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The Souls of Black Teachers: I want my soul back...(part 1)

80-hour work weeks. 3 to 5 hours of sleep every night. One phone call to my loved ones once every few months. 30 minutes of sunlight before commuting underground for 2 to 3 hours a day. Phone constantly bingin’ and buzzin’ from the incoming emails and voicemails. Unfolded clean clothes piled up on my unmade bed. A sink full of dishes; bags of DoorDash orders scattered throughout my apartment. Dozens of tabs open on my computer. One more class of essays hauntingly sits in that Google folder. A few days left until graduation. A few days left to say good-bye to my Seniors. For my chest pains, one more much needed doctor visit remains unscheduled, pending… depending on... And for what? No, really…for what? A few blue checks, some Nike checks, monthly paper checks, just to check boxes and become checked out? Honestly, can we just check-in for a moment? Considering the current state of my apartment and my life, I have been all over the place, literally and metaphysically, for the past two decades… maybe for the past two centuries.

So What: why are you telling us this?

Quite frankly, I want my soul back. Not just my physical body, but my soul–my life force… back… altogether.

Whoa, this got deep. Aren’t you just a teacher? Shouldn’t you be lesson-planning or grading those essays instead of telling folks about some fantastical search for your soul? Nobody wants to hear that crap. Readers want practical teaching resources, or at least some person of color to tell them that they are not that racist. Besides, you can’t bring spirituality into the classroom; that’s not your discipline or your job. Well, have some faith in me; I am definitely not talking about faith or religion in the conventional sense.

Consequently, you may be wondering: why is a Texas-raised, college-educated, gainfully employed, semi-emotionally intelligent, Wifi-having, Kombucha-drinking, gluten-free, dairy-free, absent-father-having, avoidant-attachment style-presenting, iPhone screen cracking Black male educator living in the “woke” San Francisco Bay Area still talking about “souls” in 2023? Admittedly, I am no Martin Luther King Jr. or W.E.B. DuBois. I am arguably the definition of “privileged.” So, who cares about my words let alone my soul, anyway?

REQUEST: if you keep reading...

Just for this piece, can you just try to imagine yourself with a soul and then call forth your soul? I mean really close your eyes and imagine your soul as energy within you. Easier said than done, I know. Or at least, say the word “SOUL” out loud, quietly to yourself and let your mind run wild with images and innocence.

Exactly. I write this piece because I know you, whoever you are, have a soul, PERIODT.

Now follow me down this path of inquiry.

Just (my) Black thoughts: What’s the price of a soul? What’s the value of a soul? Can a soul be publicly or privately traded or exchanged? What are the phase changes or energy transfers for a soul? What forces can extinguish a life force? Wait, why is it so problematic to apply basic business logic and chemistry concepts to make empirical sense of the “soul” ? In school, that's how I was taught to think (not intuit).

How are these questions asked, answered, and or acknowledged when colored in the hues of stigmatized Black, hyphenated-American white, and capitalistic green? I love Tupac because I resonate with his “Me against the World” sentiment. Now in the context of spiritual realms and higher consciousness(es), I think I am beginning to understand the “world” he is up against–that being the man-made world of the West. You can’t tell me that spirituality is not an underlying life theme in our personal and professional lives when we all have heard talk of “soul-crushing," "soul-sucking” work or when we all have wondered whether we were "selling your soul" or just "soul-searching” in general. Especially when we think of discovering and living out our life’s purpose, you telling me that you do not think about your “mortality” and your “soul”? Whether valiant, valid or vapious, the work any of us do has physical and spiritual motives and consequences.

Put it like this: science, with all of its stethoscopes, ultrasound scans, and EKG readings, can only get so close to describing the piece of divinity and universal wisdom stored in this material body. As an icon to the Black community and an iconoclast to white supremacy, James Brown knew something about this immortal immateriality when he let everyone know "I got soul and I'm super bad!" Creativity and compassion come from somewhere... from the depths of our soul or this indescribable source deep within a person. Trust, I'm an English teacher, so I have the experience and this intuition (inner knowing) about student work that comes from the soul versus the internet or out their ass! As a Black creator who went from the Southside of Dallas to the beginning of East Oakland, I hate a lot of tech--from the tech in Silicon Valley to the techs found in many low-income neighborhoods. Oh the irony: Black creators, from mamas to artists, will have the soul of their creations stolen once again. And I used to look up to A.I. Guess I'll never get the crossover.

Point blank: when someone, say a teacher, spends years of their life looking at the souls of young folks be splintered, stripped, or suppressed, and when that same someone has brutally honest young people and unwavering systems discerning, dismissing and or discounting his soul for years, all parties involved can’t help but to think about their own existence, their own soul, and their own life purpose. Our schools, our colleagues, our kids, and our country can sometimes forget that we, teachers, are real people with souls, not just grading machines or virtual assistants! Some of our students talk to us like we are Siri or Alexa, as if we are there to wait on their every beck and call. "Mr. White, grade my work (that's months late) right now!""Mr. White, change my grade!"

If lucky or humble enough, the humans (teachers and students) will consider and recognize each other’s soul or life force as something meaningful, individual, and relational, not distant, derelict, or disposable.

And to my main points...

Things are getting too expensive. I mean that, in terms of time, money, (human and natural) resources, and energy. I work too hard to just have my soul separated, sucked, and shrunk so easily. Well, I wonder for whom or what I am working? Towards what goals? Towards whose goals? Yeah, I once had dreams of becoming a millionaire in my mid 30s by side-hustling my way to financial freedom. Yeah, I once had dreams of owning a house on the West Coast. Yeah, I entered teaching with the belief that I could change entire systems and communities with just a few Stanford degrees, a few stories, and a smile.

Of course, there are systems at work that feed on souls; however, I want to take self-accountability and consider how much of this pain has been self-inflicted. I just keep running to arrive where? And chasing to avoid what? For cool points with Gen Z, I can say that I am "running up a bag," "bag-chasing," and avoiding mirrors... all for what? The American Dream? The clout? Western notions of success?

Essentially, what is essential, meaning my true essence, when in a socially-constructed world of excess, extremes, exclusion, and non-essentials?

I repeat: things are getting more and more expensive in this man-made Western world, thus cheapening my labor, my life, my soul. You can replace labor with a few clicks, a few calls, or a few robots, but you can’t so readily replace or build a soul from scratch… I say this to inform any and all Black teachers and students: do not let white supremacy's busy work become your business and so the barrier to the necessary interior or soul work you may need to do in order to both ground yourself in (white) man's world and elevate your consciousness in the universe. Black teachers and students, we, are more than Latin numerals and symbols on a screen, on a transcript, and on a piece of paper that purports or portends "social security."

How did we get here?

Teacher, teacher! What happened to you? What got into you?!

All I can say is, I watched a Black man's soul fly, and he didn't die...

Inspirations & Soundtrack:

Model: T.D.


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