Last week, while visiting a liberal arts college in Oakland, I sat on a small couch and listened to the only white male on a panel boast at least three times that he’s “never been qualified for any of the jobs” he’s had. He laughed and chuckled at his dumb luck. The white woman beside him bragged, “I haven’t interviewed for a job in twenty years.” After the third comment, I exchanged glances with friends, reflecting our shared concern over the repeated statements. The white man slouched in his chair as he spoke to a room of women writers—some of color, of varied shades, and some who shared his complexion. This white man, the owner of a publishing house, wore his ignorance in his smile, while we burned in our seats.
His words and body language told a story he’d most likely never divulge to friends: He is safe. He can walk where he chooses without molestation. Police greet him with a smile or a nod. He’s not daily asked to present identification. He assumes a job is waiting for him when he is ready to work it. (Don’t sleep because if he’s denied a living, he may blow up a federal building, mow down a few postal workers, slaughter children at a McDonald’s). He enters rooms poised to direct women and other marginalized people of color whom he assumes require his wide breadth of knowledge to function rightly. He is unaware of the burn in the stomachs of the rest of the room watching him operate.
I’d rather write than burn.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.”
I defer the threat of self-immolation by writing what I know as true: White America has ignored, rationalized, justified, perpetuated, and denied the problem of the color line too long. Injustice is not sustainable. Black and poor people in America have been systematically undercut over the last thirty years—so much so that today it is hard to see the progress earned by the spilled blood and endless toil of the civil rights movement.
Where’s the burn?
I taught elementary and high school English for twelve years, following the path of so many in my family. I knew as they did that a proper education can often mitigate the affects of violent racism and poverty. But I can’t teach children anymore. One day two years ago, as my last period of ninth graders sat in the lighted classroom on a jade hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay, I smiled as students tucked their chins inward, focused on their projects about Rebecca Walker’s “Before Hip Hop Became Hip Hop.” Marvin Gaye’s sweet falsetto floated through the air as I sat at my desk to take attendance. I turned to the computer and within a second heard desks start to shuffle across the dusty floor. The room shifted to an odd silence. I witnessed students, boys and girls from the back of the room, stand and break to distance themselves from the 300-pound black boy whose eyes had glazed the color of burnt wood. Nobody smiled.
That boy—who once said to me he wanted to be like Malcolm X, who once told me he was pretty with arched eyebrows and cocoa skin—stood in the middle of the floor that day picking up one desk after another. He flung them across the room and into the walls, again and again. Girls screamed. I saw an emptiness in his eyes as I called his name, “Dante! Calm down. What’s wrong?”
I thought maybe he’d received a text that his sick mother had passed or that a sibling had been shot—like one of my AP students the year before who was notified during class that her brother had been murdered around the corner. But no, Dante refused to connect his eyes with mine. I couldn’t get an answer to what was wrong. All he said was, “I’ma kill him. I’ma kill him.”
The him had disappeared out the door. And Dante plodded deliberately into the hall punching windows and pulling at tree branches. At first, no one came to help us. With the assistance of students, I followed trying to calm him. “Dante,” a student began, “you’re gonna get in bad trouble, bruh. Stop!” He eventually happened into security. I told my class to sit down on the grass and benches while I explained to security and administrators in whispers that he’d gone berserk during class. I will never forget the desolation in his gaze. He was gone.
My students returned to class with another instructor, the white computer teacher. I came in behind them ten minutes later. The instructor had picked up all the desks and chairs and straightened the room. My students were in their seats. I turned mad as a motherfucker. He had cleaned up the mess and looked about the mouth as if nothing had happened. He waved goodbye and I knew I would never be the same again. This white man picked up the room as if nothing had happened. As if nothing had changed. As if we, the students and I were supposed to carry on with business as usual. My anger reminded me of the remark from a young white woman with whom I worked years before at a shoe store in California.
I told her I’d be ok waiting outside for my ride even though it was dark. She said, “Oh, I get it, you’re tough. You’re black.” She mocked a swagger she thought I held, I suppose, as an automated response to my black experience in America. I was offended then, but also understood. The moment we forget how unsafe we are, someone comes along to upend our sense of security, tossing tables and chairs across a quiet room. Our safety is precarious. But our need to talk about and process what happens to us, what we experience, is a reality we cannot avoid. The white teacher wanted us to go on and for me to act as if everything was fine. That, I could not do. So my students and I stopped working and debriefed.
Dante had indeed lost his mind. My students and I talked about him being teased relentlessly over his weight. They said the boy he wanted to kill had tickled his man tittie. We talked about accountability. About pain. About bullying. About asking for help when we need it. The students spoke with such compassion for Dante. And I reminded them that though he was clearly in pain and in trouble, we have to take care of ourselves, too. We had been traumatized. The white man wanted us to move on. Like America wants us to move on without acknowledging our pain. Set the chairs back in place, cover the holes in the wall and get back to work. The toughness that white girl assumed in me that night outside the shoe store is not real. It’s not even mine. It’s survival. It’s easier for her to believe us “tough” as opposed to damaged by past and future reminders of our insecurity.
I loved teaching young people and we had a wonderful time reading James Baldwin and Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison and Thomas Jefferson and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano and Howard Zinn and Julia Alvarez and Black Elk. Alice Walker writes in The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart, “I know what it is to be deeply exhausted from the struggle to ‘uplift’ the race. To see the tender faces of our children turned stupid with disappointment and the ravages of poverty and disgrace.” I too know that deep exhaustion. Fatigue has driven me to channel into my pen all the fire my aging body I can muster.
