I got an email about it the morning after the event occurred. Questions were being asked. The word was out that Damian had wound up in the Vice Principal's office for cutting in the lunch line. What happened there is, of course, a matter of conjecture. But folks are saying that the Vice Principal told Damian he would never amount to anything, that he was always going to be a nobody. The way it's told, Damian responded, "Well, if that's the way you feel, I might as well just go out and kill myself." And moments later, he did just that, over the objections of a friend who tried to stop him.
Needless to say, the family wants an investigation. They want to know if the school administrator made such a statement. And I don't blame them. Though I've also heard that Damian had problems at home, as well. And if that's true, he might have been especially vulnerable to an authority figure's verbal attack.
Still, the Vice Principal is White. Damian was Black. And Franklinton has had a running dialogue on an internet forum for the last two years under the title, "How racist is the town of Franklinton?" Why am I not surprised?
In any case, the latest addition to the story is that, at a memorial service at the school, a woman who also lost her son called out to him, saying, "If Damian is okay and with you, send a rainbow." And the result is all over the internet. Which makes for a lovely ending. I guess.
Except that, according to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the third largest cause of death for African-American males ages 15 to 24 and the rate has doubled since 1980. Why is that, I wonder? I write much on this blog that paints a very dark picture of the life chances for people of color under the default position of White Supremacy in the U.S. I actually had a Black student write me a note last semester, saying "Lighten up on us. Most Black students know how bad it is out there."
But do most Black students know it's bad out there NOT because they're a "nobody," but because that's the okey-doke, that's the way it's been set up to keep them "in their place"? I've been thinking a lot about this lately because I'm priming up to do an event on our campus in a couple of weeks on retention of minority (read: Black) students. From what I've been told, overall, six out of ten of our Black students never graduate from our institution and only two of ten Black males finish their degrees before leaving.
The fact is, I would argue, that they don't quit school or choose to die because someone else is going to make it hard for them. They quit school or choose to die because they suspect deep in their souls -- in the face of all contrary evidence -- that they really are lacking the most basic kind of worth. They're bombarded from birth, every time they come into contact in any way with the White world that surrounds them on all sides, with the idea that they somehow missed the boat by being born Black. That they are less than. That no matter how hard they try, they do not deserve to succeed because they don't have what it takes. That they are hopeless.
Psychologists call it "stereotype threat," the fear that you will be judged and found wanting because you're perceived to fit the steretypes you've always heard others apply to your ethnic group. This is quintessentially tidy for those with the power to define and their attendant academic lackeys who always seem to find ways to make institutionalized oppression the problem -- and the responsibility -- of the oppressed. It's not that the White Power Structure WANTS him to see himself as incapable, you understand, it's that he erroneously sees himself this way. So you explain to him that the exam is fair or that he can really get the job and he'll do fine. Or not.
On the other hand, I see the problem as the result of infecting Black children (and most especially Black boys) at a very young age with the virus of internalized racism, a vision of oneself as so flawed -- because of the skin tone with which you were born -- that no amount of effort or talent or style or intelligence can ever make it right. The only hope, then, is in telling them the truth: that the locus of the problem is not deep in their souls, but deep in the psyche of those with the power to define White as human and all else, at bottom, an unfortunate failure to be...well...White.
It is a brutal vaccination. But when they get it and it really sinks in, their heads raise, the terrible sorrow leaves their eyes, and a joy I would do anything to see creeps up into their faces. Soon, of course, they find their rage and that is a delicate moment. But they finish school and they don't self-destruct and I, for one, think we have no other choice.