[Influencing this post – tonight’s CNN documentary – Black in America]

I watched Black In America for a lot of reasons tonight. First, much of the documentary was shot at SLA, focusing on the incredible work of the poets of PYPM and one of PYPM teacher / mentors, Vision. Whenever you get to see people you like and care about on television, doing amazing things, you watch. But the show was thoughtful and powerful and explored issues of racial identity and how that racial identity is defined. One of the stories they followed was the evolving sense of self of a young bi-racial woman, raised by her white father.

I’ve seen a lot of bi-racial students struggle with identity over the years, and much of it has been about the word “or.” “Am I black or am I white?” And, in so many ways, that’s an impossible question that forces kids to somehow deny some piece of their identity. It strikes me that American racial dynamics — largely defined by a dominant white culture — has been so oppositional for so long that we want these kids to choose a single identity, rather than embracing the complexity of what makes them who they are. It should not be as hard for a kid to say, “I am black and I am white” or “I am Afro-Latino” as our society makes it.

I watch the kids of SLA deal with issues of race and racial identity in ways that both seem familiar to the questions of twenty-five years ago when I was their age and also deeply unfamiliar. I see them engage with the issues of race with an openness and honesty that I would have been unable to do when I was their age. But I see so many of the same challenges and issues still around. And I still see too much pain as kids figure out the complexity of who they are in a world that still wants to put people into too many neat little boxes that rarely represent the complexity of their lives.

Thank you, CNN, for focusing on the amazing poets of PYPM, and thank you for the work you are doing with Black in America. With luck, it made a lot of people think tonight.