Diversity On The Block

In our conversation yesterday, there was a lot of talk about a particular kind of diversity. I think a lot of parents (not most) are interested in their kids growing up in an integrated world. It's thought to be a good thing, among some of us, that the kid on one side of your son speaks Spanish at home, and the kid on the other side is the son of a banker. It's interesting because I think diversity was critical to my education--though for virtually all my schooling life I attended institutions that were 95 percent black.

I'm obviously talking about diversity of experience, here. I was the son of two people who grew up poor, but were pretty well read. In my house books were stressed. But out among my friends there was a different education waiting. There I learned how to handle myself, or in the words of Run-DMC "I acquired the knowledge." This is about how you walk down the block in a certain part of town. It's understanding that all streets in all ghettos are not equal. And more than that it's about friendship.


I lived in a city where navigating violence was an essential skill. In middle school, I was in the gifted and talented program and we were, as smart kids tend to be everywhere, targets. That vulnerability bonded us together in a way that I've never experienced since. There weren't many boys in the gifted classes, which made the bond even more intense. When I was in seventh grade I ran while one of my friends, and classmate, caught a beat-down. This was a serious violation of the rules, and by right, the next day, I could have caught one myself from my classmates. What I got instead was a serious social shunning meant to communicate the following--You don't ever, ever, leave your friends.

Rightly or wrongly, I carry that with me today. It was a life lesson, for me. I was the kind of kid who could have easily, if I had different parents, never had that experience. And because of my nature--a little soft, frankly--I didn't get as quickly as my friends. But when I did, it was branded on me.

In college, the diversity of experience was a little different, but still important. Howard was/is one of the largest, if not the largest, of the HBCUs. It was, at least in my time, a weird mix. It wasn't as selective as, say, Morehouse or Spelman, or even Hampton, but owing to location, history and mission, it had resources that other HBCUs didn't. The result was this high/low student body. There were kids, like me, from the city who'd only lived around black people. And then kids like Kenyatta who'd basically lived around white people almost all their lives. There was a serious, but not impenetrable class dynamic. You had everything from "first in my family to go to college" to third-generation legacy kids. Howard was the first place where I was seriously exposed to gays and lesbians. Howard was the first place where I met a relatively large group of biracial black folks. To have that, in an African-American context, was powerful, if only because it will never happen again.

All of this presents a challenge when you talk about raising a son. I don't know that the lessons I took from public school were intentional, and I don't think you can really justify, in these times, knowingly putting your kid in an unsafe school. I'm glad I learned the rules, but I wouldn't put my son through the same experience. As for college, I'm pretty convinced that "black" ten years from now won't be what it was in 1993, when I entered college. Hence, I'm not sure what that kind of experience will mean for him.

When you talk about picking schools, you are, to some extent, talking about picking a life-style
And I think that is more art than science. I could conceivably send my son to one of those test-intensive schools and he could pick up lesson that I never intended. You can't really know. Besides. There's all kinds of diversity.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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