Bearing Witness

Alumni8 min. read

In Minneapolis, Lester Batiste took to the streets—and literature

wreathes on pavement
By Kayla Voigt ’14
July 16, 2020

“As a Black man, I live my creed, my morals, right on my skin,” says Lester Batiste ’13.

Batiste lives in Minneapolis, the city at the epicenter of a national anti-racist movement sparked by the death of George Floyd there on May 25. He joined the thousands of people who gathered in the streets, saw that this was something much more than the protests that followed the deaths of Philando Castile in 2016 and Jamar Clark in 2015, also at the hands of police.

“Something physically pulled me down to 30th and Chicago just to bear witness,” said Batiste. “It’s drawing out everyone. I think it’s so much more universal.”

Batiste is an English teacher at the Blake School in Minneapolis, and as the movement sparked by the death of Floyd and so many other Black people by police has swept the country and the world, it’s been the study of art and literature that’s helped him stay grounded and make sense of current events.

“I recently revisited William Faulkner’s Dry September, a story about a lynching of an innocent Black man in Mississippi. I keep coming back to where Faulkner says, ‘Life caught in its terrible and beautiful mutations,’” he said. “This whole uprising was sparked by a tragedy. But at the same time, if you were to go to Minneapolis and see the artwork, see the protests, see the energy that is in the city, it’s beautiful.”

The rioting and looting shown on national television was driven by people looking to start chaos. But there were other aspects of the protests that went unreported. Said Batiste, “There were different church groups who led songs, DJs playing music, food vendors.” The news hasn’t been telling the whole picture, he said. It’s primarily peaceful.

Batiste had taken to riding his bike around the city to capture the art and protests on video. With the largest deployment of Minnesota’s National Guard since World War II, parts of Minneapolis felt more like a war zone, especially in South Minneapolis, but not so much in Batiste’s predominantly African-American community in North Minneapolis.

As a teacher with two young children at home, explaining the historical importance of the moment to the kids in his life has been the biggest challenge. “It’s really hard to explain to [my five-year-old nephew] that some policemen aren’t good. I was hesitant to shatter that innocence, but this is the world we live in.”

He’s had to do the same for his 60 students. Students at Blake, a private institution, primarily come from privileged backgrounds. Batiste is the only faculty member of color in the upper school. “I definitely feel a sense of my identity,” he said, “anytime I walk the halls.”

Batiste has always incorporated anti-racism into his project-based curriculum at Blake, but after George Floyd’s death, it took on a deeper meaning. “I try to build questions that get students to reflect in an authentic way, as opposed to checking the boxes and doing ‘school.’ I try my best to conceptualize what’s happening and bring these conversations into class. What are the optics? What are the messages?”

“I’ve had to shrink myself [to fit into white spaces.] Now, I’m not going to apologize for my Blackness. I’m not going to apologize for the way in which my voice bellows. I’m not going to make myself invisible anymore. I’m going to be unapologetically Black.” —Lester Batiste ’13

His sophomores take American literature, and it’s there Batiste can introduce the racial duality of the American experience to some of his suburban white students for the first time. “We read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Zora Neale Hurston writes that whole book in Southern Black vernacular,” he said. “That book challenges standardized English. But if you think about it, it’s the same thing Shakespeare did.”

WIth literature, Batiste hopes to help his students frame today’s historical moment. “Another book I teach is Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It gets at a lot of the racial tensions that exist in America, and it positions Black women at the center of a story, which isn’t typical.”

But Batiste knows it’s not enough. He helps organize an affinity group for Blake’s students of color, giving them a safe space to process their experiences of racism and the upheaval in the city. “Some of my students were hesitant to protest,” he said. “I think they just needed permission. I relayed my experiences [at the protests] and encouraged them to witness it.”

Two days later, his students were in the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper. “They actually took our advice,” he laughed. “It’s about personal impact.”

Capturing the protests has become a creative outlet for Batiste as he tries to process American life: writing poems, taking photos, and writing down what’s really been happening, rather than what the media is reporting. In addition to teaching, Batiste is part of Black Table Arts, a Black creative collective in Minneapolis. “I’m a Black male living in America. These issues will always be on my mind,” he said. “We’re talking about how to move forward in terms of the Black experience in the most creative way possible. How can I build anti-racist ideology into everything I do?”

He started by looking at the great revolutionary poets. “How can we speak these ideas of revolution into the world?” he asked. “Like Claude McKay’s poem ‘If We Must Die’ and Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Revolutionary Dreams.’ I needed an outlet to utilize energy and frustration.”

Change has already come to Minneapolis, with the city council agreeing to disband the police. But for Batiste, the change is more personal. “I’ve had to shrink myself [to fit into white spaces]. Now, I’m not going to apologize for my Blackness. I’m not going to apologize for the way in which my voice bellows. I’m not going to make myself invisible anymore. I’m going to be unapologetically Black.”

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