Once 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.