by Marcus Harrison Green
I wish I had been this courageous when I was in high school.
Those words struck my heart, as I sat in the stands of Rainier Beach High’s gymnasium with hundreds of students last Thursday afternoon for the school’s third annual Bloc Party.
The gym was transformed into a performance center showcasing student hip-hop and spoken word artists, replacing a rigid day-to-day curriculum with community member led symposiums on colorism, colonialism, intersectionality, and the history of resistance by the oppressed.
However, this wasn’t a day cobbled together by well-intentioned staff, eager to engage a disinterested student body beyond the three Rs. No. This day, from the local residents who sacrificed time to facilitate workshops to local luminaries such as mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver who gave impassioned speeches, was orchestrated primarily by the students themselves, and hosted by South End-based leadership development organization Washington Building Leaders of Change (WA-BLOC).
The students’ fingerprints on the day could be identified in the choice of the morning assembly’s opening acts. As Mike Day took to the microphone, smartphone flashlights waved in the stands and the 20 something hip-hop artist spouted lyrics into a microphone that included “Hands up, hands up, be quiet and just listen. They killing niggas…” It wasn’t your grandfather’s school assembly. Nor was it anything I remotely encountered during my school days.
Though I was raised in Rainier Beach, my parents planted me at private school from second grade on, fearing a 1990’s public school education would leave me ill-equipped to navigate an unforgiving corporate career.
However, that also meant an experience with an overwhelmingly white, affluent student body, and an environment where your race was tolerated in proportion to your success in sports. Your blackness, your brownness, your uniqueness was always fixed to mute.
But today, at Rainier Beach High, it was celebrated – and loudly – led not by school staff, but by earnest students.
As the early morning assembly progressed, students performed spoken word contrasting law enforcement’s treatment of domestic terrorist Dylan Roof who killed 9 Black parishioners at a South Carolina church (he was driven to get a hamburger after the mass shooting), with the black, brown and native people fatally shot by police such as Philando Castile and Renee Davis.
“A white boy can kill 9 and go to Burger King. But being pigmented is a crime…” the performers simultaneously intoned, as illuminated letters spelled out “SEE ME MY LIFE MATTERS” on black cardboard in the background.
They also aimed some verbal venom at the current president.
“Mr. Cheeto says he wants to make America great again? Ha, I wish he would…”
Community members then rotated speaking slots, including Andrew Taylor, of police reform advocacy group Not This Time. Taylor was still reeling from the prior week’s news that King County prosecutors would not charge the officers involved in the fatal shooting of his brother Che in February of 2016.
But disappointment with the decision gave way to admonishment as he told the students to “speak life into your community” and to work towards changing the “malice” clause in state law, which currently makes prosecution of police officers for usage of deadly force nigh impossible.
“We need to go ring the alarm for the community. Even if you comply you die!” Taylor said, in reference to an inquest jury agreeing that his brother initially complied with police orders to show his hands before he was fatally shot.
Mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver then stepped to the microphone, addressing several students already familiar with her from her community organizing work and time spent as an educator at the school. She now urged them “to love yourself enough so you believe that you are enough.”
Oliver then provided words of encouragement to the day’s young architects.
“We believe not in you, but with you. We can be what our ancestors believed us to be,” she said, before treating the crowd to a recitation of her reflective poem on self-love, “Unsolicited Advice For a Black Girl Too Light to be Heavy, but Too Heavy to Be White.”
The morning assembly concluded soon after, as people scurried to their respective workshops. The day’s head organizers, however, took a moment to reflect on what had already been accomplished.
“The only thing that really matters to me about today is that young people of color involved in community activism are here and are getting their voices heard. So many times we’ve been silenced by laws and injustices. This is finally a day that we aren’t silenced anymore,” said Zion Thomas, a Rainier Beach senior who was one of the lead organizers of the event, before rushing off to teach a workshop on colorism – the belief that darker or lighter skin is inherently better.
I then darted through the halls myself, trying to avoid colliding with the swath of students also sprinting to workshops. I ended up in Brown Resistance, a class taught by two Latina identifying women, Lucia Fraire and Cynthia Moreno.
