Last month in Tennessee, social studies teacher Matthew Hawn was dismissed from his position after having his students read an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates and watch the video of “White Privilege,” a poem written and performed by Kyla Jenee Lacey. The school board claimed their decision was rooted in “several inappropriate terms” used in the poem, but Lacey has good reason to be skeptical of that claim. Hawn’s firing happened within the current uproar about kids being taught about America’s long history with racism, currently (incorrectly) labeled as critical race theory.
This was only the latest time Lacey’s poem, which you can watch below, has gone viral. I spoke with Lacey about her poem’s fame, how she uses experiences with racism as fuel for her work, and finding her power. A history major who is now a writer, performer, actor, painter, comedian, and poet, she garnishes her exquisite observations about racism with the occasional “fuck.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Julia Craven: How did you feel when you found out that Hawn was fired after playing your poem for his students?
Kyla Jenee Lacey: Initially, I was a bit shocked that a group of people would go that far. The work had been used as curriculum at different schools in different parts of the country, as well as different countries. Then I was a bit angered. I have a sensitivity towards my art. And one of the things that angered me the most was them saying that I wasn’t a credible source, and I’m not sure how I’m not a credible source to my own experience.
The poem went viral a few times, and in the very first wave of its virality, a lot of the white people who were upset continuously said, “Well, you need to learn your history. You need to learn your education.” I have a degree in history. That is literally what my degree is in.
It’s always a thing where white people are so quick to denounce the education of someone who’s Black when their lack of education is offended.
What does this situation say to you about this moral panic that’s happening around “critical race theory,” or in actuality, just teaching kids about racism?
Where does it stop? Our entire country was built on the premise of racism. So how do you teach what manifest destiny is without teaching that white people decided that this [country] was theirs? Because, really, that’s what colonialism is. Colonialism is a white man saying, “This is mine,” and another white man agreeing, obviously by force and by violence, but that’s what it is. So how do you teach that? If not the truth, what are you going to teach the kids?
One thing that the school board mentioned in their decision to dismiss Hawn was the “inappropriate” language in your poem. What was your reaction upon hearing that? Did that strike you as being the real reason why?
I know it’s not the real reason why. I have their required reading list. And in the books that they are required to read, there’s sexual assault, murder, a lot of cursing. So I know that it was just a terrible excuse for their discomfort. And this is coming from somebody who was 16 years old having to, who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, in my latter childhood, reading Mark Twain and reading the word “n***er” over 200 times in a book.
Huck Finn was bad.
That’s classic literature, but the fact that I say, “You’re not racist because you don’t use the N word, but y’all use n***as every day,” now it’s too much? Now, it’s superfluous? Fuck out of here.
One thing that I also wanted to ask you about is—you’re really funny. I was looking through your Twitter, obviously.
I actually take pride in my Twitter names. That is like my big thing, and a lot of people who follow me like my Twitter names.
I saw yesterday that it was “Martin Luther Vandross.” And now it’s “For Whom the bell hooks,” and these are both really great.
I’ve had “John Linen Closet,” and “Chipotle Mayo Clinic” was a fave. “Audre Lorde Willing,” “Alice Walker Texas Ranger”—I think that was one of my faves. I have a list of over 200 and I’m really into them. That’s my big thing.
What made you decide to start writing?
Ah, so my first poem was copyrighted when I was 10 years old. That is a true story. It’s a very emo poem. So I’ve always been a writer. I was a foreign language major before I switched to history. I’ve always been interested in how language works, in etymology, as well as crafting language. Words have always been a thing for me. I was a nerd. I mean, I studied Latin, German, French.
I’ve always loved writing and I’ve always loved making people laugh and entertaining people.
It seems like a lot of the backlash around the White Privilege piece appears to be about not allowing you to have range as an artist or as a Black woman, which is, I’m sure quite frustrating.
I was born in Chicago and, when I was nine, we moved to a very white suburb of Orlando. I grew up 20 minutes away from where Trayvon Martin was murdered. And I was a thespian in high school, but I was always back-burnered. My drama teacher said—she had a Henry David Thoreau shirt on, and I said, “Oh, the father of transcendentalism,” and she said, “Oh, you’re not as flighty as I thought you were.”
That is the sentiment of growing up. A lot of my teachers didn’t like the fact that their brightest student was their darkest student. My fifth grade teacher said I wasn’t ready to be tested for gifted [classes], but literally every single Friday, she would send me to a kindergarten class to tutor this other kid in reading because I had the highest reading scores. I was allowed to advance the education of a white student, but not my own education. So, for me, going to college was deprogramming who other people thought I was.
My performance career started later than everybody else, because I never had that encouragement. I never had somebody say, “You’re really good at this. You’re really good at poems.”
I would have never in a million years imagined that I would be a poet, but I was always writing poems. I just never thought that this could be a career or this could be something. So even when people say I’m funny, that’s a big deal for me because, Black women aren’t allowed to be funny. Women aren’t allowed to be funny, let alone Black women, or there has to be some sort of raunchiness around it—and, listen, I love a good dick joke, do not get me wrong. But there always has to be something extra around, or even just aesthetically. Struggling against being told I wasn’t good enough to do something during my childhood definitely hindered me in my adulthood from putting myself out there.
That explains, on a more personal level, what made White Privilege so resonant. Whenever I was listening to it, I could feel the very specific experiences that backed it up, even if I didn’t know what they were. I could tell that you were speaking from a place of deep personal experience and that you had been thinking about it for a while.
Absolutely. I definitely feel like as a Black person, I face a fair amount of discrimination. And then on top of that, being a Black woman, I face even more.
I remember Toni Morrison said she didn’t consider herself an author until after her third novel. Her third novel. She considered herself an editor who wrote, or a teacher who wrote, but she never considered herself an author because women tend to do that. We tend to shrink ourselves to make everybody else feel comfortable about our accomplishments. So for me, because I’m good at a lot of things, I find myself believing that I’m not allowed to say that. I’m not allowed to be proud of those things at once. I’m not allowed to be proud of the commas behind my name at once. So that’s when you were like, what do you do, I was like, “Which one do you want me to say?” You know what I’m saying? Like I’m not allowed to say all of them. I can’t say I do comedy. I have to put one thing behind my name.
Some people were attributing the poem to Ta-Nehisi Coates on Twitter. They weren’t saying my name. Somebody tweeted, “Teacher gets fired for having kids read a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem on white privilege.” So people amalgamated that and made it like he wrote the poem.
Am I allowed to say, “No, you’re wrong. This is my work”? That was a thing when the poem was going viral, people had no problem sharing the work, but hearing my name was where that was too much. Somebody even said to me, “Your name isn’t important, the message is.” Fuck you! Because if I didn’t exist, the work wouldn’t.
To understand more about how the fight over teaching racial equity is affecting our schools, listen to this episode of What Next.