Letter to a Young English Teacher

“In your light I learn how to love.

In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest, 

where no one sees you, 

but sometimes I do, 

and that sight becomes this art.”


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Dear Young English Teacher,

I have recently wondered about the stage on which you dance at times. When I suddenly have an urge to write, I can feel your listening presence, or your warm, enrapturing fold-your-arms eyes breathing encouragement behind my back.

Other times, when my page clings to silence and I know that words are far from me, I lean closer to your gentle lessons. Do you ever feel me?

Your lessons dance in my chest like felt pen strokes gliding across a gentle page, fluttering between my ears like secret whispers that transit the depths of Odysseus lost at sea or the peeks of Mother Sula bathed in the calm waters of literary fantasies. How magical will your words be tomorrow, particularly when they give life and meaning to the young long enough for the young to recognize the power within them?

Did I think I would ever hear from you again? I had doubts, but I also believed that I would, particularly because you always made sense of the world for me—and have helped to make me the man that I have become (a better man than I would have been without you).

Did you know that this meaning, this sense that you will make for your students, will become their yearning, their treasure? They will thank you for your charmed notes and pressing queries. You don’t know it yet, but for each student you touch, you will open a new world of possibility for us all. For we are linked, in some indisputable way powerfully interconnected.

Your students’ lives will be busy and weird and messy and lonely and sometimes difficult. However, you will charge their expectations for tomorrow with the power of transformative vision. With it, they will no longer simply read the word; they will read the world with fascinating curiosity and through critical lenses that you will help them shape. They’ll do so earnestly and delightfully and painfully all at the same time. And in reading the world, they will dare to transform it for the better.

As they reflect on this world—the world as text—with gumbo feelings that merge within them the shrill stories of tragedy and the more hopeful chapters of triumph, each page of their new world will stew together a hunger for remembrance, a taste of doubt blended with cravings for lasting images of progress.

Through literacy, you teach them that they can change the world. But will they ever know what becomes of the illiterate? Or will they persist in a state of forgetting, resident to the bondage of remembrances loss or impaired or, even worse, imposed? Because of you, they will treasure memories—“because this is what the literate do,” you will teach them.

The memories will be fond, as if everything in the world could be a utopian dream fastened to the mindscape of our various existences. All of the alternatives of the universe live here, inhabiting the forges of possibility long enough to kindle hope. They are beautiful and awful all the same—beautiful in that your students will know new suns arising, but awful in the same way that they will constantly see these same suns setting but ingloriously at a distance. This is literacy’s torture, which is the chronic ache of longing to rescue a read world from the nightmares of oppression, to hold onto those liberating passages that echo like dreams passing through the chambers of praxis.

I know now, for truth, that I fell in love with words and the world because of a teacher who resembled you. The evidence of my heart bears its lament as artifact of this love. I am not sure what tomorrow holds, but I know today that I am in love with words and the worlds that they have revealed.

For this love, I am grateful for you, young English teacher, for the purchased time with which you shall gift many others. This gift remains a lesson itself—a text to be read and reread with fervent intensity and for all time. The story it tells will remind countless young souls that they are worthy of love and, more, that they are capable of sharing the same. And share they will but through words customized to fit their heart’s good intentions, finally liberated to bring forth the tender song of their hands.

When I started my blog two days ago, I wish you could have seen the deep curve in the crescent of my smile. How lucky will your students be to learn that they can write themselves into existence? To learn about Alice Walker and her silhouetted stories of Black female aesthetics and identity? To hear the poetical voice of Arundhati Roy and her cherished narratives of small things that are delicately handled by God. O, what a privileged place you hold!

You will do more than teach stories, though. You will teach hope through stories—and the basics of beauty encased in all things—a rotten apple or jewel-crested crown, stone benches connected by bands of strangers or the deep humanity of girls and boys stumbling in dark places to make light of life.

Your students will wonder how the world looks through your eyes, the eyes of an artist. They will ask difficult questions deep inside themselves: Is your world the same as theirs? Or is it more involved, more colorful, more tempestuous? Do the colors carry an intensity that only God understands? How gifted, then, are you, young English teacher? I know that this refrain is on repeat, but how glad will your students be to have met you!

