Most of my birthdays begin with reflection and today was no different. Four decades of life…hard to believe. I often feared not living beyond 34 years of life (age my father died). Today I decided to list forty feelings I have as I enter my fortieth year of life. Here’s to the feels.
I don’t always feel capable. I don’t always feel strong. I don’t always feel loved. I don’t always feel known. Today, I am thankful to be in a place where these feelings can safely reside in me to remind me of my humanity and desperate need for God. No longer ignoring heart ache to search for heart joy, but rather embracing both as a sign that I am fully alive.
Forty feels simultaneously amazing and complex. This is not how I thought forty would look and I’m okay with that. I really am okay with all of that.
Imagine what it’s like to be stuck in a reality that dismantles your family, presumes your guilt based on your God-given gear ( I’m talkin’ skin color), and leaves you with a thousand sleepless nights and I will tell you what it’s like to have a Black son, brother, husband, father or friend to undergo the unwieldy American unjust justice system. Key word here is REALITY. For some the account of When They See Us by Ava DuVernay is philosophical and conversations loom around poetic pros and pithy arguments, yet I am unable to escape the striking resemblance to my family’s reality of justice gone wrong.
So many images from this series are seared into my psyche but none more piercing than that of a pride so deep that produces prejudicial action. This is the stuff of oppressive systems. My stomach turned in knots as I realized that when they (Whites) see us, they remember her (White investment banker brutally raped). How could they not? A judge, who like most, keeps a doting picture of his (White) wife on the bench; a young, White female prosecutor; fill in the _____________. A quick substitution of the rape victim with the face of the one they love and the five black boys on trial are no longer seen as such, but as a wolf pack to protect their loved ones from. This instinctive ability to re-imagine ourselves or a person we love/care about that has been victimized is all natural. Development of my empathetic muscles has come from a place of love through proximity. So, I’ll say it – love differently ya’ll. Love different people from different places of different races with different experiences and I am certain you will no longer see a wolf pack. You’ll see a student, a friend, someone’s brother, a child, a person.
On the other side of incarceration there are parents, siblings, children, friends who experience loss from a system designed to keep so many bound.
When They See Us not only exposes what happens when justice moves away from righting wrongs to jockeying for power, but also depicts the complex choices of those “on the other side.” It highlights how the pressures of our penal system forces parents to choose between provision and purported protection. Complicated.
Antron’s dad lost his son trying to protect him. Raymond’s dad would forever regret sending him to the same park where he would be targeted by police. Kevin’s sister is crushed by her 14 year old brother’s tear-filled plea to simply return home and signs a coerced confession. Complicated. Somehow through deep loss and grief, those on the other side are able to beautifully uphold the dignity of those they love. While it is painfully obvious during each episode that whiteness affords many the privilege of a better trial than their Black counterparts, I found a few other lessons embedded within.
Clinging to normalcy: the return home. The return home is anti-climactic. Fathers unprepared to receive the sons they’ve betrayed by choosing absence on court dates. Sons bravely clinging to normalcy found in the days of old. Holding tightly to the culmination of belongings in a brown paper bag. Dreaming nightly of the return home only to realize that the heart’s deep love must now sync with the awkward moments of freely being present with loved ones as the muscle memory of trauma reminds everyone to restrain affection and the expression of feelings. Trauma makes normal abnormal. We must be gentle with one another.
We are not okay: lying to survive The penal system can produce a family of pretenders. We all pretend that everything is okay post incarceration. Because how do you even begin to process that all involved have less hope in a justice system that doesn’t value our Black lives or legacy? Korey’s mom would ask him, “What is it like for you in here? Are they treating you okay?” His response was always, “I’m surviving…” or “I’m holding it down…” Responses which are echoed all across America. We may never know the entire story of someone’s trauma. For those that choose vulnerability, let them do so in their own time and in their own way. We must be gentle with one another.
“I’m just a shadow,” says Korey Wise, one of the exonerated five and victim of horrific beatings. “I’m very empty — 46 years old and empty. At the same time, I’m talking to the kid in me: ‘I got you, baby boy. Nobody can take your story from you.'”
Real love…I’m searching for a real love…someone to really see me. (cue Mary J. Blige song) It is real love that slowly shifts our gaze beyond bias and towards humanity. Love is less about whimsy, more about choice. It is an outright intention to choose another over yourself. It is sacrificial at it’s core. Consider those on the other side of incarceration (or providing trauma support) and ask yourself, how have I loved them? These parents, children, siblings, loved ones are often left in the shadows. Those who’ve directly experienced trauma and those supporting them need that real love.
