Letter to A White Student Who Doesn’t Want to Be Called White in a Class About Race

Letter to a White Student Who Doesn’t Want to be Call “White” in a Class About Race

Dear White Student,

You are being brave enough to express your honest responses to the reading, which is not an easy thing to do. You are showing empathy for people who are not like you in terms of race that is genuine. And when you feel uncomfortable about the way that white people are being called ‘white folks’, you are open about this discomfort. And I validate that when one has always thought of oneself as an individual and not as a member of their race, it must be extremely uncomfortable to be grouped with everyone else in your race.

I know this to be true because it hurts when it happens to me as a person of color, and it happens to me every day of my life. Black people are always referred to as members of their racial group; brown people are always referred to as members of their racial group; Asian people in the U.S. are always referred to as members of their racial group; and indigenous people are always referred to as members of their racial group. And this is done because it benefits white people for us to be seen through a filter of race.

One of the concepts that support this class and help to explain why I teach this class the way that I do, is to help white students learn to see the world through a filter of race not in terms of how race impacts others, ( white people always associate the word race with “the other”–people of color). It is important that white people learn to see the word race in terms of themselves. It is important that white people learn to think about how their whiteness impacts their lives. White people must learn to see themselves as a member of their race. 

And why is it important that white people learn to see themselves as white people, as white folks? Because they see all the rest of the people of the world in terms of race. The most important privilege of whiteness is being able to see oneself as an individual only. Because of the way that race functions in our society, the privilege of individuality lies with whiteness. White people don’t have to be associated with all other white people. When a lone white person does something, no one holds all white people responsible for what that white person did. This is the biggest privilege of whiteness: individuality.

People of color are always conscious of themselves in two different ways. Yes, they are individuals, unique, amazing and wonderful! But they are also always aware that they are members of their race. They will always be aware that when someone of their race acts, it will impact, be attributed to all of the individuals who are also members of their race. When one black person in a hoodie does something wrong, it is held against all black people in hoodies. When a single undocumented immigrant commits a crime, we believe all undocumented people to be criminals and most close our boarder. When some Asian Americans are new to the country and are still learning English, other Asian Americans have been here for 5 generations and yet white people still compliment them on ‘how good their English is,” when they were born in Denver.

Only white people get to complain about being grouped in with other white people as discrimination. Individuality in terms of race is privilege based in race.

And until white people as individuals understand the way that their membership in their race, their whiteness impacts their lives, we cannot have an authentic, open discussion about race, because while people of color are always held responsible for everything everyone of their race does, white people can associate with whiteness when it benefits them, but don’t want to have to ‘be white’ when we talk about the bad things that white people, whiteness has done. This is the problem with race-based privilege. This is why white privilege matters.

Many white people think that people of color want to talk about white privilege to make white people feel bad and guilty. But this is not the case. The reason I need white people to understand their privilege based in race is because without understanding that race is not about hate but is about not having to be held accountable for your actions.

Whiteness is like a cloak of invisibility when it comes to race. The actions that individual white people do and the things that happen to them are never seen through a filter of race, so the things that happen to them because of their race don’t count–they are never seen in terms of race because we cannot talk about whiteness without ‘hurting white people.’ And those with power set the rules of engagement, so we don’t talk about things that happen because of whiteness. Instead, when we talk about things through a filter of race, we only see color. Let’s take an example from gender to understand this first.

Because race is a serious subject matter, let’s look at gender and race, and how our language helps us to accept rape. When we talk about rape, we use a passive voice. We write sentences where the object takes the place of the subject. We say, “Women were raped.” Women are who were raped–this makes them the object. But who did the raping? There is no subject in the sentence. There is no one doing the raping. The person who raped is therefore not held responsible for their action. We almost never call men rapists, but when women are raped, someone must be a rapist. By never calling men rapists, it makes it difficult for us to hold men accountable for their sexual behaviors.

And the ultimate proof of this is the new law in Alabama which bans abortion without any exceptions for rape and incest, and holds doctors who provide abortions guilty of felony murder with a punishment of up to 99 years. The doctor would get a heavier punishment than the rapist. The men who voted in this law are holding women accountable for male sexual behaviors, their gender-based privilege gives them the privilege of ruling over women’s bodies. And although most men are not rapists, all men benefit from the sexism here.

