Revolution #240, July 24, 2011
End-of-Year Conversation with Black High School Students
Deeply Interested in the World... Acutely Aware This System Has No Future for Them
As school was winding down this spring, I had a chance for some long discussions with three young Black men who were about to graduate from an all-Black inner-city high school. I have known them for a number of years and have talked to them at times about a variety of political (and other) things. But this was different. They can't stand the world they live in, are extremely bored with school and extremely anxious about their future. So instead of going to school they came searching for honest talk about why things are this way and what they should do with their lives.
I saw them every day for a week which led to wide-ranging discussions on all kinds of topics, but with a common thread being how fucked up the world is and how urgently it needs to be changed. Here I can't do justice to the breadth and richness of all we talked about or capture all the funny shit that made us laugh. But I did want to convey some things that really have stayed with me.
These young people basically hate most of their life. They describe school as a combination of boring and bullshit. I asked them what percent of their time are they bored. One of them said 50% and another one said 75%. That is why they are constantly playing with their cell phones. At another point they talked about what they are taught in school is so much bullshit. One of them in particular has been reading Revolution online and he was saying how all his history classes teach the youth lies about what the U.S. is really about and they do not teach them the real history of what the U.S. has done. I had pulled out the issue of Revolution on "U.S. #1 Terrorist" (#232, May 15, 2011) and they were looking at the centerfold. He was pointing to the pictures and saying yes this is what the U.S. really does, while the other two were shocked to see the picture of Abu Ghraib and to read about what the police did to Aiyana Stanley-Jones. It was like they knew they were being taught bullshit, but they didn't know it was this bad. I said, yeah, and there is a whole list of countries the U.S. has invaded on a back page (p. 10 of #232). And they were like "a whole list—wow—people need to know this."
Another thread was the frustration they feel trying to talk to other students. A big part of their friendship is based on the fact that they think about things. One watches the Discovery channel and he wants to talk about things he learns. But they all described how, as they have gone through high school, they have found that they just don't have either the patience or interest to engage in what most of the other students talk about—buying clothes, personal gossip, getting wasted or gang-banging. The Revolution reader said that he got so frustrated when he would try to talk to other young people about things like starvation in Africa and they would just shine him on—he said that they were acting like the people in Africa weren't even human beings.
But while school is bad, leaving school is worse. This was one of the most painful things to hear them talk about. They described the constant fear and anxiety of having to be looking over your shoulder all the time to see if someone was going to try and fuck with you. They talked about the gang scene and how it has gotten worse over the period of their lives. One kid talked about his dad saying that when he was coming up, if the gangs were going to have a shootout, they first made sure all the kids were taken inside before things jumped off. Plus a lot of the violence back then was with fists and knives. But now they said things are just crazy. With most of the top gang leaders locked up, there is widespread anarchy among the gangs and any gang-banger or wannabe can try to grab some creds by shooting somebody whenever he wants.
Then the conversation turned to the police and how they are constantly messing with the youth. One of them, who had been shocked at the story about the murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, asked "is it true that nothing happened to those police, that nothing ever happens to the police?" The other two immediately said of course it's true. One of them then told about how he has an arrest record for simply walking home from the drugstore with three friends on a snowy night last winter. The cops stopped them and demanded ID. He didn't have any, but he told them they hadn't done anything wrong and were just walking home from the store. So would they just let them continue on their way. The cop did not like being talked to that way and cuffed them all and took them to jail where they were locked up overnight. He hadn't done anything wrong and now he had a criminal record and was on a "gang-affiliated" list—based on there being four of them walking together.
And then they talked about how people are basically trapped inside their homes. Anywhere you try to go to get off the streets costs a ton of money. If you are over 17, it costs $20 to play basketball at the Y. It used to be free to go up to an observation area on a skyscraper downtown. Now it costs $17. You have to go a long way to find a theater and they are extremely expensive. The only place they have found in the whole city where they can go and relax is at some of the big public spaces downtown. So this is where they go whenever they have free time.
And they are acutely aware that this system has no future for them. They talked about going to college and how it seems like a cruel joke to them. You have to pay all this money and go into debt and then there will probably not be a job for you—or at least not one that you would really want. And then all that debt is like a constant chain around your neck. But on the other hand, what other choice is there besides going to college. They know that there are no jobs for young men like them other than minimum wage shit jobs—if they can get one of those. One of them told about going to interview for a retail job in a mall—a job for which he was by far the most qualified—but not getting it because his clothes were not as nice as the other applicants'. He said it is like you "have to get a job in order to get a job"—meaning you had to first get money to dress right before you could even be considered for a job that paid little more than minimum wage. Plus all three of them have talents—one wants to do stuff with video filming—and they would really like to do something with their lives that has value and would make a difference. So this too is extremely painful to them—the realization that they, as human beings, really have no value in this society.