“All I do all day long is LOVE YOU.” — Mother of Antron McCray, one of the exonerated five boys.
I’ve lived a lot of life as a single Black woman and I’ve resisted writing down these thoughts for a while, but usually in my writing I find solace sprinkled with liberty and saturated with courage. Courage to share that I am nearly FORTY (yep, the big 4 0) and I have spent almost half of those years navigating life as a single woman. This is at times a difficult truth because it is far from my desire or even what I had “planned,” but that’s NOT what this post is about. This post isn’t about the difficult aspects of singleness, it’s about the silent directives whispered to women by well-meaning friends and family to be someone other than their authentic selves to rid them of this thing called singleness.
The title “chronic singleness” is hyperbolic in nature and intended to conjure up thoughts of potential cures. Why? Because women who are single into their mid-to-late thirties begin to be treated as if their singleness was brought on by their selfishness (clearly they must be chasing a career), insecurities, high standards, or strong personality. In essence, the problem MUST belong to the woman… And of course some might say that all of the aforementioned “symptoms” are curable.
Here’s where well meaning peeps enter the scene. They begin asking the woman about things she could possibly change about herself to garner the attention of a man. Even recommending that she change her standards of desirable characteristics in a partner to simply look like… “man with a job.” It may sound funny to some, but this is only comical through your twenties. Once you reach your mid-to-late thirties it becomes exhausting. If this sounds personal, it is. I’ve received advise from people I love dearly that varies from trying an online dating app to revealing less of my educational background to appear less intimidating to men.
I’m exhausted fam. I have been told over and over again that I must shrink back so that the man can shine. Veil portions of my full self so that his presence can supersede mine. Why can’t we both shine together? This exhausting narrative has become awkward as I approach forty. Like, what else can you ask me to do to “prepare” for this mystery man? And why aren’t men being asked the same types of questions?
Truthfully, at this stage, people engage me with caution as they see my love for children and family and approach me with uncertainty to ask if it’s okay to pray for my future husband. Or the look on their face indicates that they are genuinely baffled as to the cause of my singleness and long for a day where I will share in the joy of a long term relationship and family of my own. I want to thank friends and family for their concern and care, but I must also request that you all stop treating me like singleness is something to be cured. The longing in my heart persists for marriage and a family of my own, but my life is full today. I am not lacking as a single person.
I remember the shame centered around this conversation as a woman in my mid-thirties when people who know me unintentionally communicated that I was not enough. A Christian community that idolizes marriage and gives little value to the single person often did the same. I began to embrace the idea of searching for a cure for my singleness; my chronic condition of incompleteness until I realized that I am enough. God’s design of me is COMPLETE. A change in marital status should only add to the beauty of my life as most relationships do. No single person completes another person. Periodt.
I, like, Ekemini Uwan of Truth’s Table, now hold this desire of marriage loosely. Her post titled, Singleness: My Only Companion, beautifully expressed many of the sentiments of my heart and communicated that I am not alone. Thank you sis. This past year God has shown me the beauty in daily gratitude for every met need. As I said every day last year and will continue to say, “I have what I need TODAY, therefore I will not complain.” This includes not complaining about being single. Each year God adds new relationships to my life when I need them and for this I am grateful.
When you see a woman in her mid-to-late thirties who is single, don’t offer her your unsolicited advice. Don’t make her feel like a leper because of her marital status. Don’t presume she is lonely or unfulfilled. Don’t even assume that marriage is a desire of hers. Remember, Jesus was single. I never hear anyone speak of his life of singleness with disdain. The Apostle Paul was single and that is never the first thing people mention when speaking about him. Peep this. All I want you to do is LISTEN if singleness is the topic of conversation. It is often more complicated than swiping left or right on an app or “putting yourself out there.” If the woman is a friend, a daughter, or colleague, listen to her heart when she shares it. Pray for her to live fully and freely in her singleness. And lastly, if she does desire marriage, pray for contentment in the longing. I believe she will benefit from those prayers. I know that I have. Life is full of unmet desires and yet God faithfully meets every need.
But godliness with contentment is great gain. – 1 Timothy 6:6
How has fear become my neighbor? Close enough to be a predictor of behavior, yet distant enough for me to ignore when discomfort arises.
Have you ever experienced a fear so great that it paralyzed you? A fear so magnificent that you felt powerless to respond and instead, you ran? I have. Two weeks ago I learned through an experience that fear not only keeps you from purpose, it keeps you from humanizing. Fear can make us irrational.
