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.

Children and the Disruption of Rape-Culture

In society, rape-culture is often perpetuated and uninterrupted. Rape-culture is the environment in which rape is encouraged through social-attitudes and behaviors trivializing and downplaying the seriousness of the crime. In defining this term, it is important that we dig into this problematic issue and how children can become victims and/or perpetrators of rape-culture. How are we teaching our children and students to be safe through our words and actions?

In reflecting on rape-culture, there was an incident that occurred within a group of second-graders that would make any person shiver. In the event of a discussion at lunch, a boy told a girl that he would take her to the bathroom and rip her pants. In hearing about this problematic situation, I knew a few things would be necessary to deal with this problem. In the mindset of a second-grade student, one could ask where and how such an idea could present itself to a young child. Additionally, one could ask about the healing that is necessary for this young child. In the case of both students, they are victims. They are victims. Both are victims of patriarchy. In patriarchy, girls and women are dominated by men and boys. They are often taught to be violent in their interaction(s) with girls and women. Socially, girls and women are often socialized to accept this behavior and silenced.

In the case of these two children, a serious discussion need to be had. We can’t expect for children to simply understand rape-culture by proxy. We have to consistently teach them how to interact with each other that is wholesome, loving, respectful and non-violent. In the world that we live in, information is readily available and social-behaviors that perpetuate rape-culture is ever-present. We can’t afford to sit around and ignore the far-cries of children that are silenced after such a verbal assault. We can’t allow young boys to internalize a language that assaults, disregards and damages the hearts and minds of girls. In this unfortunate reality, the young boys are victims. Young boys are becoming players within a system that is devoid of love. It strips them of their own humanity.

In becoming radical in the way that we think about love and education, it is vital that we stop and think about the language that we use. It is vital that we are cognizant of our actions and the things that we are watching. We can’t ignore problematic speech. We can’t ignore verbal assaults and call it ‘childish’ or ‘boy’ish’. We can’t. We can’t afford to ignore what is violent and dead wrong.

Rape-culture starts with us. Rape-culture can only be perpetuated by us. Rape-culture can only be stopped by us.

My Letter to Victims of Domestic Violence

Dear Survivors,

You are not the violence you have received. You are not the frustrations that your perpetrator may have placed upon your body. You are going to survive this moment of your life and understand that it is not your fault. I don’t care what he or she said before, during or after the incident(s). You are not to be blamed. You are not to be violated in any way. I will not ask why he or she was provoked to abuse you in any form (emotionally, financially, psychologically, mentally or physically). There is never a reason to hurt someone. You do not hurt the person that you love. Yes, people may say that this is unrealistic but it is the truth.

As a survivor and witness to domestic violence, I am calling out those that have hurt us. I will not place shame on us for what they did. We are not to feel shame for what they have done. We must share our stories. We must learn that healing happens and can happen and will happen. It is so hard to walk away from the person that you believe loves you, but love doesn’t hurt. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say this. People always say that love shouldn’t hurt and it shouldn’t.

As a young girl, I saw domestic violence in the physical and psychological form. I didn’t understand what was happening because mama and papa would always express their love for their children, but so often I would doubt the love they had for each other. I didn’t know if love was supposed to be so hurtful at times. I would see the sadness in the face of my mother and my father. As a child, a young girl-child, I began to equate the painful love that I saw with the type of love that I would later accept. My parents would often argue with one another, mostly about money. Other times, my father would get upset at my mother for wanting to go out by herself. For my mother, her time was mostly spent working and coming home to tend to household responsibilities.  In seeking to find some time for herself,  she would be stopped, reprimanded and made to feel guilty for wanting to step outside of the home. For wanting time for herself. For wanting to seek out self-care.

In coming to the realization that violence is cyclical in my family, I am learning to heal from the pain. The pain can be unbearable. It can be tragic. It can sometimes ruin us. And even in the midst of healing, we sometimes blame ourselves for the pain we have undergone. We have flashbacks. We have internal conversations. We have guilt. We have sympathy for our abuser. We have love for our abuser. We have hate for them too. We have shouldered the burden of the pain.

However, in the midst of all of it, sometimes we forgive. We forgive them. We forgive them. We forgive them. We cry. We cry for them. For them that chose to hurt us. And sometimes the hurt they imposed upon us is the hurt they feel themselves.

And here we are, learning how to be whole again. Wholeness becomes our priority.

And this is for us, for surviving.

Sincerely,

Lauren Anderson, Survivor

 

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.

My First Black Studies Course: A Place of Resistance and Healing

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Three years ago, I took one of my first Black Studies’courses as an undergrad. As an undergrad that was wavering in so many directions with so many points of interest, I wanted to do something for myself. I wanted to learn about me. For the first time in my life, I was going to delve into Black History. As a young child, my parents never told my brother and me about our history as Black folks. So, I depended on school to do the work. However, this dependency quickly became my downfall.

