I have this picture displayed on my computer:
It’s a photo taken by Baltimore artist Devin Allen. When I first saw it, I thought it was a powerful depiction of our youth and their involvement in this revolution. I loved it so much that I saved the picture and set it as my desktop background.
Last week, as I was preparing to teach class, a student pointed out the photo on my computer and asked, “Are those the rioters?”
A straightforward question, seemingly harmless, made me cringe. Why did she ask if these children, probably no older than twelve, were rioters? Given the context in which the word has been used in reference to Baltimore, it clearly has a negative connotation. What would make her perceive children holding signs as something negative?
Then I realized that she read or heard one of the many narratives about Baltimore.
Narrative texts are the most effective to aid in comprehension.
Teachers and students love narrative text. If you think back on what you liked most about your high school English class, what comes to mind? I bet you remember a book that you really enjoyed reading and discussing in class. Or maybe you enjoyed those free-write journal entries. Or maybe you loved watching a clip or movie, and getting to talk about it with your classmates.
The point is: teachers love using narratives in the classroom because it’s what our students flourish on. A good narrative allows the reader to use their background knowledge to draw connections within the text and make inferences. It may activate the reader’s prior knowledge, allowing them to make predictions or draw conclusions. A great narrative does all these things and contains vivid, interesting details that engage the reader. If a text can do all of that, then a student’s comprehension has already begun to improve because they’ve accessed their higher-level thinking skills in order to understand what they’ve just read. It makes teaching much easier!
The greatest narrative of them all is actually the most ineffective.
Narratives aren’t always written to entertain or share personal experiences. Some narratives are written to inform. Some are written to change the reader’s attitude and/or opinion. There’s one narrative that does both of these things consistently and effectively. Propaganda.
Propaganda is the greatest narrative of them all because it has the ability to not only engage and inform readers but also persuade them. The reader is compelled to form an opinion based on the information given in the text. That opinion is contingent upon how the reader comprehends the text. The main skill a person uses when trying to comprehend propaganda is making inferences. This is where the disconnect is among readers.
Propaganda is one narrative teachers don’t use in class because it is purposefully ambiguous. Therefore, various students can make multiple inferences, and more often than not, those inferences will not be correct. This is because each person has specific background knowledge which may be limited and/or unrelated to the content of propaganda text. So while a student may use higher-level thinking skills to decipher the text’s meaning, their comprehension doesn’t really improve because the language is too equivocal and can have multiple meanings. This makes teaching much harder!
Who is propaganda for?
While teachers may not be using propaganda in the classroom, there are definitely some fake educators out here trying to “teach” the masses by disseminating propaganda text, video, art, etc. Their agenda is to further marginalize and invalidate the humanity of those they feel are less. But who are they giving these lessons to?
Let’s say racists and racist systems were smarmy propaganda salesmen. Whose door would they knock on to drop off the latest brochure of lies? Not the Black revolutionary. No. She or he is already awake and at the door with one hand in the air saying, “Not today, Satan.” What about the white ally? They’ve put a sign on the door reading, “Not interested. Please see revolutionary neighbor for appropriate response. Have a nice day.”
The salesmen wouldn’t go to other racists’ homes because…hell, they’re the people handing out the brochures! No, these people don’t have time to educate folk who won’t listen. Their target consumers are unwoke negros, the I’m-not-racist-but/let’s-all-be-peaceful/colorblind/not-all-whites white people, and children. That’s because these people have the most impressionable minds and usually lack the background knowledge to appropriately analyze propaganda.
What you won’t do…
So, why the lesson on narratives and propaganda? It’s important to understand how powerful these stories are in shaping our thinking. Also, I wanted to make sure you had the appropriate background knowledge and could be assured that there’s no ambiguity when I say: We, in Baltimore, don’t have time for the bullshit.
You see, we’ve been doing nothing but exposing propaganda and revealing truth ever since this revolution made its way to our city. Some of us have been doing so even before Baltimore became a national headline. And some of us do it for a living. That’s why every baseless claim, sound bite, or article about the Black residents in this city has been met with a counter-attack of truth and a side helping of “sit your ass down.” Because what you won’t do is tell our narrative for us in order to perpetuate stereotypes and strengthen racist agendas.
There’s a few tall tales that we have to continuously cut down here in Baltimore.
Planned by children or incited by police & media?
By the end of the night on April 27th, news media had people successfully convinced the riots that broke out that day and evening were orchestrated by unruly teenagers. They advertised the event as “the purge” and spread fliers through social media to alert all those who wanted to participate. When three o’clock rolled around, these teens were flanked in the streets, ready to battle the police, and BAM! Riot.
First of all, Baltimore city youth are constantly labeled and often criticized for being below grade-level readers, and having limited academic and socio-behavioral skills. Yet, these same students are responsible for a large-scale insurrection that usurped the whole police department. I mean, are they intelligent or not? Let me know. Furthermore, even if a youth actually created the “purge” flier (I doubt it), it was the media who spread it to the masses, causing more students to be anxious and fearful when they left school. Incidentally, we found out our kids were trapped and greeted with police in full riot gear and guns. Now, tell me what happens when you back a scared and agitated lion into a corner.
A “city-wide” curfew not enforced city-wide.
Uncle Tom Lemon and his CNN goons were in downtown and West Baltimore every night when the clock struck 10. They were there to document the people violating the curfew, desperately searching for any form of entertainment at the expense of Black protesters. People were arrested, pepper-sprayed, and even kidnapped; CNN made sure their cameras captured everything.
