts rooted in real racism, as King Kunta takes me for a walk in his shoes while “everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”

  1. Rodeo—Travi$ Scott

RodeoalbumAlthough Vince and Kendrick offered up incredible takes on the black experience in America, there was something about Travi$ Scott’s debut Rodeo that really affected me. Forget that it features the best guest verses from the likes of The Weekend, Justin Bieber, and 2 Chainz. In an age where Drake’s overconfessional raps reign supreme, his antithesis is Travi$ Scott, a Houston emcee offering almost zero personal details about his life. “Give you some of me, you want all of me,” he groans on the first track, and it is this statement that defines the album’s themes. On the cover of Rodeo is an action figure version of Travi$, a man who himself almost never poses with his face fully visible to the camera (seriously, check out his Instagram). We live in a time where black culture is lauded while black lives are taken too soon, with no consequence to anyone but the families and communities that are left without them. So what does it mean when a rapper like Scott intentionally does not allow you into every corner of his life? It could be his means of hiding one’s self for survival, something Coates talks to his son about in Between the World and Me. It could be his way of not being pimped as corporate America’s butterfly. On a single song, Scott celebrates the fast life (“pray for my liver when I’m up in this club”), then later laments, “I’m tired of seeing black kids’ faces on Fox.” Some may scoff at a man who tries to be political while trying to party, but Rodeo, in its very name a form of entertainment to some that is life-or-death for the actual participants, is just the outline of a portrait of a black man who demands the right to a truly free life, as he wants it, on no one’s terms but his own. “I don’t want your apple pie, mama,” he boasts on the finale, “I need my own pepper, please/my own legacy/my own recipe.” We owe this freedom to choose our own paths to more people.

The Neutral Lives of Teachers

I teach at a school that once was a church, and the steeple still resides atop the elementary school building. Most of the students I teach identify as Christian or Catholic. So far as I am aware, there is not a single Muslim student in our school. Based on what my students have disclosed in class, they have never met or regularly interacted with someone of the Islamic faith. Most of what they know about Muslims they have heard on TV or seen on social media.

Lately the media has abounded with hateful, degrading, and dehumanizing comments toward people of the Islamic faith community. After a certain politician took degrading comments about Muslims to a new level last week, I decided to tell my students that regardless of religious beliefs, we owe every faith and non-faith tradition the respect that we would expect to have from them. I gave my kids the option of sharing a letter on social media to tell Muslims that they have value, they are beautiful, and they have a place at our table. I myself wrote a letter which—although I stand by the overall message—I will not repost here as I wrote it quickly in class while keeping one eye on my working students, and thus did not polish my words to communicate everything exactly right.

After posting a picture of my letter, a (former) Facebook friend commented that I should not “indoctrinate” my students with my own personal opinions. And, although I generally do not take teaching advice from people who have never taught, I thought seriously about his position on the issue. Should teachers reserve their opinions in the classroom at all times? Does taking a stance in front of my kids inherently push my values onto them? Are educators expected to remain neutral in the professional setting of their classroom? Indeed, a poster above my desk says, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see” (Alexandra Trenfor).

I spend a lot of time teaching my kids where to look. If I had to guess, I would say that I spend more time than the average teacher talking about how to critically analyze the messages my students see every day. That is no dig to other teachers; if anything, it is a dig at a government that has consistently placed high stakes testing over the ability to actually think. I have an advantage by teaching an elective that focuses on the vague principle of “postsecondary preparation.”

I believe a large part of postsecondary preparation is having the skills to critically analyze media messages. Many college courses are student-driven discussions based on readings, and I believe that I am preparing my students for college by teaching them to critically read about current events. I just wrapped up a unit with my students where we studied the basic principle that (1) all media messages are constructed (2) using a specific language (3) with an embedded set of values and (4) are typically seeking profit or power. We talked about the myth of “unbiased news” and spent a lot of time reading, writing, and debating the messages we observed. Who is giving us this message? What message are they giving us? Why? And, ultimately, do we accept it or not, and why?

