Wednesday, April 27, 2016

To the Black Women Who Loved the Death out of Me

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.  The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.  The most neglected person in America is the Black woman. - Malcolm X

On Sunday, the woman with whom I get to accompany in this lifetime sat down with me to watch the Game of Thrones premiere for a 6th season.  We were interrupted by Lemonade.

Beyoncé has created a sonic and visual novel, deeply rooted in the dark, dangerous Southern halls of past, present, and future Black American womanhood.  It is a modern day collection of Psalms, dripping with anger, lament, longing, confusion, and moving into forgiveness, restoration, redemption, and healing.  Quite simply, it's arc is stunning.  (Afterwards, I fell asleep during Game of Thrones.)  A few weeks back, I wrote about how Beyoncé's video for Formation uplifted the humanity of the young black male by showing a boy dancing before riot cops.   So it's fitting that Beyoncé, and all the many, many artists, poets, thinkers, athletes, dancers, and regular people involved in Lemonade, are the foundation for this post, too.

The visuals of Lemonade paint, with the greatest degree of accuracy I've ever seen, what it felt like to be cared for by the black women of New Orleans at the turn of the century.  No, the turn of the millennium, but maybe I meant that mistake.  It has cracked open a floodwater of gratitude, of which I must tend to now, as my emotions keep welling up and spilling over.  My daughter and my wife are like, okay, Daddy, you okay?  :)  I often try to explain what New Orleans means to me.  Treme comes very, very close.  Lemonade blows in like a hurricane passing through the eye of a needle before morphing into a sort of invisible force.  Joseph Campbell might call this force the thread that holds our American culture together, capable of stitching up any and all heartbreaks and wounds.  Which is the story of Black New Orleans, for me.

My first few weeks as a 6th grade teacher in the upper 9th ward were not stellar.  I can almost feel the collective Amens! from any of you who can recollect a first-year-in-the-classroom chain of memories.  And I was particularly sure that I was going to be great.  I was blessed by Levi, was a "gifted" writer from the University of Michigan, was so excited to serve society as a teacher in a lower income area.

By November, I wanted to quit.

And it was a very dark time in my life.  (I was also in an emotional and physically abusive relationship at the time, but that's the subject of a potential future blog, Dismantling Straighteousness)

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, moms from the neighborhood had donated all kinds of food to make a proper feast for all of us teachers and staff in the lounge.  It was amazing.  And I probably ate far too much, because by 5th period, I was suddenly struck with some acute nausea.

I looked up at the class, which had been one of my most challenging groups of students, and Deshondalisa looked back empathetically at me and said, "Mr. Smitch (that's what she always called me), you don't look good.  Go, go, I'll take care of the class."

Yes, I know the New Orleans Public School board could cite me for leaving a classroom unattended, but I really had no choice.

Backstory: on the very first day of school, Deshondalisa lodged herself, in my limited understanding at the time, as my sworn enemy, the biggest thorn in my side.  Of course, it didn't help that when I took attendance that very first day, her name was too long to fully fit in the Scantron printout, so I called her, "Deshondal?  Is Deshondal here?"

If venom could be administered from a glance and float through the air, hers certainly stung me.  The way she seethed her full name was the official start of our time together in period 5.  And it went downhill from there.

Until Thanksgiving.

Cut to the original scene, I run down the hall, take care of my pale green self, and am back within a few minutes.

Deshondalisa is calmly walking up and down the aisles, guiding the class in practicing spelling words.  They are all participating, everyone doing what she says.  "Feel better Mr. Smitch?  Go ahead and sit down, I'll take it from here."

I just observed.  Together with Deshondalisa's leadership, the class showed me that they could, indeed, function.  My single story of Deshondalisa had been that she was a troublemaker.  But in one swift moment,  I learned my error: she is a leader, and leaders sometimes get in trouble because they butt heads with other leaders.  Her leadership also allowed others to step forward and display their own leadership skills later in the year.  That unplanned event was a miracle, a moment where everything was reframed because of the courage and confidence of one eleven year old young Black woman.

