Category Archives: Motherhood

My Daughter Spoke to Me in a Tone That Nearly Sent Me into a Rage

I was once a child, and it seems like it wasn’t that long ago. I remember ages 5, 10 and 13 quite vividly, in fact. Because those emotions and memories of childhood are so intense…nearly tangible… I find that I have a great deal of empathy for my own children as they navigate this phase of their existence. I know what they are thinking and what they are feeling when faced with scenarios that most –if not all – children must go through:

  • The disappointment of being sent to bed before your favorite show is over.
  • Being compelled to eat your broccoli/spinach/tomatoes before you can have a cookie.
  • Controlling your impulse to talk back to your parents after they’ve informed you that you smell and must re-take a shower, when they don’t smell quite so rosy themselves.

I get all of that, and I have tried to demonstrate that I understand their plight and that I commiserate with it. That is why I CANNOT understand why my eldest daughter came into the room and spoke to me in the manner in which she did last night.

My body was aching from a morning spent dropping freight at my part time job. I also had some errands I had to run, a task which is stressful enough on the body when that course is the maze that is North Fulton. By the time I picked up the kids, I was battered, exhausted, hungry and irritated. By bedtime, I was completely undone. It was at this point that Nadjah, freshly showered and clothed for bed came into the room and nestled her long body next to mine. She sighed.

“Mommy?” she squeaked. “I was just thinking to back to when I was a kid and well…I…uhhh…squeak squeak mumble mumble…”

I sat up.

“Heh? What did you say? I didn’t understand what you said!”

SpeakHer voice was barely a whisper as she repeated herself and continued to masticate her words. Somewhere in the midst of that auditory mess, I deciphered that she was reminiscing about when she was a little girl and pining for the days when we visited the bookstore and played at the YMCA. She wondered if we could revisit those days again…maybe in the summer?

I was confounded. Not so much by her request, but by the manner in which she was asking it. Ah, ah. Does she not know who I am?

“Nadjah. When you are talking to me and asking about these things, talk to me from your CHEST, you hear?”

She giggled…nervously.

“No! I’m dead serious! Have I not spent nights working so that I could spend our days taking you guys to the pool, or send you to summer camp, or all of the activities you’ve named?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“You know you will go, don’t you?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“Then ask me from your CHEST! What is this squeaking, mumbling noise you’ve come to bring to my ears? Eh? Talking as if you don’t have confidence! Now, here’s what you need to focus on NOW. For the next 8 days, what needs to be your focus?”

She thought about it a little before answering, “The Georgia Milestones tests.”

“And when those are completed and you’ve passed, you can ask me about summer activities. But when you do, how will you ask me?”

“From my chest.”

I kissed her goodnight with a scowl on my face and sent her to bed with a terse “Love you.”

 

This girl. These children! Behaving as if she is not the daughter of Abena Owusua Malaka Gyekye; sliding into my room like a phantom, as though I have not spent her whole life conjuring ways for her to enjoy it. My children cannot name a single thing that they’ve ever needed that we haven’t provided. They can’t name a single attraction in this city that I haven’t taken them to. How many of their friends can say that their parents have taken them to the other side of the world? And then you want to mumble-mumble squeak-squeak to me about the YMCA? Herh! The disrespect! I was livid!

Did you ever watch those old movies starring the likes of Peter O’Toole or Richard Harris set in medieval England? The King would always have a son who was a valiant daredevil, and then there’d be the other son who was quiet and cowardly? The King could never stand the sight of the soft, unobtrusive son and the Queen would always have to protect him from the King’s wrath. I never understood why a monarch would revile his own offspring in such a way, but I halfway get it now. You are a prince. The son of a King. Act like it.

Speak with authority! Communicate with clarity and confidence! Rest assured that when you take bold steps, your mother/father will be there to catch you when you fall! What is mumble-mumble squeak-squeak? You think Oprah got where she is today with mumble-mumble squeak-squeak? You think Toni Morrison became Toni Morrison with mumble-mumble squeak-squeak? You think Serena Williams conquered the world with mumble-mumble squeak-squeak? Or are you saying that the daughter of Abena Gyekye is so low that she must only speak in mumble-mumble squeak-squeak? What an insult to me!

Yes, I know. When Black women speak up for themselves and make no compromises on their positions, they are labelled as “angry”, “aggressive” and “bitter”. Better that my daughter should be labelled as any of those things over “invisible”, “insignificant”, and “expendable”. I am not raising little brown doormats.

Ah. What do I look like?

