We were supposed to be reading some book, about some subject, for some test. My inability to remember which book, for what purpose, and its connection to whatever test, shows how important all of this really was—it wasn’t. But our eighth-grade English teacher canonized this book as if it was going to save the world, as if it was going to save us. I harbored a deep distrust for this—and I wasn’t the only one.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t care because I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t listening. This set her off. She went on some multi-minute tirade about how we didn’t care about our education, how she cared more about it than we did, and the rest I forget. But what I do remember is her—foot lifted in the air, finger pointed at the exposed sock beneath her Birkenstocks, or Merrells, or whatever white people enjoyed wearing ten years ago—saying, “I’m spending my money on books for you all, and I don’t even have money for new shoes!” More memorable than the diatribe was the laughter it triggered. It was relentless. In the myriad of bawls, cackles, chuckles, giggles, grins, and snickers, she dissipated. We crucified her.
Poor lady; so Christ-like, carrying the burden of the cross, the burden of our books, on her back—all while her shoes were falling apart. It must have been really hard for her: buying all of these books at the detriment of her footwear. Or maybe it was easy. I don’t know and I didn’t care. I think back to that miraculous moment of malice, realizing whose life had really been damned. It wasn’t ours; we all had shoes.
Collectively, our salvation had been girdled to dresses and suits for prom, dues for the senior trip, the promises of pubescent pleasures, and whatever other whims and wishes eighth graders inherit. Not to mention, many of us already had our faiths shaken in missionary efforts from adults. There was no room for another messiah—especially a white woman forsaken by her own choice to not buy new shoes. Why would this lady think we would let her save us? She wouldn’t even buy herself new shoes. What loops itself in my mind was the sermon—the irony of it all: a saint trying to reprimand sinners without admitting her own transgressions. But what was hers?
I told myself it was because she was racist, but I have to admit that I did not even know what that really meant—and I’m still learning what it means now. If I wanted to understand why white people lived, what I thought then—and in ways grapple with now—better lives, I was told it was because I was black. If I wanted to know why so many of us didn’t have fathers, it was said because we were black. Race seemed to conceal the forces of the human condition, and whatever genuine curiosities awakened to understand the perplexity of this condition, race became the way to lay this curiosity to rest. I’ve actually lost count of all the times I’ve been prematurely sent to bed on trumped up charges.
It was exciting to be responsible for solving life’s mysteries because I was black. This excitement was crushed, however, by the frustration of not being able to solve these mysteries, because I was black. It was like being expected to score the winning basket in the championship game but not allowed to have the ball during practice. What became obvious was that people were lying to my face, and because I couldn’t figure out who was lying or what they were lying about, I made the decision that no one could be trusted—black people generally, white people especially.
My general distrust of black people was linked to the fact that they obsessed and surmised over what being black was, what it meant, and the parameters on how to use it effectively. Being black would mean that I’d be more likely to land in a jail cell than takeoff in a college classroom; but being black also meant that, if I could withstand the turbulence, I would get a lot of scholarship money. I understood that if I resisted the urge to be black now, I could be black all I wanted to later. “Later” was a fallacy, though. It became a way to put things off. Why try to be great now, when I would be great later?
“You study for that test, yet?”
“I’ll do it later.”
I had trained my mind to be skeptical of everything having to do with being black, but my body believed all of it. What other choice did my body have? It was black.
My especial distrust of white people was linked to something at once different but altogether the same. White people avoided race at all cost—and when they did confront it, it was treated as happenstance. I wasn’t living in poverty because I was black; I was living in poverty because I was poor. Never mind that many of the poor kids in Bed Stuy were black—this was all coincidence. I already didn’t believe black people, but I was learning that I couldn’t believe white people, either. This was hard to reconcile until I realized that everyone I didn’t believe, or couldn’t believe, be they black or white, were adults.
Although adults were always trying to convince me that there wasn’t anything desirable about growing up, I never remember seeing any of them wanting to sit at the kids’ table. I was accustomed, however, to kids being shooed away ceremoniously from the adults’ table with the admonition to stay in a child’s place. In the way it was used, “stay in a child’s place” mirrored what I felt whenever I was told, “it’s because you’re black.” In understanding the parallels of both statements, I understand that the statements themselves weren’t stifling; it was the sentiment. They both carried the same dismissive shucking and shooing whenever I asked a question too hard, or said something too honest. In challenging adults, it wasn’t only my place being challenged; it was theirs as well. The more I refused to stay in my place, the more I saw adults lose theirs.
The caveat of being an adult is forgetting who the child is. The fact that adults aren’t the ones being shooed away from the table is a revelation of who really needs to be watched. We watch adults—with the intent to figure them out—because growing up is our crucible. It’s something we have to do in order to protect our innocence. This is why, as children, we are always so cruel to one another. We instinctively feel, in watching adults, that if we are unable to protect ourselves, no one else will.
Our English teacher became the casualty of this cruelty—but there were others. I remember how many white teachers we took advantage of because their sympathetic hearts bled sympathetic blood for our “condition.” Beneath the enabling, the coddling, the attempts at empathy, the inevitable conversion loomed over the crown of our heads. We weren’t being helped; we were being baptized. We were being covered in the blood of those who knew how to save us; it was the damnedest thing. But being the little devils that we were, we saw something in these teachers that we wanted to save, too.
It took a while for many of our white teachers to realize that we were taking as much advantage of them, and their whiteness, as they were of us, and our blackness. By taking advantage of them, we were trying to help them realize that they were white, but few accepted our help—and fewer felt they actually needed it. This is how we differentiated the real teachers from the white ones: real teachers were willing to cast their safety, their innocence, and their naiveté, into hell’s fire to teach us—to tell us the truth; truths we needed to hear if we ever wanted to save ourselves. White teachers were too busy trying to save themselves.
We were threatened by something real and we needed to feel that our teachers, our leaders, our “saviors,” were menaced by these same forces. And because we were all menaced by the carnal desires of the body—the transgressions of race—the only people that could save us, the only people that could teach us, were the people who admitted that they had bodies as well. Only then could those people be saved. We were already saved. Maybe some of us would never have books. But we’d all have shoes.
—Yahdon Israel: Live from Bed-Stuy
Images courtesy of Library of Congress and Peralta Community College