The Power of Language

Future rulers of Florida, from Robert N. Denni...
Future rulers of Florida, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This morning, a woman showed me a picture of her two grandchildren, two little girls. They were adorable, and I said as much, and immediately, she said, smiling, “they’re bad.”

 

I cringed. In the African-American community, I frequently hear parents and relatives refer to their little ones as “bad,” and when I’ve known the person saying it, I’ve asked them not to do it. Language is so important, and the word “bad” is not a feel-good word or a word that encourages empowerment and healthy self-esteem. If children are told they are bad, they will believe it and eventually, it act it out.

 

Saying kids are “bad” when they are, in fact, just kids being kids, is troubling.  I almost never hear white parents say that about their kids, not even when they’re in stores and throwing a tantrum. Too often, I suspect that African-American parents label normal developmental behavior as “bad,” those times of discovery which help a child connect to his or her world, and to him or herself.

 

I interviewed, once, a man who was a brilliant artist.  When he was little, he told me, he used to take markers or crayons, or something, and draw on the white tiles that were in his mother’s kitchen. (the kitchen had black and white tiles). He said his mother never scolded him, but allowed him to draw. Every night she would clean the tiles off, and the next day, he’d be at it again. His art work was phenomenal, and he said that he was so grateful that his mother had not yelled and screamed at him and called him “bad.”

 

I have never forgotten that story, and I firmly believe that we don’t pay enough attention to the language we use in general, but especially the language we use in addressing our children. I have noticed it in the African-American community, but I am sure it is not limited to our community. Whenever an adult, in the midst of a bad or tired moment, says something mean and disparaging to a child, it erodes that child’s sense of self and self-worth.

 

The language that has been used to describe African-Americans has been damaging. African-Americans have been described as “lazy,” and yet, so many African-Americans I know, and knew when I was growing up, worked two and three jobs to support their families. African-American students are called “low functioning,” and “slow,” and if they hear that, especially from teachers they love and respect, it damages their psyches.

 

When my children were in school, I was very careful to monitor how teachers talked to them. When my daughter was in an honor’s math class, the only African-American in her class, and was not doing so well at the beginning, her teacher called me in and expressed concern. From her remarks, I remember this one statement, “She is like a deer in the headlights.”

 

I fumed, and I told her that she might not want to ever say that to my daughter, that in my house, we practiced positive language and through that language, my children were encouraged to believe that they could do anything they put their minds to. I told the teacher that my daughter would be OK, because she had a mind to be OK, and she had the capability to be OK. I would talk with her as she cried through her math homework, and would tell her that she had the advantage over the little numbers on her paper; “after all,” I would say, “you have a brain. Those little numbers do not.” She got it. I mean, she got it that she should always believe in herself and not let anything convince her that she was less than who God had made her. She finished that math class with a B+. The teacher was astounded. I was not.

 

Parents have to understand the power of language. Our children love us; they want to be like us. If we call them stupid, they will believe it, and they will hate themselves. No person who does anything great does it by hating him or herself. African-Americans have grown up under a barrage of negative and damaging language. Our children have not liked their hair, their lips, the color of their skin …So much of what we are as African-Americans has been described as “bad,” and too many of us drank the kool-aid!  We need to understand how toxic language affected us as individuals and as a people… we have got to understand that and do better.

 

We will find that if we use positive and empowering language with our children, we will begin to use it with ourselves as well. Many of us grew up with “old school” parents who called us names and put us down …but we don’t have to continue that cycle. We have a choice. We may not have the level of self-esteem we want, or have even needed thus far in order to squeeze all of life out of the lives we have …but we can certainly improve our lives and what we do while we are alive if we talk to ourselves and affirm ourselves, no matter what we have been told in the past.

We are, all of us, full of capabilities and possibilities. We are all rather like Watty Piper‘s The Little Engine that Could. We really are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, and so are our children. It is our job as adults to convince to the children that, “yes, they can!”

