• berlisha

The Kiese Laymon Book Club: Part Two

because of DeShawn

Dear Class,

It was winter in Louisiana which means that it was heavy jacket weather. It was January of 2005 which means that we had yet to meet Katrina, of the Caribbean Sea, and I had yet to understand what going back to Southern University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to get a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences really meant.

I did understand that I was a paraprofessional for a kindergarten class at an elite Black Southern Baptist Church named Zion. Zion had a daycare and school for wealthy and well-to-do Black people of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Zion supplemented the school’s profits with federal money which means it had to enroll underserved and under resourced children i.e. impoverished and low wealth Black children from the neighborhood to receive federal funding. Black people of privilege who attended Zion and sent their children to daycare and school at Zion did not live in the impoverished and blighted neighborhood where Zion was located. These are Black people that called the Black people that enrolled in Louisiana State University sell outs because Louisiana State University had a barbed wire fence separating its southern border from Black, impoverished, and blighted South Baton Rouge until the 1990s. But these same people saw no problems in the barbed wire fence that currently separated Zion from Black, impoverished, and blighted South Baton Rouge.

In January of 2005, my Decatur roots and my Southern University undergraduate degree in English provided me with everything I needed to know about being a Black person. And how to help Black children be good Black children and grow into good Black people. And my job was not a hard job because I was surrounded by Black children whose parents were good Black people. These good Black people gave extra money for field trips to help cover the cost for the children of the parents who did not send the field trip money. These good Black people took off early from work to help set up for the Christmas Party to help pick up the slack left by the other parents who did not care enough about their children to take off work early to bring extra decorations and cupcakes for the Christmas Party. My job was easy until DeShawn and his mama showed up.

DeShawn was not a good Black child. His mother was not a good Black woman, and to make matters worse, she was not a good light-skinned Black woman. She did not take her below minimum wage job as a daycare worker seriously. She was loud. She was angry. She was weepy. She was too young to be so heavy-set. She wore her long curly hair in a ratty ponytail. She had relationship problems. She had to move. She had to enroll DeShawn at Zion and DeShawn had to join me and my lead teacher’s perfectly calibrated class. It was January; it was the middle of the school year. DeShawn did not sit still. DeShawn was unruly. DeShawn was behind academically. DeShawn disturbed the other children. DeShawn talked back. DeShawn’s mama was a mess. DeShawn and his mama both had the same sandy red skin with freckles and the same sandy brown hair with streaks of blond. They both were a mess. It was heavy jacket weather in Louisiana. I was young. I needed a new job. I did not want to go back to school. DeShawn’s mama showed up at Zion in the middle of the school year needing a new job and somewhere to put her child. DeShawn’s mama showed up in the middle of the year with DeShawn in a light jacket when it was heavy jacket weather. He had a fresh haircut, though, he could barely read. It was winter in Louisiana. It was heavy jacket weather. DeShawn had on a light jacket; DeShawn’s mama didn't have any jacket – light or heavy.

I had aftercare duty that week. It was a long week because I had aftercare duty, and of course DeShawn needed aftercare because his mother was a mess and not like the polished women that left their children with me because they were lawyers and doctors. And they took off from work early to come bring extra decorations and cupcakes for the Christmas Party.

It was Friday; I was tired. There were three children in aftercare. A Black boy that was the child of privilege, a Black girl that was the child of privilege, and DeShawn that was the child of a messy mama. The teachers had donuts that morning. There were only two left. I had three children in front of me. I took two donuts. I split them in half. I gave each child a half. The Black children of privilege whined that they were only getting half of a donut. They did not want half. I threatened to take the half away. They swallowed the half whole and began to argue over who would get the last half. At that moment, I realized that I had not seen DeShawn. I turned around to cross the room. And I saw him, in the corner away from the other children. I saw something in his eyes, so I got closer to see what he was doing because it had to be something bad. I got as close as possible. I saw the half of donut on an uncrumpled, still white napkin. DeShawn held the napkin like it was made of the most delicate porcelain. When I looked closer, I saw tiny pinch marks on the donut. I had just watched two Black children of privilege swallow their halves whole. Now, I watched DeShawn’s tiny, sandy red, plump, and unblemished thumb and forefinger, take tiny pinches from half of an almost stale Krispy Kreme donut, and savor the doughy sweetness from half of an almost stale donut. He looked up at me. And I saw his eyes well with shame, pain, gladness, joy, content, and satisfaction. We were at Zion; we were in a first-grade classroom. There were bright colors, sight words, stuffed animals, and books and more than enough to help Black children of privilege grow into good Black people. The noise of the other children arguing over who would get the last donut faded away. I faded into a world in which there was a small amount of time to enjoy the peace and serenity of one half of an almost stale Krispy Kreme donut. But DeShawn’s big round brown eyes, with flecks of gold that matched the golden brown of an almost stale Krispy Kreme donut, pleaded with me to let him enjoy his donut, in sweet peace. A sweet peace amid a situation that I had been trained to judge, but not taught how to see.

I left DeShawn alone to finish his donut in peace. I threw away the last half of the donut because it was not enough in a place where there was not enough for everyone. When DeShawn’s mother came to pick him up, she asked if he was any trouble for me, and I said no. Because for the rest of the afternoon, I let a cute five-year-old Black boy with sandy brown hair and blonde streaks play and enjoy his sugar high. That was the first time I really talked to her all week. She was funny. She had a beautiful smile. She ran her fingers through DeShawn’s fluffy curls. He hugged her thighs. She had a delightful laugh. I was looking forward to seeing them again. That next Monday, they were not at Zion.

I soon after realized that even though I had a bachelor’s degree from Southern University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I was young, and I was only making one dollar an hour more than the women that worked in the daycare whom did not have bachelor’s degrees. I needed a better job, so I went back to school a couple of weeks later to find out why beautiful women with cute little boys showed up to places like Zion in heavy jacket weather without a jacket on and with a light jacket for her son. I wanted to know why I never saw them again.

Part three of The Kiese Laymon Book Club will be out next Wednesday.


The Writer Behind the Writing

Dr. Berlisha R. Morton

Berlisha R. Morton is an intellectual activist, performance artist and afrofuturista who studies and performs Blackness. She received her doctorate from Louisiana State University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern University and A&M College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her scholarship has appeared in the Encyclopedia of African American Education, The Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, the Gender and Education journal and in edited volumes on African American students’ college readiness and Black women’s educational philosophy. She wrote and produced a one act play, Utterances: An Afrofuturistic Ghost Story. Her scholarship and art are driven by a desire to acknowledge the intellectual and spiritual contributions of women like her grandmother and great-aunt – lifelong domestic workers who had little formal education— to literary and educational canons.