“I am not proud to be black.” Those words were said by my intern today.
As you may or may not know, I work at a non-profit organization in Philadelphia that focuses on child welfare and juvenile justice. We are a cross-system organization, meaning that we work with multiple organizations in Philly and the government. We often cross into youth violence and the state of schools in the Philadelphia district.
We hired our intern because one of my many jobs is to aggregate the news based on what we are working on, so that we are up to date with the current research and current events, or so that I get in touch with an organization to speak with them if they are doing good work, so that we can begin to implement that within the city to make things better in Philadelphia.
If you don’t know, Philadelphia is one of the most violent and poorest cities in America. Young minority men and women are murdered in the streets of Philadelphia daily, most even before they reach the age of 18.
Our school system is one of the worst in the nation. I believe we have a 63% graduation rate. Only because our public schools pass students regardless of their grades, because Mayor Nutter made a promise to have the graduation rate at 80% by 2014.
Now, imagine reading this daily. Imagine reading this multiple times. Two people murdered in West Philly. Child caught in crossfire in Northeast Philly. Over and over again.
Minority dropout rates are at their lowest. Student beaten and raped at Central.
This was by far the worst part of my job, and now we have a 17 year old black female in her senior year of high school reading these stories four days a week.
She goes to a school that is basically a madhouse. It has a 50% graduation rate. There have been multiple incidents of guns being drawn. Drugs are done openly. Teen pregnancy is rampant. So are acts of violence. Public schools in Philadelphia are not safe spaces. Instead of trying to learn, students try to survive.
After selecting the relevant news for us, she called me over because she needed someone to speak to. Swimming through articles of death, violence, failure, and a do-nothing system had finally gotten to her.
It’s gotten to me before. The hopelessness. Realizing that Philadelphia is dying a little each and every day.
There is nothing that can save Philadelphia.
“I’m not proud to be black,” she said, “Every article I read is about black people killing each other.”
What do you say at that point? When someone questions their identity out loud? All minorities go through it, but i’ve never expressed it so openly, nor have I ever been in a position as an adult hearing such hopelessness expressed.
“I feel like we haven’t gone anywhere.” She showed me articles on high school drop out rates and recent murders in Philadelphia.
Black Hopelessness is nothing new to me. I feel it daily at my job. I have no answers.
So I lied. Or at least I felt like I lied.
I told her it may seem that way, but we have come so far since slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow.
I couldn’t tell her the truth. I couldn’t break her spirit. My spirit is already broken. I see the death tolls rising. I see the graduation rates dropping. I see black unemployment rising. I experience and breathe it first hand in Philadelphia.
But she is young, and I felt like a parent telling a child that Santa Claus is real.
She is a talented, smart, and strong black female. I do not want her to become a statistic. I am 30 years old, and in black male years that is probably around 60 in a white person’s normal age.
I want her to go college. In fact, she is. She is desperate to escape her high school. I tell her how much it will be better when she is at university.
“Sometimes I feel like people just see me as a nigger.” she said.
I’ve said the same thing many times to others. I had to lie again.
I told her she represents only herself. She is not the ambassador for African-Americans.
Another lie. A singular minority IS seen as the representative of their race by the majority. Our actions are scrutinized to see if they fit the template of stereotypes.
I lied and lied and lied. And in the end she felt better. She felt proud again, or at least I hope she did.
I lied because each African-American has a burden to bear. The weight that our parents, and their parents before us and so on had to carry.
I felt like I did tell one truth though. That the burden gets lighter each generation.
Or maybe that is a lie I tell myself? I certainly have it easier than my mother did when they ended segregation as she was going to high school. But is that weight just shifted towards black on black violence or black poverty?
All I know is that I had to make her believe.
I really hope I did. I believe she has a bright future ahead of her. She has overcome many odds. I hope she does not become a statistic one day.
I don’t know how I feel right now. I feel guilty for lying. But maybe lies can be told for a good reason.
As I sit here, I ask myself if I am proud of being black. I don’t know. I’m not proud of much of anything these days. But no one should feel how I feel. No one should experience Black Hopelessness.
So I lied.