 

I hope those two little girls, so cute, don’t hear at home that they’re “bad.” I hope they are inquisitive and curious and lively and excited about life, and that they are encouraged to be so. That’s one of the most important things we can do to end cycles of low self-esteem and feelings of quiet desperation.

 

A candid observation…

 

A Broader Understanding of “Pro-Life”

I have often found myself cringing as “pro-life” advocates have stood outside abortion clinics, pleading for the rights of an unborn fetus, not because I like it that there are so many abortions, but because those who are “pro-life” seem, for the most part, to have such a narrow understanding of  what life is.

In fact, although pro-life advocates have put billboards up in urban neighborhoods, urging people in those neighborhoods to refrain from having abortions, it seems that these same advocates, once the babies in these neighborhoods are born into poverty and despair, pretty much ignore them.

Children who live in poverty, who are born in poverty, depend on the government for basic services, like food and health care. Children born into poverty have a higher chance of ending up in prison, because the schools in their neighborhoods are so bad and they end up giving up and dropping out of school.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a “cradle to prison” pipeline exists because children born into poverty – yet very much alive – suffer from abject poverty, inadequate health care, gaps in childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, “intolerable abuse and neglect,”  “unmet mental and emotional problems, rampant substance abuse,” and involvement in an overburdened , ineffective juvenile justice system, a system which looks at these children as a drain on society.

These children, very much alive, are despised once they come out of the womb. As a fetus, a poor child is cherished; the heartbeat of the fetus is used in commercial and religious attempts to get people to oppose abortion. Yet, there is no such drumbeat for these children, and for the things they need once they are born in order to have valuable and viable lives, once they are born.

There is something very wrong with this reality.

Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian and Zionist, wrote a powerful book, I and Thou, where he described how we as human beings objectify other human beings, presumably to protect ourselves, our thoughts, and our beliefs.

He believed that part of the problem in Israel was the inability and unwillingness of Jewish people to treat Arabs as fellow human beings, “it” as opposed to “thou.” An “it” has no feelings; it is an object, devoid of even the need for another human being to invest caring and compassion into. A “thou,” on the other hand, is a “fellow human being,” one with which one can develop an empathic relationship, based on the understanding that this “thou” has needs and feelings equal to that of the person doing the evaluating.

“I-it” relationships have made it possible for sexism, racism, homophobia, discrimination against the aged …to flourish. When we as humans do not see another human as human, we feel nothing about what we may or may not do to affirm that person’s worth and need to meet their needs.

That’s the feeling I get that the pro-life proponents carry with them. The poor are precious so long as they are in the womb. Once out, they are a bane to society, unworthy of anyone’s time or concern.

If the pro-life people would advocate as hard for quality education for poor children as they do for more affluent children, or push for legislation or some other source to provide for quality health care for these children, I wouldn’t care about their concern and love for the unborn fetus. Poor children do not ask to be born, and they are not responsible for their conditions. It is so hypocritical and sad for a civilized society to have such a narrow definition and appreciation for life.

A candid observation …

Evil, Challenged

Cover of "Savage Inequalities: Children i...
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James Cone wrote “to avoid suffering is to avoid resistance, and that leaves evil unchallenged” in his book , God of the Oppressed.

His point was that the quest for social justice is not an easy one;  much of what is wrong in the world is wrong because we as humans do not have the energy or the will to resist it. The powers that be know that, and are able to “wait out” most resistance which comes to challenge the status quo.

Ironically, the truth of the matter is that if we do not resist power we continue to suffer. We stand the risk and real possibility that our unwillingness to resist will in fact bring more suffering into our lives.

Among the problems that we have as humans is that we like being comfortable. Though we suffer, we are comfortable suffering because it is a state of being with which we are familiar. Resisting that which makes us suffer takes us away from our cocoons, and puts us on roads we not only have never seen, but also in contact with challenges we would rather just not deal with.

