It’s been a long time since I written a blog post, but I’m back in full-bloom! As some of you may know, I just started an exciting new adventure in academe. Did I have all of this planned out from the onset? No. Heck, I didn’t even think I would graduate high-school.
In being accepted into my doctoral program, I am beyond ecstatic about the possibilities in front of me. Why? I hope to gain a deep understanding of race and gender equity in education. As a Black woman, the issue of equity has always been an issue for my own existence. I could give a laundry-list of reasons for why I am interested in equity beyond my own life, but that isn’t going to be necessary.
In growing up in a Black working-class family that struggled in many ways, I saw and experienced the inequities that so many others are and have experienced. In school, I didn’t get the chance to think critically about the systems at play and how they correlate with one another. I didn’t understand the nature of White Supremacy and its hands throughout the world. Yes, I understood racism, but I didn’t understand that White Supremacy is a system that functions on multiple levels throughout societies all around the world.
In being ignorant of the language, frameworks, theories, and theorists that center their work on cultural production, I was in the dark. For this reason, I believe schooling and education are two different things. Yes, education is great because you are able to learn and to develop as an individual and citizen of the world. However, schooling comes with a set of behaviors and expectations that are rewarded and punished, accordingly. In school, we are taught certain values and we are told how to carry ourselves in a way that is culturally acceptable in school. For non-White students, it is extremely challenging to adjust to the value-system of many schools because they aren’t representative of home-life and our communities. However, we are expected to simply accept the rules to avoid punishment.
Rule #1 of White Supremacy: Whiteness will ALWAYS be rewarded.
In seeking to move beyond my own socialization through schooling, I am working to decolonize myself daily through the way I view myself, the world and others. Yes, it is extremely hard because you’re countering everything you’ve been taught about yourself. In moving towards liberation, I’ve found myself loving myself even more. How? When you’re no longer subjugated to the ideals of the dominant culture, you become more at peace with your own truth(s). You are no longer looking to appease others, but you’re seeking your own ultimate truth or reality.
Rule #2 of White Supremacy: Your OTHERNESS is only rewarded through capitalism (entertainment) whilst your existence is constantly up for debate (police brutality, lynchings, housing discrimination, New Jim Crow Era, lack of access to health-care, lack of access to quality education, etc).
In school, you are limited to what is taught. You are truly subjected to the bare minimum. You have to reach beyond the classroom and take full ownership of your education. Remember, schooling and education are two different things. It wasn’t until I reached college that I understood the significance of taking ownership of my own education. But isn’t that too late? Yes. For some students, college may not be an option. So, we have to prepare students now to understand that there are a plethora of resources out here in the world to learn from when it comes to educating oneself. You should never restrict yourself.
Rule #3 of White Supremacy: Schooling is meant to socialize the masses to accept dominant culture’s values.
Ultimately, schools are entities that represent dominant society and they work to propel values and belief-systems that are prevalent. How do I know this? Schools are not isolated from the outside world. On the contrary, they work in conjunction with the political system and become influenced by stakeholders (politicians, lobbyists, private sector, federal government, and etc). Furthermore, teachers are usually the last group of individuals at the table when it comes to educational revolutions.
Did they tell you that at school? Probably not. Are teachers cognizant of this? Maybe.
So, what is the meaning behind all of this? You have to think beyond what you’ve been taught. You must take full ownership over what you’re accepting and start the process of decolonization.
Did anyone at school tell you to decolonize yourself? Probably not.
To decolonize is to re-educate yourself and to re-socialize yourself on the world and your relation to it outside of Whiteness.
But why is that important? It’s important in order to seek true liberation and true community based in love and not domination.
After watching Black Panther over the weekend, I knew that there would be writers pouring out their thoughts on the movie’s politics. In the days following, I started to see an ongoing flow of think-pieces by major media-outlets to local bloggers in my city. In consuming these articles and positioning them next to my own thoughts regarding the Marvel film, I knew that I wanted to write my own piece.
As I sat through the movie, I began to see the diverse representation of Africans/Americans. In Wakanda, a country that is isolated from outside interference, it is technologically advanced and culturally intact from invaders. Wakanda is intentionally isolationist and seeks to keep itself from colonialism. In preserving oneself, Wakanda is sustained through vibranium, a metal that is used for its technology. In this techno-savvy country, Shuri, a young woman is in complete control of technology. Shuri is only one of many women in Wakanda that keeps the country going daily.
