Choosing the Children, Choosing the Community

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It was a hard night for me. One of those nights that consisted of cups of coffee, deep reflection and late-night conversation. Yes, it was that kind of night. Why? In a series of unexpected and unplanned events, I was told some concerning information with the onslaught of grimacing questions to follow.

Snapchat buzzed me. I had a notification. One of my beloved Somali friends sent me a video of a well-known Black speaker discussing the Black-community and the need for deep-reflection and action. In talking to her about the issues of Black struggle throughout the African Diaspora, another beloved friend sent me a text telling me that her young four-years old, Black son wanted to be White.

In being a product of urban and suburban education, I know the plight of Black children. I understand it very well. In the early years of my identity-development, I wanted to be White. It became so bad that I took actual steps in making this happen. I remember making a conscious decision in seventh grade to look White and to be desirable like my White counterparts. So, I decided to buy some blonde hair-dye and skin lightening creme. I tried not eating for a period of time to lose my curves and to look similar to the White girls in my school. I wanted blonde-hair with highlights, a thin body, and White-skin. I didn’t care how I would achieve this goal. I didn’t. I wanted it. I needed it. It was my path to acceptance, love and upward mobility in my environment.

In an attempt to become White, I felt like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I was deeply moved by Whiteness and the elevation it was given in the classroom, on the streets, and within my own family. In being deeply confused on how to feel about myself, I didn’t know who to confide in. Growing up, I remembered watching Good Times, Parenthood, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, The Bernie Mac Show and etc. I remember watching these various Black shows and connecting deeply with them, but I still didn’t know where to fit within the Black community. Even when watching these shows, I saw how complex the Black identity is. You will see Black characters that would elevate Whiteness while others wouldn’t. And in these shows, the White gaze was ever-present.

In my own household, I didn’t receive any special-education on Black History (African or African-American). If I learned anything, I learned it from the snippets I would see on television or at school. Of course, these were unreliable sources in most instances. As a Black girl, I was fascinated by television, magazines, books and the outside world. As a teenager, I would often read Seventeen, Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan. At the time, these magazines would show White bodies with the exception of a few light-skin or biracial Black girls. Most of the beauty suggestions were tailored to White-skin and those with straight or curly hair. Of course, I became lost in all of this. In asking my parents about Black History, they would laugh and tell me that we are Americans. We aren’t Africans. We aren’t from Africa. It was hard to swallow these words because I really wanted to know about myself. In school and within social-circles, I felt as if I was dying a slow-death. Nobody was giving me what I needed as a Black girl-child.

In the latter years of my education, I went off to the university and thirsted for Black-History.  I knew that a Black Studies’ class would quench this thirst. Dr. Clovis Semmes, professor, and director of the Black Studies’ program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City became a lifeline for me. I would ask questions, send emails and visit him in his office because I wanted to know myself. I wanted to know about my heritage. I wanted to learn what I wasn’t given in my previous years of schooling. In searching my university for this kind of education, I was turned away from numerous departments- Religious Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English Literature and Language and the History department. I was told to go to the Black Studies’ program. Out of an entire urban-based university, I was told to go to a place that isn’t even considered a department. In finally finding my way in the right direction, Dr. Semmes told me, “You have to study on your own. You have to seek out the answers for yourself. You have to supplement your education with Black-education. You can’t depend on this university”. I will never forget those words. In being told these words over four years ago, I have done exactly that. I have challenged myself to learn about the Black-experience throughout the African Diaspora.

In going through all of this, I know I am not yet done. The fight to love me in a world that doesn’t love Black or Brown people is hard. However, I can’t give up. In working with Black and Brown children for the last three years, I made a commitment to them. I made a commitment to making an impact on Black and Brown communities. In stepping outside of academia for the first time, I went to work

In stepping outside of academia for the first time, I went to work in the Center Public School District within Kansas City, Missouri at an elementary school. In working with kindergarten through fifth-grade students, I saw that many things had not changed from when I was growing up as a young Black child. In giving students the option of drawing a self-portrait, basketball or board-games, some chose to draw themselves. In checking on the students and making my rounds, I saw that many of the young, Black girls were drawing themselves with blonde-hair and peach-skin. I asked some of them why they chose to draw this version of themselves and they told me, “she is beautiful”.  In remembering the words of Dr. Ominata Okpokodu, “whenever you see an injustice of an issue, you must interrupt. You must disrupt. You can’t allow the cycle to be ignored. You have a duty to change what isn’t right,” I told the young girls that their skin, hair, and bodies were beautiful and didn’t need to be changed. Of course, this may not be the ultimate solution, but I believe that this is necessary. In an urban-school in which most of the teachers and staff members are White, I knew that the children were searching for themselves in what appeared to them daily.