 

My Son’s Love of Trains Lead me to Several Shocking Discovery

photo 2(6)

Having children can greatly enrich your life. If you don’t believe that, just ask Mark and Rhea (who have chosen not to release their surnames to the public), who go by the YouTube username “ilovemaything”. They made $1 million just uploading videos of their kids Maya and Hulyan playing with toy trains. My son, Stone, is an avid lover and connoisseur of all things locomotive himself, and like his comrades Maya and Hulyan, has greatly enriched my life via his own interests.

And, no: This is not a story about how my family struck it rich through pursuing kid friendly pastimes. The boy was instrumental in showing me something new.

photo 3(2)Marshall and I try as much as we can to expose the kids to real life events and situations that correlate to the kids’ individual interests. With four different people with four ever evolving fascinations, that’s a lot of exposure to wrangle. Stone will turn 6 this spring, but unlike his sisters he has maintained three main interests: cars, dinosaurs and trains. Trains are at the top of the list, and so it is for this reason and this reason alone our entire family found ourselves at the Southeastern Railway Museum in Duluth, GA.

It was fascinating. There was so much history! Even the girls thought it was a worthwhile excursion, and went as far as to thank their brother for suggesting the trip. (You have to see these people fight about how they’re going to spend the holidays to know how big that is.)

photo 3(3)The museum does an excellent job of chronicling locomotive transportation in America, replete with decommissioned freight cars, cabooses, a luxury Pullman and of course, coal/wood burning steam engines. We saw street cars and trolleys dating back to the early-mid 1800s, as well as a functioning railroad handcar that anyone could ride for $1. As we climbed in and out of each feature, we found ourselves imagining what it must have been like to ride and work on the railroad. The cab of the engine would have been extremely hot, with the engineer and coal shoveling men sitting within two feet of an open furnace. Further back, aristocrats in fancy clothes would dine on fine china and sip tea while they debated the merits or follies of international commerce and whether women should have the right to vote. A little further back there would be a caboose carrying mail or food. The railroad wasn’t the lifeblood of America, rather it was a network of veins that made a prosperous life in America possible… and it was controlled an exclusive group of wealthy men.

Control of the American railroad was instrumental in winning the Civil War. When Lincoln cut off supplies to the South, that all but brought the Confederates to their knees. The railroad has also served as a reminder, as well as a facilitator, of class and racial discrimination in America. Nadjah casually wandered over to this sign hanging in a 50’s era cart delineating the Negro section from the white section and pointed it out to me. The cart connected ahead even had seats segregated by gender. What was I to say?

photo 1(3)

“It’s true. There was a time in America when Black and white people couldn’t sit together, by law. And it wasn’t that long ago.”

The next question came from Liya (aged 4). “Can they sit together now?”

“Yes.”

photo 4(2)The attitude of the children turned solemn for a moment, and then they went back to racing around the outdoor museum, exploring its wonders. But of course, that got me thinking. What was it like for the variety of Black Americans who had to navigate this system? We are not a monolith, with the same experiences or goals or advantages, but my ancestors (and I feel like us today, even) had to endure a system that treated them as though all Blacks were the same. And by “same”, I mean subhuman. I looked down at the royal blue jersey jumpsuit I was wearing paired with gold sandals. I hadn’t meant to dress up that afternoon, and I admit I probably looked out of place at the grungy museum with my chandelier earrings and 20’s inspired hair. But I couldn’t help but imagine what the experience a woman – a Black woman – born into wealth who purposely got dressed up to ride the rails might have been like. I did a little bit of research when I got home and gasped at what I’d found.

Dining set used in luxury coaches

Original dining set used in luxury coaches

First of all, not all Black people in America were slaves during the era of slavery. We know that. In fact, quite a few of them –particularly in Louisiana – were not only born free, but born into aristocratic families and intermarried (informally) with European men. Quite a few Creoles were slave owners as well. Slavery was the economic system and foundation for America’s wealth. Like ancient Rome who adopted similar policies, race-based subjugation was the springboard for America’s relative meteoric ascension. Before the Louisiana Purchase, Creole people were allowed the ‘benefit’ or participating in –and profiting from – this economic system.

Outside of that microcosm however, a wealthy woman of color would have found herself in an intolerant and intolerable world. Despite her finery and education, she would not be permitted to sit in first class. She would not be allowed to use toilet facilities on the train. She would have to lift her muslin gown and ease herself in the bush, with the rest of the Negro population. The rules would change for her the moment the wheels crossed into the true South. If she refused to comply with the rules, and regulations set out for her race and gender, the consequences could be dire.

Public humiliation for people of color has long been a tradition in America’s public transportation system. In 1882, Mrs. Walter Burton, the wife of a state senator from Fort Bend County (Texas) was thrown from a moving train for refusing to give up her first class seat in a whites only coach. Scott Bond, a fair colored Black man who could pass for white but refused to, talks about this in the book From Slavery to Wealth: The Life of Scott Bond. He discusses how on two occasions at least, he was asked to leave the Negro car to sit in first class with his “own race”. Hilarity does not ensue. On one of these two occasions, an exasperated and fearful Black porter calls for the conductor to force him to leave the Black section. An equally exasperated Bond asks the pair what they would have him do.

