Background: Dr. Nikki Giovanni reads a poem during ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on February 12, 2009. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission hosted ceremonies to honor the 200th anniversary of the birth of the 16th President of the US. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER
Throughout my 40 year career as a high school teacher and coach, one of the most unforgettable experiences I had was a class during which we recited and discussed Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Nikki Rosa.”
This was at a school 20 miles west of Boston where I was an English teacher and the head football and basketball coach. The particular class I speak of was one of the most diverse classes I have ever taught—-and one of the most enthusiastic and engaged.
Childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re Black—-You always remember things like living in Woodlawn With no inside toilet—-And if you become famous or something They never talk about how happy you were to have Your mother All to yourself and How good the water felt when you got your bath From one of those Big tubs that folk in Chicago barbecue in—-And somehow when you talk about home It never gets across how much you Understood their feelings—-As the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale—-And even though you remember—-Your biographers never understand Your father’s pain as he sells his stock And another dream goes—-And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that Concerns you—-And though they fought a lot It isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference—-But only that everybody is together and you And your sister have happy birthdays and very good Christmases—-And I really hope no white person ever has cause To write about me—-Because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll Probably talk about my hard childhood And never understand that—-All the while I was quite happy.
Interpretation: the speaker teases her readers with the first line (“childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re Black “) because she is being sarcastic—-she is cleverly playing off an affluent white person’s perception that anyone who grew up in a ghetto in an apartment with no “inside toilet” and having to bathe in “barbecue tubs”, must have been miserable. Oh, no—-quite the contrary—-which is why she concludes the poem by saying “I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand that Black love is Black wealth.”
The Class Discussion:
No sooner had I finished reciting the poem, Matt Newman, one of my tight ends, raised his hand and said, “You know, I am sick and tired of black people telling me I don’t understand.” Matt’s visceral reaction to the poem elicited a cacophonous chorus of claps, howls and finger snaps.
No sooner had the claps, howls and snaps abated, Charles Banks, one of my wide receivers, raised his hand and said, “Well, you know, I am sick and tired of white kids asking me who my favorite hip-hop rapper is.” The cascade of claps, howls and snaps grew louder.
What these two very sharp reactions spawned was one of the most compellingly honest discussions about racial profiling that I have ever witnessed—-and I say witnessed because it was one of those rare treats when a teacher can simply drift into the background and let the students take command of the classroom.
Then came two of the most “dream come true” moments for me as a teacher—-and I believe and hope that they were “dream come true” moments for many of the students in the room as well.
Latisha Pamphile said to the whole class and specifically to one of her classmates, “I just want to offer an apology to Allison Barnes. Quite honestly, Allison, in light of how brilliant you are and the fact that you are a shoe-in to be the class Valedictorian, I thought you would look down on me. I had you pegged as an intellectual snob. And you have been nothing of the sort. The way that you have embraced me as a classmate—-not that we always agree on our opinions—-but they way you have treated me and my opinions with respect, has helped me feel better about myself.” So, Allison, while wiping her eyes, got up from her desk and went over to give Latisha a hug—-amidst great applause.
Then came the coup de gras.
Just as the bell was about to ring and the students were packing up their books, Matt Newman calls over to Charles Banks, “Oh, by the way, Charles, who is your favorite hip-hop rapper?”
And in one of the wittiest come-back replies I have ever heard, Charles Banks smiles and says, “Never mind, Matt, you’ll never understand.”
By now the class was enveloped in guffaws and there I watched in complete awe the students leave the room with Matt and Charles walking out arm in arm laughing.
Black Love is Black Wealth
One of the greatest love stories of all time is Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear is a tragic hero because after banishing Cordelia, the one of his three daughters who refused to lavish public praise on her father at his retirement banquet because she was so disgusted with Goneril’s and Regan’s unctuous and bombastic speeches to the assembly, which she knew were only intended to manipulate her father into rewarding them the rule of their portions of the kingdom, Lear then is cast adrift and learns the greatest lessons of love the hard way.
It is only when Lear travels amongst the kingdom’s rabble that he is struck by how humble and hospitable and charitable the poorest of the poor can be—-as they offer him food, shelter from the rain and places to sleep. What Lear learns about true love is that it requires fundamental human virtues such as kindness and empathy—-and perhaps the most important virtue of all—-forgiveness.
Therefore, in the intrinsic sense, one is more apt to find true love in hearts that are not jaded by power, social privilege, vanity or the love of money.
King Lear’s eventual reunion and reconciliation with Cordelia is as stunningly educational as it is poignant.