However, Wakanda’s politics of keeping out outsiders, including those Wakandans that were taken to America through family-members, has an incredible spin on the story. As an audience-member, I saw myself as Michael B. Jackson’s character. As African-Americans, America is home. However, American hasn’t always been home due to the slave-trade and the forced migration of enslaved Africans from Africa to the Americas. Nonetheless, Wakanda is not a real place and the forced migration of millions of Africans to America has been an issue for centuries.
What is home? Do we have a home to go back to? If there isn’t a Wakanda, what does the future look like?
Wakanda may be seen as an ideal place to go, but it doesn’t exist. Throughout the African Diaspora, how do envision a new future for us? What does it look like?
Some people say that we must move beyond tactics used by the oppressor while others say that we must be armed in resistance. However, what makes us different from our oppressors if we are using their tactics to achieve liberation?
In a recent Facebook post, a woman asked the question of why T’Challa didn’t go to the AU or the African Union when seeking to share resources? Why the United Nations? Furthermore, many movie-goers asked the question about the CIA agent and his role in Black liberation. In seeking out liberation, do we become isolationists, form alliances with others or create a new paradigm for liberation?
In envisioning this new future, will there be space made for all people within the African Diaspora- poor, LGBT, Muslim, etc? One of the concerns from women across the diaspora was concerns about Black female representation. For others, it was the representation of BOKO Haram at the beginning of the movie and the representation of Muslims. In going forward, how do we make sure that liberation is loving and inclusive for all within the African Diaspora?
At a young age, I could remember my dad being in the basement and having the house plagued with the tunes of Kenny G, David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, Parliament, Herbie Hancock and others. The smell of his cigarettes would creep up from his cave and stain the walls of the house. Down below, he was at peace. His cave, the basement, became a place that I didn’t understand. His CDs, tapes, albums and DJ equipment would be scattered across a wooden countertop in the corner of the basement. Occasionally, my brother and I would go down there to play in the cardboard boxes as if they were tunnels to another world. My dad didn’t mind. As we played, he would keep an eye on us while switching between different tracks. In replaying these memories like a broken record, I have finally come to realize that my dad was sending us a message.
In our lives, we may find ourselves in the midst of hardship, trials, and chaos, but you must find peace. You have to mentally disconnect and engage in a space that is solely yours. Self-care? Of course. My mom would get frustrated at times because of the volume, but we realized that the basement was his space to attain equilibrium. To us, we didn’t understand why he would venture down to the cave and sit among endless albums in a cold basement. I never asked. I never did research to figure out the psychological reasoning behind it. However, I get it now. We have to keep a part of ourselves to ourselves to keep our sanity in a world that is continuously engaged in issues that can drive you to become drained.
When looking back on the students that I have worked with in the past, I can remember times in which some students would shut down. Why? Stress. Irritation. Internal and external conflicts. In helping the student, I would often talk to them, offer time to themselves, take them for a walk or just let them take a break from classwork. However, I never taught them self-care. I never told them about this concept that I had recently learned and what my father had practiced in my years of adolescence.
We all need to find ways to gather all of our parts and make peace with them. We don’t have to stay in the chaos. We don’t have to succumb to mental and physical drainage. We can find a place to just be alone. We can pull out that notebook and write. We can pull out that crayon and color. We can put on that song and listen. We can simply sit and look at the sky. This is self-care. This is self-love.
As I grew older, we moved and so did the cave. My father would no longer find solace in the basement of our home and my brother and I wouldn’t find happiness in our cardboard boxes. However, my dad did teach me a lesson from a young age- never let go of that which brings you joy.
In the years to come, I hope to practice this self-care that my father taught me. More importantly, I hope to share the power of self-care with others. Self-care is no easy task, but its possible.
“Not all wars have casualties, Vee. Some struggles between old and new ideas, some battles between ways of seeing have only victors. Not all dying is the physical self.”
