“She had ALL the words”

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.
Toni Morrison- Beloved, 1987

Today was one of those days when everything stopped for me. The Queen of the English language has died. Born Chloe Ardella Wofford, Toni Morrison was America’s most celebrated literary artist. In 1993 she became the first Black woman to win the Noble Prize in Literature. Her accolades are numerous. Her career amazing, but my attachment to Toni Morrison feels personal. No, I never met her (although I did speak with her on the telephone once), but through her novels I felt like she was speaking directly to me.

There are many Black women writers who gave voice to my concerns and identities—Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Dorothy West, and Alice Childress are but a few. But, no one had the command of language Toni Morrison did. Her powerful use of language and understanding of the challenge of Blackness in the midst of the most virulent racism and White supremacy spoke to the nation and the world in ways few others could. James Baldwin was a literary genius but he rarely spoke directly to the double bind of race and gender. Toni Morrison knew me from the inside out.

As soon as it was published (1987) I began reading Beloved. It is not a long book—a mere 275 pages but it took me a long time to finish it. Every evening I would come home from work and sit down to read it. It was so heavy, so soul shattering, and so disturbing that I could only process a chapter or two at a time. For someone who reads tons of books every year, this was new. I had breezed through The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby. I loved every book but Beloved was something all together different. Morrison dedicated it to “Sixty Million and More” and every conscious Black person knows who those 60 million and more were.

In 1989 the Michigan Quarterly Review published her University of Michigan lecture, “Unspeakable things unspoken: The Afro-American presence in American literature” and Morrison once again rocked the world. Her critique of the American literary canon spoke to all of the ways racism pervades every aspect of American life. Her words so energized and challenged me that I began to re-think much of what I was writing. At that time I was finishing up data collection on a study that would result in my first book. I was also writing articles about “multicultural education” but something was disturbing me about what I was attempting to argue. Morrison’s unflinching look at race and White supremacy woke me out of the academic sleepwalking that had become a part of “playing the game.” If one of the best writers in the world could call out race, I could at least begin to explore it in my scholarship.

From the moment I began writing about Critical Race Theory (1995) I have quoted Morrison. From the time I began teaching about race and racism in education I have required students to read Morrison (especially, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, 1992) and watch a portion of her PBS interview with Bill Moyers (1990). Watching her do what she does with the English language blew my students’ minds. How did she think of that? Who knew you could create such eloquence with English? I feel so inadequate listening to her! These were just a few of my graduate students’ comments. I knew exactly how they felt. When I truly discovered Toni Morrison I came to realize she had ALL the words!

Rest in Peace and Power our beautiful Literary Queen!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“I Am Baltimore”

Well, he’s done it again. The current occupant of the White House has declared that the city of Baltimore, Maryland is a rat-infested city in which no one should live. If you’re anything like me you are growing weary of these childish tantrums and rants that are mere distractions from his ineffectiveness, bad policies, and possible high crimes and misdemeanors. But the slap at Baltimore and Congressman Elijah Cummings in particular is infuriating and insulting. How can someone call himself President of the United States but decide that many of the cities, that are the economic engines of their respective states and that he ultimately presides over are unworthy? The pattern of attack is clear. Find a city with a large number of Black and Brown residents, a Congressional representative or Mayor of color and denigrate it. These statements are raw meat to the White nationalists who fawn over him. He has derided Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. His comments are not dog whistles—they are bullhorns. We all hear them and know exactly what they mean.

My own attachment to Baltimore began when I decided to attend Morgan State University in the mid 1960s. Morgan State was named a National Treasure in 2016, only the second Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to receive this designation from the National Preservation Trust. The first HBCU to be named a National Treasure is Howard University in Washington, DC. As someone born and raised in Philadelphia I found Baltimore a very comfortable place to live and study. It was similar to Philly in many regards—large number of African Americans, temperate climate, home to culture, arts, sports, and a vibrant music scene. What it lacked, in my opinion, was a subway system and decent cheese steaks. However, those shortcomings did not keep me from appreciating its many assets. In addition to Morgan State, Baltimore was home to Johns Hopkins University and Loyola University of Maryland. It had the wonderful Enoch Pratt Library System and an amazing history. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman came from nearby parts of Maryland. Geographically, Baltimore is perfectly located between Philadelphia and Washington, DC. And, no place has better crab cakes!

