Saturday, February 05, 2011

Dr. Watkins, I Presume

One of my Faithful Readers who also happens to be one of my most Faithful Suppliers of interesting information turned me on this week to Dr. Boyce Watkins at Black Voices. Watkins is all over the internet, which is, needless to say, such a huge continent (as it were) that a computer junkie could get lost in it permanently, just going from site to site to site endlessly until hell froze over or their fingers stopped moving and their lifeless form slumped onto the keyboard when they went to that great website in the sky (or wherever). So it's crucial to have a few contributers who keep you posted about this and that.

Anyway, I've added Black Voices to my blogroll and want to steer you to catch one of Watkins' video commentaries on that site, where you will find many more. I tried to figure out how to embed the video here, but apparently they don't want that done, so I have to send you there instead. But not without adding my two cents first (or afterwards, if you like it like that).

The video in question is part of Watkins' "What the Hayell...?" series and is entitled "What the Hayell is Going on with Black Boys Only Wanting to be Athletes?" And I agree with him on all counts. I have mentioned this topic before, but as a college professor, I don't think we can talk (or write) about it enough.

I first realized this was a problem when I began to work with Black adolescent males who had been sentenced to serve time in a residential facility in Miami. It was my job to help them increase their employability. It became apparent to me this was going to be no mean trick when I discovered that few of them could read past a third grade level. Even fewer, it turned out, could write much more than their name. Some had trouble just sitting in one place for more than a couple of minutes. Following directions was not their strong suit by a long shot either. And at least one I came across used the F-word as pretty much every article of speech in every sentence. So my work was definitely cut out for me.

Nevertheless, I came to love them unconditionally and strove to help them in whatever ways I could. What was particularly interesting though, as Watkins notes in his video, was that these kids -- ages eleven to seventeen and remarkably like their less troubled peers in this respect -- all answered the question "What would you like to be when you become an adult?" with "I want to be a...[professional ball player of some kind]." Only the game of choice varied.

I was fascinated.

They didn't seem to have any idea why this was problematic. They didn't seem, for example, to have processed the fact that, at best, there are only a few hundred professional athletic slots in the whole country. Nor had anyone brought to their attention the much, much greater numbers of those professional athlete wanta-be's whose broken bodies and shattered dreams start littering the fields and courts from middle school on up. But I was up to the task.

"Okay," I responded. "Can you tell me where pro teams get their players?"

They didn't hesitate. "College teams," they fired back.

"Uh-huh," I agreed. "And where do college teams get their players?"

Again they didn't flinch, though they were beginning to look uneasy. "High school teams," they answered warily, not sure they wanted this dialogue to go further.

"That's right," I continued anyway, ready to deliver the coup de grace. "And where are you...?"

Within three weeks, going around the circle again, they all had different answers. One wanted to be a truck driver. Another talked about his uncle in the dock workers union maybe being able to put in a word for him. And only one had stayed with his earlier commitment to professional sports.

Those who had chosen new goals were not reaching for the moon. In fact, I had to work with them a while longer before they could believe that anybody who works for it can go to college. They thought you had to be rich and brilliant and White to do that. And nobody -- apparently -- had told them any different in a language they could understand.

In the fifteen years since then, I have seen one modification or another of this same mindset in young Black males from almost every kind of neighborhood, along with their coaches, teachers, and a saddening number of Black parents. College to these kids (and their hangers-on) is a means to an end -- and the end isn't a professional job, unless the job is as a professional athlete.

So I stand in front of big classes with maybe fifteen or twenty Black males in them and say, "The only reason some Black males are such good athletes is they start honing their craft at three-years-old, pushing a ball instead of reading a book. Any child that spends six hours a night shooting freethrows will get good at it. Likewise, any child that reads and does homework six hours a night will get good at that."

They look at me as if this had never occurred to them, which is no wonder since it never occurred to their parents either or to their teachers or to their coaches. And why is that anyway?

Because White Supremacy trains us all to think Black men are beasts of burden who might be good at bulling through a line or making a layup shot or bitch-slapping women on a video or fearlessly pulling off crimes, but nothing else. And who's best interest is that in?


Blaque Ink said...

As a black male I was never really good at sports. In fact, I suck at sports and didn't learn the rules of sports. So, when I watched a game, I didn't know what anything was called and what certain positions meant. I wasn't really popular during P.E. classes as I was so terrible I helped the other teams win. P.E. in high school was especially depressing. The only upside is that you only have to take one year of it, and that one year was more than enough.

Drawing was more my thing, but like today as it turns out, children, hate to draw, and being a black teen, you're more admired for being a athlete than an artist.
A lot of students I meet don't like drawing class and they groan when they have to come to me. I don't blame them really, but it's frustrating that drawing is much less appreciated than shooting hoops.

