Lessons from Charleston

Bronx Masquerade
Bronx Mas­quer­ade

An unarmed black per­son dies at the hands of, or in the cus­tody of, white police­men, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, scream­ing, “What can we do? What can we do?”

Nine black souls are mas­sa­cred in a house of wor­ship, in a state where the Con­fed­er­ate flag, sym­bol of hatred, flies proud­ly, and we run around as if our hair were on fire, scream­ing, “What can we do? What can we do?”

I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I cer­tain­ly can sug­gest a few, the most impor­tant of which has noth­ing to do with gun con­trol, and every­thing to do with empa­thy. We need to teach our chil­dren empa­thy. It’s a lot hard­er to mur­der some­one you have empa­thy for than some­one you don’t.

The per­pe­tra­tor of this lat­est atroc­i­ty was not men­tal­ly ill, as some wish to sug­gest. (Please don’t insult me by sug­gest­ing every white per­son who kills a black per­son is men­tal­ly ill. I grew up with a par­ent who was gen­uine­ly men­tal­ly ill, so I, for one, know the dif­fer­ence. Oh, and, I should note: she did­n’t kill any­one.) Nor was this per­pe­tra­tor born with hate in his heart. No one is. Hatred is a seed that must be plant­ed, watered, fer­til­ized, and nur­tured. The ugly fruit of hatred is not pro­duced in a sin­gle, sud­den moment. Rather, it ripens over time. It is not inevitable. I repeat: race hatred is not inevitable.

As a seedling, hatred can be uproot­ed ear­ly on. Or, it can be left untouched in its own envi­ron­ment and allowed to pro­duce a head and heart both poi­soned, and poi­so­nous. While chil­dren are yet chil­dren, and still under our care, we adults get to influ­ence which of those two things happen.

Instead of look­ing the oth­er way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empa­thy. Teach the young to feel the heart­beats of races and cul­tures oth­er than their own. Replace any pos­si­ble fear of the unknown, with knowl­edge of the know­able. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are dif­fer­ent. Teach them that the most impor­tant com­mon denom­i­na­tor is the human heart. Start with a book.

Give young read­ers books by and about peo­ples labeled “oth­er.” I’m not talk­ing about one or two books, here and there. I’m talk­ing about spread­ing diverse books through­out the cur­ricu­lum, begin­ning in ele­men­tary grades, and con­tin­u­ing through to high school. Why? Because racism is sys­temic and teach­ing empa­thy, teach­ing diver­si­ty, needs to be sys­temic, too.

You say you want to change the dynam­ic of race rela­tions in Amer­i­ca. Well, here is a place to begin—unless, of course, you’re not real­ly seri­ous. In that case, by all means, keep run­ning around like your hair is on fire, scream­ing, “What can we do? What can we do?” every time an unarmed black per­son is killed by a white police­man, or a group of inno­cent black peo­ple is mas­sa­cred. Just don’t expect me to keep lis­ten­ing. I’ve already told you where to begin.

9 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post, Nik­ki! A col­league (Megan Ginther) and I present on a unit we teach around EMPATHY, and we’d love to use this post in our pre­sen­ta­tion. Is that okay? I believe you’ve nailed it.

    1. Thank you so much for your inter­est in using this piece. This is pre­cise­ly the response I’d hoped for! It would be won­der­ful if you’d share the link with your stu­dents, or any­one in the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem you work with this piece, I hope to cast bread on the waters and look for­ward to see­ing what returns.

  2. So won­der­ful to read this!

    This is my life’s work and pas­sion. Would love to talk to you. Am vis­it­ing the U.S. from Pak­istan. Please Google Basarat Kaz­im and the Alif Laila Book Bus Soci­ety to find out more about me.

    1. I would love to speak with you. I’m in the mid­dle of a con­fer­ence this week, though, so it will have to wait until ear­ly July. I hope you will still be avail­able at that time. Do let me know, and we will see what we can arrange.

  3. Just came across this post, Nik­ki, and I hope oth­ers will take heed. When we behave as if our actions have no con­se­quences — or that what­ev­er we do is just — we are doomed. It’s unfor­tu­nate that our soci­ety has got­ten to this point. I just saw a video of a black stu­dent beat­ing up his white teacher, and every­one in the class was just watch­ing, doing nothing…and I could not com­pre­hend what was (or was NOT) going through their minds. Empa­thy stretch­es beyond race, sta­tus, religion…and you’re right, more peo­ple should be prac­tic­ing it!

  4. Dear Mrs. Grimes,

    I want­ed to tell you about the Open Mic Wednes­day that hap­pened in my class­room today!! I start­ed my year off by hav­ing my 7th graders read aloud your book Bronx Mas­quer­ade. Each kid took to the spot­light and read one of the char­ac­ter’s parts, and then we talked about iden­ti­ty and box­es and stereo­types and real­ly see­ing peo­ple who we think we already knew. I chal­lenged them to take inspi­ra­tion from your poems and write their own. I chal­lenged them to show their vul­ner­a­ble side, and so many of them did! I would love to share some of their poems with you; I think you would be proud of how your poet­ry inspired many of my kids to be brave, to think dif­fer­ent­ly and to see peo­ple out­side the box­es. Thank you for your book, your poet­ry and for want­i­ng peo­ple to see one another. 


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