While the story of Cordelia and King Lear is not about African-Americans, it is a love story that can be applied to all human love, because it highlights the human conditions and virtues that are most conducive in ones quest to find life’s greatest treasure of all.
Nikki Giovanni concedes that her family life in the ghetto was not perfect by any means, particularly in light of the fighting in the family, her father’s drinking and him having to “sell his stock—-and another dream goes”—-but the speaker was delighted with her life anyway because “everybody is together and you And your sister have happy birthdays and very good Christmases.” The way in which she phrases these conditions indicate that she takes nothing for granted, she appreciates her family members and feels a profound sense of an enduring love that is fortified by empathy and forgiveness.
This is reminiscent of what Mama Younger told her daughter Beneatha in “A Raisin in the Sun” after Benethea expressed her utter disdain for her brother, Walter, who lost their father’s “stock” to a con artist and with it the family’s ability to move out of the ghetto and Beneatha’s ability to go to med school. After Beneatha claims there is “nothing left to love” about her brother Walter, Mama says to her:
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. (Looking at her) Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
Imagine if we all in our darkest of moments could be buoyed up by this kind of love, empathy and forgiveness.
“When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child.”
Have you watched Emmanuel Acho’s episode 1 of “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”? Emmanuel was an NFL linebacker for 5 years (Browns, Giants, Eagles) and is the brother of former Cardinal and NFLPA Executive Committee member, Sam Acho. Talk about “measuring somebody right”—-check this out:
If you watched the video—-did you learn anything?
I have studied and taught African-American literature and culture for over 40 years—-largely because one of my best friends was called the N word when we were 12 years old and it scared the hell out me.
But, I have to say, watching this video, Emmanuel Acho communicated two realities to me that I found enlightening:
1—-He said that if, while in his affluent neighborhood of Austin, Texas, he parks his car and a white woman is heading to her mailbox, he stays in his car until she leaves because he doesn’t want to frighten the woman. He went on to say: “I, as a black man, have to calibrate every move I make the second I walk out of the house.”
While I have often thought of what it must be like to be a target of racial profiling every minute of every day, I have never heard anyone put this stigma in such succinctly powerful terms the way Acho did. “Calibrate every move I make.” Imagine that.
2—-While I have heard similar versions of Acho’s definition of the N word and how black people react to hearing the word uttered by a white person—-my eyes and ears widened when he said in response to the question of whether blacks should be able to use the N word themselves, “Black poeple took something that has meant and normally used as evil and turned it into a term of endearment.”
Quite honestly, I have always wished that humanity would delete the N word from all lexicons and word banks—-but, Emmanuel Acho drove his point home very convincingly when he expressed his indignation for white people, who branded the blacks with such a hideous stigma and desecration to begin with, would now be the ones to tell blacks they shouldn’t use the term, even as a term of endearment.
You know what? I get and respect that. Black people in America have been dictated to for far too long.
If white Americans are ever going to understand the pain and long time suffering that black Americans have endured, then it begins and ends with understanding and accepting that Black love is Black wealth and how it is tied to their history of oppression.
I think of Sojourner Truth, who as a freed slave in Ohio, had the courage to stand up at Women’s Rights convention in 1851 at the Old Stone Church in Akron, Ohio and say:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
Black love in America has always been forged and sustained by courage, humility and extraordinary resilience.
Black Americans today, like our own beloved Larry Fitzgerald (and benevolent ambassador for the entire planet and human race), are pleading for the country to listen.
Fitz waited until he retuned to Minnesota before witting his essay to the American which was published this weekend in the New York Times. One of his most powerful arguments in the essay occurs toward the end of it:
“We are not listening to one another. Our winter of delay continues to result in cold hearts and lifeless bodies. The language of the unheard has broken the silence and our willful deafness has led to death and destruction. While our nation has struggled under the weight of a biological pandemic we also find our communities ravaged by the insidious disease of injustice.
People of color across this nation are screaming to be heard.
The screams of disrespected voices are ringing out in our nation right now. We must never condone violent riots that take lives and destroy futures but we must also hear the desperate voice of protest that is calling out for justice.”
Listening often takes a lot of patience, kindness, empathy and sustained focus. Listening also requires us to ask pertinent questions—-like the ones Emmanuel Acho’s white friends have been asking of him.
But, I think most of all, listening to the plights of others is the ultimate test of one’s imagination. After all, human empathy can only be achieved when we imagine what we would feel ourselves while walking around someone else’s shoes. Thank you, Atticus Finch!
As Mama Younger said to Beneatha:
“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so!”
Like when a person begs you to listen, with the words “I can’t breathe.”