“The Law says I’m to sit in the Negro section, but you say I am not to! Who is to blame for this? Shall I cry out to God for an answer?”

The intersection of wealth and race (or presumed race) has never been a smooth or easy collision. These are just two of the examples I found on the internet about what it was like to travel while privileged and Black, and how that privilege dissipates depending on where you find yourself on geographically. Some of you in the MOM Squad are historians. I’d love it if you would share your knowledge about this with me. Have your grandparents ever talked about what it was like to work/ride on the train?

You can call me up, since you never leave comments. You culprits know yourselves. ;)

 

Weaves, Pain, Desire, Prayer and Love

I’m going to attempt to put a week’s worth of thoughts into 1500 words or less. Bear with me. Oh yes, and before we begin #NotAllMen and #NotAllWomen. Some of you people are Cinderella’s step sister, forcing your foot into the proverbial slipper of my observations that was not intended for you…

I hate a weak man – but in particular I loathe a weak Black man.

The most exquisite pain I have ever had to endure was bestowed upon me by a weak Black man who was so dedicated in his devotion to causing me harm it was like a religion to him. This is the man you know as Douche Bag. Conversely, some of the greatest moments of joy and peace I have experienced are the direct result of the intentional words from and actions of my husband. Douche Bag and Marshall could not be more different from each other. Douche Bag is big, muscular and boorish. That boorishness and callousness disregard for the feelings and needs of others is what many mistake for ‘strength’. My husband on the other hand is a gentle man…and that doesn’t make him ‘weak’. He is like the steady, soft dripping of water, which over time hollows out or reshapes the hardest stone.

Consistency

Steadfastness

Honor

That to me, is strength.

I have been watching commentary on various social media platforms and have been beside myself with grief for the past 36 hours. It’s as though the weight of our collective failure as a race came crashing on my consciousness. In particularly, I have been daunted and dispirited by the weakness of many – just too many! – Black men. This feebleness has manifested itself in their verbosely expressed vision of what the genesis of a possible relationship with a woman would look like if only she would “comport herself”. Here’s an example I culled from online:

Ladies: If a guy chases you for 6 months and you don’t give in, he will eventually get tired and go somewhere else. But when he does, you will tell him you didn’t try hard enough! Just remember it doesn’t mean he never loved you.

Drivel like this masquerading as “depth” gets retweeted and shared on social media dozens of times a day. Why? Because too many men are weak….and wack…and resonate with this level of foolishness. These brothers don’t value women and the trickledown effect is that women begin to see less value in themselves. Here’s an example from my own life in the opposite.

I don’t remember what we were doing – maybe watching Star Trek or cleaning the house; I don’t know – but Marshall paused and said to me “You know, the day I knew I had to marry you is when I sat down and thought about my life without you in it. I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see my life without you in it.”

That’s what a woman looking for a relationship wants. If you only have 6 months to focus on securing a relationship with someone you supposedly “loved”, then you’re not serious. It’s just that simple. Men will work their entire lives to buy the car of their dreams, but give up on winning the affections of a woman if she doesn’t reciprocate quickly and on his timeline. And what is this whole business of chasing? Is she a gazelle and you a hyena? Is a woman you “love” something you are going to gobble up and discard when you are done? That’s what your language suggests…and that’s why after 6 short months you were dogged. You as a boy/man never took the time to examine and improve yourself.

Selah.

They say hurting people hurt other people. Are you hurt, Black Men? Is that why you are hell bent on hurting the closest thing to you – which is Black Women? If so, let us know so we can help you ease the pain. That’s what we’ve been doing for centuries, isn’t it? Right when we were chained up on the same boats, or chopping tobacco in the fields right alongside you, or fighting in the same wars, or mourning your lifeless bodies in the middle of the street… WE’VE been there for you, right? So what’s with all this hatred in return for our devotedness? Is it because we are too tough and expect strength out of you? Surely, you’ve witnessed what life is like globally for people of color – not to mention the rigors of being a woman of color! Hint: it’s freaking hard…and still we don’t break. But now you’ve joined the feeding frenzy against we who are your truest allies. Why do you now seek to join those who want to break us?