So the need for a revolution to completely change this whole system was a point to which we continually returned. On one hand they are seeing this with growing clarity, but this stand is in opposition in a number of ways to religious ideas that they also hold. One of the richest and recurring themes in our discussions was comparing and contrasting religion and science. It is interesting that all three of them come from a religious background and are themselves wrangling with religion as a framework for explaining the world. One of them is more locked in this framework than the other two, but all of them are open to having their thinking challenged. On one hand this religious framework has been part of what has kept them from getting drawn into "street life" and has provided a focus on "bigger questions" in their lives. And it also helps them get through their lives—even in some funny ways. One of them described how he had recently lost a 30-day bus pass he had just bought. It cost a lot of money and he was just so mad at himself for losing it—he was throwing stuff on the floor. Then he said that he had this flash that this was just the devil testing him, and somehow that helped calm him down and realize that he had to just deal with it and not get totally depressed. We all laughed about it when he told the story, but it reveals something about the draw of religion for people whose lives are constantly teetering right on the edge—and the appeal of a whole variety of "the end of the world" scenarios that have a lot of currency among people they know.
I kept stressing the importance of looking at things from a scientific point of view—because that is what actually explains why things happen. Early on, one of them asked if I believed in god and I said no. But two days later he came back to this and said: "Are you an atheist? I thought when you said you didn't believe in god meant that you were just into a different religion." So it took awhile for it to really sink in where I was coming from. But meantime we had talked about all kinds of examples of scientific vs. religious explanations of things. A big one was evolution. And here is a searing indictment of their education—two of the three of them did not know how evolution worked. So I explained this and we talked about how it was not just "humans descended from monkey" but rather was a whole explanation for how all life has developed on earth. Then we got onto the big bang. They kept raising isn't there still someplace for god in all this—how about before the big bang? So we talked about why would you assume that just because something was unknown this is proof that there is a god.
This was a theme we would pick up from one day to the next. At one point I asked them if they saw a relationship between the pull of religion and the feeling of hopelessness that so many people have about the world they live in. I contrasted that to the scientific method that, in a broad sense, you could describe as hopeful. It is a problem-solving approach to the world—not that all science is immediately based on solving particular problems. But understanding the world does open up new pathways about how it can be changed. Plus science itself is also a source of awe and wonder. This led to a lot more back and forth which they all said that they really liked—even though we didn't agree on everything, we were listening to and respecting each other—with the mutual respect being extremely important to them.
Where the question of religion got sharpest was around how they looked at women. We got off into this because they said that they didn't understand why the movie Precious was such a big deal. They had seen it and said that it just showed shit that they were all quite familiar with. Then one of them said that he didn't get why—according to him—it was more popular with white people than with Black people. I raised the question of whether it was connected to how Black men viewed their relationships with women. One of the three brought up the biblical explanation of original sin in the Garden of Eden and how Eve was responsible for this. It is interesting that while all three knew this biblical reference well, none of them remembered what the apple stood for. And when I reminded them that it was knowledge, this stirred the pot even more because they pride themselves on wanting to know things. And they also know something of what the bible actually says about how women should be treated who do things like have sex out of wedlock—which they don't agree with at all. Then the question of women's right to abortion came up. One argued that "you are destroying a life that could be a great one." I raised "what about the woman's life?" and asked them if they would want their lives turned upside down (which they all understood was what pregnancy meant) just because of some "oops?" The Revolution reader said he upheld the right to abortion and went on to point out that the most likely thing for a child born to a mother who doesn't want it is that the kid's life will be miserable and so will the mother's. So we went around on this for a while—including how all those "unused" sperm and eggs that men and women are continually spinning off also contain the potential for life, so why not allow women to decide when are the times that are best to bring that potential into reality. And by the end of this, the one who argued abortion is "destroying a life" was saying, "I'm hearing what you are saying about abortion."
I made the point here that I thought the question at the root of this whole discussion was whether they as Black men wanted to end a lot of the oppression they face, but when it came to women they just wanted in on being the "head of the household." This made them all stop and think—in part because of the logic of what I was saying, but I also think because they saw that I cared just as deeply about ending the oppression of women as I did about all the other horrors this system rains down on people—including the oppression of Black people that we had talked so much about.
