David's Blues

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“These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities.” – James Baldwin
I was all of 19 years old when I first read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” That was a lifetime ago; but Baldwin’s short story stuck with me more than anything I had read up to that point in my life, and that sentence in particular. Perhaps it was because of the time in my life, and what I was going through. Guys I knew, who I had grown up with and called friends, were dying and going to jail. I was at a loss to explain the pain and rage and sadness that was consuming me, let alone attempt to find a reason for what had gone wrong for so many of those that had stood next to me. And then James Baldwin articulated it for me—they had bumped their heads on the “low ceiling of their actual possibilities.”

I started reading the works of Baldwin, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison just as I was learning how to avoid the low ceiling of opportunity. This was during what I like to think of as one of my many awakenings over the years. But as I stated earlier, nothing that I read before, nor that I have read since, ever stuck with me the way “Sonny’s Blues” did. So much so, in fact, that I have spent much of my life pondering how to help boys and girls, who had lived as I had lived, from that feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness that often took hold of me. I suppose most kids feel this way at times; but for children of color, there are many factors that help to reinforce those feelings, and as a result some never move beyond that feeling of being nothing.

Several months ago, I took a job running a program that provides creative and tech training primarily to young African-Americans. I won’t lie and say that it was an easy job, or one that I imagined doing the rest of my life. But it was something that I felt good about. It was something that made me feel for the first time in my life I was doing something to raise that low ceiling. I would sit and talk with the young people in my program, and I would stress to them the capacity for greatness they had within them. I told them everyday that they could accomplish anything as long as they worked hard and believed in themselves. Some days I believed my little pep talks, and other days I felt like a cynical liar giving false hope to the hopeless. But at least I was trying.

During the last few weeks, I started talking more to some of the guys who are getting ready to be seniors in high school. I talked to them about helping them find scholarships so that they could go to college, really drove home the reality that there were more options in life than professional ball player or entertainer. I told them to read more, study more, and think outside the narrow confines of facts and figures offered in a crumbling public education system. I told them, “Be the person everyone else is struggling to keep up with.”

Yesterday the program was shut down and I was laid off. I was given five days to help my kids finish up whatever projects they were working on, and then hand over the keys to the kingdom. I was also stuck with telling each one of my kids that the program was being closed. But what I was really telling them was that they don’t matter, because no one really cares enough about you to find the funding to keep this place open. You go to schools with the worst test scores in the district; you have the most over-crowded classes with the oldest text books in the shortest school year in the nation. And by virtue of your race and socioeconomic background, you have a ceiling that is low. It is a ceiling that is low not because of who you are, but because of how things are, and to be honest, the end result is still the same. And no matter what, you will be as we were then, growing up in a rush and struggling to stand upright, when all the while circumstance and politics have conspired to lower your ceiling so much, that you will likely be hunched over the rest of your days, as you watch your friends die and go to jail and numb themselves with booze and dope against a pain that they can’t articulate because the education they received was so poor.

So yeah, I’m bitter and pissed off and want to scream at the world. Not because I’m out of a job, but because this cycle of raising children to be little more than nothing has to stop. This ugly world of second class citizenship has consumed too many generations. I foolishly thought that maybe I could do my part, and in my own way help to make the world just a little better. But yesterday, as I explained to my kids that we were “being closed down for budgetary purposes—nothing personal, so please don’t take it that way,” I could feel my heart breaking just a little bit. And more than anything I wanted to pray for each of my kids, wishing for them a fighting chance in a world that doesn’t really care. But the truth is that praying is the wasted breath of those who deemed my program expendable. The grandparents raising these kids pray, and so do the single mothers, and once in a while the teachers. And if prayer was all it took, then we black folks would be sitting pretty, because we know how to pray.

This latest installment in the Adventures of David Walker has come to a sudden and abrupt end. Whether or not I make my way back on to a similar path will remain to be seen. One of the things I told my kids on a regular basis was that you don’t need to know what you want to do with your life, but you certainly need to know what you don’t want to do. Through the process of elimination, of working crappy jobs as a dishwasher or at the post office, you will begin to get a better grasp of what you want to do. I know that I don’t want to get caught up in the bureaucratic bullshit of the nonprofit world—a bizarre reality of do-gooder mentality, bound and gagged by number-crunching and diluted by hypocritical lip service., But I also know, as I have known for a long time, that I would like to raise that low ceiling of possibility for young people who are now, as I was then.

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2 Responses to “David's Blues”

  1. Panzergoob Says:

    Hopefully you’ll get back on your feet and obtain a job that you feel good doing. It sucks that your job fell victim to the economy and apathy.

  2. David Walker on OP this Sunday. « Says:

    […] and District 9. You can also read about the non-profit youth program he was working for that recently shut down due to lack of […]

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