I came across this article that quotes Common referring to Erykah Badu as the ‘bossiest’ Black woman he’s ever dated. Gazi Kodzo has dismissed Common as a man whose only true claim to fame as the ‘ex-boyfriend of Black female elite stars’. Common has dated Serena Williams. Taraji Henson and Miss Badu. It is rumored he is dating Lupita Nyong’o. These are all strong and gifted Black women, yet the moderator could only come up with a question framed in negativity because these are the shenanigans of the New Black. He didn’t ask who was the kindest, or most nurturing or had the most depth in conversation…just who was “bossiest”, which we all know is code for emasculating and/or domineering. I posted the link and my expressed my disdain for Common’s reflections. Along the way, I made mention that I would rather see Lupita stay in a relationship with Jared Leto (the whitest of white men) than to date Common who has proven he would use their past to get ratings/cheers/laughs.

You should have seen this brother go to WAR because I dared to make this suggestion. Why should a Black woman want to be desired by a white man? How quickly you’ve forgotten the lustful eyes of the slave master! The same white man who you would have date Lupita is the same white man who will gun your sons down in the street! What short memories you have, Malaka!

Oh, saa? And who do you think is responsible for the majority of sexual abuse meted out against Black children? Whose cruel words play repeatedly in the head of the Black girl who doesn’t believe she’s good enough. And wasn’t it Chris Brown who turned Rihanna into the face of young domestic violence? Today Riri is the face of Dior…and that’s not because Breezy connected his knuckles to her temples.

Of course we continued to wage a war of words until I challenged him to find and speak to 3 complete strangers and ask them if they believe Black women are loved by Black men. Not desired, lusted after or fulfill a booty fetish…I mean loved. As in supported, nurtured, respected and valued. We await the results.

I don’t think Black men know how much their words and deeds affect Black women. It’s one thing to worship at the Altar of White Vagina, but it’s another thing entirely to make the only person who made your existence possible to feel as though her womb….and her whole body….are unworthy. Take a quick look at this:

bleach

Hundreds of people jumped on this girl to tell her how “sick” and “brainwashed” and “stupid” she is. It is a stretch for them to imagine how she ended up this way…but how can it be? How can people not understand that when Black women and girls see messages like the following every day, several times a day:

race1 race2 race3 race4(This dude can’t even add…smh)

This is psychological warfare! And if we don’t overcome it, it’s because we’re not “strong Black women”. What is the strength of a women worth when her sons, brothers and fathers see her as something dirty or something to exploit? That leaves a wound in you…sometimes it’s a sore so deep it becomes more a part of you than the ‘normal’ skin itself. Your wound becomes your identity, and the pain associated with it becomes your constant, faithful and reliable friend. Janette McGhee Watson expressed this so eloquently in her vows to her husband in this clip.

 

It’s 10 minutes long. How many brother have 10 minutes to spare to hear the heart cry of a Black woman? Not enough. Far too few. And you know why? Because Y’ALL don’t love US. You don’t value you us…and if/when you do, it’s only when we’re conforming to your perceptions of what womanhood should be. I know 5 women – Black women – who have told me that they used to pray every night as little girls to wake up white. I ain’t never heard of a white woman praying to wake up with the skin and burden of a Black woman.

Now, some of you can (and will) deflect and cast blame and say it’s all the white man’s fault, or you can man up like Matthew and restore some broken hearts and rebuild the crumbling edifices of our unions.

 

Mo’Ne Davis’ Accepting Casselberry’s Apology is ‘Mature’, but it Ain’t ‘Right’

It’s pretty hard not to be in the know where Mo’Ne Davis is concerned. Even if you were previously unfamiliar with her name, you certainly heard of her story. She is that (now) 13 year old girl who played in the 2014 Little League World Series and is the first girl to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history. That means she can throw a ball really, really fast.

Her face has become ubiquitous in the sports world, with skill so phenomenal that she made the cover of Sports Illustrated and a back-story so inspiring that Disney has approved a movie to be made about her life. This did not sit well with some people, and one person in particular – Joey Casselberry, a junior first baseman at Bloomsburg University – took to twitter to make one of the most disgusting comments about a girl barely older than my first born by saying the following:

joey

Selah

A grown man, who has never had any sort of interpersonal contact with this 13 year old CHILD, called her a slut.

Everyone has agreed that this is pretty offensive and definitely unacceptable, and Mr. Casselberry has been dismissed from his team. As far as I and 98% of the world are concerned, this was absolutely the right move for the university to take. However, his remarks left young Ms. Davis in an awkward position as people were clamoring for a response from her. Her response was one typical of any girl her age – which was to forgive. She even went as far as to plead on his behalf and ask the university to give him a “second chance”.

Every mother to a Black daughter I know experienced cognitive dissonance when news of Joey Casselberry’s sorry apology and Mo’Ne’s crusade to spare him discomfort came to light. Many have gone as far as to term her actions as “mature”…and that is problematic for me. Sure, her actions are righteous, but they are not right. A grown, crusty man should not be putting a girl this young in the position to act righteously in response to his boorishness.