And this is exactly what still happens between people of color and white people. Whiteness has control over our lives and bodies, and whiteness benefits from the control of people of color. The easiest place to see this is in the rates of mass incarceration of people of color when white people make up the majority of people who commit crime in the U.S. (If you don’t believe me look it up.) (Most of the mothers on welfare are also white, btw).

Understanding that all human bodies are racialized is important because it is linked to history and everything since the landing of Europeans on what they called, “The New World”. Through the system of race, white people are not held responsible for their actions because of their race. And people of color are held responsible for everything that happens because of their race. This is the biggest privilege of all! By claiming individuality, white people rid themselves of responsibility for racism. And if whiteness and white people are not responsible and do not see how they benefit from racism, we cannot stop it. We cannot solve a problem that white people don’t even know they don’t understand, but that they have caused (as a group) and benefit from (as both individual and group members because of group membership).

And I have written all of this to say, that until white people understand their individual  and group membership roles in terms of how their race impacts their lives–the same way that people of color already understand ourselves as both individuals and members of our race–then when we try to talk about race, we are not speaking the same language. White people are almost always talking about themselves as individuals, and people of color are talking about all of us as members of our race. 

Ninety percent of the people of the world are people of color. White people make up only 90% of the world’s population. And for the past 60 years, we have been trying to solve racism by ‘trying to make people of color equal to whites.’ We have always been equal. Instead of trying to ignore the race of people of color, why not treat white people as people with race? Why not treat them like people who things happen to because of their race, just as we do people of color?

Instead of saying that things happen to people because of their ‘blackness’, or ‘Asian-ness’, or ‘brownness’, let’s talk about all of the things that happen because of ‘whiteness.’ How many people got jobs because they are white? How many could buy homes, get loans because they are white? All but one of our nation’s presidents have been elected because they were/are white. So what is wrong with electing Obama because he is black? Didn’t his experiences with race give him qualities that other presidents have been lacking?

Racism happens because white people are white; not because people have color. And I am not saying this because I am trying to hurt white individuals. I want us to understand why race exists, so we can decide if we want to keep a system that is the opposite of the values we claim to hold as U.S. citizens. And I want to give my students the knowledge to make an informed decision about what perspectives they decide to use as they look at the world. I want you all to understand how race functions in the world so that you can make informed decisions about your own actions. This is the purpose of this class.

If you can see the impact that your actions make in the world through a filter of race, then you can decide how you want to act and be responsible for what you do. If you don’t know the impact of your actions, you do not have the ability to change your behaviors, and we all need white people to change their actions because the racial impact of their actions hurt others, and many people don’t know it, or know it and deny it’s truth.

So Dear White Student, this is why it is important that all of you understand why it is important that white people understand that they are indeed white people. This is not a racial slur; it is a description. I am not offended when I am called a black person, because I am black. I love my blackness; it is who I am. And while my blackness is not all of me, all of me is black. (Think about that one for a while!) Thank you again for giving me a chance to teach about seeing the world and oneself through a filter of race.

 Now for the questions everyone wants to know. HOW DO WE SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF RACISM?  First, we need to understand what need to happen.

We need to have our share of the power in terms of our population. Like our U.S. founding fathers, we need to have representation in terms of our government, our judicial system, our policing system, education system, every institution, federal, state and local. 

And this is what many white people fear. Many white people do not see this as sharing power and authority, but as loss, which it would indeed be. This is the difficulty with racism, and this is why just being nice to each other and loving each other won’t work to solve racism. And once we have accomplished, I’ll talk about what comes Second!

Racism is the patterns of privilege, power and authority granted to one group over others based in race.

There is no mention of hatred anywhere near that definition. So love may conquer hate, but Racism is not Hate! 

And that is the final purpose of this class. To help students understand that Racism can only be solved through a shift in power and authority, so that we can begin to make that change happen.


How Much Does Black Pain Weigh?

How much does ‘black pain’ weigh?

