Living the Blues

Imagine growing up while being told every day in dozens, even hundreds of ways that you are worth less than other human beings.

“Everybody wanna sing my blues, nobody wanna live my blues.”  ~~ Langston Hughes

        Sounds of Blackness – “Living the Blues” 

    Like almost everyone here in the Delta, I was deeply touched by the passing of blues legend B.B. King. King will be buried here on the grounds of the museum that bears his name in his nearby hometown, Indianola, Mississippi.  He was not only a great musician, but also a wonderful human being, and in his own special way, a teacher.

B.B. King often tried to help people who were not familiar with the blues or the African American experience that produced them understand that the blues were not just about sadness. In fact, the people who sing and listen to the blues, find it not just entertaining, but often uplifting. Of course, there are those for whom blues music is nothing but entertainment. But for those who understand the blues and conditions that produced them, this music and its history are a metaphor for Black life in America.

There’s a great difference between knowing about something versus living it.

       Racism. Poverty. Abuse.                                 Courage. Faith. Love.

   I’m reminded of this daily as I work with students, many of whom live in and through all sorts of traumatic, stressful conditions. Imagine growing up while being told every day in dozens, even hundreds of ways that you are worth less than other human beings.

You don’t deserve a decent school building. You don’t deserve new books or computers that work. You don’t deserve fully-trained teachers. Most of your teachers leave, some without finishing the school year. You don’t deserve advanced or gifted classes, those are for smart people. You’re at risk; you’re low performing; you’re a discipline problem. You probably won’t even finish high school; you’ll probably go to jail. You’re a thug. You’re from a single parent home; you’ll probably end up on welfare like your mama….

Yet, like the blues artists, they survive; they persevere; and they emerge creating beauty as they go.

We just celebrated the end of our church’s after-school program for this year by recognizing all the children for their accomplishments, promotions, and graduations. We also celebrated the parents, grandparents, teachers, and volunteers who worked hard to support them. B.B. King said, “The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you,” and many of these Delta children have shown their desire to learn in spite of the poor conditions, false images, and low expectations confronting them. In our summer program this year, the children will learn more about the blues, including a visit to the B.B. King Museum, as well as other local history. But most of all, we’ll celebrate him and living.


  • JonHanbury

    there must be a better world somewhere!


    thanks for sharing your story once again about the challenges facing the young people in your world.  we need to be reminded of the hardships that your young people endure in their lives.  one of my mother’s favorite expressions whenever we were “beaten down” was “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again!”                        i recall working in a poor, african american neighborhood early in my career; i told others that the children who rise above their obstacles and become successful adults were much better than my own children in that despite the odds, they were successful.  kudos to those in your community who are doing the same.



  • ReneeMoore

    More Than Grit

    Thanks for your comment, Jon. It’s important to be aware of the struggles that many of our students (in poor and in more affluent) schools go through just to live, much less to come to school and get an education. It’s sad, though, that some use stories of individual success as an excuse to ignore situations that in many cases have been created or could be changed. B.B. King was one such success story, but there are hundreds of other blues singers who lived and died unknown and/or impoverished. Neither talent nor determination alone changed their outcome. We will all be held accountable for putting unnecessary obstacles in front of these children, or for allowing those obstacles to remain.

  • JustinMinkel

    Beautiful, harrowing.


    This post moved my soul. It also wrenched it.

    Children and young adults don’t always listen to the words coming out of our mouths, but they certainly scrutinize our actions. When we surround children of color who live in poverty with second-class facilities, it sends a message. I’m in a high-poverty school within a middle-class district, and it matters that we have a beautiful library/media center, not to mention great teachers and the Arkansas Elementary Principal of the Year.

    That said, I wonder about the message sent at our school by the fact that we only have one classroom teacher of color. In the schools where I have taught, the custodial staff was often comprised of Latino and African-American adults, while the teachers and principals were white. There are all kinds of unverbalized messages that still reverberate.

    The articulation in your post of those messages hit me in the gut. I remember an experience we did in my Masters program where we wrote down stereotypes we had heard about various ethnicities, then the professor (who was African-American) read them aloud.

    Afterwards a Latina student in the program described how she could feel her whole body tightening up with rage as she heard statements like “Mexicans are lazy.”

    I often hear criticisms of “political correctness” from White men. A friend in college who is African-American said once, “It’s not enough, but it is important that there be certain words and phrases that cannot be said in public, so that a child walking down the street doesn’t have to hear them.”

    It’s true, but we also send messages in all kinds of ways, from the types of school buildings where children in poverty go to school to the response times for ambulances depending on your neighborhood to the high-fructose corn syrup-laden garbage we feed poor kids for breakfast and lunch.

    I appreciate, too, the reminder in your post to see people who have experienced oppression as more than that oppression. My professors in Africana Studies in college always made it a point of referring to “enslaved Africans” rather than “slaves” to make the point that this wasn’t some natural state or identity, but something done to African human beings.

    I’m in danger of rambling right off the page, but just wanted to convey that your piece struck a deep chord.

  • ReneeMoore

    Thank you

    Humbled. Hope it is as helpful to others. P.S. > If you’ve never been there, treat yourself to a trip to the BB King Museum (might want to wait until after all the funeral frenzy this week, though).