Saturday, October 13, 2007

Unraveling A Tangled Skein | News, HS Reunion, Slavery & Capoeira

Everyday the inbox has a link to something which both infuriates me whilst renewing my dedication to the path we’ve chosen. The "Lap Of Luxury" project is one of those links. Read it here: Yesterday’s link came at a curious time - the advent of my 25th high school reunion for the prestigious prep school I attended. A place, I am learning, scarred more than just the six Black girls who attended. The link, the reunion and our efforts to grow capoeira here cause some curious loops in thought - something like a pile of yarn at the bottom of a basket. And right now, I’m determined to unravel and roll it neatly, so I can create something beautiful out of it.

As an African-American educator, I think a lot about how I plan to teach the era of enslavement. I’ve always had children examine people within the context of of their time period. So many historical figures are not the heroes we'd like to believe they are. Educators often make the mistake of teaching history as a list of heroes and villains. The “heroes” brought some small value or lasting relevant change. The “villains” opposed what we currently think is appropriate thought or behaviour.

But - history is the true stories of people. It is not a fairy tale where good and evil are clear cut and easily recognised. This is why it is important for our children to learn the truth and also to think critically enough to salvage the good from the bad.

In all generosity, this is what I hope these misguided teachers in new Jersey thought they were doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t find their “Lap Of Luxury” abhorrent, ill-conceived and naive. I can only extrapolate what damage was done to the few Black students in the class.

I don’t clearly remember the introduction of the slave trade in elementary school. I only remember two things, a profound feeling of shame and a White girl in my class saying, "my family could have owned your family." Almost as if slavery made her somehow better than I was. Those few words had the effect of a time machine which instantaneously jolted us back a century. They reduced me whilst elevating her.

I shrugged off that shame talking to my parents after school. They explained our family history and our voluntary immigration to The States from the West Indies in the early 1900’s. Fortunately, for me, I went back to school the next day and informed this girl her family could never have owned ours. I remember how disappointed she seemed.

I can only imagine what my parents would have said had our family history been different. "Yes, dear, very likely they could have. It wasn’t right. But, things are different now." This, combined with the disappearance of African-Americans in the classroom until the mid 1920’s, doesn’t take away the shame. Slavery, brutality and jazz - that’s what my classroom experience of American history always seemed. (MLK, Jr. had just recently passed when I was in grade school.)

Despite all of the biographies my parents provided, (Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver) I alone, had privileged information unknown to my peers. This shaped me into a strong young woman. It also made that information seem nebulous, mysterious and unreal. It never fully removed the continual attempts at shaming in the school room. And I suppose that one small contributing factor which continues to compromise the advancement of African people in America - the shame born of invisibility’s ignorance.

Much has been done to remedy the invisibility of diasporic Africans. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. Events are occurring all across London to explore, remember and understand this part of history. This is something I loved and hated about London - the ingrained taboo of the British regarding rudeness or giving offence. The impact of this taboo on multiculturalism has taken on some absurd practices all over the country. Recently, Muslim supermarket workers are refusing to handle or scan alcohol in a customers order. Muslim medical students are refusing to learn how to treat illnesses related to sexual activity or alcohol. (Read it here: ) And many - not all - of the British are shrugging their shoulders and saying, “that’s okay, it’s their culture.”

There’s a certain beauty in true embrace of plurality, versus this “melting pot” we strive for in America. Now that we’ve returned to The States, we don’t stumble upon swaying capoeistas in the open air markets or the parks. Nor do we happen across African men dancing with fire and Arabic men dancing with swords to drums and long, shiny brass trumpets. There are no waves of tinkling, chittering sari clad girls like darting schools of tropical fish or strong, thick African women with geles piled high on their heads heavier than the bearskin hatted Queen’s own guard at changing. No sweet, round, soft-faced women in burqas smile with their eyes at my son on the bus. But, coming home is a reminder of who many of us as are.

We are hard workers, survivors, and staunch individualists. We are innovators who create for ourselves the things we need to thrive. We are magicians who conjure resources out of thin air. Women who can make a feast for hundreds our of a twenty dollar bill and good planning. And this is how we survived enslavement in the Americas. Through diligence, perseverance and finding the right allies and resources to resist in whatever small way we could manage.

Regardless, a single glance at the news shows us how much these skills are needed more than ever. And the first step is the way in which we position our children to understand and internalise the complexity of our history with pride. The way our family has chosen to do it is through the incorporation of capoeira as a focal point of our curriculum. Considering the recent news, I feel this has been the right choice.

We’ve had to work hard to keep capoeira a part of our curriculum. In our area, capoeira is hard to come by. We have a school with an absentee maestre and a malfunctioning board of directors. There are a total of three consistent families in Pittsburgh which attend the classes. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it is that my children are worth whatever struggle it takes to serve their needs.

I have rarely encountered home educators - or even African-American parents - who are as excited about capoeira as I am. For me, it is a one-stop shop. (And I’m all about maximising every minute!) Recently when I was trying to get people interested capoeira to I explained, capoeira provides:

a. a martial art practised with the spirit of playfulness whilst remaining a means to protect oneself with deadly force if necessary;
b. a graceful dance form which is the origin of break dancing;
c. exposure to Portuguese, a second language;
d. non-European musical education which will stimulate the brain functions which process mathematics by physically internalising and producing poly-rhythms;
e. exposure to a different culture;
f. exposure to and understanding of different religious ideas;
g. new insights which challenge the method by which history is taught.

In essence, every skill set which African-American children, particularly - and children in general - need to compete in the modern world. Especially a world in which civil liberties slip away daily with unconstitutional laws misinterpreted or applied with improper use of force - whether emotionally debilitating, injurious or deadly.

More important, this discipline is a distinctly African-American form. It is something beautiful which has been forged from the necessity of preserving cultural heritage and surviving against all odds. It is the art of remembering and the dance of replacing what has been lost.

Let misguided educators sweat pustules of liberal guilt over greasy xerox handouts and spread the disease of poorly thought out lessons elsewhere. I do not want my son to approach history shamefully.

When I introduce the idea that our people were stolen and enslaved, I want my son’s body and his mind to understand that we resisted. I want every fibre of his being to connect throughout generations to the idea that we resisted; we rebelled; and we ultimately gained our freedom. This is the muscle memory capoeira gives my son.

Wole Soyinka said, “A people who do not preserve their memory are a people who have forfeited their history...

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