Today, we’re honored to welcome our guest blogger Khalya Hopkins who is a mother, educator, Professional Black Girl and revolutionary. Khalya shares with us, the power of music, lyrics and of telling our own story.
Like everyone else on Friday, April 14th, I was listening to Kendrick’s new album, Damn and while I knew I could not listen to each song once, I came to an absolute halt when I heard track 12 titled, “Fear”. Fear brought me back to my childhood in a way that almost every poor black kid could relate to. He speaks in his mother’s voice and aggressively opens the first verse,
I beat yo’ ass, keep talking back
I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?
You stole it, I beat yo’ ass…
The style of the song sounded much like Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, “Girl” which I related to in a different way. Both are remembering their mothers’ words, which sound like rants and despite the harsh delivery in each, both mothers are trying to protect their children and teach them life lessons. While I was hooked from the very first line of the song, it was the following lines that brought me down an even more painful part of memory lane:
I got beaucoup payments to make
County building’s on my ass
Tryna take my food stamps away
I beat yo ass if you tell them social workers
he live here…
In these lines, I heard my own parents who sat me and my siblings down early, as young as 4 years old and reminded us that we weren’t to tell white folks anything about us. By white folks, that meant, Po-lice, teachers, social workers and whoever represented authority and the ability to override my parents and tear our family apart. I specifically remember being five years old. My mother, father, older brother and I lived in temporary housing and we were assigned a social worker as we awaited a permanent residence. The social workers were on-site during the day and they always asked my brother and me if we were eating and going to school and all kind of questions that seemed innocent on the surface but were very intrusive when you are aware that you are under constant surveillance as my parents understood.
While I had my fair share of run-ins with the leather strap as I was that little kid who always talked back to my mother, I did fear my parents. But as much as I feared them, I knew they feared those social workers- those WHITE FOLKS. Having that golden nugget of understanding allowed me to use my power over my parents. Any time my mother would yell at me, threaten to beat me or punish me, I retorted with my only trump card, “I’m gonna call Mr. Okafor on you.” He was our social worker and while he wasn’t white, he did the white folks’ bidding. And while I never called him or ratted my parents out, I understood the weight of my words. I understood that my parents were not the people I had to fear because my parents were powerless. They could barely control what was going on within their own four walls.
We stayed in temporary housing for one year then we moved to Webster Ave in The Bronx. Our rent was subsidized by Section 8 and public assistance. There were no longer social workers on our floor but their presence was felt even when they were not physically there. For anyone who has ever been on public assistance, the one thing everyone prepares for is home inspection and there is a familiar, specific protocol for this undesirable annual ritual. While I never completely understood the purpose of these inspections, I understood our sole purpose- to cover up any evidence that would suggest that my father lived with us. This meant hiding his clothes; making sure that there was no mail with his name and our address on it and making sure that we did not mention him unless it was to say that he lived with my grandmother. In addition to hiding my dad, we hid our washing machine, our stereo and any other material possessions that would hint at any additional income we might have had.
Again, the lessons that I learned and were constantly reinforced as a poor black person were these:
WHITE FOLKS DETERMINED HOW MUCH MONEY YOU NEED
WHITE FOLKS DETERMINED WHO CAN LIVE IN YOUR HOME
WHITE FOLKS HAD NO INTENTION ON PRESERVING THE BLACK FAMILY
WHITE FOLKS DID NOT WANT US TO WANT MORE
WHITE FOLKS HAD POWER AND THEREFORE WERE TO BE FEARED
That fear has never left me. I am 32 years old and no matter where I move to, that fear is the luggage that carries my past into my future. As I began to understand institutionalized racism, I realized that my dad, a man who was 6’1” and 220 pounds- a man I saw as fearless- feared white folks. That realization was painful and I think about that as I have carried that paranoia with me, despite being educated, middle class, and completely self-sufficient and a law-abiding citizen. I fear and know that white folks can do whatever they want to me and my family.
Anyone who knows me, knows I love Kendrick and this song is important and personal to me because it is so direct yet so visceral. I felt the need to respond because so many people of color, especially poor PoC still live with this fear. The saddest part is that this fear is recognized before we can even recognize the letters of the alphabet. I would love to raise my children to live a fearless life but I worry that by doing so, I will not see them live a long one.
Lots of times as educators we look at our parents as adversaries, as incompetent, as people who have made bad decisions or continue to make bad decisions. We wonder why they don’t confide in us, trust us, help us or listen to us. We forget that people of African Descent have many reasons not to trust American institutions, white folks or people in authority.
Some of us have no connection to what it means to be Black and poor and carrying the weight of generational trauma from this country’s history….some of us have tried to erase these realities as we’ve moved up the social ladder. If you haven’t already listened to Lamar’s DAMN. We encourage you to and we encourage you to ask your students to share their connection/reaction to DAMN.
This summer, Cathleen, in all her brilliance, coined the phrase, (I believe) music is the new textbook. I’ll add on and say it’s our 21st Century textbook along with social media, Youtube and Google. Let’s use all of these tools to connect to our students and therefore connect to the globalized diasporic world.
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