For a couple of years now, I been wondering what a free black person’s life would be like, and I am amazed at how limited my imagination is. What would it be like if my body, my soul, my life was not weighed down by ‘black pain’? Would I be able to just fly away like those famed black Africans who remembered the magic words of their mother tongues, who whispered freedom to life and sprouted the wings they needed to take themselves back home rather than facing an existence of generations who will carry the burden that our history, our existence has become?

White people cannot know the weight of black pain, the way it holds you down. I mean, I love the earth, my center is down towards our mother, but father sun still calls, and I cannot answer because of this load of blackness that I carry, and I cannot breathe. How does one carry the weight of black pain? Every day I feel as I try to rise out of bed. I wake up and I remember, I’m black and wonder, what will that cost me today? White people cannot know.

Four hundred years of not having ownership of my own body, multiplied by the total number of us all. Carry that load, boy. Each and everyday my blackness meets me, and it is quick, you see, it reaches my back before my humanness gets there most days. What must free blackdom feel like? It is silk, softly wrapping itself around my form, kissing each wound made from the burden of the pain I been carrying, healing with its nothingness? I know the weight of the chains we wear each day, binding my soul; whiteness can’t begin to know.

How do we keep moving? How have we been able to raise our children, work for a living, skrimp and save and make it each day under this weight? How can we bear it? And yet we do, because we have no choice, it lays on us like a second skin. Black pain and my soul bleeds.

My students asked me today about Kanye’s statements about his love for Donald Trump and I had to help them make sense of this. Is there anything that could have prepared me for the man who told the world, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” who chooses to continue be a Kardashian, now chose to be Trumps friend? And all I can think of to say is, “white people cannot know the weight of black pain.” How it clings to you everywhere you go. How it never gives you a moments rest, not for one moment. Just when you think you can take off, leave the ground and soar, it’s there holding you down.

I want white people to imagine never having a single minute of freedom in a world that is trying to convince you that you are free, been free for generations. Whiteness owns individualism, keeps it for itself. This is the true face of race-based privilege.

I want black people to imagine being able to be an individual. Imagine being able to just be yourself, not every Jim Crow, every darkie who has ever done anything bad, wrong—real or imagined by whiteness. Black people, imagine not being expected to think just like every other black person alive! Imagine a world where your thoughts can be your own, and you don’t have to represent the black view, and no one will every say to you, “oh, I thought you’d like this because, well, you know, you’re um blac..african um…” ever again. Imagine not being weighed down by the pain of blackness.  Black People, imagine being able to not have to worry about being a credit to your race. Not being the usual suspect. Imagine being able to hold a cell phone in your hand that is seen as a cell phone, not a gun. Imagine being able to be seen as the smart kid who is going to go far, without having to an example to all those other kids, to just be you being you. Imagine being able to be silly. Imagine laughing, loud, soft, it doesn’t matter. Imagine singing and dancing to our own music without someone listening and figuring out how to appropriate what we are doing for white profit, while condemning you for practicing your own arts.

On my back I carry the burden of our success. Slowly, step by step each generation we inch closer to freedom, that shimmering, shining promised land, the mirage of freedom that is always yet to be, almost, not now, not ever. And if I put down my share of that pain for even a second to stretch use my muscles in my own name, then all of my brothers and sisters have to take up my load, for someone, we, always has to carry our blackness. What I am trying to do is to learn to separate blackness from the pain. This is what I am not sure is even possible, but it is what I imagine freedom to look like.

Black people, I want you to imagine freedom. What does it look like in everyday life?

I understand this about Kanye. He wants to be free from black pain. He wants to be able to love who he wants, and hold any political view, have enough money, and fame, and whatever it takes to be able to be a free black man, any way he chooses. And I can’t blame him for this. But his ability to put down blackness for a minute, doesn’t dissolve the weight I feel, and I can’t help but resent him for letting me help to shoulder his share.

I want to lose this weight I carry. I want someone to invent a pill to dissolve black pain. I want to wake up in the morning next to Nina Simone and know what it means to be me and to be free. And I want that freedom to be more than sexual, more than monetary, more than physical, more than mental, more than spiritual. I want everything thing that is possible, and I want it painted black.

