A Tribute to Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou at a health care awareness event at the University of Alabama - Birmingham.

This morning, Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. This morning, we lost one of the most exceptional people of our age.

A brief look back into Maya’s life shows us that 86 years was too short to chronicle her affinity for challenging limits. There isn’t much she hasn’t done–as a world-renowned activist, historian, and poet, she has influenced innumerable lives and taught lessons to many. She was the first black and first female to deliver an inaugural poem, she has won several awards and honors (including, but not limited to, the National Medal of Arts, the Mother Theresa Award, and three Grammys), and has performed or seen her poetry performed for the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu,  Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and many more. She has lived a prolific life and is hailed as a global renaissance figure, but the most inspiring things about her to me are her roots.

Maya Angelou was a product of and witness to the troubling times of the Jim Crow south. She spent most of her life dedicated to the fight for civil rights, and her many poems, books, and memoirs regarding the African American experience helped equip me and many like me with the confidence and knowledge to take on the world.

When I think back on how her wisdom found its way into my life, I realize that she had a large role in some of the most memorable parts of my childhood. Maya was there in the evenings my mom and I spent talking about the history of African Americans through select passages of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she was present for the hours and hours I spent listening to conscious hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and Nas spit lyrics that gave new life to her words,  and I like to think she was smiling somewhere on the day I knew I wanted to write and recite poetry after reading and listening to “Still I Rise” for the first time.

I can’t help but feel that Maya Angelou resonated so heavily with our generation because she taught us about change, forgiveness, courage, the meaning of life, and the human condition in ways that inspired us to be and be better, for ourselves and for others. She captured and spoke to the resilience of the downtrodden in ways that left no one out. She gave a powerful and warm voice to the brave men and women who fought for equality and fair treatment under the law, and she made it easy for others to share the plight and the celebration of the civil rights cause with her eloquent, flowing wordplay and prose.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about how I could write a tribute to Maya Angelou as poignant as the lessons I learned from her. I scribbled words in my poetry journal and tried to piece them together in a way that reflected her elegant life, going through her own works for ideas. I finally came across something that might do the trick better than I ever could. The following is a stanza from the poem “When Great Trees Fall”, which is the last poem in my favorite body of her work, I Shall Not Be Moved.

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly.  Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.  Be and be
better.  For they existed.”

 

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The Mirage of Opportunity

“The story goes like this: the paradigm of equal opportunity is a truly objective, neutral, and fair method to allocate educational, employment, and political resources to members of society, without regard to race, class, gender, or ethnicity… I disagree with the conception of equal opportunity as an objective, neutral, natural, and fair principle that enables social minorities to progress in society, limited only by their own ability and free choices. Rather, equal opportunity is an intricate fabrication intended to preserve the status quo and language of the dominant culture through reliance on popular, yet mythical, norms of individualism, sameness, and neutrality. There is no “equality of opportunity” in America, past or present. Further, the language and principles underlying equal opportunity reinforce structures of privilege. In order to move forward in a collective fight against privilege and inequality, we must abandon the existing conceptual framework of equal opportunity.”

– Christian Sundquist. “Equal Opportunity, Individual Liberty, and Meritocracy in Education: Reinforcing Structures of Privilege and Inequality.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy 9, no. 227. (2002).

Opportunity. Everyone believes in it. Everyone believes they all have it. But not everyone has the same level of it. One of the great prevarications of the American society is that everyone has “equal opportunity”. We’ve begun to address the problem in a number of ways. However, we have a long way to go. Equality is a marathon, not a sprint (as it should be) unfortunately. Some seem to think affirmative action has solved the problem, and that racism has ended because we have a black president (I would argue the sheer number of claims that Pres. Obama is from Kenya and how many people referre to our president as an n—-r show alone that racism is alive and well). People of color [POC] are still impoverished and uneducated in overwhelmingly high numbers. Black boys are still dying in Chicago and Compton. White Americans are impoverished too though, make no mistake. White boys in poverty are still being forgotten by the purview of our “equal opportunity”. Poverty does not care what color one is, it will sting all the same.

