black lives matter

(Un)Made in America, or, In Defense of Black Valor

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“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” –Thomas Paine

“America is such a paradoxical society, hypocritically paradoxical, that if you don’t have some humor, you’ll crack up.” –Malcolm X

            Last spring, I received a call from a former student that deeply disturbed me.

“These teachers are hypocrites. They teach us to be leaders but punish us once they discover we have something to say!”

A month earlier, this student of mine – let’s just call her Candace –was harangued by several teachers and classmates for wearing a t-shirt in support of the liberation movement for Black Lives.

“That shirt is inappropriate”, said one teacher.

“Are you sure you don’t have another shirt in your locker that you can change into?” inquired another.

To be sure, Candace’s crime that morning was not wearing a black t-shirt with a slogan on the front. Her offense, truth be told, was rooted in her indefatigable resolve as a young Black woman to resist being interpolated into the imagination of the state. Candace’s brazen display of agency and bodily autonomy served as a visceral reminder that her Black flesh could not be disciplined, conditioned, or coerced into docile, state-sponsored conformity. While her school prided itself on raising up so-called world leaders, Candace’s èclat exposed that the edifice of public education was only materially invested in developing Black youth who would internalize the imperativeness of obedience without ever interrogating the proclivities of power and authority. However, as harrowing as that particular day was for Candace, it was the violent irony that would take place on another baleful day that would lead her to discover once and for all that many of her teachers and administrators were little more than a murder of hypocrites.

On the day Candace called me, she arrived on campus to see her high school adorned in blue. There were blue ribbons tied to the trees, fences, and door handles. Draped just above the front door was a large banner that read boldly “Back the Blue”. For the record, it was not the blue-ness of the school that viscerally disturbed Candace. What caused a rupture in the catacombs of her racialized soul was the sight of teachers and administrators –the same teachers and administrators mind you -who told her that her shirt was inappropriate and her politics had no place in the classroom proudly wearing blue shirts that read “Back the Blue”. What made Candace physically nauseous was the sight of White classmates mockingly wearing white t-shirts with the words #bluelivesmatter written in Sharpie, an overt co-optation of a movement Candace was told by teachers less than a month earlier was unsound, morally bankrupt, and categorically divisive. Ironically, these very same teachers failed to register the blatant contradiction seeded in their affable demeanor oriented towards white students wearing a co-opted version of the same shirt Candace wore. Upon seeing Candace, each teacher went out of their way to acknowledge her and let her know how good it was for them to see her.  Candace realized in that historical moment an important truth that many Black folks come to understand much later in life; her politics were only valid and sanctionable if it served the metapolitics of the state. Her teachers were not disappointed in her because she was political; they were vexed because her politics could not be tamed and fettered within the white, pedagogical gaze. Though her school claimed to hold valor as a virtue, Candace came to understand that American valor must be mediated through the altar of the white American imaginary. Bowing at the foot of the altar of the sacred myths that frame the racialized American republic is, in fact, the precondition of American valor.

Valor. The act of showing boldness, courage, and determination in the face of great danger. While Candace had known her whole life what the word valor meant, she did not understand valor in proximity to whiteness and the protection of white property and the white American imaginary until her own valor was anathematized. While she was taught to valorize Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the Stamp Act Riots of 1765, and the Pine Tree Riot of 1772, the names of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, John Brown, and Gabriel Prosser were never lifted up in her 12 years of public school education. While she was taught to valorize Betsy Ross’s flag, Clara Barton’s humanitarianism, and Annie Oakley’s precision with a rifle, she was never taught to valorize Harriet Tubman’s shotgun nor was she taught to valorize Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s groundbreaking, patriotic investigative journalism concerning the unatoned bodies of black women and men who were sacrificed on America’s lynching trees.

During my conversation with Candace on that exhausting spring afternoon, I tried my best to encourage her by affirming both her rage as well as her vision. Candace’s valor rests in her psychic connection to her ancestor’s understanding of an (un)made America –an America that has not yet been made, an America that exists though having never been a voluntary, conscious creation wielded by all inhabitants. Candace recognizes the (un)made-ness of both her high school and the nation she was born into. Candace’s valor abides in her unassailable commitment to being a free agent determined to actualize her destiny on her own terms within a nation that only knows what it means to be reflexive in the face of conflict.

Candace’s valor is inspiring. Candace’s valor is the pedagogical first fruits of a made movement. And it is my responsibility to defend her and valorize her, and those like her, with all I have.

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