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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His Letter: “I’m an immigrant from a small city…”

Today, I was given a sheet of notebook paper with writing on it. I looked at it and I was unsure of how to react to it. It was a handwritten letter. I couldn’t remember the last time I was given a letter. On the paper, there was pencil. The writer was a sixth grader from California. He was writing to get information about the university and to see how the university approached diversity since he was an immigrant student from a small town in his state.

In his human-experience, he recognized the layers of his existence as a middle-school student. More importantly, he centered himself. He made his narrative matter. In reading the lined paper, I wanted to cry. Why? In some schools, students aren’t given the chance to center their narratives. However, this student did. He wanted his audience to know about his background and how it affects his daily life.

He was not simply a student, but he was an immigrant student that wanted to know how a potential future college would welcome him and his narrative. How bold! How conscious he is to think about the intersectional nature of identity!

I don’t know who this student is, but I applaud him for his quest for self-actualization. In reading his sincere letter, I felt compelled to reflect on my own self-actualization. Are we being honest with ourselves? Are we accepting of our narratives?

How does a sixth-grade student get to the point of recognizing that their narrative is vital in how they navigate their life? Who taught them? Where did they learn this?

bellhooks

 

 

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.

 

A Letter to the Future Generation

Dear Future Leaders, Innovators, Intellectuals,

I mark today as the first day of your endless possibilities and the last day of your doubts. You do not need to fit into a certain space for mere acceptance by fellow peers or onlookers. You must create space. You must pull out that shovel from the closet and dig. You must find the heart to dig beneath the rubble and make a long-lasting impact on this world.

It was June 2013 when I realized the urgency to create space for authenticity. But authenticity comes at a very high price that many may not be able to afford. For authenticity, you may have to let go of certain people, things, and places. And it will not be easy. Actually, it may be the hardest thing that you will ever do in your life. Even for me, I know that the negotiations are next to impossible.

Even for me, I know that the negotiations are next to impossible.

As I stumble upon the generation after me, I wish you well in your exploration of the world. I want you to find new ways of thinking and seeing the world. Don’t you dare be afraid. No, you reach out and you make this place a better place than how you found it.

The youth has always sparked revolutions across the globe. You do not need permission to do what is right. You only need to have the heart to do it.

We are waiting for you. We are giving you the torch.

And when the world gets too hard to handle, I want you to just hold on.

 

THE ROAD TO SELF-LOVE: BEING BLACK, WOMAN AND AMERICAN

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Four years ago, I took one of my first Black Studies’courses as an undergraduate student. 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 I 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.

The Poverty Paradigm: Resisting This Narrative

I can’t tell you how many educators I have heard say that poor, Black kids can’t learn and that poverty is their deficiency. On top of that, poor, black parents/guardians do not care about the education of their children.

Full stop.

I, for one, grew up as a poor, Black kid.

I learned.

I, for one, see how poor, Black kids can, will and have always excelled academically. See, it takes educators that are there to teach with high expectations that will push all of his or her students, no matter the background.

Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.
Being poor doesn’t make you deficient.

Let me tell you, my parents never thought I was deficient. They never sent me to school saying I was an inadequate black kid because of poverty. They always told me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I can succeed in anything if I had the will to believe. We were broke and struggled at times, but that never stopped me from going to school and excelling. Sure, you may have been through some dark times but my parents didn’t want to see no bad grades. They weren’t about to have me sitting up in a school and not learn.

Let me tell you, my folks made sure to read to us. They made sure to see if I had homework and if I needed additional help. So, please dismiss yourself if you have the belief that poor folks, especially black and Latino folks can’t learn.

Let me tell you, most of us poor folk are serious about our education. We set high expectations for ourselves and the kids around us. In the words of my black mama, “I ain’t raising no dummies”. There you have it.

So, the next person that I hear saying that poor black kids can’t learn than we about to have some problems.

Let me tell you something else, these black and brown babies are pushing hard in these classrooms. They are pushing hard against the social-inequities within their lives. They are pushing against the oppressions that face them just because they are poor and black.

Let me tell you something else, if my black and brown students want to beat-box on the table, braid their hair back in cornrows, dab on it and everything else that screams “Black and brown” then go ahead. There’s too many people that wish to police them. There’s too many people seeking to silence them. There’s too many people that wants to see them fail.

We are not deficient. We are not going to silence ourselves. We are not going to fail.

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

 

Are You Playing Oppressor In Your Classrooms?

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In our schools, are we silencing the students that sit in front of us? Are we putting out that fire in a student? Are we teaching students that dissent is unpatriotic? In one of the classrooms that I work in, I heard the teacher tell her students that good citizens support their country and government. Say what? My mouth dropped. My heart flopped out of my mouth. In the history of America, wrong has been done and committed by this country. Laws sanctioned by a government doesn’t make them right. The creation of America was based in slaughter, subjugation and domination. So, I ask you, “what are you teaching to your students?”.

Are we teaching students to simply accept authority as truth? I refuse to teach this. Ever! In understanding the history of America, I know that students must be taught to question and to be critical in their thinking. I want them to know that authority-figures doesn’t warrant your blind-following. You must think for yourself. You must look at the various parts that make up a system. You must eradicate oppression(s). You must ask yourself the questions that aren’t being asked of you. I could care less about being a good citizen if this means accepting: war-crimes, state-sanctioned torture, war, racism, sexism, homophobia and etc.

One of the most powerful statements that one can hear is this:

Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner. You must be eating some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.

“THE BALLOT OR THE BULLET,” SPEECH, APRIL 3 1964, CLEVELAND, OHIO (PUBLISHED IN MALCOLM X SPEAKS, CH. 3, 1965)

For the past century or so, several revolutions and movements have occured within America and other countries due to the fact that groups were and is denied rights that one would think as being inalienable. However, this has not and isn’t the case for several groups in America and across the globe. This work isn’t easy. It will never be easy. It has never been easy. Nonetheless, more work has to be done. And this work begins with the current and next generation. We have to educate this generation to be radical in their thinking so that they can teach those that come after them to be just as radical, if not, more. There’s no time to waste time.

In many classrooms, teachers are playing the role of the oppressor. Teachers are rewarding obedience and punishing those that are rebellious. Why are we rewarding obedience and silence? Because this is the way of domination. You strip the oppressed of their voices. their narratives. their lives. You want the oppressed to simply yield without questioning. You want them to take your word as being truth. as being their narrative. The oppressor can’t afford to have dissenters because this disrupts the system.

As an educator, when will you begin to teach wholeness? In the words of activist and feminist, Nawal El Sadaawi,

How many were the years of my life that went by before my body, and my self became really mine, to do with them as I wished? How many were the years of my life that were lost before I tore my body and my self away from the people who held me in their grasp since the very first day?

In our classrooms, there are many students that are fighting to belong to themselves. To love themselves. To hear themselves speak. To see themselves. To know that they matter. That their narrative matters. However, this act of resisting doesn’t happen easily for students that are located in classrooms with teachers as oppressors. I’ve seen teachers break the spirits of students. Put out that flame. Put out that narrative. Silence students. Forever. Where is the healing in this kind of environment? Where is the love?

In the words of the beloved bell hooks in her text Teaching to Transgress:

To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences. (130)

Students must have space to voice their narratives. On the other hand, educators must be vulnerable in this process as well. It’s not good enough to believe that students can simply disclose personal experiences without the educator doing the same in return. There must be equal vulnerability. A relationship founded upon love is one in which subjugation and domination is not apart of its framework.

So, when will you stop playing oppressor in the classroom?