Let me just get to the point: The fact is, Joey Casselberry’s remarks are a direct reflection of a culture that sexualizes young Black girls and their bodies, then moves on to demonize and punish them for labels not of their own choosing and ultimately marginalizes them. Girls of African descent are built differently from any other girl on the planet. By the age of 5, our hip to waist ratio often mirrors those of our mothers. I have had trouble fitting at least 2 of my girls for trousers and pants because the items are cut for (white) girls who are built straight up and down. (This is a battle Black women have to fight our entire lives.) It is not the responsibility of the 5 year old to cloister herself so as not to have these labels ascribed to her; it is the responsibility of grown men to check their privilege so that she can thrive.

This is not the first time a Black girl has been sexually degraded in the media at large by those who occupy positions of power and privilege. In 2013, 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis was called a “cunt” by The Onion on twitter during that year’s Oscars.

Qcunt

As I recall, this was in response to Ms. Wallis refusing to let a journalist refer to her as ‘Annie’ because she was too lazy to figure out how to pronounce the child’s name. She made a “mature” decision to check that chick, and in return a representative from an organization dominated by white males labelled her a moniker that is so disgusting, it makes bikers shift in their seats. But it’s free speech, right? It’s satire, ain’t it? Making jokes about Black girls’ bodies is funny, isn’t it? Remember how Black male comedians jumped to Don Imus’ defense when he called an entire basketball team “nappy headed hoes”?

Slut

Cunt

Whore

All ascribed to girls who are barely old enough to knock on Womanhood’s door – and suspiciously – all at the top of their game in specific fields.

The main reason that Davis’ acceptance for Casselberry’s apology sickens and saddens me so much is that it is yet another spoke in the wheel of accepted public violence against Black women and girls. The part that Mo’Ne plays in this cycle is by shielding her abuser in the name of turning the other cheek and maturity. How many Black women refuse to call the police on abusive husbands and boyfriends because they have been conditioned to believe it is their job to protect them, or their responsibility to be strong enough to endure the abuse for the sake of peace? THIS is exactly where it starts…and that is not Mo’Ne Davis’ fault – it’s ours. While I applaud Mo’Ne for her poise and level headedness in this situation, it is not okay that she should have an innate sense that this particular reaction is expected of her in a situation like this. These are not the lessons we should be teaching our young girls of color, especially in a world that views them as provocative minxes before they’ve had a first date, first kiss or first menstrual cycle.

 

My Daughter Wants to Go to College to Learn How to Sew, Knit and Cook

Happy International Women’s Month! I have been struggling to decide how I should celebrate the month on the blog in a meaningful way and as they often do, my children provided me the answer without intending to do so.

This morning, my daughter informed me that she wants to go to college to “learn how to sew, knit and cook” …and I am perfectly fine with that. I can see the tips of your ears turning red right now. I can almost see the steam rising off of your heads. What! Spend all that money to go to college to become some stay at home cook who darns socks? Heaven forbid! Just wait, my friend. It’s not as bad as that.

MaryMcLeodBethune0“Maya and Kennedy said that they will go to Mary McLeod’s school when they go to college,” Aya chirped in her pleasant voice.

“You mean Bethune-Cookman University?” I asked.

“Yes! Bethune-Cookman,” she grinned. Then she settled back in her seat and watched the rain softly beat the windows of our car. “They teach you how to sew, cook and knit. Isn’t that cool?”

I’m the antithesis of crafty. Nothing about sewing or knitting sounds “cool” to me. But my baby is into that stuff, which means I have to put on a mask for her sake, just like I have to pretend I love trains for Stone or My Little Pony for Nadjah. I happen to like mermaids, so Liya and I have a grand time talking about them. The rest of the crew is missing out.

“Yes: that’s pretty cool. Would you like to visit the university one day?”

Aya’s face broke into a wide, toothy grin. “I’d love to!”

As I watched her from my rearview mirror, I could see the wheels in her head turning. Soon, she’d be in class telling all her little friends about how her mom and she would be going on a road trip – probably this summer – so she could see the school Mrs. Mary McCleod built. None of this has been discussed with me, of course.