Visiting an online discussion with students about the concept of “Reverse Racism”

Visiting an online discussion with students about the concept of “reverse racism”

I’ve been teaching an online race class for over 10 years now and being able to see students from across our nation, who come from different parts of the world, have a thoughtful discussion about their experiences with race has been a wonderful education privilege. It has helped me to see, close-up, how race impacts their daily lives. And having this discussion, which I moderate, has allowed me to see the imprint of race in my student’s lives, and it calls me to use my own experiences with race, from both lived and those acquired from  the more than 30-year-study of the subject that has become a basic component of my life. I have been granted a wonderful laboratory through which to examine this social construction that has shaped my life.  What follows is the basics of a discussion that I had with a couple of students in my Race in America class. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and editing of some of the student’s words for meaning may have taken place. The jewels that are to be found from telling the stories of our lives, and then examining them through a filter of race, allows us to see things that we may not have thought of before. I present this discussion for your consideration.

This discussion happens in a section of the class called Capitalism and Race. We have talked about the connection between the creation of our nation, the creation of the concept of race and how those two resulted in the creation of capitalism as our national economy, with the examples of the land taken, and genocide performed on the Indigenous peoples of this land, and the use of enslaved free African people as a basis for the nation’s economy, the students were asked the following question:

Our discussion topic:  In what ways is racism profitable and for whom?

Students are required to log in and to participate in the discussion.  Students must

  1. Think of an action which you believe to be racist and then discuss the following:
  2. who profited from the action?
  3. what was gained?

Student Mark:  Racism, depending on the area can be monetarily and possibly socially beneficial for people based on the area, and conditions therein. The example is one from my own personal experience.

 I lived in Hawaii. A friend and I were in an area that was notorious for being full of local Hawaiians. We would usually hike all over the island of Oahu on our days off. One day, after we finished a hike near this densely local populated area, we decided to stop at a gas station and a drink as and a snack. Upon entering the gas station, we immediately were glared at and whispered about. When we went to pay for our snacks and drinks we were told that we weren’t welcome in the store. My friend and I looked at the attendant, surprised, and he automatically answered: “I won’t serve you, and if you don’t leave now, I’ll call people who will make you leave.”

Instantly my friend and I headed out the door, with the attendant shouting at us, “F*ck off Haole boys” (Haole being a racial slur towards white people from Hawaiians). As we walked to my friend’s truck, a truck full of people from the neighborhood pulled up to the gas pumps and we could see the hostility in their eyes

I would say that the gas station owners benefited from refusing service to us (as is his right to do) in a social way. There is a sign in the neighborhood that reads, “White Invaders Give The Islands Back Before We Take Them Back,” so I assume that the clerk experienced some personal gratification, the gas station owners probably got some sort of additional business when it became known that my friend and I (the student did not mention the race of he or his friend directly, which is white )were kicked out of the store. I would say that there was more monetary gain beyond what my friend and I would have contributed to his business, as well as some personal gain and recognition within the neighborhood.

Instructor Kim’s thought/notes about student Mark’s post:  When I read Mark’s post the first thing that strikes me is that he calls a native, Indigenous Hawaiian neighborhood “notorious.” The negative connotation is obvious in the word, but it may not be obvious to those who read this. The people of the island are ‘notorious’, and no such words are used to talk about the white student and his friend, who I am assuming is white as well. I know that both these people are white even though the student never identifies himself, or anyone else as white. It is fascinating that he has not problem identifying native Hawaiians as such, but does not recognize his own color, race, ethnicity or anything. Yet in order for us to understand the ‘reverse racism’ that Mark also does not name, is to understand that he and his friend are white.

White is the race that goes unmentioned. We never have to talk about it, because it is assumed; this student assumes his whiteness, and he assumes that we will also assume his whiteness; he never questions that we will recognize him as white. What also goes unmentioned is the fact that Mark and his friends are colonizers. They understand their whiteness without a filter of race. They are white; they don’t have to think about what that means. But they know the meaning of the race of those who are other. They live in “densely” populated neighborhoods that are notorious.