From there, I wondered how true this statement was: "the trouble with these students is that their parents just don't care."  I heard this at least once a day from a variety of sources.  Now, it was true that very few parents would show up at parent-teacher conferences.  But maybe, like Deshondalisa, there was more to their stories.  I decided to buy my first Nokia cellular phone, signed up with Cingular, and committed to calling 5-8 parents every night.  The plan was to cycle this every 2 weeks, calling with primarily good reports on a portion of the students each day, reserving the third week for any trouble areas needing attention.  At first:

"Mr. Schmitt?  Oh no, what my Cedric do now?  You want I should break out the belt?"

It took a minute to dismantle the single story that these parents held surrounding the event of a teacher calling home.  By the second and third rounds, the conversations moved from, "just wanted to say that Geraldnisha did a really good job reading her poem today, you should ask her to read it at home," to "sure, I'd love to come over this weekend, 6pm sounds great."

And the rest is part of the history of me experiencing deep Southern hospitality, a warmth and generosity I had never before seen, smelled, heard, felt, or tasted.  It was 1999 in New Orleans East, and most of my students had remembered the fine detail of me mentioning that I was a vegetarian.  So these mothers, who lay sociologists had been known to describe as "not caring enough," had went out of their way to make me a special pot of gumbo.  We ate, told stories about our lives by the light of a muted television.  Many mothers were holding 2-3 jobs because places like Walmart wouldn't hire them for full-time work, nor would they pay them a living wage.  "Mr. Schmitt, oh, sorry, Matthew, I can't come to a 4pm meeting because if I take time off, I'll probably lose the whole job.  My neighbor had that happen last week."

The truth is that it had very little to do with the function of parental care.  And I believe it has almost everything to do with a new system of economic injustice, one just recycled from the past: put the burden of work on those who live below poverty lines, make it so they can't actually be fully present for their own family members, and blame them for any failures they or their kids may experience.

And yet, those phone calls changed not only my perspective, they changed my entire sense of self.  Those mothers, and some fathers, taught me about life from a vantage point I had not experienced myself.  They fed me, they encouraged me to keep encouraging their kids, they took me to church, they laughed at me when I took myself too seriously, and they let me know some of their greatest hopes and fears.  I learned that Malcolm X's statement is so scandalously and tragically true, and I believe it has been Black women who have carried the moral conscience of our nation from the outset.  They have seen it all, and still believe in taking care of strangers like me, still believe there is hope for their own children and neighborhood nieces and nephews, still believe that despite all that is slung at them, they will keep on keepin' on.  I learned the power of the Holy Spirit from all of those mothers.

To Davon, Troy, Tiffany, Darlene, Donna, Sonya, Marsha, Sylvia, Gina, Mary, Doris, Vicki, Verna, all those mothers, those of you who are college educated and those of you who did not graduate Reed or Abramson High School: thank you.  Collectively, you saved me from certain failure and certain death, because you showed me Jesus through all your kindnesses, all your hugs, all your stories, and all the ways you let me witness your tears.  You picked up many of my pieces and put me back together again.  I fervently pray and hope that my work does not speak for you, but that I can do my part to continually bend the narrative away from the lie: that only white men save.  I owe much of my life to you, so it is no surprise to me that this has been the post that has caused me the most trepidation.  Sometimes, even now, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble......

I will close first with my favorite movie scene of all time: Baby Suggs preaching in the forest clearing from the movie adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved.  I dare you to not be moved, and to not feel the weight of what Black women have had to carry, still have to carry.  And then I dare you not to dance.

But even more important are all of Deshondalisa's classmates, mostly African-American, some Haitian, some Dominican, and some Vietnamese.  These young woman believed in me nearly two decades ago, and they trusted me to trust in them.  They told their stories through poetry and arguments fearlessly, and they reminded me how much true stories matter.  I pray that my work honors all that you taught me, and I pray to discover increasing ways to fight alongside you for justice, for truth, and for a space for all of us at your good, good tables.  With your good, good, jambalaya.  With your good, good prayers.  With your true and good faith that has moved mountains.

Thank you for loving the death out of me - @matthewjschmitt