Write or burn.
I taught the class I wish I’d had as a high schooler during the 1980s when Ronald Reagan first threw the gauntlet down against Black America. I was attending semi-suburban Channel Islands High School, a couple miles off the beach in Oxnard, California, when this sincere dismantling began.
The meanness of hating poor people, often associated with highly visible black bodies in our cities (although most poor Americans are white), came in vogue in the Reagan years. African Americans, especially poor black people, were scapegoated in The 1981 Omnibus Budget Act, which went so far as to define catsup packets (in the free lunch program) as a vegetable. Programs like CETA, designed to give poor people a hand up, were eliminated as Reagan increased the military budget, cut domestic spending, and cut taxes for the wealthy.
Reagan opened doors to mental health facilities, deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill and thereby increasing homelessness and eliminating involuntary commitment. Reagan signed the 1986 Anti-Drug Use Act—the law that guaranteed a 100-1 disproportionality in cocaine offense sentencing. Crack dealers were guaranteed a long stint in prison. While powder offenders, even those having smuggled tons of cocaine into the U.S., served moderate sentences, copped pleas, and proceeded with their lives.
Reagan sanctioned the exchange of weapons (in Nicaragua) and cocaine that flooded Los Angeles and helped to metastasize devastating gang wars that persist today. High-powered guns flooded American cities. Murder became happenstance. Reagan ran budget deficits to finance his tax cuts and military spending; but he cut all programs designed to help people in poverty survive. Reagan’s trickle down economics and callous irresponsible policies pummeled the lives of poor people in America. It was only a matter of time before his reign kicked in the teeth of working and middle class black families as well.
Beneath every act against the poor, particularly black poor people, was the supposition that they needed to get their shit together. You are the problem. You are deficient. You are pathological. Why can’t you succeed? Well, I say without equivocation, if white middle class Americans had to endure what the rest of us endure—for just a month—the whole system would be fixed.
Often the white man’s ignorance of his own privilege is dismaying. In “Stranger in the Village” Baldwin says, “It is easier for the [white man] to thus to preserve his simplicity and avoid being called to account for crimes committed by his forefathers, or his neighbors.” But I question that assertion, in part because I do believe many white men sincerely believe themselves made supremely gifted. Gifted above everyone else? Let’s not mince words. Many do and will confess that they took this country for themselves and despite the Constitution, intend for it to work for their benefit alone.
And let’s be real; Baltimore is not burning; black Baltimore is afire. And that’s alright with them, today. I could write this story to its finish according to the predictive patterns of American history.
The community witnesses a black man, woman or child has been killed or horribly injured by police.
One to two nights of burning and looting through non-white neighborhoods and a state of emergency is declared. Multiple arrests are made.
The National Guard is called out to defend property.
The President says we must have “law and order.”
The Mayor says we have systemic problems to address but will get to the bottom of this case.
The police leak statements or photos criminalizing the victim.
Network news repeats the leaked statements.
A portion of the public—Conservative, white America—begins to doubt the victim’s story.
The prosecutor’s office levels charges in a televised press conference.
Angry, youthful protesters are joined by older, more establishment voices of reason.
More peaceful protests ensue.
Task forces are formed.
Community development contracts are secured.
The protests grow sporadic and less fervent.
The establishment voices move on to their next project.
A trial occurs.
The accused are set free.
The prosecutor holds a press conference explaining weaknesses in their case.
Today, I’d rather write than burn. Black and brown and female and poor America has suffered under the booted foot of a brutally oppressive system too long to be endured another day. That the white male establishment continues to murder and dehumanize us to its benefit cannot be stomached any longer.
Today, the hierarchies are obvious. The work of dismantling them, despite the perspectives coming to us from the news media and talk radio, is not any one group’s responsibility. We all play a role in this American drama. Mine is to write. I can no longer teach high school because government burdens teachers with the task of solving all the dysfunction it fails to address. These are systemic problems—no one person can fix them. They each must be addressed. But that we begin with a common undeniable truth: evidence is the work of the writer obligated to serve.
I compare this outward act of taking up the pen to The Wife of Bath’s confession that she’d rather “marry than burn.” Two cleanly delineated options. Write or burn. My burn is a seething passion sparked by crushing outside pressure. For Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, the passion stemmed from lust and frustration over the church’s edicts on marriage and the role of women in society. She married five times, and each time she sought some redemptive quality in not only the act, but in her husbands and inevitably within herself.
An old professor friend of mine posted a question on Facebook recently: How are other black folks coping with the disheartening, “recurring nightmare” on the news? Another precious black life stolen—dismembered, tossed onto the heap of historical American murder—60 million or more dumped into the Atlantic, bodies on top of bodies, too many to count. Hundreds each year in city after city. Mother’s wretch, children bend and weep; sisters, uncles, and aunties pace the floors and clench their jaws against the nebulous, yet undeniable network of forces playing spinning tops with their sanity and with their lives. We have choices in how we respond.
Before I become overwhelmed by the self-sure white editor, the black boy throwing desks across the room, the burning and looting on the streets of Baltimore, or the countless deaths of my brothers and sisters in the streets of America, I pause and remember it’s my job as a writer to keep an eye on it all. Record it. Place it in context. Imagine the long distance ahead.
I told my old professor that I will try to refrain from fatalistic prediction. I told him that I will reject hyperbole.
I told him that I will continue to work.
Tasha Keeble is a Bay Area teacher and writer. She has published in Writing Without Walls, The Window, Spelman Focus, 580 Split, and was a runner up in the Amanda Davis Competition in Prose.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]