Why We Need to Respect Kendrick Lamar’s Politics

As I watched the film Selma with my high school students earlier this month, I was not surprised that many of them were not engaged in the story. When I gave a lesson about the uprising in Ferguson, I got some questions and light debate, but I got just as much ambivalence if not more. I even sent a student out of the class for laughing inappropriately. I could deal with the short attention spans and side chatter, but the laughter was too much. It reminded me of when I saw the film Precious at a theater in a predominately-black neighborhood and someone laughed during the scene when the title character was thrown against a wall. Tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin, and not even fully dichotomous to those that experience more than their fair share of the former.

One of the teachers at my school, a white woman, said she was surprised that the story of the march to Selma from Birmingham, Alabama resonated with her more than the almost entirely African-American student body.

“They’re closed,” I said.

Sometimes you reach a level of pain when you bring the walls down and leave them there. The acute feelings of agony are avoided, but so are the deep feelings of hope and connection. I saw the closedness in one student, who laughed during the scene in Selma (spoiler, kind of) when two white supremacists brutally beat one of the white protesters. I turned around and looked at him. When our eyes met, I remembered that the week before, his friend was murdered while he was at school. Usually a playful and competent student, his conduct in class has worsened since the loss of his friend, and he is beginning to take less care with his work as well.

I saw the closedness when I met with two family members of two separate students who failed my English class last quarter. A father and an older sister, they were both trying to figure out how to best reach their student, both of whom lost their mothers in the last year. They both said that their student had not broken down yet, had not cried, that they had not allowed the sadness to come in.

During my Ferguson lesson, each of my class periods had someone who asked why they should care about a young black man who was shot by a white police officer, when blacks kill each other every day. I saw their point, but I still struggled. Why can’t they feel, if not angry, at least sympathetic? I wondered. Then I thought: Well, who is showing them how to be sympathetic? Is there anyone, any media outlet, famous person or anyone publicly sympathizing with the loss and injustice they experience far too frequently?

When I posted on Twitter that my students have asked the same question that Kendrick Lamar does in his latest single “The Blacker the Berry,” a small number of readers missed the point completely, and I was again, not surprised.

Some of the counter-arguments I received included:

If people from the same race live around each other, than OF COURSE crime will be intraracial.

My response: This viewpoint suggests that crime and murder are natural to the human condition. So are love, peacefulness and care. Even if the “humans are naturally violent” argument stands, why does the U.S. has a much higher violent crime rate than any other westernized country? Are we more human in this way, or less?

Shooting a gang member for a variety of complicated reasons is not the same (read: not as bad) as killing a young black person for no other reason than his/her blackness.

My response: This viewpoint is popular, and part of the reason I suspect that news outlets in Chicago always makes sure to note whether someone is gang-affiliated when they report gun violence. It makes the public feel better. Then we remember 15 year-old Hadiya Pendleton. Six month-old Jonyalah Watkins. Countless other victims that received less media attention. More young people who were not affliated with gangs, but by sheer cosmic misfortune, happened to live in the six percent of Chicago’s neighborhoods where 70% of the gun violence occurs. What then?

My students are children and don’t know any better, but Kendrick is an educated adult and should know better (read: see the problem like I do).

My response: Fuck this response and your inability to see how shallow and erasing it is (NOTE: After a night’s rest and some clarity, I cleaned this response up considerably. As can sometimes happen with fucks, one pesky one remained, despite my effort to get rid of it. Sorry but not really). This response discounts the experiences of the young black people you are supposedly marching for, organizing for, hashtagging for, wearing powerful sloganed shirts for, and misunderstanding Kendrick Lamar for. My students are experts in their lives. They are systemically told that their perspectives don’t matter. They don’t need it from people who claim to be fighting for them.

A call to love ourselves first is not a transfer of responsibility, it’s a strategy. A self-love deficiency is what keeps some of my students from connecting to what happened to Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, as many of them have not yet cried for the fallen ones in their own lives. Self-love would allow my students who gang-bang to realize that white supremacy, not someone who is as black and valuable as they are, is indeed the biggest enemy to their welfare and lives. A deep, all-encompassing love for their race, a radical, complete Dr. King-level of Black love, would bring them to the struggle, to fight for their humanity and that of the generations to come after them. With the threats that lurk in their neighborhoods, many of my students don’t bother making plans for the near future, let alone planning a better one for the next generation like previous ones have done for us. Without self-love and Black love, they won’t fight. They won’t march. They won’t cry. They will stay closed.