More than 70 community members volunteered as instructors in more than 60 social justice themed courses offered that day. For Fraire, heading up a workshop on the history of Mexican-American activism provided students something she never experienced as a high-schooler, a culturally recognizable educator.
“Growing up in high school, there were very few people in positions of power who looked like me. None of my teachers did,” Fraire, wearing a black t-shirt with the words “Wise Latina” on it, shared with the class.
Ten students, who ranged from self-identifying as Mexican-American, Persian, Dominican, and “mixed with Black and White” then shared their own reasons for attending. Some said they came to see a positive representation of their culture, while others wished to gain exposure to new perspectives.
My attempt to cast myself as an outside observer, dispassionately chronicling the day’s events in my notepad soon fell victim to an overwhelming resonance with the workshop’s material.
I became as much of a pupil as the teenagers who had willfully chosen to hear about how “brown resistance” had begun long before November 8th of 2016.
As Moreno gave a reverse chronological accounting of the plights of Mexican Americans, beginning with the fear many of them faced of indiscriminately being swept up in light of the federal government’s current immigration crackdown, I overheard students say “I wish they taught more of this in school.”
That supplementary education extended to touching on Arizona’s draconian banning of ethnic studies materials in schools, the long history of anti-immigration legislation including California’s Prop 187 that made it illegal for the state to offer public services to undocumented peoples, the East Los Angeles walkouts protesting unequal education in Chicano schools, and Mexican Americans being the largest community of color to fight in World War II.
Many of the students saw themselves as heirs to key players in history, not just supporting cast mates. However, the most powerful moment I and my teenage cohort experienced arrived when Moreno came to a slide that listed “Chicano, Hispanic, Latino, and Mexican.”
She explained how at one time in her life she had identified with each of the words, each of the labels someone else had chosen for her.
“It’s important to remember, that you never have to accept what people call you[…] or what people attempt to teach about you. It’s always important to challenge labels.”
I saw an idea dawning in the eyes of some of the students; the idea that they could be as much of a creator of their identity as the society attempting to define them.
The course also combated the pervasiveness of less glamorous ideas encountered by many in the class.
“A lot of times people say [Latinos] are not American enough, but today it was nice to hear how much they helped our society and our culture,” Alleyan Bowen, a University Prep Junior invited to the Bloc Party, told me once the class finished up.
As I continued processing the illuminating looks chiseled on the faces of the students around me, I harkened back to how much the regularly scheduled programming of my private school could never be interrupted to teach about an un-romanticized past, gripped solely by European actors. And how it could never be recited honestly, with complexity and richness – a history that is at times as disturbing as it is fascinating – featuring an ever-expanding franchise of justice fought for, often valiantly and sometimes vainly, by people who shared the same pigment, gender, and orientation as the faces populating the room.
This telling of history implicitly imparts in its teaching that life itself is not exclusively romantic, nor simple, nor urbane, nor must it be white-centered, or accepted as enduring. It was an affirmation of what had already been touched on in the assembly earlier in the day: Life can be what we make it, only if we battle for it.
As students left the classroom accompanied by heavier thoughts than those they entered with, part of me wished they had never had to organize this day. Or that they never had to beg uninterested media outlets to come witness them engaging in a radical self-education – a self-discovery.
Reflecting on the day, a portion of my heart wished these children in South Seattle didn’t have to struggle so mightily to be wholly seen; their ever improving reality clashing with stubborn stereotypes staining them with a negative hue.
That same portion wished they didn’t have to regularly display such courage, organizing a day with limited support from the school district – just so they could showcase their ability to tell their untold history, demystifying society’s arbitrary designations.
That portion of my heart was envious of their courage. I lacked such audacity at their age in refusing to accept the boundaries a well-told fable of who you are, and who you can be, can confine you in. These students, however, summoned the valiance to face a world around them constantly devaluing, neglecting, and lying to them on the basis of a society’s whims and preferences.
No a sliver of my heart wishes they didn’t have to wield such bravery that too often goes unrecognized. But the remainder of the organ bursts with pride they do.
Marcus Harrison Green is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000