For some, race is too hard to talk about. For some, privilege, and acknowledgement of what that really means in our society today, is simplified and tailored to at times, skew the issues and mess with the realities. For Sarah, facing its complexities through personal reflection and within a novel community of hip hop heads was transforming. And I had the benefit of sitting side-by-side with her as we engaged in some really critical (and fun) work. I love Sarah's metaphors and also her straight-up realizations. Her honesty about where she came from and where she is now will undoubtedly resonate, but I think the real challenge lies in the question: Will you stay on or will you get off the bus? And as extensions for me: When? For how long? For real? Enjoy Sarah's insight where aspects of home and place are found in shaking things up a bit . . .
1. School Bus
When my daughter went to kindergarten, we started talking about race.
Until then, as a white family in a mostly white neighborhood in a city that largely identifies still as white, we had more or less avoided the issue. Don't get me wrong: we had picture books which featured lots of characters of every color. We listened to music of all kinds by all kinds of people. We mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War and Civil Rights, and tried to put whatever our kids heard as young ones into context. But mostly, we could afford to purposely walk around the topic, and in my good-hearted liberal way I thought that was best. Why encourage my children to see difference?
So my girl went off to school and within the first two weeks she picked up on the fact that it was the "three dark-skinned boys," as she called them, in her class that were having the most difficulty navigating the rules of school. They were the ones getting in trouble, and why was that she wanted to know.
So I tried to explain that not every kid goes to preschool for three years before starting kindergarten. Not every kid has an older sibling who brings home stories to school to help prepare. Not every kid learns in the same way, or comes from families with lots of educational background, etc. etc. All the socio-economic indicators, all the cultural factors I could think of, parsed for a 5 year old.
Then a few weeks later she showed me a picture from art class: a school bus (she was obsessed with school buses for years), the driver clearly herself with signature out of control curly red hair. And threin the seats, looking out the windows and smiling were . . . the three dark skinned boys from her class.
This was the first real education my daughter received in Madison's public schools, lessons I did not want her to learn, seeing patterns and making connections I never wanted her to see or make, doing her best to make sense of it. At a five year old level, driving those little guys to school was - I believe - an act of generosity and open-heartedness on her part. She really wanted them to succeed and get in the classroom groove, and she saw (in a metaphorical image) that she was someone who already knew the culturally mapped out route to success.
It works for five year olds. But it doesn't work nearly so well when you're 35. Or 41, as the case may be.
And yet it seems to me that in Madison, we're still working from that model. As the dominant culture, we drive the bus and, as good liberal folks, we want everyone to get on board. We're befuddled at the gap between the "two Madisons." Why doesn't everyone just climb on our bus? Why don't they dress, talk, behave, believe, act like they're supposed to? Like us.
To use a different metaphor, one I heard in sermon at my church, we want everyone to gather at the table, but we're always the ones setting the table and serving the food. Putting it in my own context, I have always been eager to engage in cross-cultural discussion . . . but I've always been the one framing the issues and asking the questions, too.
So I came to Hip Hop in the Heartland. Because I don't want to drive the bus. Because I see that there are other tables, laden with food, and there might be a chair for me.
2. Praying to Lady Day
I have to back up.
You should know something of my own story, as well as my daughter's. I grew up in a small town in Iowa. In my town, although my family didn't go to church, I grew up assuming I was some kind of Christian because everyone was, until proven otherwise. Especially if you were white and blond. In my elementary school there was one half-Jewish kid. In my high school there was one student who wore a sari and was some other religion--Hindu, maybe? I never asked. The first African-American student moved into town when I was in high school. He was in the same grade as me. We shared the same last name. Fortunately for him, he was an athlete. Small town folks will accept anyone who can run the ball. Or block, or whatever it was he did. I wouldn't know. I was in the band.
He was voted Homecoming King our senior year.
He navigated our school much more successfully than I did.
He was also the only black kid in our school.
This was the town I grew up in. In my own family, within our house, it was a somewhat different story. My father, an English professor, made sure my brother and I grew up listening to jazz and understanding the culture of jazz. It would be closer to truth to say we grew up churched in jazz. Duke Ellington was our patron saint of genius. We prayed to Lady Day to intercede for us in our sorrows. And when Louis Armstrong blew his horn, well, that was Easter. It was more than jazz, too. Through books, poetry, conversation, concerts, art, we were introduced to and at times immersed in African-American creativity and culture by both of my parents. We had an understanding for the black/white political and social issues in play in our country. But our education in that small Iowa town was given to us, and mediated, by books, by art.