And so we suffer.

I thought about that as I thought about the CDF Freedom Schools®  program. The program is more than that; it is a movement to reverse the lives of at-risk kids. It is a movement dedicated to resisting the commonly held belief that poor and minority children cannot learn.

The idea is as preposterous as it is representative of the arrogance that more privileged people have in the way they think about people who are poor or less privileged. Freedom schools look at at-risk children not as objects, but as human beings. The relationships Freedom Schools foster are “I-thou” relationships, as opposed to “I-it” which is the way the powerful too often regard the less powerful.

Enter the notion that teaching literacy, one child at a time, can change not only that child, but his or family, his or her community, and this country. Consider the audacity of resisting a system which has all but spurned much public education, leaving scores of children, precious children though poor, at the mercy of environments in which nobody could learn, no matter his or her color or privilege.

The resistance causes some suffering, because some in power resist…the resistance. Those who push for a better life for children too often neglected run up against hardened spirits – spirits that are “psychosclerotic,” as William Sloan Coffin said – spirits that refuse to believe that “anything good can come out of Nazareth.”

Those who resist, then, suffer from the frustration of skepticism, the unwillingness of  some people to help support the program, and from other less obvious methods the powerful use to try to keep things as they are and as they would like them to remain.

I was moved to tears reading one of Jonathan Kozol‘s books, Savage Inequalities, where the physical environments of some of our nation’s public schools he described were shameful in a nation which boasts of being the richest and most powerful in the world. Public schools described by Kozol included rooms where ceilings leaked, where there was no heat in the winter and no air in the summer; where multiple classes were held in one big room, making it virtually impossible for teachers to teach and for students to learn. Kozol describes the gradual loss of hope he has seen over and over in the eyes of little black, brown and poor children who begin school with great expectations, only to learn by third grade that nobody, not even their schools, thinks much of them.

As the children lose hope, as they are more ” its” in their classrooms, objects to be managed rather than students to be taught, they back away, first emotionally, and then physically, out of school. Many wind up in prison, entering what has come to be known as the “cradle to prison pipeline.” The powers that be seem not to care; the Prison Industrial Complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in our nation –  a nation which, by the way, incarcerates more people than any other developed nation in the world.

Those who resist what I’ve just described opt into a process that can deplete their capacity to hope for better …and yet, they resist, they agree to suffer because the suffering of the children they see is so much greater. The refuse to let evil go unchallenged.

My daughter and the college and post-college students who will teach children in our Freedom school are in training all this week – being prepared for much more than they realize. They are involved, are a part of a movement, which refuses to STOP challenging evil.  Whether they know it or not, they are engaging in a program of social change. They suffer some (the training is intense) so that they can alleviate, or help alleviate the suffering of so many more.

Every single day, I wake up thinking about how to get the funds to make our school all that it can be, and I find that in spite of the setbacks, the passion that drives this movement also drives me: we who can do better on behalf of  others simple must do so.  It seems to be a no-brainer that it is necessary to fight myths that keep so much of our population down and out, but simultaneously prepares them to keep states and individuals wealthy by providing new prisons with new inmates.

There is no excuse for the wealthiest nation in the world to be so willing to ignore the cries of children who happened to be born poor to be heard and loved and taught. It seems to be a national shame that little children who enter school in kindergarten in first grade are too often completely despondent and frustrated by third grade – just because we who could do better didn’t.

CDF Freedom Schools are not about giving any child a handout. It is about giving children hope and pushing them to dream and to see the power in themselves. A nation cannot go wrong if its so-called “dispossessed” are treated as human beings and not as chattel. Freedom schools embrace children other entities chew up and spit out.

It is evil for a nation that can do better to not do better for children who deserve a good education.  It is evil to make sure the affluent are taken care of using dollars that could be more equitably shared between affluent and poor communities. Sharing those funds would not be socialism, as some, I imagine, would proffer.

It would be fair.