Transformative education is a term that I often use when describing my personal pedagogy for teaching. In being an advocate for social-justice, I believe that education should engage students. A personal teacher of mine, Dr. Bell Hooks from Kentucky, often speaks about transformative education in her research. Hooks (1994) described education as being “the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will be a place where teachers grow…” (Hooks, p. 21). In seeking to change the world, the teacher can spark change within the classroom. The classroom setting is the most radical space for possibility… (Hooks, 1994, p. 12)
As an educator that believes in the importance of social-justice as being the lens through which I see the world, I understand that the classroom must be a radical place for transformation. In being an African-American woman and educator to predominantly African-American students, it is mandatory and not a luxury to have our narratives centered within the American-framework. Black feminist and lesbian poet, Audre Lorde (1984), tells us in her work Sister Outsider that we are never whole when we are silent about the issues we are fighting internally, and we must speak about these issues for the sake of our sanity (p. 42).
Transformative education forces educators to look critically at their curriculum and to unpack the hidden or imposed values within material. To have classrooms as radical spaces, it is incumbent upon the teacher to address biases and stereotypes. Why is this important? Before any effective teaching can take place, the curriculum must should be analyzed for any disparities that would prevent students from learning or wanting to learn. Ineffective curriculum can marginalize and oppress students. In being in resistance to a society that lacks the humanization of all of its members, it becomes the responsibility of educators to teach with equity. All teachers should teach with social-equity as being the pedagogy for instruction. In “Equity Pedagogy: An Essential Component of Multicultural Education” in Theory Into Practice by Cherry McGee Banks and James A. Banks (1995), pedagogy of social equity is:
Teaching strategies and classroom environments that help students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural groups attain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function effectively within, and help create and perpetuate, a just, humane and democratic society. (p.152)
On one occasion, a teacher within my school asked if I could substitute for her split-level class (second and third grade). For her lesson, she wanted the students to work out of a workbook that was used to teach principles from a new implemented school-wide program on leadership by Stephen Covey. As the students began to work, a Muslim-student raised his hand and said that he didn’t celebrate any of the holidays in his workbook. I grabbed one of the workbooks and noticed that the list of holidays were all Judeo-Christian. So, I asked the student if he wanted to tell his peers about the holidays that he celebrates. He declined. So, I began to tell the students that Muslims celebrate Eid, a celebration of community, family, and prayer. The student began to smile and add to my statement. As the student began to explain Eid, I decided to show the students a visual representation of Eid through YouTube. In having an open conversation about this multicultural issue, it allowed students to learn about another religion and to think critically about texts. In “Pedagogical Approaches to Diversity in the English Classroom: A Case Study of Global Feminist Literature” by Julie M. Barst (2013), she explained that “we study diversity not just for the sake of diversity or to benefit our future careers but to learn to identify those wo lack power or voice within our communities…” (p. 151). In going through curriculum, it is important to interrupt and interrogate the material and to speak openly with students about these discrepancies. Education isn’t going to be simple. It will be messy and multicultural issues will make everyone in the classroom vulnerable. However, it is unjust to ignore the voices of those without power in our communities as Barst stated in her research.
In advocating for a radical form of education that is transformative and based in social-justice, it is imperative to decolonize and break away from conventional ways of thinking that are stifling to the mission of social-justice. In Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy by Henry Giroux, he stated that “…schools are inextricably linked to a larger set of political and cultural processes and they not only reflect the antagonisms embodied in such processes but also embody and reproduce them” (p.98). By recognizing that the classroom is a place of endless possibilities for students (and teachers), we must make risks propelling communities forward that are historically marginalized and oppressed. The culture of a school is important because it becomes the embodiment of certain values. If these embodied values are integrated within the school, it could potentially liberate or oppress students. In transformative education, various approaches to education in and outside of the classroom may need to be utilized to interrupt inequities. In one example, Barst (2013) encourages teachers to take a feminist approach to curriculum to confront historical and societal injustices against women and girls by looking at the historical and cultural context to the political and feminist issues in a text (p. 152). In this specific approach, the teacher is centering the conversation around a population that has encountered gendered violence, silencing and socio-economic oppression. By looking specifically at the historical and cultural context to a text, it teaches students to analyze a text and to draw connections to the world. In relating the text to the world, students will be more apt to listen and to enter dialogue among each other. Hooks (1994) argued that it is vital that we have conversations to find solutions and to heal. She stated that
Conversation is the central location of pedagogy for the democratic educator. Talking to share information, to exchange ideas is the practice both inside and outside academic settings that affirms to listeners that learning can take place in varied time frames and that knowledge can be shared in diverse models of speech. (p. 44)
Hooks challenges the classroom teacher to hold more conversations to allow for information to be shared, challenged and heard. In this mutual exchange, participants are given the opportunity to hear various forms of speech and to appreciate linguistic diversity. As previously stated, transformative education is radical and unconventional- it centers marginalized and oppressed populations and seeks social-justice. In the classroom, students should feel empowered and accepted. In The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children, Dr. Gloria Billings Ladson (1994) argued that “cultural hegemony is the established view of things- a commonsense view of what is and why things happen that serves the interests of those people already privileged in a society” (p. 46). The route to social-justice is one deeply rooted in providing all students access to an educational-model that doesn’t silence their narratives. In the classroom, educators must confront and resist White hegemony. However, this resistance is often fought against and upheld because of the power structure in place within many schools. Nonetheless, this resistance is vital in confronting the social-inequities present within curricula and systems of education. In tackling this issue, Billings-Ladson (1994) encourages educators to
approach curriculum through culturally-relevant teaching because it is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. These cultural referents are not merely vehicles for bridging or explaining the dominant culture; they are aspects of the curriculum in their own right. (p. 18)
Educators that are student-centered and approaches curriculum through culturally-relevant teaching exposes students to a radical form of education that discusses multicultural issues and how they are connected and affects the world around them. In this approach to education, students and teachers become reflective and starts to see systems and their importance within the world.