I won’t lie: A small part of me is disappointed that she doesn’t want to get into science or computer aided drafting or any sort of 21st tech pursuit that will net her an easy six figure salary. But the honest truth is that we are always going to need people to sew, cook and knit. Obviously, Bethune-Cookman University most likely doesn’t over these as courses anymore. These were the foundations the school Mary McLeod began her Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1905 on. Although the school’s beginnings were humble, McLeod Bethune had high standards for her students:

“The rigorous curriculum had the girls rise at 5:30 a.m. for Bible Study. The classes in home economics and industrial skills such as dressmaking, millinery, cooking, and other crafts emphasized a life of self-sufficiency for them as women.”

mmc schholIn the early days, students made their own ink from elderberry juice and pencils from burned wood. The students seats and desks were made from converted crates housed in a rented home that served as the school. She began with 6 students and within a year, that number swelled to 30. The success of Black church was instrumental in her early success, and in time, Mary McLeod Bethune would go on to form alliances with some of America’s most influential businessmen and women, including J.D. Rockefeller, James Gamble and the Roosevelts. Through their financial support and fundraising efforts, she was able to expand her school. Soon Bethune added science and business courses, then high school-level courses of math, English, and foreign languages.

Mary McLeod Bethune was the daughter of former slaves. She herself began working in the fields at age 5 until education radically changed her life. Her passion for learning took her to heights that few Black women at that time could dream of. She was one of the few women (Black, white or otherwise) to be the president of a college in the 1920’s and beyond. She would later be appointed as an advisor to President Roosevelt. She was on the boards of numerous women’s rights and education organizations. She fought tirelessly for the rights of all children to have a quality education, and was an advocate for Black to take pride in and share their accomplishments. It was essential if they were to be seen as equal not only in the eyes of the American (white) majority, but in their own view as well.

“If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride – belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past.”

“Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.”

 

Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary and resourceful woman – truly remarkable. It was her great faith that buoyed her in the most trying of times. And if my daughter wants to go to her school to learn how to sew, cook and knit, I can’t find fault with that, because I know she will come out with knowledge, skills and an experience that reaches far beyond that. If the school still holds to McLeod Bethune’s original standards, Aya will emerge from their halls as a true entrepreneur and inventive woman. I doubt she will end up merely mending anyone’s socks for a pittance.

mary bethune

Perpetuating Half Truths and Whole Lies: My History of Black History Failure

As Black History Month draws to a close in a few hours, I find myself reflecting over the past 28 days – as I do annually – to determine what grade I would give myself for how the month was celebrated. I fret over whether my family attended enough events, whether the information my children was exposed to was impactful or useful, and most importantly if they remember any of it. This year I would give myself a C.

As any parent will tell you, there is so much other stuff out there competing for ones’ kid’s attention, and I often doubt how much they can retain with their little brains struggling to recall anecdotes from Martin when Monster High demands so much of their grey matter. Nevertheless, kids have a strange way of surprising you with their powers of recall. Last night, I tested Nadjah with an easy question, just to see if anything she had learned since kindergarten had stuck.

“Who was the first Black woman to be arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus,” I quizzed. This was an easy one. Ask any third grader this same question, and they will invariably answer with an excited ‘Rosa Parks’!

But Nadjah is in fourth grade.

“Rosa Parks,” she said confidently.

“Wrong,” I replied.

“Wait…what? No! It’s Rosa Parks, Mommy!”

I nodded. “Yes. That’s what they told you in school, because that’s what certain people want us to believe and accept…but it’s not true.”

maxresdefault1I went on the tell her that the first Black woman to be arrested for sitting at the front of the bus/not giving up her seat was a 15 year old girl named Claudette Colvin. Though both women were summarily arrested for their “crimes”, it was a full 9 months after Ms. Colvin had been arrested first that Mrs. Parks would commit the same crime. Nadjah wanted to know why she didn’t learn about Claudette Colvin instead, and I was more than happy to tell her. It was the first step in erasing my shame for my part in erasing key elements of Black history.

“The SCLC – Martin Luther King’s organization – did not think Claudette Colvin would be a “good symbol of defiance” for the unjust bus laws in the South,” I told her. “They thought she was too dark, and she was also a soon to be unwed mother. (I left out the bit about her being impregnated by a married man. I’m not ready for conversations about statutory rape just yet.) Rosa Parks was married, lighter … and therefore prettier… and had the prestige of working for the NAACP. They felt she would be a better face for the cause.”

“Well that’s just stupid. Wasn’t the point of the Civil Rights Movement to protect people who had darker skin in the first place?” she seethed. This was a good segue into the issue of colorism in the Black community. I made a few statements on the issue that made her lip curl.

“I wish I could just go back in time and slap a lot of people,” Nadjah lamented. I told her I’d often wished the same. She then went on to declare this: “Just because someone made a mistake, doesn’t mean that they can’t help make a difference. It shouldn’t have mattered that she was a pregnant teen…even if it was awkward.”

Yes. Yes! I cheered inwardly and sent her on her way, reminding her to remember Claudette Colvin’s name.