Changeseeker said...

Hey, Blaque. Yes, they come to you with a groan because drawing well wouldn't get them the props that making a basket would. It's not only a shame. It amounts to a conspiracy against African-American children and, through them, the African-American community in general. It must be frustrating for you to have to see this in their faces and lives every day and not be able to make a dent.

I hadn't even thought about how tough it is for the millions upon millions of Black kids who aren't good at sports or aren't interested. I was a wonderful runner and high jumper at thirteen, but was totally ignored for it and never got to compete because, as a girl, it was irrelevant. Sports seem to be used in many ways, huh?

Blaque Ink said...

Yea, and the thing is I heard people who've seen me draw say they wish they could draw. Now that I'm teaching it, most of today's kids don't really care. Sort of ironic, isn't it?

I've been thinking of other ways to reach out to the youth and adults other than teaching art after school. Lately, I've been coming up empty.

Changeseeker said...

Just keep being yourself, Blaque, and you'll find your niche. You bring more than one skill to the table, my friend. And your heart is pure. We're not human doings; we're human beings.

I didn't teach for the first time until I was 42 and, it turns out, I'm a natural. I've done much good. But I didn't know it would turn out like that. In fact, I had no desire to teach until I couldn't avoid it. Then, the first time I walked into the classroom, I was home.

I know my story is different from yours on the surface, but it's more similar than you might think at this juncture. Just keep choosing and playing with options until you hear the *click*. It'll come. ;^)

Cletis L. Stump said...

You were doing pretty well up to this point: "Because White Supremacy trains us all to think Black men are beasts of burden who might be good at bulling through a line or making a layup shot or bitch-slapping women on a video or fearlessly pulling off crimes, but nothing else. And who's best interest is that in?"

You do a huge disservice by making a statement that broad and that racist. I'm sure you're surprised and deeply offended by the "racist" remark but I've seen this act many times in my public school teaching career. I like your blog and you write well but there is a subtle condescension beneath your words. I worked with thousands of kids, mostly black, from 1970-2000 and I surely didn't "love" all those kids. I liked most, loved a few, and loathed a few. They were deserving of loathing let me assure you. Liberal/progressives, which I am proudly one, sometime become too infatuated with, "blame the white man". Tons of black kids choose to do nothing with themselves because it's an easy path. That's no different from tons of white kids so be careful about inaccurate, convenient generalizations that simply enable real racist white people to hunker down and somehow become the aggrieved party. I do like your blog and I'll come by often if that's okay.

Changeseeker said...

Great comment, Cletis. It gives me the opportunity to further explain something lots of folks get wrong, in my opinion. The fact is that we are trained to see Black men this way and Black men are trained to see themselves this way to the extent it can be pulled off. The training is socialization and it's deeply embedded from birth. Research has shown that many White Americans still think of Black people as akin to apes -- with all that implies. Obviously, this not only affects Blacks' individual and collective experiences in everyday life, but it affects, as well, the way they see themselves and behave.

Of course, individuals can be trying. I worked with some juvenile delinquents in Miami that seemed pretty hopeless at times. And there is a particular type of insanity that results from the societal madness inflicted on people of color and most particularly African-Americans. Fanon wrote that torture rearranges the mind of the tortured. Would you consider that to be the fault (and the responsibility) of the tortured?

I don't mean to suggest that it's impossible to beat The Man at his own game. That's why I tell Black kids that it's a revolutionary act to learn how to read (or read better). But realistically, it's an uphill battle all the way and after 400 years, I think it's going to take more than a "up-by-their-bootstraps" approach (economically or psychologically). You have to have boots before you can pull on the straps.

To suggest that an eleven-year-old risking his life every night to sell crack so his mother doesn't become homeless is "taking the easy path" suggests that you may not have understood much about what your students were dealing with outside the classroom. You might want to check out my earlier posts on the lives -- and deaths -- of young Black men.

And as for Whites seeing themselves as the "aggrieved party," they always do. They always do.

Cletis L. Stump said...

How very sad! How very naive! You are as locked up as those you criticize. You would last, perhaps, two weeks in a public school and, if you did manage to hang on, you would simply reinforce a destructive tactic many kids have developed to skate by without ever learning the relationship of effort to outcome. The kids would read you in a second and play you like a stradivarius. Forgive me if this is harsh but I have seen the destructive power of the well-intentioned.

Changeseeker said...

The virulence of your response suggests that I hit a nerve, Cletis. I was connected to the Department of Juvenile Justice for a decade in another state and was so effective in my work that I was asked to train other people to do what I was doing. Your inability to recognize the importance of context and its relationship to outcome probably means that you did great harm to many young people during the decades you had power over them. I wouldn't want to face that either.