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.
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?
You’ll hear their feet
Beating out and Beating out a —
It’s a happy beat?
Listen to it closely:
Ain’t you heard
like a —
What did I say?
Take it away!
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.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
~Langston HughesI, too, sing America.