When Tupac Became My Teacher
I remember walking through a Barnes & Noble in the mid 2000s and spotting a journal by rapper and actor Tupac Shakur. I stopped and picked it up because I had heard that he and I had attended the same high school, Baltimore School for the Arts (not simultaneously, he left two years before I arrived). At the point I spotted his journal, his name to me was mostly the stuff of urban legends: I knew he was revered for his artistry and socially-conscious rap lyrics, was good friends with Jada Pinkett Smith (@Red Table Talk) and was gunned down in L.A. back in the 1990s. Besides that, I didn’t really know anything about him or his background.
Since he attended my high school and had become iconic-level famous, I was always curious as to who he was and why his music had gripped the heart of a generation. So, standing next to the book display, I leafed through the journal, trying to catch a glimpse of this elusive young rapper.
On one of the photo-copied, hand-written pages I turned to, I saw this entry that expressed his frustration over the “rich white students” from the suburbs that studied at Baltimore School for the Arts. I shook my head and read those words again. Talk about a, “Whoa!” moment. I realized he was talking about me.
I was one of the white students who would travel to BSA from the suburbs. Each morning, I would drive (sometimes carpool) in my 1980, tri-toned, dinged-up Ford Fairmont to the nearest Metro station, where we would park, pay for our tickets, and then take a train to the stop closest to my school. Even after we exited the Metro, we still had to walk a few blocks before we could enter those hallowed halls. (BSA was a former hotel, so the entrance still had that elegant feel, with an arching staircase and fancy crown molding.) It was about an hour commute each way.
What he considered rich, I knew as simply middle class. Because I was out of district, our family had to pay tuition, which was a sacrifice for my parents. I don’t ever remember lack, but I knew my parents had to budget carefully and finances were definitely a stressor at times. I remember a time around the age of 12 when I couldn’t join my neighbor for a swim because I was told we didn’t have the money to pay for the entrance fee.
As soon as we were old enough, all of my brothers and I got part-time jobs so we could earn gas money and pay for the extra stuff a teenager craves (for me, it would have been money for milkshakes & french fries, movies, and thrift store clothing). And, we all were expected to apply for scholarships and earn good grades so that college was affordable.
But when I read that writing from Tupac’s journal, I felt smacked by his words. Smacked awake. To him, my upbringing with a father and mother in the same home, both with gainful employment (even if I never saw it as “wealth”), made me rich.
Being white made me rich.
Being from the suburbs made me rich.
I had no idea.
I had no idea that his was a perception that someone at my urban high school would have had of someone like me. To me, I saw us all as artists, musicians, dancers, and actors. I saw the many skin tones and cultures that made up the student body. I noticed the tall fades on the guys and the bedazzled hairstyles of the girls. I marveled at the jazz, rap, and gospel sounds that swirled around me.
But, I was oblivious to the socioeconomic status of those same students. I was ignorant of the home life of most of those in my classes. I was clueless. When we were under that roof, we were a diverse sea of talents and dreams. When we went home, our lives were vastly different.
Until the moment I read Tupac’s words, I had no idea. I had no idea of the level of disparity and inequity. In fact, it wasn’t until just recently that I realized one of my classmates was homeless for part of his time at BSA. (Check out www.rawtuba.com.)
Over the last two months, I have been doing a deep dive into the history of my new city, St. Louis. I have discovered a history that is blemished and stained; generational injustice that has compounded, like an iniquitous debt hundreds of years old, still in the arrears. My heart has broken as I have poured over numerous true accounts of pain and oppression.
Under the Arch - a diverse sea of talents and dreams.
I am absolutely convinced that Jesus and his beautiful, eternal gospel are still the answer. Jesus is the only one who redeems, who can wash our sins as white as snow. His gospel is the ultimate leveling field. Through Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile, black and white, Latino and Asian, First Nations and Pacific Islander, male and female, rich and poor, we all become one. Likewise, He is the only one who can redeem and restore a city. How that all fleshes out on a grand scale, I don’t pretend to know. I do know that the Body of Christ becoming ONE is catalytic to seeing transformation manifest in our cities.
I am still praying and processing.
Here’s what I’ve learned - when God awakens, it’s important that I see what He’s showing me, even if it stings…especially if it stings. If there's a WHAT, there's also a WHY. I must position myself to hear His voice and inquire on how He wants me to partner with Him in the ministry of reconciliation and redemptive justice.
I’m no longer oblivious. I may still be tone deaf at times in my perceptions and understandings, but I’m no longer asleep.
Help us, Father, to see people as you see us, love them as You love us, and serve them as You serve us. May our lives be sweet-smelling worship, rising as incense before your throne. May our eyes never be veiled again, or our hearts apathetic, to the lives of those around us.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.