A candid observation …

The Power of Children

Mighty Times: The Children's March
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I watched a movie called “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” at a training for executive directors for CDF Freedom Schools® Program this week, a movie which left me devastated and inspired at the same time.

I was devastated because of the base cruelty of what I saw, but I was inspired by the courage of children and the realization of how much power children have.

The movie chronicled the activities of the children of Birmingham, Alabama in May of  1963 who  decided that they were tired of being treated like second-class citizens. The Civil Rights movement, under the direction of Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was well underway, and another organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, under the direction of James Farmer, was also making waves in the Jim Crow South.

Both organizations were having a hard time knocking down the walls of segregation. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was training people in non-violent resistance.  Adherents to the non-violent movement were attempting to integrate lunch counters, and were being met with violence, but the incidents were not gaining national attention, at least not enough national attention to put pressure on the South to change its ways.

What the movement needed, leaders said, was for the jails to get filled up. That would draw the attention that was needed, but adult African-Americans could not risk losing their jobs by going to jail, even if it was for a good cause.

James Bevel, a member of SCLC and known to be more impatient than Dr. King for change to come,decided that it would have to be the children to fill the jails.He organized children to march in downtown Birmingham in order to get arrested.What happened was beyond the vision of anyone who was involved in the movement. The children…came in droves. Ignoring the pleas of their parents not to get involved, children, teens and young adults left schools and met in the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist church, singing and praying. They were released in groups of 50 to march downtown, and as they did, they were arrested.

Bull Connor was the mayor of Birmingham, and a rabid segregationist. He was known to drive around in a white tank. The actions of the “Negro” children, as blacks were called then, infuriated them. When arresting them did nothing to dissuade him, he ordered the children, some as young as 4 years old – to be hosed down with fire hoses, and also ordered them to be attacked by police dogs.

Still, the children came.

When there was no more room for them in city facilities, some were taken to animal pens at the state fairgrounds. It rained the night they were detained, and they had little to nothing to eat, but they were stalwart in their determination. The movie showed that some children were released from the animal pens in the dead of night …one at a time.

Because of how the children in Birmingham had been treated, the horrid pictures appearing on televisions all over the world, the back of Jim Crow was finally broken.  The President of the United States at the time, John F. Kennedy, made a speech later that week saying that it was time for segregation in this country to end. He had not wanted to bother much with the situation in the South, but the thousands of children who would not be stopped forced him to have to deal with the ugliness of racism.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed a few months later, killing four little girls. The children had won a battle but the war based on racial hatred was yet to be won.

We were shown the movie to remind us why CDF Freedom Schools are not only important, but vital to under-served children. The children in Birmingham had been badly affected by segregation, but they had hope and drive and determination to, as the little four-year-old quoted in the film said, “be tree.” (He was so young he couldn’t even say the word “free” correctly.) Like the children in Soweto, South Africa, the children of Birmingham, Alabama gave the Civil Rights movement new momentum and purpose. Had the children not acted, one has to wonder what would be the state of African-Americans as concerns segregation today.

Because children, however, especially black and brown poor children, are plagued by circumstances beyond their control, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, began the Freedom Schools movement. It is, simply, an amazing program, which takes children at risk and makes them know that they can do anything they want – beginning with reading – and moving on. The program is run by the national CDF staff, but the classes in these schools are taught by college-aged kids many of whom learn, quite by accident, that they have a passion for reaching kids whom society has all but thrown away.

Children move, sing, dance, chant, cheer …and then read, their hearts on fire, their eyes bright, their dreams unleashed. CDF Freedom Schools Program has schools all over the country, and is constantly opening more,promoting, increasing literacy in children who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

It is as though the children who marched in Birmingham in 1963 are still singing, still marching, and now, pulling other children along, reminding them that it was through and because of children that a mean man, a mean system, and a mean culture was shaken to its core.

Children filled with faith and hope, and not despair, can change the world.

A candid observation…