In reflecting on this paper, I felt a rage overcome me because of the continuous work that is needed to fight against social-inequities within communities of color. In being an African-American woman that grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, I was often confronted with the social-inequities that many students of color contend with on the daily basis. My working-class parents would often shuffle my brother and I throughout school-districts within the state of Missouri due to financial-strains. In this shuffling, we attended overcrowded schools, racist teachers, tracking systems, a lack of money for resources, unqualified teachers and curriculum steeped in racism, sexism, and homophobia. I was never taught how to deal with these issues because they were accepted as normal and a part of the educational-system. I came from a home in which my father was addicted to crack and unemployed with a mother that was forced to work multiple jobs to provide for the family. In my own narrative, my parents constantly reinforced the importance of education and becoming better than them. My parents had their own issues, but they pushed us to exceed and to make an impact in the world. In reflecting on my parents and my own experiences, I hope to make an impact within this field and provide quality education that is just and humane. In “Pedagogy for Liberation: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Schools” by Mia Fiore (2015), she argued that “teachers who understand their students and recognize the importance of their students’ culture and interests are likely to create a genuine learning community in which students are actively engaged” (p. 828). In concurring with Fiore, I want to invite students to a mutual exchange of knowledge sharing and construction that allows for them to center their experiences and to draw connections to the world around them. As an African-American woman that grew up in urban Kansas-City, I know that I was supposed to be a statistic according to research. However, I am still here. I am still pushing to construct a new way of seeing curriculum and instruction within this field.
Banks, C. A., & Banks, J. A. (1995). Equity pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education. Theory Into Practice, (3).
Barst, J. M. (2013). Pedagogical Approaches to Diversity in the English Classroom: A Case Study of Global Feminist Literature. Pedagogy Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature Language Composition and Culture, (1).
Fiore, M. (2013). Pedagogy for Liberation. Education and Urban Society, (7).
Giroux, H. A., Freire, P., & McLaren, P. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansberg, NY: Crossing Press.
I have exactly twenty-four days remaining until I turn the big 2-6! Yes, twenty-six years old. Now, I can’t say that I have all of the answers nor do I have groundbreaking discoveries to land me in research journals. However, I do have epiphanies. As a motivated, introverted and charismatic lover of life, I am more than apt to douse you with some of this magic.
“What magic?” you may ask.
In these riveting, but treacherous years, my twenties are a rollercoaster of events that are always unraveling with more and more mystery. I have encountered a multitude of adventures that are worthy of a book or a series of books. One of the most trying times of my life was when I was in a longterm relationship with a man that was physically and mentally abusive. In the two years of this emotionally and physically trying experience, I realized how patriarchy kept me silenced and ashamed of my traumas. Often, I found myself second-guessing my own self-worth and compared myself to other women. In this insecure relationship, my partner’s world became my world. I stopped engaging with friends, stopped participating in activities that I took joy in and became engulfed in changing myself to the point that I forget who I was. Eventually, I lost interest in myself and encountered my own death.
