Choosing the Children, Choosing the Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we choose the children, we choose the community.

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Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Black and Brown Children

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.

New York Edition: Exploring Another City

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For a few months, I explored the idea of moving to another place. Now, I didn’t come up with New York as my first option but it was at the top. In being at the top and really wanting to explore New York City again, I started to look into certification programs for teaching within the state. In stumbling upon a one-year certification program, I knew I had to make the move. I was quite certain that living in New York for one-year would be easy for me. Now, reality has definitely set in. It is tough.

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In coming to New York with savings and a pocketful of hope, I am trying. I am alone. I am new. I am coming to realize the importance of trusting in yourself when you have nobody else to rely on. As I travel down side-walks, into subway stations, into Ubers and alongside strangers I meet, I am asked the question, “Do you have family here?” and my answer is a dim “no”. In giving my answer, the questioner sulks. They give me a fake smile and tells me that everything will be fine. For many folks, they give me advice on how to navigate the city and what to do. In some cases, I was given personal business cards and phone-numbers in case I need help or needed an ear.

So, no, I don’t think New York is this cold place with heartless people. On the contrary, most folks have helped me tremendously. Even in passing, people would often greet me upon the sight of the headscarf. I smile. I reply. In a post 9/11 world, things like this matter. I’ve scurried upon many blocks from walking and find my eyes in utter disbelief when I see people dressed in traditional clothing, speaking their native tongue and loud. Why did I mention loud?

For me, I grew up in a family that is expressive. For many Black and Brown folks, we come from homes that are loud. We listen to loud music. We get excited and speak loud in conversation. We like to adorn ourselves in different ways that are bold. Naturally, we are like this. For many of us, we are unapologetic in this. However, in coming from Kansas (my last home of residency), things are a bit quieter. Not only quieter, but a bit boring. Now, I’m sure that folks from Kansas may disagree with that statement, but I’m very much used to loud music being blasted from stereos, young kids playing in the street, women sitting on the porch gossiping, the smell of food from the next house over, seeing young girls with barrettes in their hair, and etc.

For over a year, I lived in a place that distanced me from the little joys that I took pleasure in seeing. For me, city-life is a part of me. Yes, for many that knows me, I lived in suburban environments for a good portion of my life. For me, the suburbs have/are a hard place for me to be in. Why? Back in 2015, I traveled to a suburban area in Kansas one night to drop off a friend. In being the young-adults we were, we just decided to talk before separating for the night. However, a White-man passed us, pulled into his driveway and approached us.  He said that he noticed my Missouri license plates and wanted to know why we were in the area. He stated that he was a part of the Housing Association for the community and there’s been a string of house-robberies. Of course, we were scared and taken aback by this man’s approach. In being tired and unwilling to go through emotional labor with this man, I told him to leave us alone and go away. He didn’t. So, he started yelling and then his wife came to see what was going on. Upon reaching, the car, she started to jump in too. After seeing that we weren’t welcomed within the area of which my friend lived in, we simply separated for the night to avoid further confrontation.  For me, I was bothered. I was angry. I was on the brink of risking it all because Black and Brown people are frequently harassed and questioned for their presence within certain areas. So, I wrestle with suburban areas for the most part. I wrestle with them because of the segregation that exists throughout many American neighborhoods.

So, what does all of this have to do with New York? Everything.

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New York is interesting from my lens. Why? As I stumble upon different areas within Manhattan, I saw the difference in neighborhoods very quickly. Gentrification is a reality that has stumbled upon many urban-areas including many segments of New York. In coming from the airport, my Uber driver, Mohammad, told me that the city is becoming very gentrified as the years pass. He mentioned the unfortunate truth that Black and Brown people are being pushed into the Bronx while Harlem is becoming more expensive and unlivable for many poor, Black folks. In visiting Harlem back in August 2016, I was enthralled by the cultural and historical artifacts. I remembered reading about the Harlem Renaissance and actually wanting to see Harlem, New York in person. In coming to Harlem again and getting another snapshot of the area, it is becoming a place of gentrification. So, what does this mean? It means that people will soon get displaced from their homes in search of another home at the expense of real-estate developers.

In coming from Kansas City, Missouri, many folks know about the Troost-line as being the dividing line between White and Black folks, between the ‘hood’ and the ‘good’ area. White flight was a real reality in the city. Now, as years have passed, Whites are coming back into the city which increases rent, property value and a displacement of locals. Of course, schools aren’t excluded from this political arena.

In the last two years, I’ve worked within the Kansas City Missouri Public Schools District and the school I worked in is a part of the gentrification process. In the past year, real-estate was being bought, surrounding apartments increased in value along with increase rent and the education within the school was being sold for those wanting to move into the area. Midtown is a bustling segment of Kansas City, Missouri that is conveniently located in the midst of the action of the city. However, Midtown is also very much urban and not too far east is where you meet the clash between wealth and poverty.  East of the Troost line is where you find many working-class Black folks while to the West is where you find many White folks that are middle-class.

So, yes, gentrification is real. Gentrification is a form of violence.

Now, what does this have to do with education? Absolutely everything. As an educator and social-justice advocate, it is vital that students are taught to think critically and to problem-solve. We are living in a time that demands that people and communities come together to work towards equity on all-levels.

And to this, I say, the fight is long from being over. There’s much work to be done.

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.

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.