More important, Baltimore was the place where I really did grow into adulthood. My college career was bookended by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. I came to true political awareness in Baltimore. Most of my professors were African American and I had the privilege to study with the eminent historian, Professor Benjamin Quarles—foremost authority on the African American contribution to the Revolutionary War. I learned to mount cogent arguments in Baltimore at Morgan State. My budding activism was encouraged and cultivated in Baltimore. I participated in housing discrimination protests and sat in auditoriums listening to Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Nina Simone, Muhammad Ali, and others who were at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Yes, Baltimore was the place where I had to put on my “big girl panties!”

To hear the alleged leader of the free world talk about such an iconic city in such a demeaning and disparaging way is more than offensive. It is racist and there is no skirting around that. He does not talk that way about cities and towns struggling with opiod and methamphetamine challenges in West Virginia, Kentucky, or parts of Ohio. He deliberately targets cities that are home to large numbers of Black people. Perhaps if he knew anything about Baltimore he’d realize that it has a vibrant Inner Harbor that is home to the National Aquarium. He’d know that the city is home to Camden Yards, one of the best baseball venues in the country. He’d know that Baltimore is home to Fort McHenry where the National Anthem he claims to revere was written. He’d know that his own Health and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson came to fame as a neurosurgeon at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University Hospital. He’d also know that his favorite son-in-law Jared Kushner owns more than a dozen apartment complexes in Baltimore that have been cited hundreds of times for mice infestations.

Baltimore is no different from other major cities in the US. It has a combination of pluses and minuses. Yes, there is traffic, crime, struggling schools, and a lack of quality affordable housing that leads to homelessness. But, there are also museums, parks, street festivals, music venues, theaters, restaurants, sports, and most of all hard working Americans who are building their lives and contributing to the economy and the body politic.

It is clear as we get closer to the 2020 presidential the more outrageous the tweets, statements, and actions that emanate from number 45 will become. We have to be focused on what we need to do to get government that is responsive to our concerns and that embraces a vision of the country that includes people from different races, ethnicities, linguistic groups, national origins, religions, sexual and gender orientations, abilities, and political perspectives. Right now we are dealing with our very own circus clown who is the laughing stock of the world. He has as much right to criticize Baltimore as he has to criticize someone’s hairstyle. However, no matter what he says, I am proud to say, “I am Baltimore!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“We ARE Home!”

Over the last few weeks the current resident of the White House tweeted a message indicating that 4 freshman members of Congress—all women, all women of color—should “go back to where they came from.” By every standard of decency we recognize this as a racist sentiment, unbefitting anyone in public office, let alone someone occupying the highest office in the land. The comments on the left have been swift and condemned Donald Trump for his constant race baiting. Many members of the Republican Party have twisted themselves into pretzels attempting to justify his words. How many passes does this rich, White, entitled male get?

The four Congresswomen—Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.- NY), Ilhan Omar (D.-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D. – MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D.-MI)—were elected in the 2018 midterm election that allowed the Democrats to gain control of the House of Representatives. Three of the 4 women were born in the US. Congresswoman Ihan Omar was brought to the US at the age of 10 from war torn Somalia and became a naturalized citizen at the age of 17. By every measure recognized in this country these women ARE home. There is no need for them to go back anywhere.

If we were to use this “go back to where you came from” standard, most White people would find themselves heading back to England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and countries throughout Europe. And, since most of them came during the great European migration their tenure in the country is shorter than that of African Americans, many Latinx Americans, and of course, Native or Indigenous Peoples. But when people arrive is irrelevant to their standing as citizens in the US. A citizen is a citizen is a citizen. Even Donald Trump’s two immigrant wives are citizens!

Because the White House resident does not reflect a real knowledge of the US Constitution, he seems unaware that critique and challenge of the powers that be are an integral part of democracy. It is in totalitarian regimes that citizens are not permitted to criticize their government. You cannot criticize the governments of Russia or North Korea or Iran. Apparently Mr. Trump knew this when Barack Obama was President. He criticized him and the country incessantly. Now, the rules have apparently changed.

