The Empathy School: Steven Leyva Sees Literature as Empathy’s Best Teacher

This is the second part of an occasional series on empathy. Steven Leyva is a poet and professor at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Understudy’s Handbook and he is my friend.

The other day, I was meditating on the reality that my son and I will never attend the same barber shop. He has a multi-ethnic, multi-racial family: his mother is white, his paternal grandmother is black, his paternal grand father is Latinx. His hair is thick as an argyle sweater, and straight as a femur. And though I’ve taken him in the past to a Black barbershop in my neighborhood, the one I attend when I want a neat fade, I am resigned that the local barber that mostly serves white clients gives him a better haircut. We will not share that ritual that so many Black fathers share with their black sons, and in that a small stone sadness sits in my heart. Such is the roulette of DNA.

The barbershop can be, no matter the racial make-up, one part Greek oracle, one part local news broadcast, one part conspiracy factory. Bluster, hyperbole, and jokes are the well-known currency that pass hand-to-hand as easily as the folded bills of twenties. One of the few times I was the parent taking my son to his haircut, (where he and I were the only Black folks in the room), I recall the owner of the shop opining that, “Empathy can not be taught. It something you are born with.” This shop owner, a middle-aged, bearded aging punk rocker (I assume because of the aesthetics of the shop), went on to cite Timothy McVeigh and other Americans who have committed atrocities, lamenting that nothing could be done. “Why waste time?” was his essential thesis

I chaffed, audibly, from across the room at what I saw as a ludicrous assertion, one that sounded too near to the rhetoric and reasoning that had been used against Black folks in efforts to deny them every kind of civil right. Cynicism of this kind isn’t new. Among the persistent buzz of clippers and the soft flapping of magazine pages, I told the shop owner about my experiences teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools and at the University of Baltimore. I told him, briefly, that my students by inches and increments were learning the enduring lessons of empathy. Empathy, I countered, can be taught, and literature has been its most consistent teacher. What followed was a return to the hum of the clippers. No mic drop moment. No hashtag inspiring thread. No clapbacks. Just the retreat in to the silence of competing ideas.

Years as a teacher have schooled me to recognize that kind of moment. Almost no one admits in real time that their minds are being changed. The lasting effect of a point made, a kindness shown, a promise broken are most often made known after germinating in the contemplative memory of others. The seeds we sow with our words are into gardens we will not tend.

As a parent, it was important that I actively and affirmatively tell my children, both of whom are phenotypically fair-skinned, “You are Black.” I didn’t dither into the miasma of, “Well you are both Black and white and, and, and…” This wasn’t a denial of their mult-racial family, but rather an acknowledgement that Blackness is more accepting of the kind of synthesis my children embody. I also knew the pressures of a society forged by racism and prejudice would actively message to my children an incentive to disdain, ignore, or dismiss their Blackness. I feared they would live out in the 21st century the film, An Imitation of Life. I realize now I was placing a bet on empathy.

I remember reading as an adult Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry, with all its critique of colorism. Here was a Harlem Renaissance era writer opening a door for me to look at my own memory, the times I thought of myself as ugly, times I wondered why as a “mixed” kid I didn’t have “good hair.”

I remember the young man I was at 16, being given, Catcher in the Rye by my father. I didn’t read it until I was 21 and I understood both myself, and my father, a little better.

I remember being wide eyed at S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and fascinated at the nicknames this family of boys gave to one another. For a kid like me, who wouldn’t accept even being called “Steve,” I understood a little better the need to rename oneself.

I remember reading the Bible as a kid, and stumbling upon the story in Exodus where Zipporah, cuts the foreskin for her sons and throws them at the feet of her husband, Moses, saving him from retribution. She then spoke of blood. I sat astonished and alone in my bedroom, waiting like all latch-key kids, for my mother to return home from work. Though I knew little of what my mother did for a living, (she worked for the Texas Workforce Commission), I knew she was sacrificing for her sons. That she was no less willing to do whatever it took to allow us to survive.

I could go on and on about the ways something I read created a space within me to understand someone else. Literature was and remains my model for practicing empathy.

The photograph above was taken at The Poet’s Cabin, Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C. by Joseph Ross.

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Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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