(Side note: I especially loved seeing CNN correspondent Miguel Marquez exercise his privilege and lament to one of the officers the ridiculousness of having to move from one curb to the next…as people walked behind him in handcuffs. “Freedom of press!” he cried. I side-eyed my TV accordingly.)
Occasionally, a commentator would join Uncle, explaining that these people were breaking the “law of the land” and there was no other choice than to arrest them. “You can’t break the law and not expect to be arrested,” they said. I can only imagine the mindless folks across the nation sitting in their living rooms, nodding in agreement.
Meanwhile, in Hampden, a predominantly white neighborhood in Baltimore, this conversation was happening:
Police: We have a curfew! Go inside your homes!
White residents: No! Fuck the curfew!
I’m exaggerating, sure. There was no bigger exaggeration, though, than BCPD claiming that the curfew was being enforced equally and fairly. The people in Hampden had a nice conversation with officers begging them to go home, while people in West Baltimore were being dragged across the street.
Ever wonder what happened to Larry Lomax, the young man being man-handled by happy-go-lucky police officers in the above picture? He was charged with second-degree assault, disorderly conduct, and inciting a riot because he “walked swiftly” towards police with his fists clenched.
Yeah. That’s the law of the land.
A string of violence and a string of narratives.
Perhaps the most damaging propaganda about my city is the constant reporting of murders and violence occurring, with a high frequency in West Baltimore neighborhoods. The Baltimore Sun and other local media outlets make it a point to highlight the death tally with each new incident, citing May as being “the deadliest month since 1999.” The cherry on top is always this reminder: these killings are happening in the aftermath of riots and protests against Baltimore police misconduct and the killing of Freddie Gray.
The person reading these reports, the one who isn’t from Baltimore or doesn’t know what it’s like to live in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood…the person who lacks the background knowledge to fully understand what’s happening will think this: “Well, the police can’t do their jobs now. These people are always killing each other. Now, without the police, they’re just getting worse. That’s what they deserve.”
This kind of thinking feeds into the narrative that relegates Black people to savage animals; Black people are less than human and behave as such. This is why these reports are especially insidious. While we’re shouting Black Lives Matter, the person reading these articles thinks, “No, they don’t…because Black lives don’t matter to Black people.” Herein lies the destructive nature of this propaganda.
Yes, violence has increased in Baltimore in the last month. But what if I told you that there is an organization, set up by the health department years ago, that is responsible for minimizing the violence in these neighborhoods? What if I said this organization has posts in some of Baltimore’s high crime neighborhoods, and none of these areas saw violence in the month of May? What if I said this organization is run by Black people, who are on the streets daily, establishing connections within the community in order to prevent crime?
This organization is called Safe Streets. You might ask yourself, “What are they doing so differently?” Though warranted, that question isn’t quite important. What you should be asking is why the mayor hasn’t lobbied for this program to be expanded across the city. You should be asking why BCPD hasn’t recruited Safe Streets team members to help them quell the violence in other neighborhoods.
Speaking of the police, I find it hard to believe that a precinct which had a constant presence in these neighborhoods is now mysteriously absent and clueless as to who is committing these crimes. A little over a month ago, officers in this district arrested a boy simply because of assumptions they made based on their past interactions with him. Now, their abilities to investigate criminal activity are sorely lacking. Why? How?
The Fraternal Order of Police released a statement propaganda that claimed that officers were “afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly.” Baltimore police commissioner, Anthony Batts, echoed that sentiment, saying in an NPR interview that cops are worried about being arrested for making a mistake on the job.
This is enraging on so many levels; I can’t even explain the anger that boils up inside me when I read this. First of all, these statements are plainly stupid. Because if an officer, or any person with any kind of job, is doing that job “properly”, there is no need to worry about being reprimanded, let alone arrested. Furthermore, if BCPD is more concerned with job security than serving and protecting our communities, their campaigns to re-establish relationships with these neighborhoods are just that…campaigns.
Stories to tell so that the nation pats them on the back and says, “Good job. You’re trying.” Lastly, and this is where my anger rises, saying that the police are afraid to do their job properly and not make mistakes implies that Freddie Gray’s arrest was done properly and his death was simply a mistake.
If a person’s mistakes cost another’s life, then he doesn’t need to be a police officer.
We have to make sure our children know the correct narratives.
Fortunately for me, my position gives me the platform to correct these narratives every day. As a teacher, it’s my job to impart knowledge and wisdom to my students. When it comes to propaganda, I’m not too concerned with educating willfully ignorant Black and white adults. I’m dedicated to making sure our children know the truth about our people. One of the reasons we find ourselves in this “post-racial” America is because narratives about the marginalized were told to us at a young age by the majority. As a result, we grew up surviving on lies like a brain dead patient depends on a respirator. Alive but unconscious. And it’s taking a long time to awaken a people in an induced coma.
So, I focus my attention on my students. People who haven’t succumbed to this country’s sleeping agent. I tell them the truth. Because that’s what they deserve and our future depends on them being awake and alert. When my student asked, “Are those the rioters?” I knew in that moment that she was given a false narrative. It’s my duty to present her with the right one. “No,” I said firmly, “those aren’t rioters. Those are children, just like you. They don’t have the same opportunities as you, though, so they decided to join their parents and make sure their voices were heard. And maybe someday they will have the same opportunities as you do.” What followed was a conversation more important than the lesson I taught that day.
We all need to be using our platforms to have these conversations, especially with our children, because the majority already has its stage and has begun to spin a tale. They are experts at it; they’ve been doing it for centuries. We are obligated to cut their mic off, kick them off the stage, and shine a spotlight on our truths.
Our narratives belong to us. They are for us. They should told by us.