Whenever I think of you, I am reminded of the final line in Fanon’s classic book Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make me always a man who questions!” Sitting with my thoughts of you, I realize now how vital you are. You will raise important questions about the world, about power, about philosophy, about politics, about history, about supremacy, and about love. Because of your unique place in our world—a stage for dreams and the development of difference—you will dance to rhythms of genius curried and cultivated out of curiosity and the power of knowing. You will make a difference. And simply knowing that you exist, you’ve already made a difference to this one.

All of your lessons will have everything to do with how we as humans understand the world, how we might bear witness to the spectacle of a universe unshackled. This is your art, understood only through the artist’s eyes. It is the brilliant painting of development, which emancipates the bound soul through tiny—but profound—brushstrokes of revelation. Do you feel me?

Each writer has her gift. But more importantly, she has a teacher who helps her understand the magnificence and power of words. From you, she shall learn what she produces in knowledge is something that the world needs to hear in order to fully understand itself? Your students too will need this lesson in order to understand themselves and articulate a space of their own within its crowded limits.

But to me, your lessons will not only forge the smithies of our radical, rewrite-yourself-into-existence epistemologies. They will also be fundamentally rewriting Fanon’s call in Black Skin, White Masks, transforming existence into one continuous body to behold, embracing its liberation as well as its oppressions, its interpellations as well as its possibilities in requiems of a life that only a muted future knows.

The greater lesson that you will teach your students through your readings and waitings, yearnings and listenings is that redemption toward want, desire, even love is not found in the loose nostrums of economic enterprise or the day-to-day gallantry of excess. Not in conquest or purchasing, but in a deep and divine respect for patience. Here, you and your students will be revealed as both fragile and enduring, profoundly carved out of your circumstances, bound to those regimes of thought and delusions of fantasy that imprison us all.

Although we exist in the restrictive scenes of our experiences, we live more freely in the possibilities of imagination. It is here within the fertile planes of the mind that you and your students will race both as Atalanta and Hippomenes through the sheltered valleys of Arcadia, purging and picking golden apples as you sprint freely in this endless marathon of dreams. It is here that your stubborn wills will merge, offering—beyond the strains of such colossal escapades as flaw and perfection—humble strategies of hope, spinning the threads that will make escape from the bondage of reality more possible.

In the end, you will learn that prerequisite to all literacies, to all life, is a courage to play, a hunger to learn, and the fulsome amusement of curiosity.

Thank you for all that you will do. I know that you will do great!

Sincerely yours,


David E. Kirkland


* * *


He Rose from the Ghetto

 By David E. Kirkland

Back Camera

* * *

“Git over here punk. We gon’ whoop yo’ ass, talkin’ all that shit in class.  Now what’s up?”

“Hey man, catch that nigga.  He gittin’ away.”

 “ Git him man!”

“Where did he go?”

Those were the last words I heard those boys saying. The last I saw of them were the cloud of fists, raining upon my head. The storm of violence had become too routine in my neighborhood. Every day a “posse” or gang of boys at my school would choose someone to assault. That day, I was their choice. But I was running, and the three large boys didn’t catch me.

This was the single code of living on Detroit’s East Side — that is, do whatever it takes to survive. I didn’t understand why those dudes were chasing me. I heard one of them say that day that they were going to “get me” for “showing off” in class. All I had done was answer a few questions our teacher asked. For that, they teased me, calling me a “teacher-pleasing nerd.” Here I was again running. It became all too common. Whenever I was afraid, I ran. Whenever I was in any trouble, I ran. Now again, I found myself running.

Running was my way of coping with the brutal situation of a depleted city. I hadn’t witness the fall of Detroit. It probably took place years before my birth; yet I live daily in dust of its decay. I attended its funeral. I was a bearer for its tomb.

By the mid to late 1980s, Detroit was anything but a Mecca for the economic upliftment of Black people. By this time, the City had been transformed into a dark urban dungeon that fettered people to an existence comparable to slavery. All of the days that I lived in Detroit, I felt enslaved. The event of being jumped and beaten for no reason was an example of my thralldom. Running was my attempt to find freedom.