What does poverty have to do with opportunity? Poverty has everything to do with opportunity. Absolutely everything. Quality of education and nutrition alone are major factors that separate those that have wealth, and those who do not. It’s powerful. A large and, honestly, offensive misconception that is floating around the American psyche is that “poor people don’t work hard enough, THAT’s why they don’t have money.” As if the working poor lack some quality that does not allow them to work hard, or something.

“This is part and parcel of conservative thinking about the rich and poor in this country: that the poor are so because they lack some basic value — ambition, for example — and the rich are so because they have an abundance of it.”

– Charles Blow. “Poverty is Not a State of Mind.” New York Times. May 18, 2014. http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/05/19/opinion/blow-poverty-is-not-a-state-of-mind.html?_r=0&referrer.

Ah, do they lack ambition? Mr. Blow in his op-ed for the New York Times was on to something. Now, I won’t point my finger at conservatives, that’s Mr. Blow’s words. However, the way the poor/rich dichotomy is taught and perpetuated in American society is troublesome. Scary, even. We have “equal opportunity”, but we think that the poor do not have the mental faculty to be equals to us (that are not in poverty) in our work ethic? The mendacious claims that the poor are lazy are appalling, considering people in poverty spend their whole existence… well, trying to exist. Appalling and troublesome.

“Poverty is a demanding, stressful, depressive and often violent state. No one seeks it; they are born or thrust into it.”

– Ibid. (Charles Blow, New York Times)

People in poverty have difficulty learning, maintaining families, and functioning healthily because it is so demanding, stressful, depressive, and violent to be impoverished. It is incredibly painful emotionally. And I thank my parents every day for keeping me from the experience of poverty. In fact, do that right now. Silently thank your family if you are not in poverty and you have a phone or computer to read this. If you pray, pray to G-d right now and thank Him for not being impoverished. When Mr. Sundquist rejects the framework of equal opportunity, he is partially saying that poverty perpetuated by our institutions is keeping people from equal opportunity. If you are born into poverty, you are already several paces behind someone born in a middle-class family.  Okay, maybe a few people make it out of poverty with luck or unwavering dedication, but as John Rawls’ political conception of justice reminds us, we must be concerned with striving for a completely free, fair, and equal society. All Americans need a legitimate equal opportunity in order to be the just society we purport to be, Rawls argues.

Education was supposed to provide “equal opportunity”. It was supposed to be the Great Equalizer. Education has done excellent work of educating individuals for elevating their opportunity and truly allowing them to “follow their dreams”. However, there is quite a bit of handiwork to do. We can begin in the classroom. The classroom, at first glance, seems neutral and safe. It is unless you’re a POC.

“Whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.”

– Peggy McIntosh. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” Peace and Freedom. (1989).

White privilege can proliferate into nearly everything in life, but I want to keep the focus on the classroom. White people know their race is represented. They exist. They can fully access their race’s history. That is almost a given in every classroom. They never have to be spokespersons for their own race. They don’t have to answer for what their forefathers did. As a black male, the most unsettling days of class was when we covered Black History. I could feel the awkwardness permeating in the room as the teacher talked about the measly half-paragraph of Malcom X. I could feel the eyes peering at me, as if I was the manifestation of black history. As if I had a PhD in black history. As if the death of white men and the raping of white women were my responsibility in some twisted way. That’s how it feels to talk about black history in a room of white people. I can only imagine the horror of being the lone Japanese-American during discussions on World War II history. The white man is always supposed to win somehow in history. They’re supposed to have done everything for a “good” reason, or “have learned” from their mistakes and will never talk about them again. That is white privilege inside the classroom.