The more unfortunate aspect of this incident is that it has once again revealed the deep-seated racism and xenophobia that is rife in the nation. When this kind of vile language emanates from the highest office in the land it gives license to people throughout the nation to act on their racism. We saw this in Charlottesville and again in rallies with people shouting, “Send her back!”

As an American of African descent I am so angered by this hate and venom. Does this man realize that we actually built this nation? The entire economy of the South and much of that of the North were built on the free labor of my ancestors. We are responsible for what would become the world’s most prosperous nation. If we go back to where we allegedly came from we are taking our “stuff” with us—our music, our art, our dance, our inventions, our language, our style, our athleticism, our Championships, and our Olympic Gold medals. We are taking it all. Indeed, we are taking the buildings and institutions we built—the White House, the University of Virginia, the Ivy League Universities, and the insurance companies that profited from money that lucrative cotton crops produced.

Of course, we really don’t have to worry about taking all of those things with us because we really are not going anywhere. We ARE home!

Stay Black and Smart!

“When We Tell Our Own Stories”

By now you have either seen all or part or at least heard about the Ava Duvernay written, created, and directed Netflix series, “When they see us.” The 4-episode mini-series tells the story of 5 Black New York teenage boys that were arrested and convicted of beating and raping a White woman jogger in Central Park in 1989. The filmmaker meticulously and painstakingly shows how the prosecution and the press crafted a story of young Black boys out of control on a rampage that resulted in a horrific attack. Viewers saw how the story the authorities constructed ended up in convictions despite the fact the evidence did not support the young men’s guilt.

For years the boys (and later men) were referred to as “The Central Park 5.” Even the now President of the United States, Donald J. Trump weighed in on what should happen to them back in 1989. He took out an almost $60,000 full page ad in the New York Times calling for bringing back the death penalty so it could be applied to the boys. All of the juveniles were convicted spending between 5 and a half and 12 years in prison. The 16 year-old, Korey Wise was sent to adult prison where he was violently abused and assaulted.

The story of what these boys and their families suffered is hard to watch. Many people I know say they could not finish watching the series or that they would not watch it at all. People talk about how angry and upset they got while watching it. All of this is understandable but I want to address some other issues the mini-series brings up that also make us uncomfortable.

1. Far too many of us (Black people) were complicit in accusing the teenagers. Instead of hearing their stories most of us had the incident interpreted through the lens of mainstream media. In fact, the media even gave us a word that we accepted—“wilding”—as a way to describe the boys’ presumed behaviors.

2. The interest convergence between the wealth and power of White men (e.g. Donald Trump) and the defense of White womanhood was unsettling. I want to be clear I am in no way suggesting that the jogger was not victimized. She was, and any human being can sympathize with the brutal assault she suffered. But to see the way White male power and White womanhood aligns against blackness reminds me as to why 51 percent of White women voted for Donald Trump.

3. The parents’ (and most Black people’s) total ignorance of the way the justice system systematically works against us was made evident in the mini-series. The system turned these boys into men—scary Black men. Not understanding or being able to exercise their Constitutional rights meant that the families felt defeated from the very beginning. They hired people who were lawyers but not all were criminal defense lawyers. From the very beginning the boys were at a severe disadvantage.

4. No one was telling the boys’ story. The prosecutors, the press, and the public were all telling a story about the boys, that was a web of lies. The voices of the boys and their parents were silenced. This is the power and beauty of Duvernay’s filmmaking. She inverts the gaze and instead of looking at the boys as soulless, violent criminals we get to see their humanity at the same time we see the forces arrayed against them. We see how racism works, not just as individual people’s prejudices but as an entire system against which few people can stand. Duvernay was deliberate in not calling the boys (and now men), “The Central Park Five.” That identity continues to tie them to “wilding” and being a “wolf pack” as portrayed by the media. No, Duvernay made a point of saying, “When they see us”…they see something altogether different. They get to see us a human beings.

Learning to tell our own stories is one of the most powerful things we can do. If you have visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC you know it moves you because it tells our story from our perspective. It does not start our story in slavery and it does not represent us as disempowered, weak, impotent people. The most common statement that Whites who visit the museum is, “I had no idea!” And they had no idea because before this museum they rarely got to hear our story told by us.