The history we have been and are being fed in this country – and the world over, really – is a sham. It is a bleached down, candy coated version of events, made digestible for species that now has the same capacity for remembering as a gold fish. Time and again, we have found African history (and African American history, by extension) white washed to fit the 21st Century imagination. The horrid story put out by Jezebel a few months ago describing Saartjie Baartman’s captivity and sexual exploitation as a girl “looking to travel and monetize her body in the process” is only the latest in a trend to downplay the true horrors that came hand in glove with colonialism and slavery. What’s worse is when Black people perpetuate these outright lies because it makes us feel a little better and a lot less ashamed. I no longer want to belong to that camp.

bronzeI realized in early February that I had failed my children by not giving them a complete picture of their Black experience in America and in the world at large. We were at our local library and the Griot Society was hosting an Are you Smarter Than a Griot session. People of all ages were encouraged to participate, so even my 4 year old got a chance to come up to the podium to answer a number of questions. When one very pretty 5th grader took her turn at the podium, she was asked this question:

“Ancient Africans were astronomers, architects and mathematicians. True or false.”

She crinkled her nose, looked up at the sky and thought for a minute.

“False?”

“No…that’s actually true,” said the moderator.

She raised her eyebrows in surprise and took her seat. She shared the same look of surprise that clouded my children’s countenance. This is how I know I have failed.

My children think that Europeans came to Africa and took away slaves. Nothing could be further from the truth. European slave traders and their African allies took away hairdressers, soldiers, princes and princesses, fiancés and nursing mothers. They took away little boys who loved to practice their aim with catapults and 16 year old girls who were to celebrate their rights of passage into womanhood. They stole the lives of people like me and you and turned them into slaves. This is what I must impress upon my children.

I am now trying to do better with presenting history – not just Black history – to my kids so that when folks say things like “Thomas Jefferson had a love affair with Sally Hemmings”, they can respond with reasons, and confidently so, as to why that was highly implausible as Sally Hemmings had no agency over her body as a Black female slave. What was she supposed to tell the old goat that was married to her half-sister in the face of his advances? No? Denying a white man his “rights” was a recipe for death and/or dismemberment. But doesn’t the idea that Thomas Jefferson really loved her make you feel better about her repeated rapes? This is part of that white washing we discussed earlier.

More importantly for me though is for my children to understand that our history as Africans/African Americans does not begin with slavery and end with Barack Obama becoming president. They should know that we are connected by blood with the Haitian, the Bajan , the Brazilian as well as the Georgia native. They are our cousins. There should never be a doubt that their ancient ancestors were medical practitioners or healers, skilled craftsmen and women, and architects who built tremendous palaces…because this was all true. The average person believes that there were no buildings over the height of one storey constructed in Africa outside of Egypt until the Europeans came along. This is another lie that I have perpetuated by not taking the initiative to introduce it into conversation.

I want us to know the truth, in all its beauty and blemishes. I think we must begin to speak the truth about ourselves, our past and our future, whether it is bitter or sweet.

Respectability Politics and Black Motherhood in America

Yesterday was Presidents’ Day, and like many stay-at-home moms across this country, I stayed at home with my kid. School was out and the older girls had come up with the wonderful idea to hold a mock election at home to see who would assume the position of “President for the Week”. As they busied themselves with poster making and decorating their ballot boxes, I realized that we were out of a few materials at home. We needed glue, cereal, shoes for Nadjah, a coat for Liya and Chick-Fil-a. The thought of driving around Roswell/Alpharetta and darting in and out of several stores with all my kids made my temples throb, nevertheless, I had put off purchasing these items for a week at least and decided it had to be done. Today.

I told the kids to put their coats and shoes on so we could head out, and locked the house door to a chorus of “YAY!!!” and “Where are we going Maawwmie?!?!” As I locked the door, I took a look down at my left hand, which was devoid of my wedding ring. I cringed and found myself confronted with another decision: Do I go back into the house and retrieve my ring and jam it onto my finger, or do I save time and energy and just leave without it?

I left home without it, but not before posting a quick status on Facebook about my decision.

Noring

You see M.O.M. Squad, I’m on this new diet, and one of the side effects for me has been puddling. I can literally feel the water puddling in my joints, and my fingers are no exception. I haven’t worn my ring in almost a week because it’s just that intolerable. Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: This can be a decision that comes with certain severe repercussions for Black women. Much like the young Black male who is “willfully courting danger” by leaving his home dressed in a hoodie and sagging jeans, the Black mother risks a particular set of repercussions for leaving her home in the company of her children sans proof of her betrothal, that evidence being the presence of a ring.

I’ve seen it happen on more occasions that I can count. The cashier or the passerby’s glance down at her left hand, the eyes roaming over the attire of the mother and/or her child(ren), the flash behind the eyes to quickly determine what level of respect this probable Welfare Queen should be accorded. I knew all of this when I left the house yesterday afternoon, but I simply could not bring myself to force the titanium and gold ornament my husband had given me a decade ago over my joints just to make other people comfortable. So out I went.