On a more macro-level scale, let us be reminded of the blog’s name – thirty eight minutes. That’s how much time a student averages with their guidance counselor over four years. That’s nothing. That’s the amount of time it takes to watch one episode of House of Cards. Are our children’s post-high school careers only worth the time of a Netflix original series? For POC and white students in poverty, this thirty eight minutes may be the only thirty eight minutes they have to learn about college, financial aid, vocational tech, financial responsibility, and community college. POC and white students in poverty have little to no access to outside help. Knowledge is power. Having a mother or father with a college degree does not just guarantee a higher income in the household, it guarantees someone that can navigate the post-high school process. Applying for scholarships or loans are taken for granted, but could be a complicated process for someone that has never experienced it before. The ACT isn’t even a fully objective standardized test – people with wealth can afford Kaplan classes or other similar outside tools to boost their scores and get scholarships from prestigious universities. The PSAT is a well-kept secret. Many schools do not prepare their students enough, despite the sheer amount of scholarships that can come from a great PSAT score. Additionally, the highest scorers are often the ones that could afford to prepare. Affording preparation for the ACT/PSAT is not by not just having money for classes, it’s having a stable family situation and food to eat as well.

Not only are students struggling to get into college, getting through primary and secondary school is an ordeal as well. POC, notably black students, have dealt with a notorious achievement gap starting early in primary education.

“Researchers consistently show that black–white gaps in educational achievement and attainment contribute to racial inequalities in health and mortality (Hayward et al., 2000, Pampel, 2009 and Williams and Collins, 1995), employment and wages (Cancio et al., 1996, Kim, 2010 and Grodsky and Pager, 2001), political participation (Logan et al., 2012), and crime and incarceration (Pettit and Western, 2004, ), among other major life outcomes.”

– S. Michael Gaddis and Douglas Lee Lauen. “School Accountability and the Black-White Test Score Gap.” Social Science Research44, (2014). 15-31.

From day one, impoverished, mostly black and other POC students, are behind. It’s hard to study when the only meals a student has are the school lunches. It’s hard to stay in school when a student is working two jobs or selling controlled substances to make enough money for their family. This isn’t to say that all POC are inherently just behind their white counterparts 100 percent of the time. Nor is this to say white students do not have their own interpersonal struggles. But this is to prove that equal opportunity does not always apply to everyone. Even for highest achieving POC and white students in poverty, they are not well-represented in public or private institutions. Affirmative action debates echo the naïve sentiments that racism is over, or that things “have changed enough” over the last 50 years.

There is no “equality of opportunity” in America, past or present. Let me repeat that sentence so you, the reader, will understand and come to terms with my conclusion. There is no “equality of opportunity” in America, past or present. The sheer naiveté of the American psyche to claim we are all equals is offensive. I am literally offended when people say all children have the ability to “follow their dreams” when children die in the (housing) projects and limited Tribal lands – the direct results of unfettered privilege ruthlessly exercised. The only way our society will truly be the “post-racial” society that individuals claim America is starts with transcending this illusion that all Americans are currently equals. We are not equals. Ask the transgendered black women. Ask the southern gay males. Ask the black boys in Milwaukee. Ask the rape victims. The beautiful thing about the human race is that we are capable of being equals. But we have to want it. And more importantly, we have to challenge the systems that keep us from having equality. We have to have courage. Americans have always had the minuscule amount of courage it takes to hate. Let us find the great amount of courage it takes to admit our institutions are wrong, and that we must love each other equally.

A (Reasonably) Modest Proposal

With graduations happening left and right, I find myself having a lot of emotions.

On one hand, I feel old and sad and depressed that I’m still in school. I mean, I have two different diplomas. Why am I not a grown up yet? (Note: this is why.) On the other hand I feel thankful that I am no longer a pretentious, self-assured teenager. For example, I recently saw a kid post on Facebook, “I am SO ready to graduate!” That made me want to: 1) cry; 2) vomit; 3) murder him; and 4) quit Facebook. Because, seriously, that kid has no idea.

But then on yet another (third?) hand, I feel angry. And you should feel angry, too. Therefore, in the cathartic spirit of mutual anger, let us (only partially) put aside hard data for the next few paragraphs and focus a little on feelings.

The heartbreak of being graduated

Let’s start with why I’m angry: Education is suffering in Oklahoma. Suffering like Dallas Cowboys fans in the 4th quarter. It’s not suffering from a lack of attention, as evidenced by the myriad of statuses, links, and blog posts appearing daily on my Facebook timeline. Obviously, people don’t post stuff on Facebook if they don’t care about it.