One of the best lessons my kids have taught me in the last three years is that you have to earn a relationship with someone; your age, expertise, or authority do not excuse your need to know someone before you start trying to teach them something. One of Maya Angelou’s many pieces of wisdom was that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Thus, my kids have learned to not take any message at face value. It doesn’t matter if they like the person saying something: what are they saying, and do I agree with it?

As their teacher, although many of them seem to like me (fingers crossed), my position doesn’t make my words gospel to them. I know they feel comfortable disagreeing with me, because they do it all the time. And I don’t mean in petty arguments about their behavior; I mean in the real issues that drive at the heart of what it means to be human in 2015. I have deeper and more respectful conversations with my students about political issues than 99% of Facebook is having right now.

I would hate to leave the classroom someday and have my students wonder who I really was. I like to think that they are getting all of me, not some paid pawn reading from a script. I am a fan of NPR’s Secret Lives of Teachers segment, but in my classroom, there is no secret life of Mr. Taylor. I am the same to them as I am to my friends. We argue about rap, I use my trademark self-deprecating humor, and I occasionally share an opinion about topical issues. On my birthday this past Monday, one said, “So you’re 25. No wife. No kids. No prospects.” This is indicative of how much they know me, and how sad my life sometimes seems to them.

I think more of us should recognize the distinction between telling people what we think and telling people what to think. In telling people what we think, we trust them with part of who we are, the experiences and environmental conditions that led us to believe something about the world, ourselves, and others. Conversely, in telling people what to think, we insult them by forcing our own experiences onto them and expecting them to fall in line with us.

If I could destroy one cliché, it would be “because I said so.” It implies that authority supersedes a relationship. It says that your power outweighs all other considerations. It says that an adult’s words are good enough evidence, when we live in a world where adults often abuse, mistreat, and otherwise disregard the feelings of children.

Instead, I tell my kids what I think and why I think it, and then I let them, as fully functioning humans, determine if it is true for them or not. They don’t absorb my words as facts; they have more critical eyes than all of the conservatives and liberals who read the same news sources every day and repeat what they’re told.

I also wonder what effect it has on kids to put them in front of eight adults a day and expect those adults to never share personal opinions. Take a look at your social media, your last family gathering, or the last time you were in the break room and Donald Trump was brought up. Did everyone stay neutral? Did everyone sidestep the conversation and reserve their personal opinions? I highly doubt it. And if in most cases adults do not maintain neutrality amongst their peers, what kind of false reality are we building for our kids when eight times a day they interact with adults who don’t seem to think anything about anything?

I would rather my kids know where I stand on certain issues and strongly disagree with me than assume that adults mostly feel nothing about critical issues. I would rather they know that the world is not a neutral place, and they need to know how to disagree with people and still maintain relationships. The person who posted on my letter has never actually hung out with me one-on-one, or spent any time in the last four years with me, so I felt compelled to remove him from my Facebook (and essentially, my life), and move on. I don’t want to teach my kids that eliminating friends with different viewpoints is how life works, nor is imposing viewpoints on people when there is no relationship present.

When it comes to neutrality, I think teachers need to do two things. The first is to teach kids how to think, because without teaching them how to think they will never truly be prepared for the realities ahead of them.

The second is to teach them, by example, how to be human. More often than not, when my students have class debates and discussions, I step out of the way and allow them to learn the ins and outs of forming opinions and having respectful conversations. I don’t share my opinion, because I don’t want to be the loudest one in the room. It’s a good way for everyone to try to live.

But every once in awhile, when the world seems to be going awry, and not enough people are speaking up for Muslims, or women, or people of color, or children, I open my mouth and I speak from the heart. And my heart, more than my brain, more than my opinions, more than anything else, is what defines me as a teacher and a person. I would rather be wrong in front of my kids a million times than not speak my mind to them even once.