At one point one of them said, well I heard this expert say that the Bible is 70% true and 30% false. So I said, "That's great, how do you know whether you are reading the 70% or the 30%?" And this got us off in a whole discussion of "salad bar" Christianity where you just picked the parts you liked and ignored the rest. What kind of "word of god" is that? But one point I continually came back to was that there are many religious people whose beliefs lead them to fight against injustice and that was a good thing. I said that the yardstick with people should be whether they are fighting to end oppression, and the role of their religious beliefs should be judged on that basis. But I also said that this is a real contradiction because to change the world you have to understand it—and here you ultimately do run into conflict with religion. They all said that they thought this was the right way to look at it—changing the world is the key thing.
One of them said early on in our discussions that he felt like he was from Mars because of the things he cared about were so different from most of the other students. And one theme of our discussions had to do with whether there were any other youth that felt and thought the way they did. On a later day I brought the issue of Revolution with the article about the Cornel West/Carl Dix Dialogue at UCLA. They were amazed—especially that 1,000 people came out to hear it. And then they read the comments by people as they left. Two in particular struck them. First was the one saying that we came to college expecting to hear stuff like this, but that's not what we get—this led to another round of how what they teach in school is such bullshit. And then the quote by the young kid who said that most of the time you go around not knowing if other people think like you do—and then you come here and see so many like minds—and how empowering that is. And this was right to the point we had been talking to—yes, there are others out there like them who are also agonizing over the future. The challenge is to find the ways to bring them together—and this is what the revolutionaries are attempting to do right now.
I showed them the May 1st copy of Revolution that had the quote from BA about why people come to the U.S.—because the U.S. has fucked up the rest of the world worse. The Revolution reader read this out loud and said "Yes! That is so true." There was also an ad for BAsics in the paper and I was explaining what the book was—a lot of quotes like that (and some longer essays) around the key questions involved in making a revolution. This got them all excited about the idea of taking quotes like the one they had read and putting them up around the neighborhood so others would see them and so they could get into discussions with people about this stuff and find out more who was coming from where. One of them had told me awhile back that he really liked the idea of putting up revolutionary posters that told the truth around the community. So at one point after we talked for a while about what a difference doing stuff like this could make, he asked me: "Do you think it would piss people off if we did stuff like this?" I thought a minute and said, "If you did it well, yes it probably would piss off certain powerful people." I was wondering if he was worried about taking chances. But he responded with, "Great, that's what I want to do—piss those people off!" And the other two chimed in with yeah, me too. And in this part of the discussion the Revolution reader, who has been reading Revolution online, said that he has been showing stuff to his dad. And his dad has read it and said that he really likes it because it is telling the truth, and he encouraged his son to "go for it" with this stuff. This whole part of the discussion left me with a deeper appreciation of how these youth see boldly taking out the truth about the world as a key part of fighting to change it.
Finally, all three of them made a point a number of times about how much they valued being able to sit down and have the kind of discussions we were having. And they contrasted it with the world they had to go back into as soon as they left where we were sitting—and how much they hated going back to that other world. I told them that I felt the same way about our discussions and I thought that this was just a small taste of the kind of world a revolution could bring into being.
The kind of society this revolution aims to bring into being has great appeal to them. They all hate the ways races are separated off and all the stupid stereotypes different people have of each other which they are coming to understand are the product of how this system plays people. They see people as human beings first and value knowing people of different races. They also would very much like to see the walls broken down between men and women so they too would basically relate to each other as people, not as sex objects. But this is a tough one in their world. One of them told how he has a number of girls that are his friends, but he can not keep those friendships and have a girlfriend because there was no way the girlfriend would ever believe that he was not sexually involved with the other girls. And this weighed heavily on him.
In here somewhere I told them about how in the 1960s one of the radical new shoots was the tendency for groups of young men and women to become friends and hang out together so people of different genders really got to know each other as people. This totally blew their minds and led to one of them talking about the problem today of when you do develop a relationship with a girl, you really don't know her at first. Getting together is mainly based on physical attraction. So you can be deep into a relationship before you discover that you and your partner think entirely differently on very important questions. This got us into a whole discussion of morality and how important it is for building relationships that can be relied on. We read the quote from BAsics about how principles only mean something when you are up against real challenges. This really resonated with them.
So there is certainly a mood among the three of them that the world is really fucked up and something needs to be done, and in some way they want to and need to be part of this. At the end of our last discussion, I asked them to think about whether they would like to meet some of these revolutionaries because if they did I might be able to help make that happen. They all said that they would definitely think about it—but they also indicated that they would probably say yes.
Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that “the meatgrinder works”!
Bob Avakian, BAsics 1:11
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