Martyrdom: A Black Man’s Burden

The quests for longevity and greatness have eluded another one of our fallen brothers. The untimely death of Nipsey Hussle is a story too familiar to the black community. Dating back to heroes of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, black leaders have had little time to make a great impact. Even more frustrating, is that we seem to have more value, as black men, once we’re dead, than when we are alive.

Before Medgar Evers could see the fruits of his labor as a community activist, mobilizing the black vote in Mississippi during the tumultuous 1960s, he was gunned down in his driveway. Left to die just steps from his wife and children’s embrace. He was only 37-years-old. 51 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, after all, but prophesying his death, just the night before:

In a prophetic finale to his speech, King revealed that he was not afraid to die: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…. And so I’m happy tonight; 

On the cusp of something greater than what he’d been known for, the Poor People’s Campaign was sure to truly unite the masses. Brother Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) was assassinated in a crowded ballroom in Harlem, after forming the Organization of African American Unity. Something revolutionary and inclusive, but at the age of 40, Malcolm was cut down. Not to mention Black Panther leader, the 21-year-old Fred Hampton, Jr. out of Chicago, murdered in cold blood by the Chicago Police department. Hampton had found a way to unify the youth of Chicago’s poorest and roughest areas, through natural leadership and truth. Too powerful. Too soon.

Longevity and greatness, a deadly combination they are. Fast forward a generation later. A 25-year-old Tupac Shakur, son of a Black Panther, was shot on the Las Vegas strip, eventually died from his wounds days later. Arguably the greatest hip hop icon of all-time. Reflecting on his life, I realize that he only had 5 years to inspire the world. With his feverish work ethic, and musical content, it’s as if he knew that an early death was imminent.

The premier of the music video, “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” debuted just 3 days after Tupac’s death. The video and song itself captures the essence of how Pac dies in real life. It’s as if Tupac predicted his own demise. Years later, Pac’s musical catalog was revealed, and that’s when the world truly realized how brilliant this young man was. Imagine if he had more time.

The following year, the 24-year-old Notorious B.I.G. was taken from us. Is it a coincidence that the final song, on his final album, Life After Death is, “You’re Nobody (‘Till Somebody Kills You”)? A victim of a drive-by in Los Angeles, Pac’s rival and with only 2 albums under his belt, became a hip hop god. What if he had more time?

In recent years, camera phones and social media have shed light on the dark reality of police brutality and disregard for the black male form. 18-year-old Michael Brown left face down in the August sun, with 6 bullets in his body for 4 hours. 17-year-old Trayvon Martin stalked down and shot fatally yards from his father’s doorstep. Sister Sandra Bland at 28, found dead in her cell. Though not a man, our sisters have their own plight in this narrative as well. She was manhandled during her arrest and there is no telling what happened in her jail cell. Philando Castile 32, Tamir Rice 12 and Eric Garner 43, all gone within a matter of seconds. Although their circumstances were different, their stories… all the same; another black body laid dead. Obama served 8 years as our First Black President, we were all terrified for him, and rightfully so. Look at what happened to so many of our leaders before him.

Sunday, March 31st, 2019 a new name was added to America’s most infamous fraternity, Ermias Asghedom, more famously known as Nipsey Hussle.  Just hours before his final breath he sent out a chilling tweet, “Having strong enemies is a blessing.” Did he know something? Did he see something? Or was it just plain coincidence? We will never truly know. nipsey2 final tweetA role model, a man making positive change, not just in Los Angeles, but worldwide. In his death, he has become more revered than when he was alive. I had never listened to his music. I had heard his name a handful of times before Sunday. But sadly, I have known his story for the last 50 years. The stories of these fallen men remind me to live everyday to my fullest potential. Not because I fear that I to will parish too soon, but to honor each day that I have on this earth.

Let us, as black men vow to live our days to the fullest and leave our lasting impact on the world. Let us not be jealous of the next man, but lift him up. Any attack on my brother, is an attack on me. And any victory for my brother, is mine as well. Rest in love, freedom, power, peace and victory to all my fallen brothers. We simply do not have time to fight each other. The world has already placed enough obstacles in our path.

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The Only One

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At a time when I was the only black 7th grade teacher at a charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York (2015). 

Every day I stand in front of my diverse classroom intensely aware of my skin color. As the only black man teaching at my school, I am one of the 3.7 percent of New York City teachers that share my identity. This May, during Teacher Appreciation Month, I celebrated the critical impact black male educators have on the life of students who share similar experiences based on our gender, race, and life experiences. Despite the crucial impact we make, there are less black male teachers in NYC today than ten years ago. It is time for NYC, and the rest of America, to double down on recruiting, retaining, and developing excellent black male educators.

Growing up in Miami, I was one of the only black students through most of my schools and classes. Still, my teachers reflected the great diversity of my hometown – I had multiple African American, white, and Hispanic teachers of both genders throughout my K-12 education. It was these teachers that challenged and pushed me to become the learner, and later educator, that I am today.

Now, as the only black male teacher in a New York City public school, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, their uncle, their big brother, their mentor, and their hero. At the end of my first year in this school, a group of my black female students started to affectionately call me “Uncle” Toussaint. It has carried over into this school year. On my birthday, I found a card on my desk, signed by this group of four black girls and the card read, “Happy Birthday Uncle, you’ve done so much for us. You’re an amazing figure to have in our lives.” My connection with my students go beyond the content and test results. I look at them and see myself, 20 years ago. And in turn, I am someone they can see themselves becoming.

A study by the Institute for Labor Economics found that if a low-income black male student has a black teacher in elementary schools they are 39 percent less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college. These effects were even stronger when the teacher is a male or shares the gender as the students they teacher. Conversely, the media reports constantly about the disproportionately, higher rates of suspensions that black boys face in American schools. Not only are black boys susceptible to systematic racism and discrimination, but they are also susceptible to stereotypes that too often become self-fulling prophecies suffocated by dreams deferred.

In an age when our black boys are under constant attack, we must interrupt the status quo for young black male lives and the limited narrative that offer such limited options. As an educator of fifteen years, the solution I’ve seen work best is to recruit and retain black men in the teaching profession. Education is the most powerful vehicle people have to rise from humble circumstances and fight for better opportunities for their families and communities. When we recruit, support and retain black men in the crucial roles of educator, principal, counselor, or coach we provide a powerful opportunity for our young black boys. They are able to share some lessons that only a black man in American can truly pass on to a black boy; like how to survive an encounter with the police; how to code switch, how to fight with your words and not your fist, how to advocate for those like you and how to give back. This is the important difference a black male education can have on his students. It promotes a narrative that at times can seem non-existent, and makes it real, that black men can be intelligent, caring and a vital part of the development of children.

Nationwide, black men make up only 2 percent of the teachers, while half of all students are students of color. James Baldwin said, Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Our children need to see black male educators, who are professional, passionate, intelligent and tangible. It is time to deeply invest in effective initiatives that develop and recruit black male educators that address this issue nationwide.

As a black male educator, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, an uncle, a big brother, a mentor, and their hero. They trust me. They love me. 30 years in the school system and it seems all too familiar. I look around and I am the only one. But this time, I am not the only black boy, I am the only black man.