Jay-Z, Cornel West, and Harry Belafonte before Decoded Talk

Niggas Is Doing They Homework, Yo

Jose 4 Comments

Jay-Z, Cornel West, and Harry Belafonte before Decoded Talk

I had the pleasure and misfortune of running into videos my former students get involved with, and one of them featured a gang from one of the neighborhoods my school represents. I watched a bit of it, annoyed that these pseudo-gangsters would put their videos on YouTube (“Real gangsters move in silence …” – Biggie), but more perturbed because they paraded in a coterie down a set of project buildings. I watched as the faces I once knew, who I never taught but I saw promise to their teachers they would do better, yelled in defiance to the camera about another pseudo-gang and how “pussy” they were and how this set of misguided youth is more malignant than the other.

One even observed that their rival group never gets out and made this quip: “Niggas is doing they homework, yo!” and laughed heartily.

Inside, I sat there and boiled. On a day like today, remembering the types of struggles a small but powerful group went through to extract consent from the majority rule to do the things “niggas” like these take for granted. If they had been that loud in their projects during the time Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, police would have made sure they couldn’t even walk the sidewalk. If they had been that bold in their attire and violence, the firemen would have taken hoses and washed the colors right out (take that how you will).

If they had even thought about getting “back into school” and saying “Fuck this gang shit,” they wouldn’t have access to second-chance programs that let them follow through on their word.

My blood temperature got to 400° until a clip of Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama” played in my mind. When he said, “I hung around with the Thugs, and even though they sold drugs, they showed a young brotha love.” When I think about all my students who don’t have any figures around them that empower them, it’s only right that these young kids have this bravado: no one else picks them up. Many of their fathers leave, and their mothers don’t always know how to make a boy into a man.

Even the kids with two parents either have both parents working or parents who leave it up to the school to teach the kids about themselves. While I agree that this is a White culture and every other American should acclimate elements of the dominant culture, I also see that the lack of representation in all facets of academia as a means to dissuade internal interest for those very children. It may not matter for some people, but we see examples of social and economic stratification pushing many types of students away from learning anything.

At least if they join a gang, there’s a history there, and they have reflections of themselves in those groups, as dangerous as they may be.

It makes me wonder, though, if these niggas actually did their homework, would they make the gradual transformation from niggas to men of color, and eventually, kings?

Jose, who can’t stand Chris Matthews’ interview style …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 4

  1. Trina

    I used to teach in the inner city and had witnessed some of what you’ve discussed in this post. It is enough to make one’s blood boil. I used to waver to and fro. Certainly, these young men are the product of society’s ills. They are representative of a long legacy of racism in American society. Then I would waver the other way. There were young men, who grew up on the same street, in the same projects, who made different choices, who chose different paths. Some of them were sons of incarcerated fathers and drug-addicted mothers, but they chose something different for themselves.

    I am not debating that society bears no responsibility to these young men, but I even have relatives in the projects. One son is a crack addict and the other owns a home in a decent neighborhood and has held down a respectable job since he was able. Neither had any figures around them to really empower them, so what other factors are at play? These are just thoughts. I’m not disagreeing with you, but rather putting my own thoughts and questions out there and adding to this discussion.

  2. Matt

    I stopped for gas and a gallon of milk yesterday morning. My timing was poor because the young man inside the plexiglass redoubt was trying to enjoy his coffee break, and was seeming lost in the beauty of the light snow squall outside. I apologized for interrupting his reverie and he graciously observed that it could not be helped. I don’t know why I felt the need quiz this kid on his vocabulary, but something in his tone told me my presumption was forgiven me, maybe, just this once.

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    Author
    Jose

    Trina, thanks for this comment. I do think about these choices we make. Furthermore, I think about the probability of people making these choices based on their environments and the things said / done for and to them.

    Matt, that was intriguing.

  4. Chris Lehmann

    For me, it is the difference between “context” and “excuse.” We have to understand the context by which people live their lives. Growing up in North Philadelphia is different than growing up in the Philly suburbs. And often, that context can shape how you deal with setbacks, what you are exposed to, etc…

    I grew up with a safety net, so that as a middle-class white kid, the mistakes I made weren’t fatal. That matters a lot. But I also grew up with a father who would take me to the Trenton Law Library when I had to write a paper in American Government. And I grew up with the idea that I was going to college. But I knew kids with similar backgrounds who got lost in drugs or other forms of rebellion. And I’ve taught kids who had every reason to reject the pathway we were offering them and who had every obstacle in their way, and yet they thrived.

    So in the end, I think we need to understand the contexts of our kids’ lives, and I think we should be angry that there are kids who have to live through things that kids just shouldn’t face. But that can’t keep us from holding kids responsible for the choices they make. We can understand when they fall short. We can keep trying. We can never forget that people can change, mature, grow and overcome. But we can’t be apologists for them when they take the wrong path.

    I dunno. Writing it was hard. Doing it is even harder.

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