As a student of color that attended schools in suburbia, I wasn’t afforded the privilege of learning about my history, thus I felt disconnected. I felt lost. I felt robbed. I felt as if my Blackness was less-important than European-history. I felt as if my peers were gaining insight about their history while I was being erased and treated as an invisible. I can remember my ignorance of self becoming a place of self-hatred. I hated myself. I hated my skin. I hated my hair. I hated being poor. I hated everything about myself that ‘they’ made fun of. I didn’t want to be an invisible anymore. I wanted to be acknowledged. I wanted to be seen. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be validated. I wanted to fit in. However, I never received this during my years of school until I took my first course in Black Studies.

My Black Studies course became a site of resistance for me. It was a place of community and it felt like it. My course had all African-American students with the same desire to learn about self. We were all desiring to learn about our genesis. In our class, we were a family. On our campus, we were outcasts. We were having to face an institution that prides itself in urban-education while enforcing Whiteness.We were expected to unknow ourselves. We were expected to smile in our urban-based institution while being told that Black Studies is where we should go to learn about ourselves. We were departmentalized. We weren’t given the privilege of having our voices, bodies and names heard in a typical curriculum. We had to go to a department that catered to our needs because the other spaces on campus were White with bourgeois values.

For many of my courses at my university, I felt that my Blackness was a disruption. I felt that my voice and my body was unwelcomed. In one of my undergrad classes, a professor asked me on the first day of class to tell everyone where I was from. Due to my brown skin and my hijab (Muslim headwrap), she felt the need to pry into my life and to humiliate me in front of my peers as if my body and visual representation wasn’t acceptable to our predominant White-class. In  seeking to remain calm with such a request, I told her that I was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri with parents from Mississippi and Missouri. In telling her my answer, she gave a faint smile with the rest of the class gazing upon her expressionless face. However, this was not the first or last time that I felt as if my body and voice was a site of disruption. I soon had to find strength in knowing that I had a choice. I could become knowledgeable about myself and feel pride in my Blackness. Or I could simply cave in. I could curl up. Assimilate. Continue to hate myself.

However, I knew I had gotten too far to simply cave-in. I wanted to grow intellectually. I wanted to begin the process of loving myself. I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to know my history. So, I took my first course in Black Studies’ to start my journey. At the beginning of my first Black Studies’ course, our professor asked our class if we knew our native tongue. In being caught off guard by his question, we all looked around and nodded ‘no’. In feeling upset about this reality, I wanted to do something about it. So, I started learning Kiswahili. In an effort to learn Kiswahili, I knew I would be one step closer to Africa, in someway, in some form. However, he never told us that the English language can be a site of resistance. In Teaching to Transgress by Black feminist, Dr. Bell Hooks, she stated that “learning English, learning to speak the alien tongue, was one way enslaved Africans began to reclaim their personal power within a context of domination. Possessing, a shared language, Black folks could find again a way to make community, and a means to create the political solidarity necessary to resist”.

In thinking about Hooks’ statement, I knew that I have a responsibility to speak. I have a responsibility to be truthful to myself in my endeavor of learning about myself. I do not seek to live my life through the lens of White-supremacy. In knowing the history of Black folks in America, we can take the English language and find it as a starting point for healing. We can take this language of oppression and use it as a place of resistance. We can write books. We can write poetry. We can change the way we view ourselves. The way we start to think about ourselves. We can use this language to center ourselves. To find healing. To find wholeness. In thinking about my professor’s question, I knew the validity of such a thought. He wanted us to think. He wanted us to see the oppressive nature of those that came to take. To conquer. To spread the blood of our ancestors. However, our African ancestors knew that there was power in taking the oppressor’s language to their advantage. They knew that they had to form community, somehow. They knew they had to start somewhere. So, they started with the English language and created a new Black culture out of it. A culture that we can call community. The same community that I had found love and healing within on the first day of my Black Studies’ course. My Black Studies’ course was the first place that I learned to think critically. To think about myself as a whole person. To think about my responsibilities as a student of color. As a person of color in our world. 

Healer’s Edition: Vanessa Marco on Colorism

Vanessa Marco, a poet of sorts, is powerful and intense in her delivery of poetry. Her poem over the topic of colorism is very important because it brings up the issue of white-supremacy. Colorism is the concept that usually applies to people of color. Colorism speaks on the white-supremacist’s notion of ideal beauty. The lighter you are than the closer you are to whiteness and ideal beauty.

In my years growing up, I can remember Black girls telling me how lucky I was to be light-skinned. Some of my Black peers would gaze upon my skin and offer me privilege not afforded to those that were darker than me. Unfortunately, I would encounter the question of “am I Black enough?” or even Black at all. My racial-classification was always in question. It became a guessing game. In some circles, I am still treated as if I do not belong. In past experiences, I would be treated as an outcast among White peers because I was not White. I was still Black despite my complexion.

In this messy game of ‘who am i,’ I got to the point of finally understanding that this was white-supremacy. My body was gazed upon through the lens of white-supremacy. I was either given or denied space, according to those in power in a particular environment. In countries all across the world, people of color are constantly fighting to have space. Space. Either denied or given. However, I am tired of this game. I am tired of having to deal with myself through the lens of white-supremacy.

