I Am I Be
Written by Stephanie Renee on April 5, 2015
“I am Posdunos. I be the new generation of slaves, here to make papes to buy record exec rates. The pile of revenue I create, but I guess I don’t get a cut ’cause my rent’s a month late…”
Those are the opening lines of one of my favorite songs by my favorite hiphop group, De La Soul. The song is about 20 years old, but its message is still intensely relevant for the teens I often mentor and teach. “I Am I Be,” which also features some funky sax playing by the irrepressible Maceo Parker, is about understanding your relationship with permanence and adaptation. So it couldn’t help but pop into my head this week, after Isaiah Washington advised Chris Rock that he should adapt to the conditions of racial profiling that have found him being the target of police activity three times in the past seven weeks (as documented via selfies posted to Instagram).
Adapt. So strange for that word to be posed like it’s a new concept, when adapting is what Black people have been doing ever since we were snatched from Africa and deposited throughout the world during the slave trade. Learning new languages and work parameters as a means of survival. Transforming scraps of food into meals, and discarded instruments into a genius new art form based on the principle of improvisation. Another fancy word for adaptation. Whether by duress or birth, Black folks know plenty about making something out of nothing and making it to another day.
And yet, despite this uncanny ability to keep on pushing despite tremendous odds, we are also beset with examples of our people playing into a plan that is designed for our strife and failure. This is where the principle of “I Am I Be” is most necessary. I AM – your character, your spirit, the essence of what makes you uniquely beautiful, special and blessed. I BE – your ability to adapt to circumstance, condition, overcome obstacles, strive in the face of adversity. Neither situation better or less necessary than the other. Both, and.
Many moons ago when I was the Education Director at the Painted Bride Art Center, I ran an afterschool program called artL.A.B. where my students and I began and ended every session with a cipher. Standing in a circle, we’d make declarations of our talent, our feelings and our vision for the future. We’d listened to I Am I Be early in the year, and analyzed its content from start to finish in the context of a blues poem. The students related closely to the concept: I am who I was born to be. I be who I choose to be to get through this moment to the next. No judgement.
Take that, Isaiah Washington. I think Chris Rock already understands the idea. Maybe you should be sharing your philosophy with the cops instead.