Friday, May 4, 2012

The Classroom and the Cell: A Perilous Balance to Navigate

As a teen I used to get my haircut right across the street from my house at Ms. J's barbershop.  I often listened as the men and ladies would come in and have various conversations with the barbers while in the chair.  As I got older I would occasionally try to participate in these discussions, however it would become apparent to me that I still had some reading to do as the complexity of the conversation would quickly grow beyond my adolescent understanding.  As I completed The Classroom And The Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Marc Lamont Hill, I was reminded of these barbershop moments partly because of the format of the book, and also because Professor Hill's brother Leonard was often a prominent participant on those weekend afternoons as I waited to get my haircut.  As a grown adult, with a bit more reading under my belt, I found the topics which the authors discussed to be pertinent and their insights fresh.  The book embodies the type of intergenerational dialogue between Black men which is sorely lacking in our community particularly as you consider recent and ongoing events.

This week news came out that thirteen students at Florida A&M University (FAMU) would be charged with the death of "Marching 100" drum major Robert Champion.  The 26-yr old was beaten during a band hazing ritual, and ultimately passed due to shock and severe internal bleeding from repeated blunt force trauma.  As I read the Abu-Jamal/Hill text, I was saddened by the literal Classroom and Cell circumstance that these students now face in the name of upholding a "tradition" that was never intended to include this level of violence.  The words of Abu-Jamal and Hill were particularly piercing as they discussed Black masculinity and the "performances" that it entails.  Hill in particular noted the troublesome connection between a detachment from emotion, which many Black men are taught to have, and the normalizing effect it has on our views of violence.  When you add to that a particularly strong brand of homophobia that exists within many Black communities, you have the recipe for how a young man's life could be ended on a charter bus outside a football game.  I have seen the same escalation in violence among many of the Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations (HBGLOs), and it is particularly troubling because none of these organizations was founded upon principles of self-destruction.  In fact, all of the fraternities, sororities and their surrogates were created upon ideals of uplift and community service.  The FAMU case is just one example of how the conversations that Abu-Jamal and Hill were having play out in the larger world.  This is a key reason that this work is so important, and can serve as a catalyst for continued examination of key issues within Black communities across the nation so that healing strategies may be developed.

My reading of this text comes at a key juncture in my life where I have a rare moment to really reflect on who I am, and how I want to continue to develop.  One of my main theoretical undertakings during my doctoral studies was the issue of racial identity, how it continually morphs, and how the development process is fluid.  In this rare reflection moment, I face questions of how to parent, how to structure my career in a way that fits my marriage, how to use my accrued cultural capital to address gross inequities that exist in our society, and how to continue taking what I understand from a life that is centrally Black and male to foster meaningful personal relationships that are built on a shared humanity, one that transcends race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other labels.  This book was instructive because in Abu-Jamal you have a cultural and historical "oldhead" who can speak to issues of Revolutionary Black Leadership, Black Politics, and the Prison Industrial Complex in a very real, un-romanticized way so that the portrait in your mind is less abstract and more real.  In Professor Hill, I have a peer who has clear insights on issues of the day, yet is struggling with many of the same issues as I am, so it is easy to place myself within the the "conversation" going on between them.  While not exhaustive on any given topic, the text serves as a viable appetizer for further satiation of the appetite for knowledge, and insight into where Black people have been in this country and where they need to go.

There is a chapter on love in the book that is particularly poignant and instructive because the authors go beyond talking about the love that we have for self, or even our families, but of humanity.  If one can develop this kind of love, then they can become an agent for liberation.  The authors note how Martin Luther King, Jr laid down his life marching with garbage workers in Memphis.  That was out of love for people and humanity.  Throughout the book I found myself asking the authors to say more about the complexities of identity for Black people today and how that can help or hinder relationships, but then when I read Abu-Jamal's comments about the revolutionary powers of an all-inclusive love, in a manner similar to the way Paulo Freire described it, I realized that while the complexities and nuance exist, we don't have to get lost in them.  I salute the authors for their honesty and efforts and hope that folks will support this book so they too might have conversations with peers like the ones that used to take place at Ms. J's.  I will move forward reassured that love is a starting place answer many of the questions that I am pondering and it will also sustain me as I try to work towards a socially just society.

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