The student can see how the race of the Indigenous people impact their own lives, as well as how their race impacts his life. It is not Mark and his friend’s whiteness which gets them kicked out of the gas station; it is the ‘Hawaiian-ness’ of the locals that is the problem. Whiteness cannot be the problem for Mark, because it does not exist; he cannot ‘see’ his or his friend’s race.

But Mark sees the ‘local-ness’ of the clerk, and it only through the language of native Hawaiians, ““I won’t serve you, and if you don’t leave now, I’ll call people who will make you leave.” “F*ck off Haole boys!” By the way, a Haole, is not a term for all white people. It is a term for white people who have colonized the Hawaiian Islands and continue to benefit from this act of oppression.  It is important to understand the limits for the power of the word haole, because there is no way to say that all white people are bad. There are ways for different groups of white people to be bad, but the idea that whiteness may be something undesirable is inconceivable.

The importance of the voice of the clerk cannot be overestimated. It is only through the voice of the clerk that Mark and his friend begin to understand that there may be places on this island where they are not welcomed. This concept is as foreign to Mark and his friend, as they are to the island. We are told that the two, “We would usually hike all over the island of Oahu on our days off.” The friends never question if they belong on the island; it is theirs to explore, after working at jobs, that many of those who are born to the land have difficulty being hired for.

What seems most problematic for these friends is the fact that there is a sign in the neighborhood that declares the intentions of those who were born to the island, ““White Invaders Give The Islands Back Before We Take Them Back”. It is the voice of the island that calls Mark and his friends White Invaders. Without this voice, Mark and friend’s race would never have been spoken, noticed, would never really exist.

Without this sign, there would have been nothing in Mark’s analysis that spoke of the fact that white people did invade and colonize the islands. These are facts that are not part of Mark’s consciousness, so it is easy to ignore. If these facts are not acknowledged by white voices, then the impact of their truth does not have to be part of the story that Mark gets to tell his classmates about the ways that people of color benefit from treating he and his friend in an unfriendly manner.

Student: Isabelle: Thank you for sharing a personal story with us! I don’t have a deep understanding of Hawaii’s history besides knowing that the U.S. annexed it illegally in the 1900s at some point. Based on Johnson’s definition of racism, was that what you guys experienced? It just sounds to me more like prejudice on the part of the shop-owner- based on the island’s history of imperialism and violence, he saw you two and immediately felt animosity. 

Instructor Kim’s thought/notes about student Isabelle’s post:  I love that Isabelle is asking Mark about the history of the Islands! I love even more that she is reminding him of the class definitions of racism: The Patterns of Privilege and Power granted to one group over others based in race. This is something I can work with.


This is what I posted into the student discussion:

Hey y’all what a great discussion y’all are having about the differences between racism and prejudice and the concept of ‘reverse racism’ that seems to be at the base of Mark’s story.  I, too, would like to thank you for sharing this story Mark.  It is brave to talk about the ways that we have experienced the impact of race in our own lives.  This may take a while, LOL!

So Isabelle asks if what Mark experienced on the Island of Hawaii was prejudice and not racism.  Mark has told of his experience of not being served by indigenous peoples (native Hawaiian descendants) and being physically threatened and forced to leave the area.  Mark spoke of the financial reward that the shop owner would receive in terms of having other indigenous people spending their money in his store, and the ‘recognition’ he would get from the community.

 And the history of the Hawaiian Islands is complex; while it is a U.S. state, statehood came at a high price for the Pacific Islanders who were the victims of the horrors of colonization, plantations, occupation and all of the other things that being treated as a conquered people entails, including having your homelands taken over by others for their profit and pleasure (tourism) and leaving little ability for indigenous people to even make a living, except in service to those people who use the islands for their own pleasure.

So what, in terms of the ways that we are going to use the vocabulary in this class, are we talking about here.  The following are the ways that we will use terms in this class.

  1. Prejudice-is a bias, either for or against someone or thing, often based in stereotypical social understandings about the behaviors and natures of others because of group memberships.
  2. Racism is the patterns of privilege and power granted to one group over others based in race.

There are two (2) important things to notice about these definitions.  There is no mention of hatred, or intention.

So let’s begin this analysis at the beginning of the relationship between the U.S. and who can be citizens.