That day, I ran home to my mother. She is a beautiful woman with blazing brown eyes. Her complexion is as sparkling bronze, and her features wear what the Bible terms strength and dignity. Standing no higher than four feet nine inches, to me she is a giant. Looking into her consuming eyes is like looking into a mirror. Many times I had been told how much I resembled my mother. She alone cared for my sister and me, but she had our company in her suffering.

The City did not deal well with single mothers, especially those like my mother — untamed and somewhat possessed by wild spirits. For this freedom, she didn’t work a job. Instead, she was demoted to social patient status, victimized by the cruel asylum of the welfare program that the state afforded many of these “unfortunate” cases. Every year that my mother participated in that unforgiving program, her conscience shivered like a junkie’s and her soul bled red like burning embers of coal. She became somewhat of a dependent child herself on this program, and then on others.

When I returned to her home, I found my mother standing by the time-beaten screen door that hung before the front wall of her house. She was standing there, shouting those words, screaming them, as she argued with one of her friends.

“Motherfucka, get the hell out of my house. If you ain’t got no money, it ain’t shit you can get here. I’m tryin to raise two kids and don’t need some lazy, no good muthafucka sucking the life out of me.”

“Leana, why you trippin. I don’t need to take this shit from you, you silly bitch!”

And then he slapped her across her beautiful face. It seemed as though he had slapped away some of her beautiful features. Portions of the gold and bronze dulled in their splendor. Standing there, I was angry but afraid. I ran into her house to my room. I could not understand why she had let him slap her. I could not resolve why my seven-year-old manchild-self could not protect my mother.

I could not resolve why when he slapped her, I felt the blunt force behind the thrust of his blast.

I could not resolve why the sound of the slap was magnified as though the echoes of the three large boys beating me in my head had reached my mother.

I could not resolve why all of this was happening, why it seemed to happen so often—so abundantly.

As I sat in my room alone, I began to cry. As I cried, I wished that someday there would come an end to the strife that chased me as ran. Thus, I created a world of my own in room. It was a place that only I understood. It separated me for the rest of the world. More importantly, it separated me from the violence of the outside world, if only temporarily.

IMG_0666I had a bed in my room that seemed to get more comfortable as each night passed. It was given to my mother by her sister who recently bought her son’s new beds. My mom gave one of the beds to me, arguing what I had suspected about the floor—that it was no bed. I took the bed that my mother gave me and transformed it into a vehicle that allowed me to travel in my sleep. Here, I dreamed of peace and happiness. I explored moments of solace—times when children would compliment me for being intelligent instead of beating me. I bore witness to the freedom of imagination. The still scene of this concept—freedom—which was so vivid to my mind became my destination. Although I ran still, the barb of my knees now pointed in this direction. I knew from my dreams that freedom was far from where I stood. It was hidden in a place where only my imagination could take me. It was in a place buried deeply within my dreams. It was not in Detroit.

As I sat in my room, I heard a loud cry. It was my mother. She was running through the house as if someone was chasing her, and screaming that unfulfilled question, why?  The depth of her tears was as oceans, touching skies, surrendering rain. Each teardrop was like a small image of hope that baptized her troubled soul and cleansed her naked spirit. I watched my mother from the door of my room. I watched her, and a tear passed by my eye. She looked at me. I think that she saw the bruises barren upon my forehead. She began to walk toward me. She came into my room, sat on the side of the bed next to me, and continued to cry. I grabbed her with all the sympathy in my arms and held her there. She lay there crying like a baby in my arms and fell asleep. I held her until she awakened.

While she slept, I discovered the imprint of a man’s hand on her face. It was an awful bruise that now made me ask, why? I was then reminded of what she once told me about living in the City: “You in the ghetto, boy. Don’t nobody care about how you feel. You have to do what it take to survive.”  But I did care about what others felt. More importantly, I cared about how she felt and wondered why anyone had to live in the ghetto.