The next time a Black person is unfairly accused of a crime or abused by law enforcement, or even singled out for just living while Black (e.g. having a barbeque, selling bottled water, going to a swimming pool, etc.) we have to make sure we get to hear their stories from their perspective. Now we have to make sure that they both see us and hear us!

Stay Black & Smart!

“It Could’ve Been Me!”

I went to church this morning. It’s something I do almost every Sunday. I don’t give it a second thought. I wake up, get dressed, and drive to church. I attend a traditional Black Baptist church. Almost everyone who attends is Black. I participated in the prayers, the praise and worship, the offertory, listened to the sermon, rejoiced during the invitation when people either gave their lives to Christ and/or decided to join the church. It never occurred to me that some crazed person would enter the sanctuary and shoot up the place.

The feeling I had was exactly the same one those in the Muslim community in Christchurch New Zealand had when they went to jummah or Friday prayer. They went to something they attended on a regular basis with the full expectation that they would see friends and families and pray to God in peace. Why wouldn’t they expect that? Unfortunately, they became victims like those in the Milwaukee Sikh temple, Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, and the Pittsburgh synagogue. The disease of white supremacy reared its ugly head again and viciously took the lives of 49 individuals.

When most of us heard the news we were horrified, of course, but I’m not sure we gave much thought to it in relation to our personal lives. But, the truth is this could have been any of us. The cancerous hate that was on display in Christchurch, New Zealand is the same hate that is spreading across the US like a wildfire. Hate crimes are up and we are allegedly led by someone who in one sentence claims to be in sympathy with the people of New Zealand and in a subsequent sentence or tweet claims we need to keep out murderers and rapists who are only identified as people from south of the US.

Racism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, sexism, Anti-Semitism all stem from the same place. It is a place of deep insecurity and feelings of losing a presumed place in the world. It requires people to turn those who are different on any dimension—race, class, gender, sexuality, language, religion, etc.—into “others.” It requires people to turn those who are different into less than human. When I examine my own cultural history I must acknowledge that it took a war and Constitutional amendments to acknowledge my personhood. As a woman it took another amendment to give me citizen rights to be able to vote. So many people have been victimized by hate and exclusion but it seems we suffer from cultural amnesia when the group under attack is a group other than our own.

You may be reading this and thinking a group of Muslims on the other side of the world have nothing to do with you. But, the perniciousness of hate is that it is never confined to one group or one moment. When it happened to the American Indians who stood against it? When it happened to the enslaved Africans and their descendants who stood against it? When it happened to Jews in Nazi Germany and throughout Europe who stood against it? When it happened in apartheid South Africa who stood against it? When we saw the Rwandan genocide who stood against it? When the news tells us about the massacre of Rohingya in Myanmar who stands against it? When our children are shot down in their schools and classrooms who stands against it? We are living in some terrible times and perhaps we will begin to stand against wanton violence when we view each act as one that could’ve been us!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Why Johnny (or Taylor) Must Cheat”

I have devoted my entire professional life to the education of Black children. I have declared from my earliest days of public school teaching to the conclusion of my career in the academy that Black children are capable of learning and possible of academic success. I have argued that because of the incredible education debt the nation has accumulated toward Black students (and other students of color), the students would regularly face an uneven playing field when it came to opportunities related to education. This debt is historical—we have always failed to provide quality education for some groups. The debt is economic—we have always provided less fiscal resources for some groups. The debt is socio-political—we have always worked to disenfranchise some groups. And, the debt is moral—some things are just plain wrong!

Yesterday we learned that in addition to White skin privilege, financial resources, access to better schools, and all kinds of social and political connections, some of the society’s wealthiest families found yet another way to cheat in order to ensure their children get admitted to some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions—Yale, Stanford, USC, and UCLA among them.

