Songs caged birds sing: Letters between brothers and sisters.

AuthorBell, Camilla J.
PositionRage over implication of African American youth in School-to-Prison Pipeline - Viewpoint essay


Originally written as an open letter to Rocco--a childhood schoolmate implicated in the School-to-Prison Pipeline--this piece has since evolved into a counter-narrative--one which disrupts the memories and lived experiences that have shaped the life trajectories of Rocco and me. By using Maya Angelou's "Caged Bird" as the metaphorical backdrop, I underscore the gravity of James Baldwin's declaration that "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." By drawing upon popular culture, as well as literary and academic texts to engage multiple voices and perspectives, I channel this rage and in so doing, center possibilities for how education for liberation can still fly in the face of education for imprisonment.

Literature Review

Scholarship on the (mis)education and incarceration of Black youth has offered critical insight into the factors, which sustain the School-to-Prison Pipeline and perpetuate the hyper surveillance and criminalization of Black youth. (1) While various iterations of the School-to-Prison Pipeline point to its ongoing evolution (i.e.: Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse Track and Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline), contemporary frameworks continue to emerge, which challenge preexisting ones. (2) In fact, rather than work within the confines of the School-to-Prison Pipeline as we currently know it, Fasching-Varner et. al., instead work toward a theory of educational and penal realism that not only shifts discourse on schools and prisons, but also "empower[s] those interested in critically engaging issues of racism that permeate U.S. orientations to education and justice." (3)

Thus, as educators, scholar-activists, practitioners and community members invested in the learning, growth and survival of Black youth within and beyond formal school contexts, we should feel compelled to critically examine the strengths and limitations of such frameworks. In so doing, we can feel more empowered in our efforts to bridge the gap between theory and praxis. Furthermore, working in solidarity to disrupt educational spaces currently functioning as sites of violence and repression for Black youth is but one way to realize education as the practice of freedom. (4) In building a sense of urgency for this work, Love (5) declares the following: "It is thus fundamental to call attention to the fact that our education system, built on White supremacy and enforced by physical violence, is invested in murdering the souls of Black children, even if they are not physically taken." (6) To you I ask the following question: How many more of our Black youth will we bury--alive?

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream his wings are clipped and his feet are tied so he opens his throat to sing ~Maya Angelou Brother,

"Welcome! We've been waiting for you," says the clink, clink of the cuffs as they're placed around your small wrists. All Man, yet still a Child wandering in the "Promised" Land. (7) They had you all figured out. Tracked even before you officially entered the system. You got caught up--they say. But they placed a trap in your way; made sure you'd fall into it, and strategically absolved themselves of any blame. So let's talk about the system. How YOU worked it. How IT worked you.

I remember when we were in school. How you roamed the halls, looking for what was never hard to find--trouble. Yellow uniform shirt hanging loose, shoelaces untied. Forever on a mission to disrupt, dismiss and defy. You were invincible--always in school, but not "in school." Always suspended, but not "suspended." How does it feel to be a problem? (8)

We were a community... back then. Remember Rosa's mother who used to sit on the steps of my building? Mikey from Pah-NA-mah? Before Uber was a thing, your father was the one hustling to get fares, working so damn hard to ensure that rent was paid. Your mother? Honestly, who knows? You were simply following in your brother's footsteps--and you were doing it well.

When your dad left Ayiti, (9) crossed the waters to the shores of the land of the free, never did he think that his dreams for you would forever remain just that--a dream. Now you're in and out of a cell, forever singing the songs caged birds sing. Who taught you the melody of oppression? Remember Chrisley? Amber? Jigga? Their blood on the same concrete where dreams are supposed to be made of (10)--where roses are supposed to grow from between the cracks. Their names graffitied on the walls of the block. Their legacy? Faded memories, broken-hearted mamas, and left behind little brothers desperately trying to pick up pieces that don't make a whole.

And though your name is not graffitied on the walls of remembrance, don't you know that your death has already been staged?

"And the...

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