Embarrassingly, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to respond to a person’s need and comfort them after something pretty traumatic happened; trauma that I induced. Now, pause the tape. A rational response by me would have been to provide comfort to a “fellow neighbor” in need, but I didn’t. My feet were so mired in fear, that I irrationally did nothing. Press play. I did nothing. Nothing to comfort. Nothing to support. What I did do repeatedly in the moment was conjure up a myriad of reasons why “not responding to my neighbor” was the best idea. I have since made amends with that neighbor, but this life experience left me keenly aware of the power fear has to dehumanize others. The more salient lesson is that I am not exempt from such dehumanizing behavior. A humbling and indelibly heart gripping moment which is unforgettable.
Fear is rarely disruptive on the grand stage of life, but it lives in the mundane decisions happening minute by minute. It resides in our decision to ignore the outsider and choose our “known friends” repeatedly. It breathes in our decision to avoid eye contact with the marginalized or homeless. It contaminates our ability to see beyond external, often, superficial differences. Fear comfortably rests in our desire to remain comfortable in this life. No new relationships. No sacrificial giving of time or resources. No need to learn about another’s culture. No need for diversity of perspective or life experience.
As a Black woman, I look forward to the month of February because I’m most hopeful that it will afford me the unique opportunity to enter into conversations with people who are otherwise guarded on conversations of race. Then fear moves into the neighborhood… hello, neighbor…
During Black History Month, one of the most palpable things a non-person of color might fear is a meaningful discussion surrounding racialized systems which privilege some and prohibit others. Fear of being labeled a racist. Fear of not knowing what to say. Fear of saying the wrong thing. All valid concerns, yet, without such discussions, my history becomes dumbed down to a single speech, a rescued slave, or a heroic conductor. This history, my history, LIVES in the fabric of our education system, the socioeconomic strata, and undoubtedly in me. Black History, which is also American History, has somehow been re-categorized as a single month within the year where people of color can liberally speak of and celebrate their story. A story laden with triumph, not just tragedy. Fear supports an ethos of separate, but equal because of it’s irrationality.
Fear and love elicit visceral responses. Fear freezes. Love frees.
– Precious Jones
Vocabulary.com says that something visceral is felt in the gut. A visceral feeling is intuitive – there might not be a rational explanation, but you feel that you know what’s best.
I’m not certain that we can live our lives entirely absent of fear, but, I do believe the more we choose love, the more we’ll find ourselves likely to respond to our neighbors in the way that we desire to be responded to. A personal prayer of mine is to love others well and I am still learning how to do this when fear is pounding on my door, demanding re-entry. How can you evict fear and invite love into your community this February? This year? This lifetime? These are indeed the same questions I am left pondering.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. – 1 John 4:18 (ESV)
I see the depth of my humanity at the intersection of my darkest secrets and greatest hopes. At times I am secretly afraid and yet deeply hopeful. Teaching has unearthed a myriad of emotions. It has been a place where great joy and great need have collided. I believe I’ve needed the presence of students much more than they have needed any lesson I have taught them.
Living this dream has been nothing I expected and everything I’ve hoped for. I didn’t expect exhaustion or gaps in communicating with those I love. I didn’t expect to see the beauty in becoming a reflective practitioner. I didn’t expect to treasure sound feedback as much as I do. I hoped for joy filled days. I hoped that I would not be the only teacher in the room; that I might learn profound truths from the mouth of babes. I hoped that my discomfort would point me to Christ. I hoped that I would grow personally and professionally; both have occurred. A memorable student-led lesson that impacted my personal growth occurred on the first day in the classroom.
“Are you nice?” – 5th Grader somewhere in Memphis
On the first day of school I was full of nerves; all kinds of nerves and this student “had the nerve” to question my kindness? I should be nervous, right? It was my first day as a teacher. However, the candor with which this student spoke during my initial encounter with him was refreshing and taught me a lesson in token vs. true relationship. My first day attire was thoughtfully chosen. I “carefully” selected a colorful blazer and shirt which I thought wouldn’t cause me to appear too uptight that kids wouldn’t approach me or too casual that I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Clearly the student could not easily decipher the type of teacher I was and therefore decided to ask. Truthfully, his sweet candor never left me.
As adults, quick, unfounded, judgments are made upon initial encounters, and rather than finding out more about that person (as this student attempted to do), token relationships are established. True friendships are established as we seek to know and be known by others. Tokenism selfishly prompts us to hold on to a relationship based on what it can provide us and only access it when it has some direct value to us. It says, “I’ll use this token when I need it.” It has little care for the token itself, only what it can provide. Tokens are cheap and so are token relationships. The first day of school encounter has guided my interactions with students and adults in a new way. This student has encouraged me to seek to know others and allow others to get to know me. This knowledge doesn’t imply depth, but rather an earnest attempt to connect with others in an authentic way. This posture of connection with others has caused me seek to humanize others. It is the start of every conversation and every prayer. Game changer. This student taught me a lesson in empathy. For 2019, ya’ll can keep the change. I’m not in search of tokens.