The fact that wealthy kids get into elite colleges and universities is not news. People who give lots of money to institutions can expect that their children will get greater consideration. People who are alumni of colleges and universities can expect that their alumni status will give their children a boost in their admissions profiles. People whose children are elite athletes can expect that their children will also receive special consideration in the admissions process. For example, Stanford (a school I know a little about as an alumna) is regularly lauded as a school whose athletes are also good students. That is true. The Stanford athletes are “good” students. However, they are not necessarily “great” students. In fact, the disparity between Stanford scholarship athletes and the general Stanford student population is greater than the disparity between Big Ten scholarship athletes and the Big Ten general student population. But the story that hit the news yesterday was not about gaining an advantage because of any of the above mentioned conditions (donors, alumni, elite athletes). It is about rich, White folks buying admission and cheating their way into elite colleges and universities.

The Justice Department handed down indictments to Hollywood celebrities, high profile executives—lawyers, business people, etc.—who paid money under the table, cheated on standardized tests, and defrauded colleges and universities to make sure their children got into their preferred schools. The scam included having people taking college entrance exams for their children, paying psychologists to say their children had learning disabilities to be able to get accommodations for additional time while taking either the SAT or ACT. One of the most bizarre parts of the scam included pretending that students were athletes—making up bogus prizes and accolades and even photo-shopping students into athletic pictures. This scam included, administrators, coaches, exam proctors, SAT/ACT administrators, and 33 parents.

This scam peaks my interest because I have heard more than enough arguments about why affirmative action is unfair. Black students are regularly told they don’t belong in college because they are unqualified. They are told they are taking up space that some “more qualified” student (read, White) should have. They are told they need to learn to compete in a “meritocracy.” Yesterday we saw how the so-called meritocracy actually works. People with enough money and power can (and do) bend systems to their will. They don’t play by the rules because they see themselves as people above the rules. This same attitude is characteristic of what we now see in our political sphere. People who already have every advantage find it necessary to cheat to guarantee they get what they want.

What eventually happens to those children who got admitted to elite schools under fraudulent circumstances? I speculate that they will end up sitting on our school boards, on our city councils, in our state legislatures, in our governor’s mansions, in our House of Congress and US Senate, and perhaps in the White House. And, they will occupy those positions claiming that they got there based on merit.

Stay Black & Smart!

“Can We Have A Black History Month Do-Over”

Well we made it to the month of March but the February 2019 Black History Month was one for the ages. In addition to the in-group assaults—coming into February on the heels of “Surviving R. Kelly” and attempting to unravel the Jussie Smollett debacle—we experienced a litany of racial insults that make me think we just need to do Black History Month all over!

Black History Month 2019 had the Governor of Virginia (the state that had the tiki-torch bearing racists the year before) trying to explain away his yearbook page with a picture of two people, one in blackface and the other in a KKK hood. First, he said he didn’t know which of the two people was he. Then, a day or so later he said he was neither of the people. However, he did admit to putting on blackface as a part of a Michael Jackson contest (can I remind you that Michael Jackson didn’t even have a blackface by the time he was in his 40s)! In a post dust up interview with CBS This Morning host, Gayle King, the governor referred to enslaved Africans in his state as “indentured servants!” Thank you Gayle King for the swift correction!

When people starting denouncing the governor and began looking to the Black Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax as the possible replacement for Governor Northam, we learned that he allegedly sexually assaulted two women. Then, the third possible gubernatorial replacement, State Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he wore blackface in college.

To make a bad situation worse in Virginia, the Governor’s wife, Pam Northam reportedly interrupted a tour of the governor’s mansion and handed a ball of cotton to a Black student as asked, “Can you imagine being a slave and having to pick this?” Epic fail Ms. Northam—epic fail! And while all eyes were on the mess in Virginia, down the road in Florida the newly appointed Secretary of State Michael Ertel had been forced to resign in late January when photos of him surfaced in which he was in blackface and dressed as a woman as what he termed a “Hurricane Katrina victim.”

Over in Alabama, Goodloe Sutton, publisher of a small town newspaper wrote an editorial saying it was time for the Klan to night ride again and get some hemp for nooses to hang Democrats in Washington, DC.

While this foolishness was going on in high places, the folks in the world of fashion decided to join the “fun.” Gucci advertised a blackface sweater. Katie Perry produced some shoes that look strikingly like blackface and Burberry showcased a hoodie with a noose pull at fashion week in London.

