Finding Voice When Silenced

Today is a hard day. I, like most Black people, am unsurprised at the news that Darren Wilson was not indicted. But that doesn’t stop my sadness. Or my hurt. Or my frustration with being part of a system in which someone’s fear is valued more highly than someone’s life. I am frustrated because I want to do something, but am uncertain what to do. I want to say something, but I am uncertain of what to say that could ease a miniscule amount of the pain ripping through the Black community. So as I wait for the words to come, I remember a time when I found my voice.

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When I was somewhere around 7 years old, my brother and I were part of a gifted and talented poetry class that met before school in the mornings. I don’t have a ton of memories from that time in my life but I do remember two things very clearly: 1) we read only poetry by Black poets and 2) I fell in love with Langston Hughes in that class.

Of course I didn’t know I was in love at the time. I just knew that I absolutely wanted to perform a piece of poetry and that it HAD to be to “Dream Boogie” by Langston Hughes. For those who are unfamiliar, here it is:

Good morning, daddy!

Ain’t you heard

The boogie-woogie rumble

Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:

You’ll hear their feet

Beating out and Beating out a —

You think

It’s a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:

Ain’t you heard

something underneath

like a —

What did I say?

Sure,

I’m happy!

Take it away!

Hey, pop!

Re-bop!

Mop!

Y-e-a-h

At such a young age, I think I was drawn to the iambic pentameter of the poem. I remember bouncing up and down and reciting it over and over. Even today, I remember how proud I was that I’d learned this poem, not knowing the lasting effects that experience would have on me.

Fast forward to middle school when we were doing the traditional American public school nonsense surrounding ‘Black History Month’. One of the options for a ‘Black History Project’ was to do a research paper on a Black author. I recalled Langston Hughes from my childhood and chose him. This is when I encountered a poem that would forever change how I viewed myself as a Black person: “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes.

Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor — Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, And reachin’ landin’s, And turnin’ corners, And sometimes goin’ in the dark Where there ain’t been no light. So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps ‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now — For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’, And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

You can imagine that at 11 years old I didn’t really get it. But in the midst of my research I learned a lot about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and Jim Crow. This was also the time when the Million Man March was happening in Washington, DC and my dad let me and my brother stay home from school (he also made us write a paper on the importance of this march which, in the eyes of an 11 year old, was of course worse than going to school).

That following summer I turned 12 and participated in a theater and drama camp. This was probably my favorite camp experience of all time because I was finally old enough to appreciate the beauty of performing arts as a way to have voice. Like most 12 year olds, I wasn’t articulate with my words (despite journals full of awful poetry), but I had enough emotions and thoughts to fill an auditorium. That summer, I channeled all of myself into that camp. I ended up being in almost every piece at the final performance. I stepped, I sang in the Gospel choir (Kirk Franklin anyone?), I did a swing dance, was the lead in a series of African dances, and I was also a part of a trio of young women reciting Nikki Giovanni’s, “Ego Trippin”:

I was born in the Congo I walked to the fertile crescent and built    the sphinx I designed a pyramid so tough that a star    that only glows every one hundred years falls    into the center giving divine perfect light I am bad I sat on the throne    drinking nectar with Allah I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe    to cool my thirst My oldest daughter is Nefertiti    the tears from my birth pains    created the Nile I am a beautiful woman I gazed on the forest and burned    out the Sahara desert    with a packet of goat’s meat    and a change of clothes I crossed it in two hours I am a gazelle so swift    so swift you can’t catch me    For a birthday present when he was three I gave my son Hannibal an elephant    He gave me Rome for mother’s day My strength flows ever on My son Noah built new/ark and I stood proudly at the helm    as we sailed on a soft summer day I turned myself into myself and was    Jesus    men intone my loving name    All praises All praises I am the one who would save I sowed diamonds in my back yard My bowels deliver uranium    the filings from my fingernails are    semi-precious jewels    On a trip north I caught a cold and blew My nose giving oil to the arab world I am so hip even my errors are correct I sailed west to reach east and had to round off    the earth as I went    The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid    across three continents I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal I cannot be comprehended except by my permission I mean…I…can fly    like a bird in the sky…

I remember auditioning for the recitation of “Mother to Son”, but being advised to instead participate in “Ego Trippin”. I took the suggestion well and was rewarded with an introduction to Black women poets. I spiraled out from Nikki Giovanni (after purchasing and voraciously reading an anthology of her work), reading poems by Maya Angelou and Audre Lorde. I let their words inspire mine and slowly, I found my voice. While my poetry was adequate at best, my prose was becoming stronger. I wrote every story, every school paper, and every note to my friends with a tone of authority and confidence. Having always been an avid reader, I worked on becoming a critical reader. What was the author really talking about? How did they orient themselves within the context of the piece? Why are these sweet lyrics being presented with strong dynamics? What do people see or think or hear when I speak? I looked for myself in every word. When I couldn’t find myself, I rewrote it to suit my needs.

