By Kira Akerman, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
Every afternoon, I enter the chaotic cafeteria of a middle school in Treme— a punch for a punch, a broken finger, broken jaw — nothing unusual. A hush, and the children huddle around plastic orange tables, quiet and upright. “Y’all know what happens if you don’t keep your hands to yourself,” says the coordinator. A fact: not a question. “You’ll end up in prison.”
These children have grown into a community with spectacular social and economic immobility, and having seen the defeat of both the “bad” and the “good,” they can’t seem to listen. I teach them dance. On the cafeteria’s cold tile floor, we warm up, stretch our legs outward and open. Invariably, a chuckle, “Nah, I’m not doing that.” Or, “That’s nasty.” It’s not just the students who react this way; it’s the school administration, too. Splaying your legs, shaking your hips is “inappropriate”.
Disdain for movement extends to our culture at large. In the words of activist-poet Audre Lorde: “We have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.” In this country, body image has been perverted, made pornographic. As Lorde puts it, “sensation without feeling.” America, after all, developed out of the idea that human beings were saleable. In the mid-1800s, New Orleans had the largest slave market in the nation. Not far from Canal Street, black people were sold on blocks, their bodies prodded; they were seen as unfeeling capital.
We are so tied to the marketplace ideal of rigid, saleable bodies that children are unable to have positive associations with their own physicality. “It is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing,” continues Lorde. Movement is freedom, for it allows you to imagine more. It’s consciousness itself, feeling, contrast, in, out, up, down — difference, with all its sameness, alive in time.
Today, the prison system has risen in place of the slave market, and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Before Katrina, Orleans Parish Prison had 7,500 beds. Now many jail buildings are uninhabitable, many prisoners live in tents, and Sheriff Marlin Gusman wishes to rebuild at more than twice the recommended capacity.
The city pays $22.39 for every incarcerated person, every day they are locked up, in addition to their medical care. Although FEMA will pay for the construction of the jail, the cost of its operation will fall on city taxpayers; FEMA dollars that could be used for building local facilities that support the community and prevent crime. If a new mega-prison is built, we will all be freshly bound up in it —tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Victim and perpetrator are unconsciously allied.
Occupy Everywhere is a strike against stagnation, a gesture for our children. “The children are always ours,” James Baldwin wrote in Notes on the House of Bondage, “every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality.”
In my class, I try to encourage movement of any kind. Movement is necessary in establishing bonds with others. In our everyday motions, whether it be turning to the right, or facing to the left, the vital thing is that we connect ourselves to those around us, that we don’t keep our hands to ourselves. For our children, it signifies everything.
Kira Akerman is a Teaching Artist in New Orleans public schools.