As we thought things were getting back to a celebration of Black excellence at this year’s Academy Awards—Regina King won best supporting actress, Mahershala Ali won best supporting actor, Ruth E. Carter won for best costuming, Hannah Bechler won for best production design, Peter Ramsey won for best animation, and finally…finally, Spike Lee won for best screenplay adaptation—the best picture award went to a film that gives us a White man’s narration of a Black man’s story, “Green Book!”

As we return to reality, Maryland State Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti told a colleague who was stumping for votes that he was knocking on doors in a N-word district. When her statement was revealed her defense was, “Everybody’s said that word. I’ve said the f-word; I’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain.” No Mary Ann, everybody hasn’t said it and certainly not everybody who seeks to hold public office.

By Wednesday, February 27 I was holding my breath hoping we could make it to March 1 without another “incident” but then Donald Trump’s “fixer” Michael Cohen took the stand at a Congressional Hearing. In his opening statement he declared that Donald J. Trump was a racist (is that really news?) and gave examples of statements he personally heard Trump say about Black people. To rebut his assertion, Congressman Mark Meadows had Lynn Patton—event planner turned HUD appointee—stand behind him as a human prop and evidence that Trump was not racist. It was only when a Black woman, Representative Stacey Plaskett turned around and told Republican Representative Jim Jordan to “shut up” and did the “church mothers’” eye roll that I breathed a sigh of relief. It was at that moment, I declared that Rep. Plaskett was the woman who saved Black History Month—at least for me.

However, I still think we could use a Black History Month do-over!

Stay Black & Smart!

“We All Have to Survive”

I really wanted to avoid talking about R. Kelly. I had stopped listening to him years ago when the allegations of predatory behavior toward young girls, particularly African American girls first surfaced. The recent docu-series produced by dream hampton placed the artist and his horrific behavior front and center in our consciousness. Social media as well as conventional media (television, radio, newspapers, etc.) have been abuzz with R. Kelly stories. How has he been allowed to get away with this? Would this have persisted this long if his victims were White? Are the girls/women and their families complicit in this horror? His supporters have pointed to other sexual predators and their ability to evade prosecution. Some of his supporters have cried “foul” and insist that the only motive in going after R. Kelly is to “bring down another Black man.” My motive in writing this blog is to make sure we do not lose sight of how vulnerable our children are in a world determined to destroy them.

1. One’s childhood victimization is not a pass to victimize others: Over and over we have heard how R. Kelly was abused as a child. That fact does not mean he is permitted to abuse others. He probably does not understand how to enter into healthy relationships but his childhood abuse doesn’t mean he has a right to visit that same behavior on others. By his own admission, Kelly’s younger brother was also abused but he lacks the fame and fortune that allows him to manipulate others and perpetrate these crimes on others like his brother.

2. Young minds are malleable: Many of us who are not caught up in the web of sex abuse do not understand mind control. We forget that before about 25 or 26 years old, individuals’ brains are not fully developed and the part of the brain that is still developing is the frontal lobe—the place that houses evaluation and judgment. When you’re 40 and someone says they’re going to make you a star but you have to come to their studio late at night you are likely to question that. However, if you are 16 and a big star pays attention to you, you are likely to do whatever he says. After all, he is the star. He knows the industry. If that star tells you that he is the only one who cars about you, you may begin to mistrust family and friends. Your isolation makes you susceptible to all kinds of lies.

3. Predators exist throughout our society: While R. Kelly’s behavior seems particularly egregious it is emblematic of predatory behavior everywhere. The scandals in the Catholic Church, the behavior of the Olympic and Michigan State University doctor, and the Penn State University football assistant coach are all examples of how widespread this behavior is our society. Anyone who has ready access to our children—teachers, Scout leaders, childcare workers, youth leaders, pastors, coaches, parents, grandparents, older siblings, neighbors, and friends—can prey upon them. Our role is to be ever vigilant and make sure we are talking with our children about how adults treat them.