  • In 1790 the first naturalization and immigration act said that there were only 2 requirements for one to become a U.S. Citizen. The first is that one had to be free. The second is that you have to be white.
  • This is one of the clearest places to see how early whiteness and U.S. citizenship have been linked.

In 1922, Hawaiian born Japanese descendant, plantation owner and farmer Takao Ozawa took his petition for citizenship as an ‘all-american’ successful business man to the Supreme Court where he was denied based on race. With the Chinese exclusion act of 1882 and then this, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Asians were allowed full citizenship, after World War II and the U.S. internment camps for Japanese. With all of this history and so much more that relates directly to the U.S. acquisition of Hawaii, involving the violent inhuman treatment of indigenous peoples on the Islands, there is a long history of white American cultural based U.S. benefits much more from statehood than have many indigenous Hawaiians. This is racism.

When I look at the story that Mark so graciously shared with us, I see a situation that happened between individuals (Mark and his friend and the shop owner and people present). I see a hurtful situation where the prejudice of the indigenous peoples that Mark and friend dealt with was awful. It was real, and it hurt.

The next thing that I want to address is profit, because the connection between profit and racism is what this lesson is about. Mark’s experience is that there are two ways that the Shop owner profits/gains from not serving people (Mark and friend) because they are white. But it is obvious that he actually doesn’t personally profit monetarily; the shop owner loses whatever money that Mark, and friend would have spent. This has happened on the individual level, and once again, there are people here who have done the hurting—the Shop owner and the indigenous community. And there are individuals who have been hurt (Mark and friend) because of their race, in this case, because of their whiteness. This is real and is seen by some as an act of racism, but as the instructor and a person who has been studying racism for years, this is all an example of the hurtful ways that prejudice hurts others.

For the purposes of this class, when we talk about racism, we will be using the larger, systematic definition that is suggested by our textbook, Privilege, Power and Difference, which focuses on the patterns of privilege and power. The Patterns of Privilege and Power granted to one group over others based in race.

Because of the impact of race in colonialization, the Shop owner was actually really risking having no business at all or having the dominant culture (whites who live on the island (power)) never doing business with him again, and having violence done to himself (shop owner) for not doing business with and for threatening white people. And what makes this systematic and not individual, is that from what happens to you is that most of the business opportunities, jobs and the like are tied to white owners, (especially in tourism airlines and hotels, etc.) and those with power will have a greater influence over a wide number of indigenous peoples.

What happened to Mark will not determine how all white people will be treated across the island.   I hope that this is clear. Feel free to ask questions.

The power of story. We all have stories to tell, and it is only through telling our own stories that we can begin to deal with the trauma of race in our lives as individuals and this is important. And what is vital to our society is that we tell the stories through a filter of race. Mark’s ability to divorce his story from the political social and historical situation that he lived when he was in Hawaii is one of the reasons that talking about race across racial groups is so difficult. Often when white people talk about their experiences, they are doing so from an individual experience; the stories of people of color may be individual, but they are always about an entire people. What an essential difference!

Telling our stories validates our experiences and that is healing for the individual; examining our stories through a filter of race helps us to heal for a society. If we want to heal, we must find places and times where we can tell stories, and listen to those of others. And then we must do the hard work. We must listen to the voices that have been silenced. We must add the parts of the story that are missing; and only then will healing be possible.

Wisdom from My Daughter, Aged 12


To Katya, Age 12


I listened.

She said.

Momma how do I tell my Dad I want him to

Stay in one place, have a home.

She listened.

I said.

I’ve never been very good at talking to your Daddy. You must find your own way.

She listened.

I said.

Your Daddy may not ever be the man that you and I need him to be. So, we’ve got to accept the man he is.

She listened.

I said.

We can both keep searching for a man who is right for us. We don’t have to settle.

She said.

Momma you can change the men in your life.

My Daddy will always be my Daddy.

I listened.

I Remember Ondad, my Grandfather

This is an old piece, but it speaks to me as I have been thinking about family, and missing them. I wrote this in 1996 after the death of my Grandfather, Edward B. Pollock, and no harm is meant to anyone mention herein. My grandfather, Edward Benjamin Pollock is the first on the left, 3 away from the Great Ma Rainey.

