Death to the Queen: Chess, Gender and Hip-Hop

Death to the Queen: Chess, Gender and Hip-Hop

                            Chess set from 

I was teaching a chess camp at Alameda County Juvenile Hall last week for my non-profit organization, the Hip-Hop Chess Federation.  The kids were mostly from Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward and other surrounding cities in the East Bay. Unlike last time, I did not get to work in the girls unit. The bulk of these boys were Black and Latino with a few Whites, or an Asian once in awhile (very rare). The teens housed here range between 14 or 15 to 18, but I think sometimes they can be a year or two older.

Last year I taught my Chess and Life Strategies class for a week during the Summer. They invite several arts education and non-traditional teachers to be with their youth. This is for the kids to take a break from their regular classes. It is a way for them to take a break, without stopping on their academic endeavors and lunching out. I really love the opportunity to do it.

Incarcerated kids though are a hard thing for me to engage these days. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun and rewarding. These kids are intelligent, funny, charismatic and creative souls. Some of them have made a small mistake. Others have made really big mistakes that they may not be able to come back from. All of them though have largely been abandoned in some way. Trapped between the pain of their broken families and the failure of so many American schools to effectively engage and educate them- they are alone on the unstable ground of fragmented systems. Any direction they step in makes the earth under their life jump like the needle on the Richter scale. Normally, the instability keeps them at a level 6.0- nothing to laugh at. If they end up in juve, their lives are locked in a 10.0 quake until their release. It’s like the needle it pinned to the top. It is almost impossible for them to hear, see, smell, touch or taste anything beyond their freedom. At the same time, because they are resistant to learning anything, almost any chance they get to be free they squander and soon return.

I had a great time last week. Amazing breakthroughs and connections. I gave lessons, I learned lessons. Most of all, I saw the brilliance of these boys. A lot of these kids are quick learners and on primal instinct alone are solid chess players. Based on the hunger of their hustle alone if these kids were coders, or taught technology they could be the next Google, Facebook or Apple. They would be more than just good workers at those companies. I call them the lost gold in the ghetto.

The day I left though, I saw something disturbing. It shook my soul to its core. In chess games in the hood, especially in the clink when one man loses a queen (the most valuable piece on the board) they will often refer to her as a hoe. The truth is, some of these boys as young as they are have dealt in pimping- or observed it in great detail. Their role models are legendary pimps like Iceberg Slim, Rosebudd and others.

However, what I noticed through the week was that if someone was playing black, and lost their queen they went out of their way to say how they did not care. “Nigga I don’t care if you took my Black queen. Fuck that Black bitch. I don’t even like her ass. Watch me get another  Black hoe quick, and I”mma make her work.” I personally observed conversations like that no less than 5 times that week.

On the last day, however, there was something else that happened. In what was undeniably the best game of the day, there was a crazy exchange between two boys. Like many other things that happen in a chess game, the situation revealed a lot about the psychologies beneath the surface of the individuals. After one boy, took another's queen he said “I got you Black bitch now” cackling like a happy hyena.” Now what you gonna do, nigga?”

“I don’t care about this ugly Black bitch,” his opponent said without reservation.

The first boy, playing White, picked up is Queen. “Now see, look at my girl. Her name is Brittany. No!! It is Sasha” he said now holding her in one hand and pretending to caress her with the other. He began to talk as if she was talking to the class. He spoke very proper, like a White valley girl from the suburbs. “Hi guys, I hope you are all doing well today.” He then went off deep into this character of how refined his White girl was. The entire one-man show was meant to show how worthless the Black Queen was. I was frozen in disbelief. The death of the black queen meant nothing to them.

Once I came up from my shock, I was torn on how to address it. When you are dealing with incarcerated kids you are often at the mercy of groupthink. Especially when you are first learning to work with them. It’s like you get a few window a of chance to impart  a lesson. If you try to do it outside of those windows, you hit walls.

Now, right before then I was walking to the break room there was a group of their teachers in the hall with me. One was a Black man, the other a Black women and a Latina. The Black man was talking about something that occurred during the class. During the course of their class, the Black man was asked if his girlfriend was Black. When he said no, all the Black boys in the class gave him a thumbs up. The Black woman said “I didn’t see that happen. That really bothers me.” I was bothered too.

When I was in my 20’s I read a book called The Isis Papers by Dr. Cress-Welsing. I was in love with her work. I was even lucky enough to see her speak and meet her briefly at UC Berkeley after a speech. Staring at the kids, words from the Isis Papers echoed in my mind talking about Black children it says “ Black children are our most valuable possession and our most valuable resource...Children are the only future of any people...If the children's lives are squandered, and if the children of a people are not fully developed at whatever the cost and sacrifice, the people will have consigned themselves to a certain death. They will be destroyed from without or from within- by the attack of their own children against them. And they may be destroyed by both.”

The beauty of Black women and girls has always been under attack on American soil. While never officially under attack on paper, Black love has always been illegal. The cycles through which the hatred of our skin, music, women, art, history- almost everything we make we hate.

The entire role that colorism (the debate around the superiority of beauty of Black women based on the darkness of pigment) is a product of the racism African Americans suffered during and after slavery. The TV show Blackish did a cool cartoon about Black colleges that dealt with it, a little but I could not find the clip online.

Today rap artists like Kodak Black, and hoopers Gilbert Arenas, and Kyrie Irving are just a few “stars” that openly attack the beauty and grace of Black women. I know people of all races that chose to be with someone of another race. That is not really the issue. Nobody advertises his hatred for his own woman like Black men do. Maybe I’m just more aware of it. Maybe it was always like this.

Earlier this year I spoke with a young brother I know in high school. He has locks, medium brown skin- clearly Black. No question. He never dates Black women and openly tells people how much he refuses to date Black girls. One day I asked him how he could not date Black women when he came through the womb of a Black woman. “If you dad thought like you think, you would not exist. We would not even be having this conversation right now” I chuckled. He looked up to the sky for a few seconds and said “But my mom is not ghetto though.”.

“Ok then, ‘ghettoness’ is its own thing then. That is separate from Blackness, right?” He nodded.

Asa Hilliard once wrote “Mental bondage is invisible violence. Formal physical slavery has ended in the United States. Mental slavery continues to the present day. This slavery affects the minds of all people, and in one way is worse than the physical slavery alone. That is, the person who is in mental bondage will be ‘self contained’. Not only will that person fail to challenge the beliefs and patterns of thought which control him, he will defend and protect those beliefs and patterns virtually with his last dying effort.”

What we see here, from these incarcerated boys, from many of the rappers and the pro athletes is exactly the self contained slavery identified by Asa Hilliard. As a father of Black daughters and a teacher of teen girls I find this extremely alarming. Trapped in situations like this on the inside, and the kids killing one another and others dying from police violence outside- without love between our people, our children, our sons and our daughters what is left?

This is not an essay even attempting to answer the question. Because I am sure there are many different answers we can find collectively.  I’m just thinking out loud. What possible good can exist in a Black future where the children don’t like, let alone love one another? Until our young kings hate the little queens and our queens don’t care about the Kings we have very little to look forward to.

Defend the Crown,

Adisa Banjoko

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