Black Youth [Interrupted]: Reflections on the Four African American 6th Graders’ Letter

open_speech5Once the letter went up, the internet did the rest. It has been nearly 3 weeks since Chris Eggemeier approached me to look over a letter written by four of his African-American students–Pheonix, Zayd, Bryson, and Keidy –addressed to president Obama. Since then, it has received over 1000 shares on Facebook, they have been approached by television news stations, news sites, and have even had the opportunity to speak on panels and read their letter to the public. They are local rock stars. And not because they picked up a ball, but because they just simply used their words.

The positive responses flowed in from readers all over the country. People are moved by what these kids had to say, and by the fact that it is coming from a group of 11 to 12-year-olds.  The letter is  touching hearts, and furthering the cause of an important movement.  I knew it would be well received, but I could never have imagined to this degree.

But with the positive, you also get the trolls. There were people who clearly read the letter, who understood it was written by a group of 6th graders, and still, that did not reserve them from making certain hateful and unforgiving comments. For a moment, I thought about hiding those comments from the boys. But I knew I wouldn’t be doing them any favors by shielding them from the reality and world that inspired them to write this very honest letter, and so I felt like I needed to be as honest with them about the world they were choosing to step into.

I sat down with the four of them, and read all of those comments–the good and the bad. I was attempting to emphasize a very real point: the more this letter would be shared, the more they could expect to see hateful comments like these. There comes a certain responsibility with doing this kind of work that they should be aware of.  As attention is given to this letter, the bigger the spotlight comes down on them, and the more vulnerable they become to racist reactions. Those were the terms and conditions they should know about. They needed to understand that by choosing to accept these interviews–and to be seen publicly–they would become ambassadors to a movement, and that would  mean being praised, as well as demonized.

It seems like a lot to talk about with a group of 6th graders, but these kids are reminding me that adolescence is a luxury not reserved for black youth. Sometimes,  in order to protect black boys and girls, we have to inform them of how cruel this world can be towards people who look like them, in hopes that they can survive this world by learning how to navigate it.

Sadly, we must accept the idea that the world will not always put black kids’ age into account; and in doing so, nor can we expect everyone to consider their innocence. The moment they posted that letter to my blog and made it public, is the moment their black youth was interrupted.  In the eyes of the public, they ceased to be boys. They ceased to be allowed to express themselves free from ridicule. They ceased to be 11 to 12 year olds with emotions. They have been tried as adults, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon–from either side.

It seems that youth is a luxury not reserved for black children. It’s evident in the responses to the letter, and in how the media found ways to justify the murder of Tamir Rice–for he did not have the luxury of be able to play with toys. They criminalized Mike Brown, because by public opinion and the double standards created by American racism, he was not granted the luxury of being an adolescent. By public opinion, Trayvon Martin was not worthy of that same luxury because he smoked weed, and carried himself as a “thug”. Public opinion says we can only sympathize with black youth who are perfect. Public opinion says we can witness a girl being dragged out of a classroom, and say the punishment most likely fits the crime. Public opinion has never considered black youth as a factor, for it has never even acknowledged it.

These kids are learning that no matter how old they are, people will find excuses to discredit what they say, and in the most hurtful ways. Their youth cannot protect them, because white supremacy has interrupted it.  


Meet the Four African American 6th Graders Who Penned the Heartbreaking Letter to President Obama

Four 6th Graders decided to do a research project on the Black Lives Matter Movement. The statistics they found on the bleak hope of black youth today are what prompted them to write a letter to president Obama on the urgency of addressing racism. Since posting the letter to my blog, the kids have been gaining notoriety and were asked to read it live at a Black Lives Matter Panel in Amherst, MA. Here is the video.
To read the full letter, click here.

The Importance of Black History

Last month, I was invited to speak at Amherst Regional High School as the keynote speaker for their Black History Month Teach-In, here is the full talk.

Four African American 6th Graders’ Open Letter to the President on the Urgency of Racism

Last week, at the school where I work, I was approached by a 6th grade teacher to review the work by several of his African American students. It was an open letter to president Obama on the bleak fate of African American youth today. The level of awareness these youth display towards their reality is all too clear in this letter. As soon as I finished reading, I knew immediately this needed to be shared. 

I am proud to live in a community that does its best to ensure that all of its youth–especially the black and brown–are given an equal chance to success. Most people I interact with here–many who are white–would agree that racism is still manifesting itself in society today, and that there is a certain civil-responsibility we all have towards eradicating racism. But that seems to be where the conversation usually ends.

What makes this letter so raw is that these youth are acknowledging how real and unrelenting the forces of racism are in the world that they are growing up in. They make the connections that no matter how many resources are given to them–even when living in a community that does its best to not fail youth that look like them–that the rest of society just isn’t there yet. The rest of society will see their skin color first, and however made up racial differences are, peoples’ prejudices can have real outcomes in these boys lives–as it has in the lives of  Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown.

In their own words: “this is a state of emergency.”

But however discouraging the statistics these kids raise in this letter are, seeing these words being penned by a group of 11 to 12-year-olds raises hope within me, and I hope it will do the same for you.

So here it is, with the permission of their parents, and no added ideas from me or any other adults, their words alone:



Dear President Obama,

       Our names are Phoenix, Zayd, Bryson and Keidy, we are four African American boys who live in Amherst, Massachusetts. We are in 6th grade, and we are researching the Black Lives Matter Movement. We want law enforcement officials to treat everyone equally.  As you are already aware, there have been several concerning incidents of African American boys and girls, who are unarmed and have not been breaking any laws, being  murdered. This is a state of emergency because if police keep on killing black lives for no reason and there is no one doing anything about it, nothing is going to change.

Law enforcement officials and the justice system treat African American males differently.  For instance data from shows the difference in treatment between white and black men:

“While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.

Clearly,  African Americans are treated differently by the criminal justice system.

Black Lives Matter movement started because of the death of Trayvon Martin.  The movement gained momentum with the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. There were reasons those people were killed but it wasn’t worth being killed over.  

Police shouldn’t  be killing unarmed African Americans, but some people take this movement in the wrong way by thinking that they are just saying that only black lives matter but no, we are saying that black lives matter too, which means all lives matter.  Whites are treated like they matter by the police.  For instance, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.  African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.  This shows that blacks are treated unfairly.  This movement advocates for our rights.  

President Obama, as a fellow African American, you clearly understand why this is important to every American.  We would like to conference with you about solutions to this perplexing problem.  


We look forward to your reply and discussing this with you in person.



Zayd,Phoenix, Keidy, Bryson