Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The Fight for Life

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and professor of Literature, prides himself in writing in his native-tongue of Gikuyu to articulate social issues in Africa, specifically during the time of British-rule in Kenya. In his own quest of seeking truth and asking important questions, he knew that revolution could only come through his right of using the language he grew up speaking with those within his own community.

Thiong’o grew up in a large peasant family and saw the British settle throughout his country. As he experienced the changes that would come with the settlers, he started to write in opposition to the issues within Kenya and within Africa. His writings would eventually have him exiled and imprisoned.

As a student of literature, I became quickly attached to the story of Thiong’o. For me, his story is the story of many Black and Brown individuals across the world. In the search for truth, important questions must be asked. In the asking of these questions, we have to look at ourselves and center our narratives. In the case of Thiong’o, his writings became a weapon for disrupting social-norms. In using his weapon of choice, he began to question his use of English as being the vehicle for his message. He understood the importance of Afro-European Literature and why many African writers wrote in the language of their colonizers (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, etc). However, he knew that his message had to be delivered with a purely African language. He didn’t want to fight through the double-consciousness that accompanied his writing through the English language. He wanted to use his native-tongue to connect with other Africans that spoke Gikuyu.

For Thiong’o, language is life. Language is an embodiment of a culture that is specific to a people. If a people are stripped of their language, they are stripped of their culture. In being stripped of one’s culture, you are without the very thing that gives you community- a sense of belonging. In using his native tongue, he can preserve his community.

In writing Gikuyu, he knew his writings or his messages could be heard and read by those within his community. In revolting against a system that dehumanizes a people, he wanted to reach the very community that nurtured his very life as a boy and as a man.

In reflecting on Thiong’o, it is vital that we preserve our language(s) in the face of imperialism. We must not be afraid to speak our tongues. In speaking and clinging to our cultures, we are centering our own narratives. In centering our narratives, we are creating and sustaining visibility.

For Thiong’o, revolution must be fought on the front lines. Revolution starts with our own conviction to seeking truth and liberation.

Will you be bold enough to stand alone? Will you be bold enough to center your narrative? Will you be bold enough to go against the grain and persist in your truth?

In the words of Thiong’o, “A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character…A democratic participation of the people in the shaping of their own lives or in discussing their own lives in languages that allow for mutual comprehension is seen as being dangerous to the good government of a country and its institutions”

You must not be afraid to be subversive.

You must disrupt.

You must stand up to social injustices.

Reference:

Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London, Nairobi, Portsmouth, 1986), pp.26-30

 

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She Told Me…

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I was a sophomore in high-school when I was told that I did a ‘great and professional job as an African-American’ after I performed my poetry for the talent show. As I heard this compliment or microaggression, I curled up my lips into a smile and walked away. As a student, how could I respond to this? What was I to do?

Who was this person? It was my Health and Sex Education teacher.

The comment has never left me. If anything, I keep it as a reminder for the work that is required of all of us in this fight for equitable conditions for underrepresented and marginalized students. In my high-school, I was a part of the 10% of minority students. I was a part of the 10% that was absent from the curriculum. I was a part of the 10% that was seen as trouble-makers in the school. I was a part of the 10% that was suffering in silence.

As being a Black girl in a school that left me voiceless and invisible, I faded into the background until I fought my way into the center. At a certain point in high-school, I couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t allow my narrative to be wiped off the face of the Earth. I couldn’t sit in class and allow peers and my teachers to say things that weren’t true about me. It felt as if a war was being waged against me.

In the same year, I was told by a peer sitting behind me in English class that I couldn’t be a terrorist because of the floral pink scarf that I was wearing on my head.

Say what?

As things became worst, I remember going to lunch late one day because I wanted to check the status of my admission at a local university. As I checked the status and saw that I was admitted into my top pick, I flew down the hallway and towards the cafeteria. As I was running, I was stopped by a staff member. As she stopped me, I explained to her the good news and she chuckled and said, “you’re running as if it’s been a terrorist attack”.

Come again.

In reflecting on the experiences of being a Black Muslim student, I cringe. I cry. I hurt. Why? Because the pain runs deep.

As a marginalized student, where do you go when there’s nowhere to go? So, I ask you this question as you engage in this world as a consumer. How do we create safe spaces for all people? How do we make sure that narratives aren’t being erased? How do we make sure that we aren’t creating spaces that leave people voiceless?

For me, I’ve realized that fighting and working towards social-equality is a mandate for all of us. We must work for freedom. We must work to create a global community that is pluralistic.

 

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.

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. 

Moving in the Direction of Progress: The World of Children

We would not have gotten past the level of pure adaptation to the world if we had not reached the possibility, while thinking about adaptation itself, of also using it to program transformation. For this reason, progressive education, whether at home or at school, must never eradicate the learner’s sense of pride and self worth, his or her ability to oppose, by imposing on him or her a quietism which denies his or her being. That is why one must work out the unity between one’s discourse, one’s actions, and one’s motivating utopia. In this sense, one must take advantage of every opportunity to give testimony to one’s commitment to the realization of a better world- a world more just, less ugly, and more substantively democratic. -Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Indignation

In thinking about the words of Freire, I struggle daily to remind myself that I must never put out the flame of any student. I must allow the student to stay on fire, ready to light whatever comes their way. However, many schools are set up to tame students. Students are encouraged to act like cattle. In my conversation with a professor at my university, she told me that she was always full of life and never allowed school to put out her flame. She was that ‘loud, black girl that wouldn’t shut up’. In seeing how school would break the spirits of students, she was committed to being herself. She was committed to the fire inside of her.

As I engage with students on a daily basis within my primary-school, I am always thinking about this. I always remind students that there are limitations on their behavior, but they must never change who they are. They must always remain who they are, but grow intellectually. I think school can be extremely restricting and suffocating. It can drag students out of their vibrancy and breed a population of students that are complacent to rules and regulations. I refuse to teach this to students. I want to teach students to think critically. They must not feel obligated to agree with an authority-figure or a system. They must learn that citizenship doesn’t mean complacency.

Today, I experienced a teacher telling her students that they must honor this country’s flag,be respectful citizens and appreciate American government. I must say that this can be a good way to help students understand their role(s) in citizenship. However, I would’ve had a caveat to such a statement. I would have told them that there is a time to rebel and to say ‘no’ if injustices are present. Nonetheless, this caveat would need to be explained in an age-appropriate manner. Students are aware of the world around them. They see what is happening in their neighborhoods. They see what is happening in other neighborhoods. So, do not believe they are ignorant to the world around them. I believe many people tend to be overprotective of children. They aren’t given the chance to think critically. They are coddled until they are deathly afraid of the world. Teach them to think. Teach them to read. Teach them to question.

I can’t simply accept this notion that children are ignorant. I’ve worked with children and they understand more than you think that they know. They are observing the world just like adults. They are trying to fill in the gaps just like adults. They are dealing with the massive influx of information that adults are trying to get through on a daily basis. Do not believe that they are ignorant. I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that they are very intelligent. They are growing in knowledge, especially as consumers of this technologically-advanced society.

So, allow them to explore. Explore yourself to explore what they are exploring. Become aware of the things they are into. Do not hold them back from discovering new things. Yes, set limits. However, do not allow those limits that you set to prevent them from being the great individual that they can be. They can add to the collective and do much good. Just observe them. Let them show you the world through their eyes. They will help guide you in your knowledge of the world.

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.