In this downward spiral, I was sexually assaulted a year ago by a man that wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. In this daunting experience, I went inward. I didn’t love or like myself. I felt ashamed. I felt betrayed. I felt scared. Still, I have never reported the crime. Still, I have never shared this story with family members until now. My rapist remains out there. He is probably living his life without a second thought about what he did to me. I don’t know. I will not assume. However, I still struggle. I still refuse to speak to a counselor about this experience, but I have written to myself. I have vocalized it to two of my closest friends. I died another death.
In trying to swim upstream, I would find solace in teaching English at a local elementary school in my city for those two years. In those two years, I listened, watched and saw the growth of young and smart students that looked like me. Often, they would tell me about events in the news or things going on in their personal lives. For a few, I would hear about their traumas with absentee parents, drugs in the household, sexual violence, gun violence and other unfortunate events that plagued them. As a Black woman that grew up in the same city within the same socioeconomic class, I knew their struggles intimately. I knew their growing pains. However, I never allowed students to forget that their dreams and goals are attainable. From me, they would know that our current circumstances should never be indicative of our future. In them, I found hope to continue striving in my own life despite my own personal traumas.
In coming into 2018, I decided to take a deep breath and to sit down with myself. I’m not a big fan of resolutions at the start of the year, but I do believe in the art of reflection. One thing that I learned in my years of college is that reflection is paramount to transformation and transition. We can’t become better or seek transformation if we aren’t self-aware or aware of the world around us. I knew that I wanted to begin a new life. Not a new life with a clean slate, but to start where I was and to progress. So, I gathered all parts of me and decided to accept and to love myself even more than before. I decided to accept my experiences and to center my own pleasures. So, I have made this year and those to come as the beginning of a new life.
It is time to make space for me.
In my own magic, I have discovered the importance of self-care. Daily, I do something that moves me closer to my personal goals. Daily, I invite love that is healthy and free. Daily, I thank God for my blessings. Daily, I appreciate everything that I have. I am finally choosing to let go and to welcome beauty in its many forms. I will no longer accept negativity and things that are not aligned with my own personal values. I am working on making myself feel safe, beautiful and lovely.
I am whole and nothing will ever make me forget that ever again.
From me to you, I pray that you are living your best life. More importantly, I pray and wish you endless beauty in all facets of your human-experience. You do not deserve anything less. You need not settle for that which brings you tears, pain, and doubt.
Take a gamble for this one time and bet on yourself.
In 2016, I was given the opportunity to meet someone that would show me the importance of healing in the classroom. For many folks, healing in the classroom may seem a bit strange. But for the educator, healing is sometimes necessary in order to start the learning process. Why healing? In some classrooms and some schools, you find students struggling with external forces that can sometimes hinder them from being fully engaged in the learning process. So, what do you do?
You start from where the students are at. You work through their issues. You talk it out. You love them.
As adults, we find ourselves in situations and freeze up. If not freeze-up, we isolate ourselves and fold into ourselves. But in that year, Mrs. Marie Diawara, a long-term substitute teacher, loved a group of 2nd and 3rd-grade students as if they were her own. She was truly in the trenches with these students. Even the year to follow, students would approach me and ask about her. Not quite understanding proper procedures for this kind of thing, I would call her and let her talk to the students. Even if I was unable to get her, I would let the students leave a voicemail message.
And likewise, she would ask about the students and how they were doing at school. In the healing process, we do need someone to lean on. We do need someone that will go in the trenches with us. For some of the students, life at home was tough. Some students were dealing with gun-violence in neighborhoods, abuse, absentee parents, alcoholism, and etc in the household. For these young students, they were raising themselves with the help of older siblings.
In listening to these students’ stories and seeing this teacher’s response to her students was eye-opening and heartbreaking as well. You could hear the heartache in the students’ voices, but you could hear the hope in the voice of Mrs. Diawara. She loved her students and they knew. Heck, I even knew it. I felt it.
The students were rewarded for good and corrected when they were out of line. For the students, she was everything. She came in with a dedicated heart and left with eyes filled with tears. In being able to work with her for the short-period that we had together, I was taught a few things from her.
In having a recent conversation with a beloved friend, I realized how healing is important and how many of our adult issues stem from childhood trauma(s). As older children turned adult, we have to heal. We have to work through our issues. We can’t act as if everything is fine when things are not. We have to get help and reach out when we are in an emotional rut.