In a scene on Good Times, the young-son Michael placed a Black Jesus on the wall as an attempt to resist and counter the White Jesus on the wall. In walking in on this change, his mother, Florida Evans became dismissive of this swap. She told her son that this particular phenotype of Jesus was wrong. Not only was it wrong, but she wasn’t raised with this Jesus. She argued that her White Jesus was an heirloom and she wouldn’t replace it with anything else. In seeing this back and forth argument between a Black mother and her son, I was puzzled. Why? I knew that Michael was looking for the same thing as me. Michael was looking for his Black self in a world of Whiteness. He wanted to see his image somewhere. But like most images, Whiteness would be the only acceptable image and representation to look to.

In 2014, the young, Black girls at the table drawing themselves were only drawing the image that they had seen through their Black eyes. Their image wasn’t elevated. Their image wasn’t on the wall. Their image was shunned and denied space to exist. And like those Black little girls and like Pecola, I wanted to be White so that I could be loved and accepted.

However, this must change. It has to change. Children are the future. And tomorrow will be their world. As I think about Black America, I cry because the struggle continues with the children in our households, in our classrooms, in our places of worship and within our communities. We have to teach them to love themselves. We have to teach them to resist. We have to teach them to create their own narratives. We have to teach them to create and build. We have to give them the space to be Black and proud.

We have to create communities of young, Black leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, writers, film-makers, activists, lawyers, painters and etc. We have to love them. We have to love them.

We have to love them because this world sure doesn’t.

When we choose the children, we choose the community.

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Dedicated to My Student: Your blackness is not a badge of dishonor

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You sat in line for your turn for the bathroom behind the other girls, while holding a conversation about the color of your skin. The way you spoke your words sounded like glass shattering. And I knew it was time that someone had that talk with you. About our skin. About our hair. About our bodies. Our Black and brown bodies. As the conversation turned intense with your repeated hand-gestures pointing to your skin with a face turned sad, I knew it was time for us to have the chat that I never had when I was your age. For so many girls of color, the first act of colorism committed against you becomes this rite of passage. This rite of passage into facing white-supremacy for the first time. You can’t name it at your young age. You can’t say what it is, but you know what it implies. It means that your blackness is not whiteness. Your blackness is the opposite of beautiful. Your body isn’t acceptable. You aren’t acceptable. Your black life doesn’t matter unless you are white. You will be subjugated to white-supremacist ideals due to your black or brown complexion.

In seeing the pain show through her round, ebony face, I wanted to just hug her. Hold her. Make her believe that my words of comfort will make the pain go away. Will make white-supremacy go away,but I knew that it wouldn’t. However, words were all that I had and will have for any girl or woman that is oppressed by this system. I will hold her body as if it was my own and let her know that her skin is not a badge of disgrace. That there is beauty in her color. There is strength in her African-roots. In our conversation, she told me that her friends and family members often talk poorly about her skin-tone and compare it to the light skin-complexion of her mother. In the eyes of this young girl, I saw myself. I saw myself screaming for help at her age. I can remember sitting with cousins and hearing the same rhetoric. I can recall a cousin telling me that the boys would love me because of my skin and hair. However, I was frowned upon. I was called a joke because I sounded “too-white to be black”.  In the same breath, I can recall hearing a family member say that they can’t trust certain Black-folks because of their darker complexion. Furthermore, my life at school didn’t make it any easier. I can remember the white-kids in my suburban schools separating themselves from the black kids because black was synonymous with crime, poverty and ugliness. I was crime. I was poor. I was ugly. In many groups of black folks that I knew, my skin-tone was praised while it was hated by the white-folks. In a disarray, I had to learn how to simply love myself despite my experiences with colorism.

In having my own personal testimony to the destructive nature of white-supremacy, I knew that this young girl had much to learn. She had much to experience as a young, black girl in this world. I held her. I took her by her hands and told her that I know how it feels. I understand the pain. I get it. I’ve experienced it, but we must never allow the pain to take us away from ourselves. We must face the pain. Speak our pain. Name it. Never hold it in. In my experiences at my urban-school, I’ve seen and heard many girls of color (Black and Hispanic) undergo colorism in their classes. I’ve seen girls been made fun of due to hair-styles and hair texture. I’ve heard girls being hurt because of skin-color. Colorism is very much real. It hurts. It runs deep for many females of color, including the younger girls. I tell every girl that comes to me about this that they are beautiful the way that they are. That they are more than their looks. They are smart. They are funny. They are perfectly brown and black. They must not apologize for this.

In working in an urban-school, I have come to realize how prevalent colorism is for young students. We may not believe that race matters at the age of elementary-students, but it does. Students are experiencing racism, colorism and white-supremacy even in minority-based areas. For many girls of color, they fear to be themselves. They want to run out of themselves. They want to hide. They want to closet their skin and walk away from it.

However, I will never allow a student of mine to do this. I will never allow a student to tell me that their black and brown life doesn’t matter. I will never allow ugliness to roll off the tip of their tongues in relation to their skin or their hair. I will fight for them to love themselves. To call themselves their own. To say that they belong deeply to themselves. That they are deeply loved. That they are beautiful. And that they will continue to smile. They will never stop smiling. That their bodies and what it looks like will never stop them from living.