* * *

* This excerpt is from a chapter in my unpublished autobiography Echoes of a Song.


theBy David E. Kirkland


* * *

Each year on the Monday following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, many in our nation and, undeniably, throughout the globe gather to commemorate the story of struggle for which Dr. King lived and the dream of justice for which he died. We are bombarded, though only for a season, with the permissive parade of spectacle, as to push history past its remembrance of racial injustices and convince our young that we, indeed, live in a world cured from the fatal ills of yesteryear. Yet the colorblind fictions to which we cling can never heal us of the reality that race matters perhaps more today than it did in 1963 when King delivered his monumental “I Have A Dream” Speech.

In this elongated procession toward make-believe, too many of us romanticize King and his legacy, unusually adopting two tragic narratives to sum up his life (as if his life were that simple). The first narrative pedastalizes the slain leader, elevating him to a status akin to Jesus. As holy martyr, this Dr. King is established as some sort of frail deity, whose prophetic vision for hope and togetherness is firmly held together only by the mythologies of postracialism and some ubiquitous, internal hint that scandalously suggests that we have achieved—and solely due to Dr. King’s efforts—social equality, racial harmony, and thus a melting pot reality.

The second narrative invents Dr. King as sort of a Ghandi-inspired Ché Guevara figure, too frequently crystalized as the 1960’s equivalent to Karl Marx in blackface. This Dr. King, is by far, viewed as a radical warrior of class emancipation, evolved beyond what some would see as the trifle of race to confront the more prescient complaint of economic oppression. Indeed, before he was killed, Dr. King had launched his “poor people’s campaign” and had sought to march with labor leaders and workers to fight for fair pay and improved work conditions. However, at the same time, Dr. King was fiercely speaking out against the incursion of war in Vietnam; hence, he was as antiwar as he was antitheft and antiracist. As Dr. King most famously noted: “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The point I’m making is that Dr. King was no more (or less) interested in class than he was with race (or war or a litany of other items for that matter). He was concerned with justice and fought against injustice in whatever form it took. And still, his legacy suggests that, beyond liberating the body, we must fight as vigorously to liberate the mind. The essence of Dr. King’s dream, as I will relate it to my thoughts on the racial realities of today, was about something far more powerful and free than struggle: It was about imagination.

Whether you give a woman or man fish or teach her or him to fish, she or he still only eats fish. But if she liberates her mind, then she might imagine other things to eat; her diet will not be limited to fish, nor will she be a slave to charity or someone else’s teachings. Hence, when we liberate the mind, when we nurse dreams—as Dr. King sought to do—we are free to imagine a full range of possibilities—delightful dishes, other than fish, that are full of color and creativity, full of variance and the greater aptitudes of difference. Dr. King understood that when we liberate the mind and dare to live within our dreams, when we imagine delightful dishes known only by the far stretch of tomorrow’s intellect, it is only then that we are truly free.

Using a theory of Dr. King’s vision of freedom as a lens,  I’d like to make three board points concerning this moment. In making these points, I’ll speak not only of our will to struggle, but also of our struggle to imagine. The issues of Black life (and Black lives), of broken borders and Dreamers, of universal health (i.e., clean drinking water, real food,  clean air, etc.) and comprehensive care, of economic justice and global peace—the issues that we’ve been asked to take up in this generation—in relation to the life and philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are precisely about reclaiming imagination. To reclaim imagination, we must return to dreams and believe in things not real or current but certainly possible.

The first point that I want to make is that Dr. King’s truest legacy as it relates broadly to issues of human justice is the imagined proposition that we can cure the ails of a nation, if not a globe, through our dedication to peace, by redressing the wounds of the past through collective and mutually beneficial action; that we can together recover the ideals of prosperity by paying our debts to equity, if not in blood and sweat, then through mutual sacrifice and comprise. This first point suggests that our quests for human liberties, as they are conceived and carried out in this country, only partially attend to Dr. King’s dream.

For example, programs such as affirmative action were not all that bad (though they certainly are not all that good). In some cases it was the only 40 acres and a mule that descendants of emancipated captives would receive (though 100 or so years late). There programs and policies were to champion the children of Jim Crow whose rebirth certificates were sealed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These programs and policies were the bastard child of Plessy, also playing in the playground of preference to amend the historical (separate but unequal) preferences long enjoyed by this country’s social and racial elite. But more, they were the actions left out of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the ripple that ebbed in the wake of the post-1920’s Suffrage Movement, the alluring cousin of the gay rights crusade that has stubbornly suggested that love should not discriminate.