The first two stores I went into presented no problems. I shopped at Carter’s and Payless in search of clothing for the kids and struck out at both locations. Payless had tights on sale, so I snapped those up. The girls go through tights like Liberians go through rice. My next stop was Old Navy, and that was where the elements of respectability politics reared their ugly heads. As I walked into the store, my family was summarily ignored by the manager and the associate who were discussing a display at its entrance. I didn’t take offense, because I don’t always greet every customer that walks into the retail establishment I work at. No big deal. An associate way in the back was kind enough to point me to the clearance rack where I found a coat for Liya at a great price. The children were wandering the aisles – and not quietly – so I rounded them up and headed for the checkout lane. A woman with stringy brown hair and glasses sternly waved me over.

She looked at my face, looked at my children ooh’ing and aah’ing over the knickknacks at the counter, looked and my left hand, and wordlessly rang me up. I pointed out that jacket she had rung up was $24.00.

“Yes? So?”

“So it’s on sale for $15.99.”

She continued to stare at me blankly.

“Ma’am,” I repeated, “it’s on sale. You rang it up for $24.”

She flipped the tag over and giggled sheepishly, repeating “oh, oh, oh” in mock embarrassment. I smiled as if to pardon her error.

As my children continued to play, she glanced over at them regularly. Again, I did not care. When you’re a Black person living in America, you become accustomed to a certain level of scrutiny and suspicion. This is why I enjoy visiting other countries so much. It was at that point that she called another customer to her counter – before finishing my transaction – as though to hurry me along. I saw the cashier look back at the customer standing behind me. The customer was wearing a khaki jacket and a burgundy infinity scarf. I saw her look at my left hand and smile and strange little smile. She and the customer exchanged knowing looks, at which point I began to stare them both in the face with my eyebrows raised expectantly. Was there a joke I was missing? Could I get in? For 15 seconds I did not break my gaze until the cashier asked for my email address.

“You guys already have it, but I’ll give it to you anyway.”

I finished up my transaction and left.

Some of you reading this who live in other parts of the world may not see the big deal in this encounter. If I was coming straight out of Ghana, I’d tell my present self to “get over it”. After all, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, is it? Well no, Ms. Immigrant. In the grand scheme of things, it is actually quite damaging. These microaggressions – acts of unintended discrimination motivated by racism – are problematic and can be injurious to the recipient. After I posted my status, a friend of mine responded with this:

TeBlack

I was thunderstruck by her disclosure, though I should not have been. As someone who has had to be on WIC for a short while, I am very familiar with the looks of disdain that the seller flings at the customer when payment in WIC is processed. Women who are on government assistance these days are “lucky”. In my time, you had to separate your food items on the conveyor belt by those approved by WIC, present a voucher and THEN hand it over to the cashier. These days, it’s all done very inconspicuously on a government issued debit card so that it normalizes the transaction and gives dignity to the impoverished/unfortunate woman. Still, as my friend’s case reveals, that doesn’t stop people from assuming a Black woman with three or more kids must be on government assistance, does it?

The impact of microaggressions can be deadly. As I was contemplating my own brush with the phenomenon, I came across this post on the Humans of New York Facebook page:

hony

In this mother’s desperation not to be seen as a parasite on American society’s benevolence and peculiar standards (which is what single Black motherhood is in this country isn’t it? A scourge.) she kept herself in a potentially deadly scenario for the sake of fulfilling the norms of respectability politics. The messaging women of color, but Black women in particular, receive is “Well, at least you got a man to marry you! That should be good enough. Don’t be ungrateful. ” Meanwhile, a series of microaggressions and the accompanying messaging almost cost this woman her life.

Now, juxtapose my shopping the white woman’s experience. If she walks into Old Navy, it is assumed she has a nice house, a husband with a good job and is a frugal shopper who is doing her bit to save her family some money. No one questions a white woman walking into Old Navy with her kids and without her wedding ring. She may have taken it off while she was doing yoga or gardening. Maybe she’s even divorced and just trying to clothe her kids as fashionably and affordably as she can. Either way, bravo for her! We make assumptions about white woman/motherhood too.

I was humbled – and further troubled – when a friend of mine made this observation about my observation:

nimi

And isn’t that true? The average ‘real American’ would take one look at me while on an excursion with my children and make several assumptions about me, none of which would include a private school education, a bachelors obtained with high honors, or three books published.

Be honest. What do you see when you see a Black woman in public with her kids. What assumptions do you make about her? Do you have your thoughts formed? Okay, now consider your thoughts carefully.