Like the students of Mrs. Diawara, some would act out in various ways to release their feelings. Yes, sometimes the release would come out through violent means while others would totally shut down and not work at all. In seeing this for myself, I knew that the students were hurting. They weren’t bad. For some folks, these students would’ve been sent out the classroom and out of school for suspension. But for many of these students, that would’ve been the worst option. The students that we had in front of us simply needed some TLC (tender love and care). That is it. Life doesn’t stop. It doesn’t. But at school, in their classroom, they would have a safe-space to talk and to be loved by their teachers and by each other.
In talking to my beloved friend, I learned that we are like children. As adults, we act out in ways that are similar to the ways in which children act out. We get mad, yell, slam doors, throw things, cry and etc. Now, are these not things that we see children doing? But aren’t these the same things that we find adults doing? Yes! Of course!
We are acting out because of the pain that we are holding inside of ourselves. We are trying to find an outlet. We are trying to figure out how to process the pain. For some of us, we just don’t know how to cope. We don’t know how to deal with our pains. We really don’t know.
But in the space of healing, we must find someone that we trust and start where we are. It will be hard. It will be tough. It will be a process of changing. In changing, we may need to cut off people, change environments, stop doing certain things and living out a new life than before.
As a woman that is going through her own process of healing, I know how hard it is. I know how easy it is to go back to the way things were. I know how easy it is to just fall out and cry at the drop of a pen. I know how easy it is to fold up and not go outside for days. I know how easy it is to hide under the covers and fall into a deep depression. Yes, I’ve even thought about cutting off my hair, changing my phone-number, run off to a far off place and being alone. I’ve thought about all of that.
But guess what? I’m still here. I am. And every single day, I am deciding that healing is better than being in a place of misery. I do not want to feel this pain. And as a human-being, we want to experience joy. In feeling joy, we have to go through the process of healing.
So, to you, I believe in you. I believe in your process. Just take your time.
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.
As a twenty-five years old woman, I understand that this identity-work can be hard. Heck, I know that it can be downright frustrating and a struggle. In the language of my mother, “just be you”. Now, for the young-folks, life isn’t really this simplistic. We’re told to be this and we’re told to be that, but who are we?
So, what does it mean to be yourself? I guess it’s when you are totally comfortable in the skin that you’re in. However, this gets a bit complicated when you are a Black or Brown person. Struggling with yourself becomes a daily task. It becomes a full-time job. It becomes a location of emotional labor.
As a twenty-five years old, working-class Black woman in the United States, I am at the intersection. In being told by Black and Brown students that they fear their lives because of what they see on television and social-media, how do we not struggle? How do Black and Brown parents raise their children in this unfortunate reality of cameras catching the constant dehumanization of folks that looks like themselves and their children? How do we hold it all together when we can’t walk without being criminalize in some form or another? How do we tell our children to play outside when playing with a toy gun will get you shot and killed? How do we tell our children to simply listen to the police officer and to follow directions when following directions gets you shot and killed? We are definitely strange fruit.
Struggling with this skin. Struggling with this skin. Struggling with this skin. Struggling with being a Black or Brown person is a full-time job that doesn’t give you breaks or paid-vacations off. When mother tells me to be myself, how hard is that when being yourself gets you shot and killed?
As I stare into the faces of Brown and Black students, I understand their struggles. I understand how hard it is to be a child, but yet treated like an adult. I understand how hard it is to be child, but treated as if you are well into your years of adulthood. You are not child when you are Black or Brown. You are adult. You are not child. You can never be child. You will always appear older than your White counter-parts. You will be the exception. You will be the reason why their guns are pulled more quickly. You will be the reason why they will place you in Special-Education at a higher-rate than your White-peers. You will be the reason why you will be suspended at a higher-rate than your White-peers. You will be the reason why you will not be allowed to be child.
But my beloved Black and Brown children, you need to laugh. And you laugh loud. You need to scream out your names and let the syllables of your names perform gymnastics on their tongues. Make your movements bold. Make your presence known. Do not reduce yourself to fit their expectations. Do not be silent. Do not be scared. Be bold, my beloved Black and Brown children.
We have endured four-hundred years of slavery. We have loved in the trenches. Our ancestors birthed us through their pain. They birthed us in their pain. My beloved Black and Brown children, love yourselves and love each other. Let your stories be told in whatever language you have. Make your dancing become the artifacts for generations to come to remember you by. Be bold in your identities. Be bold in your love. Be bold in your Black and Brown. Be bold. Be bold. Be bold.
For this is the pedagogy of the oppressed.