As a self-proclaimed late dreamer, my professional growth as a teacher has revealed itself through expressions of love. I thought my first day in the classroom would be love at “first day,” but it wasn’t. In short, it didn’t feel like love, but it felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. And maybe this is love; not explicitly a feeling, but a knowing. A deep knowing that you are safe and that the reciprocation of the love that you’ve given will be returned without judgement. I have been loved well by a few in this season. These beautiful expressions of love have undoubtedly reminded this caterpillar that it was made to fly.
There is a love that liberates and a love that feels like it’s always been free. I choose freedom. – Queen Sugar
Teaching has been the realization of an unspoken dream. Dreaming doesn’t actually feel “dreamy” and comfortable, but I do feel ALIVE! Is it possible that in the dreaming I feel more human? Does this awakening of my humanity define what it means to really live? Living in the tension of hopes and heartache.
I now dream of teaching students more than math. I dream of teaching them of their inner and outer beauty. I dream of teaching them how to navigate a world which doesn’t always affirm them. I dream of teaching them to fly. Fly, babies, fly. When loved well, I believe flying is the only option.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. – Proverbs 13:12
“You’ve been here a LOOOOONNNNGGG time, Auntie…” – my 7 year old niece
And by “long time” she means that I’ve been in Orlando longer than 5 weeks. Of course, children her age have a skewed concept of time generally leading to hyperbolic expressions of events. Her tone was sweet and endearing as she described my return home from South Africa after a 3 month stay; this account was quickly met with bewilderment as to why I wasn’t allowed to stay as I had intended. She didn’t understand why my plans had changed. There was joy and sadness in her voice. Joy as we laughed and played together, but sadness because she knew that something “felt broken” in her auntie and there was seemingly no remedy in sight. I realized in that moment the depth of my village. It’s deep y’all. So, this blog is one of gratitude. Gratitude to my village.
“It takes a village to raise a child.” – African Proverb
I’ve been a “village person” all of my adult life. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the communal support system of nieces, nephews, cousins, and children in the various cities I’ve lived. I adore being a part of the village. The village isn’t just something we can benefit from as children. I’m learning, “As an adult, it takes a village to really live.” There are things that my friends provided that my family could not. There are thoughtful ways that my family supported me to remind me that I am more than what I do. I am family. The warmth of my niece’s presence and her hand-written notes with God at the center that say, “We love you God,” remind me not to take for granted her place in my village.
Without this village, I would have floundered upon my return from South Africa. Instead, I’ve been able to share my disappointment with my niece from the vantage point of a diamond, not defeat. I want my nieces and nephews to know that they can do hard things. They can try new things and succeed. They will also try new things and fail. But, they must try. Their village is strong.
In the last 6 months I’ve experienced very high highs and low lows. I’ve cried. I’ve lamented. I’ve laughed. I’ve dreamed. I finally dreamed. My village came through as I took deep breaths and acted with new courage imbued by faith. I was no longer a reservoir in the village, I had become a recipient. This transition has brought me face to face with my need for village people. I am thankful for the expanse of people in so many different places that I know are a part of my village and I theirs. Thank you all for your prayers, texts, meals, couch-surfing opportunities, and encouragement. Thank you for allowing me to do hard things; to live freely. This freedom has allowed me to throw off yet one more chain. The chain that links my identity to what I do has been thrown off! What does that look like for me? Well, I’m glad you’re interested!
When I envision myself really living in freedom, it takes me to a place where I am most myself; when I am teaching and in the presence of children. Therefore, I will no longer hesitate to make moves to make this a reality. I’m moving deeper into the village! I’ve accepted an offer to be a resident in a teacher residency program in Memphis while completing a Master’s in Urban Education. I’m excited to become a teacher after this year of residency. Teaching is hard work, but I can think of no other space where I will be more alive. I am certain there are beautiful exchanges I will have with the community of Memphis as we learn from one another. Memphis, here I come!