4. Let’s not forget the enablers: While the documentary focused on R. Kelly, there is no way he could have gotten away with all he’s done (and allegedly continues to do) without the help of those around him. People facilitated his access to young victims. They knew/know about what happened in his homes and studio. Some of the enablers cried, “mea culpa” in the documentary, others continue to aid and abet his criminal behavior. The reasons for their complicity are varied. Some are financially dependent on the singer. Others have a misplaced sense of loyalty. Still others suffer from a similar psychological manipulation as the victims. But, they are just as responsible for these crimes. They did not speak up.

5. Nobody Protects Black Girls: Black girls are the forgotten segment of our society. We know of the vulnerability of Black boys and the “Black Lives Matter” movement primarily focused on Black boys and men. We know about the pernicious problems of sexual harassment and assault but despite being founded by a Black woman (Tarana Burke) the “Me Too” movement has been co-opted by wealthy and famous White women. R. Kelly knew that Black girls were considered less valuable, less worthy than other children. I am convinced he could not have gotten away with this behavior for this long had his victims been young White girls. We see far too many images of Black girls being highly sexualized and referred to as “too fast.” No one is willing to open his or her mouth and say, “They are CHILDREN!” In this R. Kelly saga we saw that not even the girls’ parents did enough to protect them.

The R. Kelly story is not merely an occasion for spilling tea and pointing fingers. It is a call to conscience. We have to have honest conversations about sexual abuse, sexual predators, and sexual harassment in our homes, schools, churches, and communities. We have to teach our children (girls and boys) that their bodies are sacred and no one has a right to do things to them they do not want. We have to teach them that they are not to keep adults’ secrets (e.g. “Don’t tell anybody about our special time together) and that their self-worth is not tied to whether or not they do things that please a more powerful person like a teacher, a pastor, or an older relative. We also have to be cognizant of what our children are consuming. Rather than dismiss all of their music as garbage we have to listen carefully to what they are listening to and have frank conversations about the message the music conveys. We have to talk about the movies and videos they watch so that they can understand the difference between Hollywood fantasies and real life. We have to do all of these things because we all have to survive!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Let Me Explain Something to You”

If you follow social media you probably already know about the viral sensation known as Ms. Denita Roseborough. You probably don’t know her by her actual name but you do know her as the Philly KFC sister who checked and re-checked the man who came into the restaurant complaining that one of the younger clerks had written her phone number on his boyfriend’s receipt. I loved this video so much I have watched it at least 10 times. I watched it so many times because Ms. Denita was a wonderful reminder of why I loved being raised by Black women from Philly.

There are a number of things that Ms. Denita did that I wish more Black women would do for each other—especially those of us in the so-called professions (e.g. doctors, lawyers, corporate women, academic women, etc.).

She took charge of the situation: The model of womanhood that is so regularly held up in to us is a submissive, vulnerable, White woman that cries when she feels threatened. That is not the model I was raised with. My mother, my 7 aunts, the church mothers, and my neighborhood mamas were not shrinking violets. They did not suffer fools. And when Denita opened up with “Let me explain something to you,” that is the signal to the man that she is running this show. My own mother’s take-charge catch phrase was, “Are you finished?” When she offered that question it told me that I was about to “get told!”

She rode hard for her sister: So many of us have become timid and afraid to “be our sister’s keeper.” Denita was clear that the man with the complaint was not going to come into the KFC and take advantage of her younger, seemingly bewildered co-worker. Denita let him know that if there were any “checking” to be done in that store on that day, SHE would be the one doing the checking. As a little girl I was known for my big mouth. I was known for “selling wolf tickets” because I had some “big girl” friends who would ride hard for me. I could count on them to do the “checking.” I often look around for those sisters in the academy. There are so few of us that far too many of us think the only way to survive is to keep our heads down and avoid confrontation at all costs. That is a strategy that may save your job, but it won’t save your soul. I wish Black women had ridden harder for Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, and today Cyntoia Brown!

She kept it real: The thing that endears so many of us to Denitra Roseborough is her verbal virtuosity. The man tries to plead his case or interrupt the verbal beat down by declaring, “Denita, it’s Christmas.” She quickly responds, “Ho, ho, ho!” Next the man tried to argue that he thought he was in suburbs as if that would command a different response. By this time Denita is joined by 2 other Black women, one of whom removes her headset in case the confrontation is about to get physical. Again, this kind of authenticity is missing in professional work places. We walk into our offices, our labs, our classrooms wearing masks. We never let the people we work with see our real selves. We believe being who we really are will scare them… it probably will. But, I believe it will also keep them from taking advantage of us and continuing to disrespect us.

