Young black New Yorkers are raised in a racially polarized society. The murder in Bensonhurst of Yusuf Hawkins is not an isolated incident. The number of racially motivated crimes has escalated since Howard Beach, as the city’s mayoral candidates ought to know. And these crimes are only the most obvious form of racism.
Young black kids experience a more subtle form of racism when their heritage and culture are stripped from them early on in their schooling. While no single cause accounts for the problems of inner-city kids, much of what black youth is missing – self-esteem, creative opportunity, outlook, goals – can be traced to what we’re not learning in schools.
If more creative effort and dedication is not put toward educating the large, vital and energetic populace that is this city’s black youth, the city may soon be consumed by the symptoms of racism, and an already polarized New York may tear itself apart.
In the city’s schools, Afro-American kids are taught white American history, while our own heritage is blatantly ignored. Everyone is supposed to learn about being (white) Americans. As I say in my song ”Why is that?” It’s like trying to teach a dog to be a cat.
I was homeless for seven years. My mother, a single parent, was overwhelmed with responsibility. Her uncertainty about the future created unbearable pressure at home. I ran away at the age of 13 to live an even more uncertain life, bouncing from park to subway to shelter. But at least I was in control.
The lessons they were teaching in school – Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War, etc. – left me empty. Aggravated at what I was expected to learn, I was even more aggravated that I wasn’t even being taught what I desperately wanted to know.
Most of what I know of myself and my culture, the things I try to bring across in my songs, I picked up either in conversation with enlightened adults or through my own study. I took to the public libraries for shelter, but I came out with much more.
If my story has a happy ending, it is the exception. Most people refuse to understand that black inner-city youth, alienated by their schooling, are left with nothing else to grab onto. Outside of the classroom, they are at the mercy of government cutbacks of much needed youth programs. The R.I.F. (Reading Is Fundamental) truck doesn’t come around to poor areas anymore; it has been replaced by the ice cream truck, followed closely by the paddy wagon.
Ineffectively schooled, with no positive role models, just wanting money like fantasy people on TV, poor youth have nothing constructive to do. When Nancy Reagan told everyone to ”just say no” to drugs, she didn’t indicate what to say ”yes” to. We are adrift in this country, exiles from a system that wants nothing to do with us. Many of us will continue to end up on drugs, in jail or dead.
I have little faith in political solutions. I’m not alone. How can politicians from privileged backgrounds ever understand life in the ghetto? It’s easy for them to cut social programs without a second thought. Those politicians – especially minorities – who come out of poor backgrounds have to compromise themselves so much to get elected that they forget where they’ve come from. Don’t look for me on line at the next voter registration drive.
Can things change? Revamping the school system to educate all students would be the first step. But it must happen on several levels.
In addition to providing Afro-American history classes for all students, schools also have to teach the ABC’s of how to survive in the system. Why is the flashy drug dealer the neighborhood role model? Kids should be taught how some South American farmers are dying on their plantations because they don’t want to give up their coca leaf cash crops. Maybe they’ll think twice about how Johnny on the corner gets his money. Maybe they’ll make other choices.
The spark to learn of oneself must originate somewhere. The schools have been ineffectual, but the outlook is not entirely bleak.
Rap music, stigmatized by many as mindless music having no artistic or socially redeeming value, can be a means to change. Last fall, I created the Stop The Violence movement, a collective of rap artists and music industry figures who are speaking out against the evils of black-on-black crime. We donated about $150,000 -the proceeds from an all-star rap single entitled ”Self-Destruction” – to fund Stop the Violence programs to combat illiteracy and crime in the inner city.
This could be part of a larger trend. I teach a new fad in my songs: intelligence. It’s no longer acceptable to strut around with big gold chains, boasting. That stereotype, that life style, must be crushed.
Maybe the message is getting through – black kids in the streets are starting to wear African medallions in place of the chains. It’s just a small gesture, but it indicates that awareness and pride in our heritage is starting to take hold.
Politicians, school board official: Take a good long look at what’s being taught in schools. Does it really make sense? Does it help promote co-existence? Know this: If you strip away the identity of a child, he is left with nothing. That vacuum is filled by the surrounding environment. If his environment is cold-blooded, negative and violent, he becomes cold-blooded, negative and violent.