Some might describe my journey from engineering to education as steps backwards, but I would describe them as the most courageous and invigorating steps forward. When I stand in the classroom, I know I will not stand alone. I echo the words of Maya Angelou in saying, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” As my heart enlarges for the vulnerable and marginalized, I am compelled to do things I’ve never done before to see justice lived out in a way I’ve never seen.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. – Joshua 1:9 (ESV)
Short caveat before providing a minor critique of the response to the Black Panther movie. ~ Black Panther was such a substantive movie. I REALLY enjoyed it and have begun to think about how I can live in such a way that Wakanda can move beyond a figment of my imagination. I’m re-imagining how I can participate in creating a world where black and brown people of the diaspora know their worth, are proud of their ethnicity, freely celebrate their culture, and have the skills necessary to drive innovation in technology.
Caveat over. 🙅🏿
Men, I need to talk to y’all. Especially black men. I need answers. Stat! Maybe you’ll shine some light so that I can cast less shade, because I have plenty to throw right now.
Never have I seen black women who are bald or have short hair and darker skin praised for their beauty AND strength by…black men. Black men have praised plenty of black women that have long, straight (or minimally kinky) hair, with lighter skin as beautiful. This type of praise is unconventional in the American black culture. However, since Black Panther so brilliantly displayed women with such phenotypical features, they pretty much have gained goddess status. Bruhs are like… “Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri, are my new standard for beauty…” As a woman of dark skin who’s not always experienced this type of affirmation from black men, I appreciate that! My contention is with the “new-found way in which you’ve presumably embraced my strength as well.
STRONG BLACK WOMAN – not new, so let’s not treat it as such
While Wakanda itself is a fictional place in Africa, the Dora Milaje Warriors of Wakanda are not. Arica L. Coleman, of Time, recently wrote an article, “There’s a True Story Behind Black Panther’s Strong Women. Here’s Why that Matters” that provides historical context. Many black women are unofficially given the title of “strong black woman” and it carries with it unbelievable weight, often to the detriment of emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Peep this book from Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, if you desire some freedom here. This is not the strength that beams from my sistahs on the screen of Black Panther. It is not the strength that simply ignores pain. Not the strength that forsakes self-care for the care of everyone else in their tribe. These women are physically and intellectually strong. They are beautifully portrayed as women whose strengths are not seen as a threat, but as an additional weapon in the protection of a nation they all love. Think asset not liability.
Here’s why I’m salty. I’m salty because my social media news feed has been full of posts and comments from black men that are practically giddy with the portrayal of women in this movie. Especially commenting on their strength and beauty. Well, guys, there seems to be a contradiction in what your social media post say and what I’ve experienced in life as a real-life Dora Milaje woman. Yep, self proclaimed Milaje woman. Here’s what’s been communicated directly and indirectly to me by men as a strong black woman:
Your strength is intimidating, so tone it down and don’t have too many thoughts on the issue.
Be anything but assertive in the presence of men. Too much sauce is too much sauce. Minimize your intelligence at those times.
You are so much more beautiful if you have hair extensions that make your hair straight or very long.
Regardless of your education and experience, your voice is always less valuable than any man in the room.
Your dark skin is exotic. You are not beautiful enough to be pursued in relationship, only observed.
The list could continue, but the point is not to be exhaustive, but to challenge this notion that black men really do find the Dora Milaje warriors, Nakia, Queen Ramonda, and Okoye attractive with all of their strengths. As a friend and I discussed the movie, she brought out the perspective that because T’Challa’s black panther suit was brilliantly designed to absorb kinetic energy with each bullet fired at him and later reused in his own defense, she often wanted him to take “more hits” so that his defense would be even stronger. Such an interesting concept with parallels to black men across the diaspora. Black men have been taking hits for a long time. They’ve had a shield that absorbed a lot of the blows for them; the black woman. Black women are still absorbing daily blows for black men.
As we close out another Black History Month and a month that celebrates love, I ask men again, Wakanda woman do you really want? Many of you already have women with the strength of the Dora Milaje warriors as family members, colleagues, and friends. Hug these women. Protect these women. Walk through healing with these women. Help facilitate the dreams and gifts within these women. Love those women. #InWakanda, strength is only a threat to the enemy, not family. We are all family in the African diaspora.
After Wakanda, it appears I no longer must choose between beauty and strength. As a dark-skinned woman with thick kinky hair, it’s always been one or the other. Men, I hope my real-life experience begins to match what’s on your social media feed. I hope to see board room dynamics change. I hope to see many of my beautiful and educated, black friends change their status from “single” to “in a relationship” this year. I hope they will no longer be despised for their strength, but fully loved amid it. Brothers, if there was ever a time to shoot your shot, it’s now. Maybe elements of Wakanda will become a reality sooner rather than later…
“Gender roles and strength don’t counter each other at all.” –