I came across this story about the good people trying to reach out to black youth in Oakland as a means to break the school to prison pipeline that so many of the latter will find themselves both sucked into, and yes, also choosing to be a part of.
The following part of The San Francisco Chronicle's profile about the efforts of the Oakland school district's African-American Achievement Office to mentor black young boys and teenagers jumped out at me:
Staring at the page in front of him, 16-year-old sophomore Marcell Stargetti began to read aloud. The text was from "The Making of a Slave," a speech by early 19th century slave owner Willie Lynch.
The 301-year-old words rattled around the suddenly quiet classroom, bouncing off the walls featuring images of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, and motivational posters promoting "hope," "positive people" and "peace."
"I have a foolproof method for controlling your black slaves," Lynch had written. "I guarantee every one of you that, if installed correctly, it will control the slaves for at least 300 years."
His scheme: pit slaves against each other - the light-skinned slaves against dark-skinned slaves; female versus male; old versus young.
Robinson held up his hand.
"What does Lynch mean?" he asked.
In his hand was a beanbag, one of several he had in the shape of a basketball, football and baseball. Whoever held the beanbag in his class had the floor.
During discussions like this, the beanbag would fly across the room from one student to another, as each offered comments or observations on topics from race-themed movies to a classmate's presentation about careers or college applications.
If more than one hand was raised to receive the beanbag, it was never ignored. "I got you," Robinson said each time.
The small gesture let students know that what they wanted to say mattered, and would be heard. Marcell raised his hand.
"It's black on black," he said, bridging the 19th century to the violence he sees in his own life.
"They're doing it against each other," Marcell said. "When we see that we put up our guards, don't trust nobody, everybody for themselves."
"It's tough to trust people - how many feel that way?" Robinson asked the class.The Willie Lynch Letter is a lie crafted during the 1960s in order to do the political work thought necessary by its author(s) to increase a sense of "black consciousness" and responsibility on the part of its readers. The Willie Lynch Letter is political theater and agitprop fiction. However, I have not encountered an equivalent example of propaganda which does an equivalent amount of positive political work among the black barbershop, hair salon, organic intellectual crowd.
Every hand went up.
Or course, there are many examples of true and useful lies that can help people to live better lives. Religion, what is a type of mythology, being an obvious example.
But, as I try to make sense of the power of the Willie Lynch Letter, I am led to several questions.
Is the Willie Lynch Letter just one example of the many lies that folks use to try to better themselves. Ultimately, who cares as long as there is some positive externality that results from such a decision?
In the black community, there is a centuries-long and still ongoing conversation about the politics of "black respectability" and what constitutes "black manhood". Do other groups engage in such a dialogue? And if so, is it parsed in such transparent and direct language?