Smiling black faces straining; sweat pouring to the pavement, watering the past.  Torn, worn red keds, clicking, ticking back to a time before now, before then.  Quarter blues and jazz swirling and twirling making white faces smile easy, hateful.  Laughter without joy tumbling from mouths thrown open wide.  I was seven, and all I knew was that the movements and music should have been mine.  Should have felt good.  But my stomach ached, and I wanted to be somewhere else, someone else.  Yet the dancers never stopped.  They just waited for the next crowd to appear.

I remember my grandfather, Edward Benjamin Pollock.  He was always a strong, hard man.  I remember that he never wanted to throw anything away.  He thought he could do, could fix anything.  He would try to force things to work, sometimes breaking them beyond repair in his attempt to bring the pieces together again.  I can see coffee pots taped together and chairs held together with string.  He thought that he really could force things to work, force things to last longer than nature had intended.  Even force people to love him.

I remember his raspy voice.  At times he sounded like Louis Armstrong, which was not so surprising, since he was born in New Orleans the year before Sachmo.  I always knew that my grandfather had been a jazz musician, yet it wasn’t until I had lived in New Orleans that I understood.

When I was little he still played his clarinet occasionally.  It was always such a strange sound – so light that it just floated off.  My grandfather never floated.  It was so lonely, his music.  Before I was 10 he stopped playing, only a guitar after that, but he could never make it sing.

I can see my grandfather; just another of the little black boys roaming the streets of the Quarters.  When I first saw these boys I was a 7-year-old girl who had been raised in my father’s – my grandfather’s adopted city- Chicago, I hated those boys.  All I could see was blacks putting on a show for white people.  Dancing and smiling with bottle caps stuck in the soles of their shoes so that they could use their feet to create the rhythms that those white faces had come to reap.  I was sure that the steps of these boys weren’t any different than the shackled shuffles of their great-great-grandfathers as they walked through the same streets,  ankles bound , auction block ready. I hated those boys because I knew that somehow, I was them, and I never wanted to beg.  I was ashamed of my grandfather because there was always a bit of that little Quarter hustler in him.

That street dancer was always there.  He was the one that made my grandfather hold on to thing which should have been allowed to die.  He was the part of my grandfather who never allowed anyone to be tired, to be sick, to need a rest.  My grandfather made everyone just keep on dancing, keep on smiling, no matter what.

When my grandmother first got sick, it wasn’t so bad, because to some extent, she could still do for herself.  But as the years and the strokes continued to drain her, my grandfather could not understand.  His entire survival was dependent on his being able to dance, to smile, to say ‘yaz sir’ just one more time.  After a while my grandmother could no longer dance and my grandfather made her pay dearly for this.  She let him down when she could no longer sing, and he had been with her for so many years that he had forgotten how his own voice sounded without hers.  All he could do was try to force her to sing, force her to dance, even though her body had left her years before.  By the end, she would push the food out of her mouth, because not even my grandfather could force her to dance again.

When my grandfather looked at his son, he never saw a man.  A man was hard and worked for a living.  A man danced so hard that he could taste his sweat as it ran between his clenched, barred teeth.  My father never danced; he never quite understood the rhythms.  He had not been born in New Orleans; he had never seen Congo Square and could not understand.  My grandfather could never see that because he had danced so hard, my father didn’t have to.  Indeed, my father had already forgotten how.

When my grandfather could no longer sing and dance, no longer please the crowd, his life no longer had a purpose.  So he decided to leave those streets which were crowed with young faces who heard rhythms that my grandfather could not even imagine.  And so we must take up the dance.  Our steps will be different.  But I will teach my own daughter the song and dance routine as I learned it from her grandfather.  We must dance and sing as if our life depended on it, for it does.

As I walk past the little black boys in the quarters, baby stroller in front of me, I tell my daughter to look.  I tell her to love those boys, and not to ever feel shame about who we have been, who we still are.  I whisper the names of her black  great-grandfather , her black grandfather, and her white father.  I tell her to never forget the rhythms that she hears on these streets.  I tell her to listen to the echoes of all of the souls who dance before her.  And I tell her to take the movement, take the music and form wings with which to soar.