(Humorous Facebook interlude.)

Yet in spite of all this attention, education continues to suffer. Here are the highlights: Oklahoma is 44th in the U.S. in per-pupil funding. We are 42nd in percentage of college graduates. We are 43rd in “Chance for Success”–whatever that means. The list goes on. If there’s an educational ranking, my state is probably near the bottom. Even teachers and school district superintendents think things are generally suck-ish.

The problem is made worse by inexplicable cuts to K-12 funding and a state superintendent who is probably about as well liked in Oklahoma as a certain U.S. President. Blaming budget cuts and education officials is easy and—let’s face it—appropriate. But that doesn’t answer the question everyone keeps asking: Why isn’t this problem being solved?

I think the answer is relatively simple: Because no one is solving it. Allow me to explain this arguably-sardonic observation with a theory I just made up–the General Theory of Problem Solving.

The Theory claims that there are three types of people necessary to solve any problem: (1) those who know about the solutions; (2) those who care about solving the problem; and (3) those who can actually do something about it. In order to fix our education problem, for instance, we need those three groups to overlap.

My General Theory of Problem Solving, beautifully represented by this Paint-generated Venn diagram.
My General Theory of Problem Solving, beautifully represented by this Paint-generated Venn diagram.

Now here’s the kicker: those groups are not all equal in composition or authority. So we end up with one group of people (parents and teachers, mostly) caring about the problem; another group knowing about the solution (social scientists and some educators); and another group actually able to implement the solution (legislators). But very few people have all three qualities. Recognizing that the only people who can take action in this case–legislators–are also the smallest group of the three, we find our bottleneck.

Therefore, it seems that the perfect solution to our educational woes is to teach our legislators about education policy so they will recognize the errors of their ways. Problem solved!

Rich men laughing

Now that we’ve had a good laugh, let’s get real: we have about as good a chance of persuading our legislators as this guy does of ever having a good hair day. Perhaps we should take a step back… We can’t influence the legislators of today, but maybe we can influence the legislators of tomorrow. Ride this crazy train with me for a moment.

We teach our students history, even well into college. We teach them math and science (HuffingtonPost says we suck and those too, by the way) and a host of other classes because we deem those “important” for the common citizen to know. But why don’t we teach them about education? Education impacts politics, socioeconomics, even life expectancy. It dramatically affects everyone and everything. Education is basically the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show of subjects. (Note: if you get anything out of this post, I want it to be that last sentence.)

(While we’re on this topic, I would argue that biology is the geography bee of subjects [we’re going meta here], while trigonometry is the amateur competitive eating of subjects. This probably warrants a whole separate blog post.)

So here’s my ideal solution: We require all students to take education classes. Simple as that. Then some day, those students will lose a bit of their sanity and decide to run for office (see: Rob Ford). Now imagine how much differently our legislators would value education if they had studied it, if they knew about it, if they could be intellectual and passionate about it.

There are a variety of roadblocks and pitfalls that come with this solution, of course, but I’m going to ignore them for the sake of brevity. Also it’s my article, so I can do what I want. Bottom line: If 100% of our students learn about education, then 100% of our future lawmakers will know about education. That sounds like a surefire plan I can get behind.

Mission Accomplished

Even though I can rest easier knowing that my groundbreaking Theory has solved a complex social problem, I’m still upset about graduation season. For one thing, it means kids are going to be out of school for three months, galavanting around town and annoying everyone (i.e., me) with their loud music and sideways hats. But more importantly, high schoolers are the epitome of unbridled optimism, and as a college graduate I am trained to be deeply suspicious of that sort of person.

But–and this is a big but–maybe they’re onto something. Maybe we can allow ourselves to be optimistic about the future, but only if we do something about it right now. I, for one, am going to do my part and learn: About the problems, about the solutions, and about what I can do to fix things. I think that’s at least a good place to start. And it’s a good way to keep from crying while listening to Vitamin C’s “Graduation” on repeat.

Youths Gif