I’ve been asked from time to time whether I mind that not many people of colour – not my phrase for it – come to things I do. My answer, then and now, is: not at all. I would want for their sakes that there are some of their own people who are doing good work – of course, there are – and I would want them to go there. This being the ideologically segregated time that it is, the question isn’t surprising.
I’m rarely asked about kids coming to what I do. I was asked the other day, though, whether I thought the Nights of Grief and Mystery was “appropriate” for kids 17 and 14 and 11. The parent wasn’t, I don’t think, asking about nudity or profanity or the like. I think she was asking about accessibility, or ease of translation, or recognizability. She was asking what they’d get out of it.
We know that maybe four fifths of the malarkey of the consumer marketplace is zeroed in on kids of those ages. Most of it is relevant, and accessible, and easy to translate into something they’d readily recognize in their lives. And most of it is seductive, or worse. It employs the most pressing of the social anxieties and pressures kids are awash in now, and sells them back to them as a balm for their jumpiness.
So I had to decide a good while ago: what’s my obligation to the kids? Am I to be a 50 year old + version of them? Am I to pretend to speak as they speak, fret as they fret, believe as they believe? Not even a little bit, no. My job is to occupy my portion, my little allotment of capabilities as fully as those capabilities allow, in case the kids are watching. And from time to time I hear that, minus all the accessibility and ease of translation and recognizability, the kids are watching. Obliquely, and occasionally, yes, but they’re watching. And they have two questions – or will have, soon enough: when you were my age, did you know what was happening? What did you do? And in these Nights of Grief and Mystery, in these speaking events with Kimberly Ann Johnson on behalf of our book Reckoning, I’m answering those questions.
Years ago I was asked to present the ‘crafts’ portion a ‘native studies’ class for a public school teacher who was bereft of an actual native person to whom to turn. I’d been learning those crafts for some time by then. I agreed, provided I could give voice to why a person of my hue might learn such things, and from whom. The kids, ten and eleven year olds it turned out, couldn’t have cared less. In order that this not be a monumental, criminal waste of time, I would have to do something else before I ever got to the crafts part of the day. I asked the kids what they were doing at 5:45 a.m. that morning. Most blanked. I asked again, coaxing them a bit. Some version of ‘sleeping’ was the answer I got from the few who spoke up. There was a kind of ‘ennui ring leader’, flirting with pubescence, plainly broadcasting his disdain for the proceedings. I approached him. I was a desk away from his, and asked him the same question. He refused to answer. Twice. I persisted. Finally, dismissively, deeply disrespectfully, he said: “fine. I was sleeping. Okay?” “Great”, I said. “Now ask me.” “Ask you what?” “You know what.” “Ffffine”, he sneered, “what were you doing …?” And I interrupted him, and leaned a little closer, and said, loud enough for the room to hear: “I was praying for your mortal soul.” Which I was.
I think that maybe that’s what the Reckonings and the Nights are. It’s what they’ve become, in this acutely perilous time: praying for the mortal part of the souls of the young. Minus permission. Minus forgiveness. Usually minus the kids. But sometimes somebody brings them.
Founder of Orphan Wisdom