Young, Gifted and Black: Reflections from the Block and the Classroom

As part of our celebration of Black History Month, we’re sharing stories from some of the No Kid Hungry campaign’s Black staff members about their own experiences with childhood hunger and why the work of feeding kids matters to them. Today’s blog post is by Robert Simmons, who serves as managing director of diversity, equity and inclusion at No Kid Hungry's parent organization, Share Our Strength.

In the whole world you know
There’s a million boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black
And that’s a fact
-Nina Simone

On a fall day in 1997 I walked into a classroom with 25 Black children from the same neighborhood in Detroit that gave me life and taught me lessons. 

I learned to play the dozens in my neighborhood. I learned to play four-square in my neighborhood. I learned to play Spades in my neighborhood. But more importantly I learned the meaning of community in my neighborhood. 

Robert Simmons with his mother

This neighborhood wasn’t always kind. But this neighborhood always had teachers going to homes to check on us. This neighborhood always had a sense of solidarity. And—this neighborhood always had food. We didn’t have a lot of food individually, but collectively we had enough food to have community cookouts, community meals and summer block parties. Motown Music blared from speakers, mixed with the latest vibe from Earth, Wind and Fire, Public Enemy and Kid N Play. It is these experiences in my neighborhood and lessons taught by my mother that brought me to a middle school classroom as a Black teacher; it’s the lessons from my students that brought me to Share Our Strength and the No Kid Hungry campaign and sustains my commitment. 

My student’s eyes looked like mine. Their hair looked like mine. Their neighborhood was mine. Over the course of 20 years in K-12 and higher education, my middle school students taught me more than I taught them. They retaught me the value of community. They retaught me to be hopeful at moments of crisis. But most importantly — they reminded me of the brilliance of my ancestors who endured the Maafa. 

It’s this reminder of my ancestors’ brilliance that I carry with me throughout the year, not just during Black History Month—because I am Black year-round. 

Many say that 2020 was a year like no other. In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic and uprising as a result of police shootings has shined a sinister light on the systemic inequities that ensnare the Black community. It is particularly curious that so many Americans blithely attribute the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 and rightful reactions to systemic racism to the current state of affairs, as if the documented history of punitive policy - built on white supremacy and racism - in our country didn’t exist prior to 2020. This was not a 2020 thing; this is an American thing. When one settles into this reality, far too many in the Black community experienced 2020 as if they were listening to a song on repeat while others responded as if this song was new, and the associated rhythms were innovative. 

This unstable and erratic America, along with the responses of far too many, places Black folks in an awkward position whereby we are seeking physical and mental refuge at times, but also working to provide cover to those in our communities on the front lines of these twin pandemics. This duality of existence - one-part freedom fighter, the other part needing a safe space to grieve - places Black folks in a unique position. 

Robert Simmons

This duality of existence for Black folks in America isn’t a new ideal. W.E.B DuBois’s (1903) articulation of double consciousness gives this duality of existence a name, while noted scholar Deborah Grey White expands on DuBois’ work by utilizing Critical Race Theory to elevate notions of triple consciousness that correctly centers the complexity of the lived experiences of Black women.

With the complexity of being Black in America as a baseline, it’s the voices of my middle school students that helped me power through 2020 but also taught me life lessons.

It’s their eternal optimism that gives me hope.

It’s their sense of hope that reminds me of the ancestors.

It’s their laughter at moments of crisis that makes me cry. 

It’s the acknowledgement that they are young, gifted and Black that allows me to remain hopeful this Black History Month and excited to contribute to the mission, vision and values of Share our Strength and the No Kid Hungry campaign.