And it was historical, by the time I was born in 1972. Some people say hip-hop was born in 1973. I saw break dancers, once, in the 80's, visiting my uncle in Madison. They might as well have been Martians.
So I came to the Hip Hop Institute to catch up on a culture that invented itself at the same time as I invented myself, a world away.
Will we survive, as a species? someone once asked Carl Jung. Yes, he replied, as long as we are willing to do the internal work.
Are we willing to do the internal work? I would like there to be no association between myself and George Zimmerman. I would like to draw a thick, heavy line separating myself from him and everyone like him. I would like to cordon - wall - fence all those bad racists off from the rest of us and say "I'm not like that. We're most of us not like that. We're good people." I'd like to wear the hoodie in solidarity, proof of my goodness. Proof of my innocence.
But. As long as I separate myself from Zimmerman, I'm part of the problem. As long as I try to say "Racism is what those people are about. Not me," I'm part of the problem. As long as I look at my Facebook feed and see almost entirely white faces, I'm, sadly, part of the problem.
So I came to Hip Hop in the Heartland because Trayvon, and all he now stands for. Because I want to understand how racism is me, in this city, in 2013. "I am not an educator," I admitted to that group of mostly educators. "I'm a parent. I'm a community member. I'm a writer. I'm here to listen, and to learn."
4. The Cypher (The Circle)
So I listened. And learned. I took notes while Dr. David Kirkland encouraged us to bring play-based learning into the schools, to engage kids, and then he set up a game and let us play for an hour to prove how effective an education it can be. I sat in a circle with Dr. Maisha Winn and learned about how restorative justice can work in the classroom setting. I, and everyone else in the room, dared to do the internal work with artist and educator Mark Gonzales, and faced at least some piece of the cultural trauma we all inherit. Jamila Lyiscott shared her graduate work with us and helped me see how cultural narratives can shape and influence our lives, whatever corner of our culture we inhabit. I tried to take notes while Dr. Christopher Emdin talked about Hip Hop Education but the man talked so fast and took us through so much material mostly I just listened, hard.
Everyday I helped move the chairs into a circle.
I collected the names of movies, albums, artists to check out on my own time because the idea of urban kids with next to nothing but their voices and bodies, spray paint and cardboard, creating an entire artistic culture awes and humbles me. I cried a little, through the week, as I learned how to cypher with Baba Israel, and how to tag with Yako 440, and some years they have a b-boy or a b-girl to teach people how to breakdance and you can bet I would have tried that too.
I met amazing people who do amazing work, all of them committed to education and social justice from the ground up and all of them believing - because they know from experience - that creativity and the arts not only matter, but are crucial. Looking around the room, we were a rainbow from an unbelievable range of ethnic backgrounds, religions, educational experiences and economic statuses in that circle. And I sat at the table that I did not set, and I was a guest, not a host, and I was blessed to be there.
Now it is a week after the conference. I'm trying to decipher my notes without de-cyphering them.
How do I write this moment, as I step off into the future. What comes next?
For a week, I found a community that felt like it could be home for me. But how to make it so, in the midst of a life with its own narrative pressures that flow mostly in the opposite direction? How do I resist being cushioned and padded away by my privilege, by the daily humdrum and errands that take up my hours? How do I fight against the currents of our mainstream to continue to become who I want to be, regardless of the dominant narratives pushing in at me, and (because it's not all about me, or even mostly about me) how do I help others along the way achieve their own potential - as they define it?
My son has one more week of camp. My daughter is trying to squeeze an extra hour of iPad time when she thinks I'm not paying attention. And I'm not paying attention, because I'm writing this essay. The pressing question behind all these words, as they flash across the screen: How do I bring the transformational experience of the Hip Hop Institute into my daily life? My ideas around who comprises my community, my home, my place, and my people have been radically de-centered and shifted. How do I keep from slipping backward now?
What comes next?
Sarah Busse is one of the two Poets-Laureate of Madison, Wisconin (2012-2015). She is co-editor for Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. Her full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, published in fall 2012 by Mayapple Press (Woodstock, NY), was awarded the Posner Award by the Council for Wisconsin Writers. She publishes under her own name and also as Sadie Ducet.