“What do we have? I mean, really. What do Black folks have? We’re getting priced out, kicked out, and otherwise relegated to third- or fourth-class status. Remember when we used to make things that lasted more than just a summer? Remember when we used to have whole neighborhoods that were just poppin’? Outside of my house, I have no idea where to bring my kids so that they can experience the same Black life that we did.”
The brotha was angry. The conversation began with us talking about how best to pass culture down to our youth. We then entered into different territory when we started to talk about how Black folks have fallen behind in some aspects of the digital divide.
While there are some of us making cyber-moves, as a cultural whole, we’re lagging behind quite a few other demographics. I told my homeboy I’d met an 11-year-old who’d already been to eight hackathons, was well versed in Ruby on Rails, and was attending a summer camp to learn how to create apps.
“He was White, huh?” my dude asked. When I nodded, he went nuts. “Where are we in that space?”
A week after this conversation, I had an almost identical conversation with toy designer and filmmaker Roy Miles (a.k.a. The Ghetto Geppetto). He lamented the fact that most local (meaning Bay Area of California) nonprofits that work with youth of color are too focused on hip-hop, poetry, and “other things we can do without formal education. We did hip-hop before them. We did jazz before them. Why don’t these organizations teach our kids how to make stuff? Teach them how to create and sustain businesses?” he wondered.
What many of us seem to have forgotten is that we are a maker culture. I won’t bore by listing all of the things Black folks have invented in the States and abroad, but we’ve been DIY before it became a thing tech-hipsters stole from punks. Look at what Big Momma did with what she had. How many folks in the ’hood do you know who can fix cars, work on your plumping, or create an entire grey market economy?
Everyone knows a sister who makes incense, jewelry, or soaps. Making things, lasting things, has been a part of Black culture since the dawn of the diaspora. And this is one of the primary lessons I want to give to my daughter: we can make our culture; we don’t have to buy it from folks who don’t have our best interests in mind.
We have to instill the joy of creation into the lives of our children. Instead of spending $15 dollars each at the museum to look at our culture through glass and the eyes of guides, we should encourage our children to look at the quilts that cover grandma’s couch. Encourage them to ask her questions—better yet—encourage them to sit next to her and learn her craft.
Our elders have a wealth of maker knowledge to bestow, and we can give these lessons to our kids. We have the power to produce culture that is meaningful, appropriate, and best of all, our children make environments that are healthy for them.
I work with “troubled” youth of color, and what most people are concerned with is getting our kids into programs that basically make them feel like superstars for the length of the program. But when the program ends, what happens? For most of the youth, all that poetry and hip-hop evaporates. Sometimes the lessons stick and youth are inspired enough to continue on a path to success. More often than not, the youth are dropped from the height of success right back into the circumstances that caused them to need a program in the first place. There needs to be a fundamental shift in what we expect from our young onese.
We have to teach our kids (all of them, not just the ones who need extra help) to not always want to be in the spotlight, but to build the light and figure out how the electricity powers it. There are very few feelings greater than that of making something that others value.
A basketball or a rap star is only as useful as the money they are making. An engineer? They’re useful without qualification. Last Halloween, we had an incredibly difficult time finding an appropriate costume. My daughter, sensing my exasperation, summed up what I’ve been trying to say in the small amount of words I’ve been given: “Don’t worry, Daddy. We can make it.”
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.