I hit the push-to-start button on my Chevy Volt and make my trip to work—I teach high school English Literature, so I make the same trip, every morning. I plug in my iPhone 7 and turn the volume all the way up. The opening to Kendrick Lamar’s "Humble" blasts through the speakers and I bob my head and rock my shoulders. The guy in the car next to me doesn’t like it. He swerves off, Confederate flag bumper sticker in plain view, and I raise the volume louder. Teaching in North Carolina is a unique kind of experience.
Growing up in South Florida in the 90s exposed me to parts of my identity as a Black Muslim kid I just couldn’t get anywhere else. There were evenings of ramen noodles and episodes of Good Times and Martin, and there were also weekly Sunday classes with an Imam up the road, who happened to be from the same part of Guyana my mother was from, and though our knuckles took some mean lashings, he was my first real teacher, the one who never let me forget the guttural pronunciation of certain letters in the Arabic alphabet.
Fast forward several years, past 2001, past the berating comments and terrorist jokes, way past the isolation of finding out that I was in fact too black for some groups, but too Muslim for everyone else, and hit the stop button right at this moment—the moment we usher in a president who makes my brownish/blackish, Muslim-ish identity cause for my own concern.
As I mentioned earlier, I teach high school. I use whatever sense of nobility teachers in movies use to survive each day, but meet the same, tragic reality of the current state of things before falling asleep each night. My kids came with a barrage of questions, concerns and expletive laced comments about Donald Trump after election night, and I tried mightily to let them know that their black Muslim teacher was going to provide them with insights. What those insights were, I couldn’t tell you, because I began doubting my stake, my claim in this American life I was living because of a man who ran on an agenda scapegoating communities I identified with.
One of my favorite things to do once in a while in class was talk about the jokes my father brought home from work or of the ones he created from memories of Port-au-Prince. My kids constantly wondered how I could be Haitian, yet Guyanese, yet Muslim, yet totally into video games and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., yet be a teacher. I tell them even though my father never taught me and my sisters creole and that my mother’s West Indian side preferred Bollywood to Hollywood, I could still very much identify as all of the above, so long as I can share some of my culture with you and in return you can do the same with me. And that’s much of what my English classes are built on—the grounds that, who we are can be mutually exchanged and can allow us a glimpse into the lives of people we often label “other.”
My mother and grandmother have something of a mini competition going on, I tell my kids in third period. West Indian custard is, beyond a doubt, my Achilles’ heel. I will surrender to its creamy, syrupy goodness, so long as I’ve a large enough spoon and bowl. Think of a creamier version of flan, not that flan is any less hypnotizing. My grandmother makes it all the time, which means my mother makes it all the time, and by that I mean when our larger than normal family comes together, which, unsurprisingly, is all the time. My grandmother’s home in Miramar, Florida housed generations, and those generations meet every so often to relish in memories, chicken curry, and, occasionally, sporting events. So this custard, I tell my kids, has two versions: mom’s and grandma’s. They start to tell me that no one can outdo grandma’s cooking, and I tell them when they get old enough they’ll know that a mother’s child will do well to keep such thoughts delicately hidden. And they laugh, and I laugh in return.
And then we move on to families in literature, like the Maxson’s of Fences, or Salinger’s Glass Family. We talk about tragedy and grief, anguish and despair. We talk about characters trapped in the margins or poetry of huddled masses growing too big to fit in their tight spaces. We talk about our shared, lived experiences because they are necessary and remind us of our collective humanity in a most divisive time.
One day I had used Kendrick Lamar’s track "Black Boy Fly" with my seniors to analyze the depths of his despair watching other black boys in Compton leave a city rife with poverty and seemingly commonplace hopelessness. The school I teach at has a large black and Latino student body, and too often I hear my kids speak about their fears and uncertainties because of “this stuff on the news”. My kids ask about 9/11, they ask about Black Lives Matter. They talk to me like one of their own and ask if I’ll “be okay.” They comically bring up brown and black actors who I remind them of (most recently, Pitch Perfect’s Utkarsh Ambudkar) and we all relish the moments where our being “something different” does not impede on our connecting with one another.
Some days I use John Cheever to drive home a point about humanity, other days it’s Ava DuVernay or John Lewis or Frantz Fanon. Either way, my kids come to my class anticipating topics that will move them or jar them, as some are even supporters of Donald Trump’s administration.
Another semester we were reading Frantz Fanon and the native/settler relationship he often explored, and we had worked on an Instagram page that used the intersectionality of BLM movements and the NDAPL protests to highlight the native/settler struggle at the heart of each. Back in South Florida in 2015, my students had put together a lightly used clothing and canned food drive to help the influx of displaced Syrian refugees after we read up on the ongoing civil war destroying their cities. As a teacher, I try to use texts and standards and grammar and spelling as often as I can, but I use the world outside my classroom more. My kids know that when they step into my room they will be exposed to more than just pedestrian social media posts—rather they will be shown the inner workings of the world they are set to take up.
Knowing is a form of protest in and of itself. It says, “I know what’s going on, and you cannot take that from me.” I want to give my kids a knowing that will allow them to challenge, to resist…to grow. I try and provide that as best I can, because for many who walk into my class for an hour and a half Monday through Friday, that is about the only time they have ever thoughtfully engaged with someone black or Muslim, and as someone who embodies both those things, it behooves me to engage them thoughtfully in return.
Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and high school English teacher in Durham.
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