Last week, I spent some time with thirty black high school students from rural Alabama as a part of a summer enrichment program. After leading a session discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s “How if Feels to be Colored Me,” I had the students break into small groups to talk about how it feels to them in 2010. I mean, Zora talked about feeling “so very colored” at times in the 1920’s, what does it feel like to be a young black person in 2010?
There were lots of interesting answers. Some of the students were excited about the Obama family being in the White House, others discussed the pressure to do well in school and prepare for college, and still more talked about violence and drugs plaguing their communities. When I asked, “how does it feel to be a young man or woman?” don’t you know that the floodgates opened up?! Now, generally, a teenager’s favorite subject is themselves, but the already deep conversation got even deeper. Let me share a bit of what they said.
One young woman said, “It’s really, really hard being a young black woman. We have to prove ourselves in ways that boys don’t have to.” Many of the girls heartily agreed and gave examples from personal experience. Without having read Frances Beales or Kimberle’ Crenshaw, these women were able to articulate notions of intersecting oppressions that could give some of my college students a run for their money. In another group, a student answered the question saying that as a young black man he was greatly offended by folks immediately thinking he was uninterested in school, a juvenile delinquent, or that he intended to be a “deadbeat dad.” “Those aren’t my goals,” he said. “I may be a kid, but I’m a responsible person. I don’t want to be stereotyped before someone even gets to know me.” What could I say? I mean, that’ll preach itself.
In both cases we talked about how these inequities made them feel and discussed strategies for dealing with racism and gender discrimination. Invariably the notion of “working hard” and not letting things get to you came up. But I was also interested in how many times the students amended that advice to acknowledge that working hard was not enough, that it helped to have a supportive network of family, friends, and teachers behind you. I thought to myself, the sooner you learn this, the better!
Listening to the different narratives being shared in the various groups definitely gave me pause. I mean, on the one hand, a whole lot hasn’t changed since I was in their shoes fifteen years ago. Indeed, in some ways these kids are under pressures that I didn’t have to deal with in quite the same way. I mean, being a kid during Reaganomics was not cute, but neither was growing up under Dubya. Add in the current state of affairs–endless wars of attrition, an economic depression…er, um recession, an effed up environment, and so on–and the future–their future–looks like a hot mess.
On the other hand, my spirits were somewhat buoyed. I felt like, damn, this next generation has a rough way to go, but there are some sharp critical thinkers in here with feminist politics, even if they may not identify them as such. That just made my heart sing as a feminist educator. I remain committed to being an advocate for them because, like I said, working hard is not enough. I may not have any children (I know my feline furbaby doesn’t count), but I am definitely invested in helping the children in my community doing well. And after what I’ve heard working with young people, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.