She never forgot who she was: Finally, Denita was clear about who she was. The man declares, “I thought this was the suburbs,” as if that geographic location would change who Denitra and her co-workers were. After declaring they are “da hood” Denita and her girls shout out their neighborhoods…North Philly, South Philly, West Philly, Chester! This declaration tells the man that they “rep their set.” The neighborhoods that formed and shaped them are deep in their being. No amount of fancy neighborhoods, bougie speech, or phony airs changes any of that. How refreshing would it be if as Black people—Black women—we owned who we are no matter where we were. What if we stopped apologizing for having had to come up in “da hood?” What if we valorized Big Mama, ‘nem for teaching us the hard lessons of life? What if we were proud to be Black women?

Of course, we do have examples beyond Denita. When Congresswoman Maxine Waters declared she was “reclaiming my time” she was representing like Denita. When Congresswoman Frederica Wilson called out Donald Trump’s and John Kelly’s lies she was representing like Denita. When Kimberle Crenshaw developed the African American Policy Forum and the “Say Her Name movement she was representing like Denita. When Tarana Burke began the “MeToo movement she was representing like Denita. When Viola Davis ascends the Academy Awards stage with her natural hair she is representing Denita. When Erika Badu, Jill Scott, Beyonce, and many other Black women artists have fought long and hard to represent like Denita and whenever a Black woman begins with “let me explain something to you,” you better be ready to be “checked”, “read,” and “told!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“For Colored Girls”

I didn’t think I could feel any lower. The week started with the news that George Soros, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Barack and Michelle Obama were the targets of some deranged person sending pipe bombs to Democratic politicians and supporters. Next I learned of two Black people over 65 years old who were gunned down at a supermarket in Kentucky by a man who initially attempted to kill people in a Black church. By Saturday I learned that 11 people between the ages of 54 and 90 something were murdered by a madman in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It was all too much and it forced me to shut off the television, the radio, and stay off social media. I just needed a break from bad news. However, when I decided to re-engage I was greeted by the news that poet Ntozake Shange had died. At that point, every bit of resilience I thought I had evaporated.

 

Shange is of my generation. I still have my original copy of For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf that I purchased in 1977. I both loved it and envied her writing. She was my contemporary and she had created something that blew every Black woman’s mind. As we read each poem we saw ourselves in every page. I was reading Shange at the same time I was reading Amiri Baraka, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhabuti) and listening to The Last Poets and Nikki Giovanni. I loved each and every poem but was especially captivated by, “Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.” It detailed an experience every Black woman I knew had gone through and she said it all in a Black woman’s voice.

 

Many years later as an academic I published a book chapter titled, “For colored girls who have considered suicide when the academy is not enuf.” Ntzoka Shange was the complete inspiration for this chapter that details the way that Black women are regularly wounded in higher education. The chapter also talks about my ability to triumph over the toxicity of the academy. It was a tribute to Shange and every Black woman who had pointed the way for me…my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, the neighborhood mothers, the church mothers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Anna Julia Cooper, Septima Clark, and so many more.

 

Shange declared, “I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely.” This theological declaration was the beginning of my developing a deeper sense of self-esteem and purpose. It moved my gaze away from the “man” in the pulpit and toward that which God had placed inside of me. Shange grew up in a middle class family—her father an Air Force surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker. She attended and graduated from Barnard College with a degree in American Studies. She later earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Southern California. She had many of what psychologists call, “protective factors” but they did not keep her from sinking into depression and contemplating suicide.

 

Her last 14 years were difficult. She suffered a series of strokes in 2004 and was living in an assisted living facility in Maryland. She was showing signs of recovery and had begun producing new work and doing readings. She has transitioned to the next world and knowing that makes me incredibly sad. However, I find joy in the fact that daily there is yet another Black woman who discovers there was someone who dared to speak, “for colored girls!”

 

Stay Black & Smart!