In this rite of passaage, I write. I resist. I refuse to be categorized, marginalized, denied or approved of due to my skin-tone.

Healer’s Edition: Aja Monet’s Words in Brussels

Aja Monet is one of my favorite poets. I have never felt at home until I heard her words. She became a healer for me. A lover from afar. A sister from another mother. This poet gave me life when I was lifeless. She is truly a beautiful individual. I can’t wait until I begin teaching my high-school students. I believe her poetry is moving on many levels. She gives life to the lifeless. She awakened the goddess in me.

She Told Us, “This May Be Her Healing”

We sat in our space of healing. Our space of community. We became beloved community. It was the second day of classes for me at my new job. As a paraprofessional, I helped one out of two French teachers that I am assigned to daily to delve into the concept of community with our fourth and fifth graders. As a practitioner of visionary feminism, I felt it necessary to hear the voices of the students that sat in front of us. In a class of twelve students of color, we created space for narratives that are so often missing or silenced from many textbooks and curricula within schools. In creating this space, we promised to respect one another in our risk-taking. We understood that such risk-taking may be painful, but necessary. In the prompt they were given, “What do you like and dislike about your community,” we were able to speak the joys and pains associated with the places we come from. In reading Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, I learned that educators shouldn’t expect students to take risks if they aren’t willing to do the same in return. In being a past and current student, I’ve always felt distance between myself and a teacher and/or professor that would expect students to disclose personal information without them doing the same. This felt unfair. A bit skeptical. A lack of trust on the teacher’s behalf. In wanting to be different and to build rapport with my students, I chose to participate in the same prompt that I gave to them. I chose to dig deep to share a part of myself. To be vulnerable. To be open and honest. In detailing my own community, I told the students that I lived in their city and saw the same things that they themselves would see. I see homelessness. I see poverty. I see run-down houses. I see pain. However, I see the joys of living in my community. I see smiles. I see individuals pitching in to help others. I see kids walking together to the local corner-store. I see the beautiful and ugly parts of my city- our city.

In sharing this part of myself, I saw the students sit in awe. They listened. They knew that I wouldn’t expect them to take risks that I wasn’t willing to take. In starting off, the students started to read theirs’ one-by-one. The journal-entries were personal. Open and honest. Painful and quite personal. For many of the students, the presence of gun-shooting in their communities is reality. The fear of what is outside is real. However, the students shared their joys too. Some of the students felt joy in seeing their neighbors help out in their neighborhoods, or seeing kids playing with other kids. In one student’s journal-entry, she shared with us how she feels scared in her neighborhood. She doesn’t like going outside. She prefers to stay indoors. In the telling of her narrative, some of the students giggled at her fear of going outside. In hearing these giggles, the French teacher quickly told the class that “This may be her healing. So, let her speak. She is being honest. She wrote what is on her heart”.  In this moment of truth, I felt something happen to me. I knew this woman’s words were from the Most Divine. The Creator had allowed her to be the vehicle for such healing. In her simple, but powerful words, all of us started to realize that beloved community allows for healing. Beloved community allows for pain to be said and heard. In beloved community, we work together to get through the pain.

In gathering the daily journals of the students, I began to read about the lives of those that chose to not read. In reading these entries, I understood the importance of loving. We must love. We must choose to love to live. We are all coming from different circumstances and lifestyles. We all hurt. We all need to express ourselves. The path to healing is not easy. It comes with its own struggles. However, it must be taken, if we are ready. These students didn’t have to write anything and some didn’t. Some simply left an empty sheet of notebook paper to be collected. However, the ones that did choose to participate had chosen to risk everything. This act of risking is hard. It’s brutally painful for many of us. However, as the French teacher had told the class, “this may be healing”.  Healing. this. may. be.

The Importance of Creating My Own Narrative

The unbearable pain of holding it all in is why I write. I write to live. My life is a whirlwind of uncertainties, blurriness and interruptions. To live in this world is to have a strain of madness run through your veins. I write from a place of joy, pain and a deep desire to live. To be able to wake up and breathe is to acknowledge the chaos of the world. Life is never as simple as we may imagine. How does one live without an outlet?
As a person of color, I believe that Cicely Tyson was right when she said that, “If you can be Black and survive in this world, you can be anything!”. There is a madness that rips through me. This madness is my ability to sustain a little bit of sanity. To awake in the body of a person of color is to decide if you will live in resistance or remain in the state of sleep- unconsciousness.
I write to create the narrative that I want to share with the world. I write to name my own pains and joys. I will not allow anyone to create my narrative or to tell it according to their desires. I will belong to myself. As a female of color, I long to create space for not only myself, but for others. Females, especially females of color has always been marginalized and placed on the fringes of society. Furthermore, the representation of women of color has always been distorted and ripped apart. In understanding this reality, I write to speak my narrative. I write to encourage the voices of others. I write to encourage the narratives of those that are frequently silenced. I write to live. I write so that others can live as well.