When I went to College, I knew I wanted to be an English major. I thrived in a department with small, discussion based classes where we read and wrote about a book per week.  I learned to adjust my more flowery and esoteric English writing to fit better within more concise and precise Psychology frameworks.  I wrote with both hands from two lenses. I wrote my feelings while also examining my thoughts. It was cathartic.

I went to grad school and wrote on behalf of other people. I gave voice to marginalized families who felt they couldn’t speak on behalf of their own children.

I became an Education professor. I cultivate student voice, both written and oral. I encourage receptive, procedural and expressive skills because if my students can’t or don’t speak for themselves, someone will speak for them.

I created a blog. For myself. To work through the complexities of my identities and how they created my  presence.

I struggle every day with how to best serve this world. I sit in the wake of a series of political and racial injustices and find it difficult to locate my voice. I open a blank document and just start typing thinking that saying something is often better than saying nothing. Then I remember the 7 year old girl with glasses and crooked teeth who found her voice on a page of poetry.

Then, I speak. And though I’ve never actually said this, I always want to:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

 

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

 

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

 

I, too, am America.

~Langston HughesI, too, sing America.

#BlackLivesMatter #WeTooAreAmerica

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The Road to Hell is Paved by You

Your intentions don’t matter to me. No, really…they don’t. I don’t care if you ‘meant’ to be complimentary. That is not a compliment. I don’t care if you think what you are saying or doing is perfectly acceptable. It’s not. It’s offensive and racist. To hell with your intentions. Because frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Here are a few things that happened to me in the last 3 weeks.

1) A friend and colleague of mine was nominated for an award by a local arts council (she is a professor of theater and dance). Three of us went to the event to support her nomination and to enjoy some time away from work. We meet at her house and get dolled up for the event. We arrive at the event and are clearly the best dressed people there (this isn’t saying much. The bar for fashion in this city is lower than dirt). Oh, I should mention that my friend group is comprised like this: 2 black women, 1 brown woman, and 1 white woman who is often mistaken as Latina or Asian. There were three other people of color in the room of about 200 people. Three times during the short evening (we left halfway through the program) people asked all or some combination of us if we were ‘a singing group’.

Riiiiiight, because a group of women of color dressed up are clearly here to entertain you. Please hold while I shuck n jive right quick.

2) At the same event, we sat down in the middle of a table set for 10. There were already 2 older white women at the end of the table but the remaining 8 seats were open. 10 minutes after we sat down, a party of 3 (two white women, one white man) claimed the remaining seats at the table. We were still in the cocktail hour so the line for food was long. We chose not to get in line so we were sitting and enjoying lively conversation. I suddenly feel someone standing behind me to the left. I look up and it’s one of the ladies in the trio. She is just hovering and clearly attracts our attention. When we are all looking at her, she asks (in a meek, timid voice): “you aren’t going to steal my purse are you?” Then she paused to hear our response.

Hmmm…lady, I don’t want your Ross purse.

3) A colleague knocks on my office door, enters without waiting for a response and sees I am meeting with a student. She slowly backs out but I ask her if she needs anything immediately. She comes into the office and hands me something small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. She tells me to open it. It is bronzer in the shade of ‘sun kissed’. She tells me it’s ‘beautiful’ (3 times) and exclaims about how much she knew I’d like it. Yes, please give me lots of bronzer so that I may continue to paint myself in black face every day.

Newsflash: my skin is brown. I don’t need bronzer.

4) A Masters student sees me for the first time in about a month. My hair is different now: I’m wearing it in its natural state in all its afro glory. This is what she says: oh wow! Your hair is awesome like that. It was nice before, but that…that is POWER hair. It makes a statement. You should wear it like that all the time. How’d you get it like that?’

Oh, I just woke up and started the process of creating miniscule curls packed densely together. And I did it because I wanted to make a statement.

5) It is 8am and I am meeting colleagues at a local bagel shop to have a meeting. While I wait for my colleagues to get their food and join me at the table, an older white woman approaches me and says: “You are gorgeous. I love that color purple you’re wearing. It really pops against your skin. It would make me look drab but if I had skin like yours, I’d wear purple every day!!!”

If you had skin like mine, you would know that brown skin has far more severe influences on life than fashion decisions.

After numbers 3 and 4 happened today, I was done. I debriefed with a colleague who ‘gets’ these issues. She was rightfully annoyed and angry and she posed the following question: whose responsibility is it to educate these people?

I don’t know. But today, they don’t pay me enough to explain my skin, my hair, nor my presence in the context of white life. And I don’t *intend* to explain this tomorrow.