Thus, human rights (the protections of human liberties), as Dr. King would have it, were and remains “the hope of a secure and livable world” that “lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” More than things, they boast our highest ideals.

My second point is that we are yet to realize “the livable world” to which we were called. Instead we have languished deaf to those sounds of brotherhood that echo defiantly to this day, memorialized in Dr. King’s resounding voice. Over a 150 years ago, however, a great American in whose giant shadow we find shade said, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

As Dr. King would have it, the equity for which we search, the dream for which we fight, can never be seen as an exclusive policy for Black or Brown people or women only. Rather, it is a pledge for all humanity—past, present, and future—of a dreamed-freed nation that promises all people a liberty more possible regardless of individual and collective differences. This promise of liberty, Dr. King argued, was for all—descendent of slave and free alike, all people interested in realizing the transformative potential of “the last best hope” within us.

Today, we desperately cling to this last best hope, understanding that beyond the shadow of Lincoln’s great ideas, there is the darkness of doubt that lingers within us. This doubt has given rise to a history of cynicism, inequity, and the continuance of inequality. This history has flaunted as inevitable the unlikely condition in which we find ourselves: that all women and men do not enjoy the same proportions of freedom or degrees of opportunity or success, or the same life chances that the determined faith of our foremothers once weaned.

Then, count it not coincidence that, a hundred years after President Lincoln emancipated captives in the southern U.S., Dr. King, in echoing Lincoln’s resolve, rose up against injustice with not only soaring words but also disciplined  and ascending effort. His 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, which is perhaps the most ardent defense of human justice, scaled us closer to our most earnest ideals to plant a flag of hope near clouds though in the soil of despair that we might reach a renewed manifest destiny broader and bolder than the scope of our understanding.

In admonishing the nation over its debt to its citizens flanked with oppression, King said:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

And despite his demand for “the riches of freedom and the security of justice,” the kind that governments can legislate but people do reject, in the aftermath of Dr. King’s life, we would learn that: “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” Today, we have gone from the old Jim Crow to the New Jim Crow, as mass incarceration devastates Black and Brown communities. In response, we have traded sit-ins for die-in. Thus, the struggle continues.

For as we reacted to racism and injustice—demanding reparations then, “the riches of freedom and the security of justice”—we found a measure of strength in opening access to doors too often closed to many. Negligently, we found soulful respite in insisting that the best of us could exist simply in the cracks hidden in glass ceilings. But this action, as noble as its intent, has only been reactionary in places that demand proaction. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has been, in some ways, divisive in a cold climate that only warms to tolerance when people’s eyes are closed. Though we find ourselves closer physically, we are, nonetheless, beset farther apart ideologically. We live in a country that too often and conspicuously pits one group against the other. The calculus in this struggle is not imaginative; it’s old and has proven to not work.

How do we close the chasms of ideology and mend the schisms of justice to strengthen our bonds toward one another? Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson said it best:

Men and women of all races are born with the same range of abilities. But ability is not just the product of birth. Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in—by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man.

Dr. King would have us peer into the unseen so that we can imagine new songs together, sing them or perhaps even rap them, but do so while dancing salsa while draped in burqas. With these songs, songs not only of togetherness but of collective imagination and consequence, it was his belief that we might voice a culture that excludes none.

Hence, my final point is that, if we are to realize Dr. King’s dream, we must cling to the imagination that gave birth to that dream, that makes America what Americans are—not just bodies but beliefs, not just identities but collective ideas. Dr. King saw America as different than other nations. He saw it as a place with great promise in spite of our great ills. In his words, we can’t cease to dream because as long as we walk, “we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead” and not turn back until the “whirlwinds of revolt . . . shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Thank you.


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*A similar talk was delivered on January 21st at the 2013 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Michigan State University College of Arts and Letters Panel: Martin Luther King’s Legacy and the Future of Affirmative Action.