“A Love Letter to Eric Holder”

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Dear Attorney General Holder:
Somehow I knew you would ultimately break up with the Justice Department. I understand but it still makes me sad. I understand because of the way you have been vilified by this Congress and their minions throughout the media. I understand because they would not stop until they dragged you in front of  them to respond to a contempt citation. I understand because I heard the Congressman say that you did not think the contempt citation (the first ever in history for an Attorney General) was a big deal. I understand as you quickly interrupted that foolishness by saying he was wrong and you did indeed believe it to be a big deal. After all, they did not issue a contempt statement to Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell who ended up in jail for his involvement in the Watergate Scandal. They did not issue a contempt statement to Alberto Gonzales who tried to coerce a semi-conscious John Ashcroft to sign documents reversing a ruling that put the Bush White House in a bad light. Yes, I understand.
But, Mr. Attorney General I’m still sad. I’m sad because for 6 years yours has been the voice of courage and integrity. The Washington in-crowd had no idea who they were getting when you were appointed. Oh, they knew your resume. They knew you were New York born and bred. They knew you had a Columbia education. They may have even known that you were a member of the Afro-American Student Association at Columbia and that you participated in a peaceful protest of the ROTC building in hopes of getting the name of the lounge changed to the Malcolm X Lounge. They may have chalked that up to youthful exuberance.
But I wonder if they understood that you married the younger sister of Vivian Malone and Vivian Malone along with James Hood were the first two African American students to enroll in the University of Alabama despite segregationist, racist Governor George Wallace’s declaration that no Black student would ever enroll there. I wonder if they understood that you drank deeply from the springs of justice.
You drank deep enough to fight for marriage equality when others would not touch the issue. You drank deep enough to continue to fight for voter’s rights, investigate Arizona’s restrictive immigration laws, and to speak out and tell the world that on issues of race we were a “nation of cowards.”
I believe you intend to break up with the Justice Department because you love justice more than anything. I think you are not excited about compromising when it comes to justice. I think that although you could not do much about the miscarriage of justice in the death of Trayvon Martin, the case of Mike Brown, Jr. was probably too much to take. I think when you arrived in Ferguson, MO and looked into the faces of the African American youth you met there it was just too much. I think when you looked into the eyes of Mike Brown, Jr.’s parents it sent you over the edge. You love justice too much to settle for anything less.
I know you are leaving but you are also leaving in an incredibly smooth way. You have told the President that you will not leave until another Attorney General is CONFIRMED. You know that as much as Congress hates you, they hate the President even more and while they will probably try to make confirmation difficult, they will be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Holding up the nomination means they still have to deal with you! And, they will be dealing with a freer, fiercer you. They will be dealing with a you that has already said, “Take this job and shove it!”
You’re breaking up with the Justice Department because you’re in love with justice…I get it but I’m still sorry to see you go and I STILL love you!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“Black Talk/Back Talk…Ya Know What I’m Sayin’?”

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One of the things I love about being a Black person is our linguistic repertoire and fluidity. My own linguistic heritage comes from South Carolina with my father’s Geechie (Gullah) roots and my mother’s more “upstate” Spartanburg, SC linguistic register. My father had so many witticisms and phrases that we HAD to become little linguists to keep up. He would say things like, “That fool ain’t worth a white quarter.” A white quarter? Never heard of one, but we knew it was someone of low repute. Or, he might say, “When I say now, I mean now, not now!” Try figuring that out as a 10-year-old. However, my brother and I understood it as a kind of immediacy. When he said, “Every shut eye ain’t sleep” or “he better be sleeping with one eye open” we knew the conversation was more than about eyes. My grandfather once told a man who owned him money that if he didn’t get it to him by 5 o’clock that “the groundhog was going to be his mailman.” Believe me, the man returned promptly with the money. My mother, who lived all but her first 5 years in the North (in Philadelphia) could throw in a few Black South Carolina phrases every now and then. If you asked her what she had in her bag she might reply, “Lairos ketch meddlers!” We stared at her puzzled but we knew we weren’t going to learn what was in the bag.
Today, we see incredible fluidity and flexibility among the language young Black people use. The combination of “tech speak” and hip hop have provided them with both variety and novelty in vocabulary (which is true of every generation), but also new forms of expression that incorporates the syntax and structure of Black English (or African American Vernacular English). Those people who argue that our children don’t “speak properly” know little about the nature of English. Speaking properly typically means holding on to former conventions. However, linguists will tell you that languages that do not change eventually die. If we never changed our language we would be speaking like texts of “Beowulf” or “The Canterbury Tales.” At the least we’d all be saying, “thee” and “thou.” That old aunt who used to tell you “ain’t’ is not in the dictionary” is now wrong. “Ain’t IS in the dictionary because language shifts and adapts.
So, while you may not want to “conversate” or “let me holla at you” don’t presume I have cognitive problems because I insist on code-switching.
As an educator I believe our obligation to students is to help them acquire the language of business, trade, and education WITHOUT destroying the language with which they come. They need to hold on to the language of Big Mama and Uncle Roscoe along with the language that emerges from their own youth culture. You know what I’m sayin’?

Stay Black & Smart!

“A Piece of (Wo)Man…”

 

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As a child growing up I can remember conversations where one woman said to another who was bad-mouthing her male partner, “At least I got a man!” The retort to that stinging remark was sometimes, “You got a PIECE of man, and a piece of man is worst than no man at all!” That concept of a “piece” of man (or woman) reminds me of how often we settle just to be able to say we have somebody.
Our  society is so preoccupied with people being “coupled” or in a “relationship” that often we do not care about the nature of those relationships. Some of our relationships are toxic. We agree to partner with people who mean us no good, whose presence means that our lives are diminished, who actually leave us worse off than if we had been on our own.
As Black people we sometimes buy into the hype that suggests that there is such a shortage of good partners that we have to share them or accept unspeakable abuse from them. I have seen beautiful and handsome, smart, kind, ambitious, and interesting people settle for partners who demean them, cheat on them, lie to them, take their money, and in general, make them miserable. But, if you see them on social media or talk with them about their lives they cannot say enough about how wonderful these people are.
A piece of a (wo)man is someone whose only intention is to hurt you. Their own sense of self-worth comes from demeaning you. Unfortunately, some of that demeaning comes in forms that you may not recognize. Turning a partner into a “trophy” is another way of saying their value is linked to you and you are nothing without them.
It is bad enough that I see adults engage in these behavior but because we engage in these behaviors in front of our children they come to see settling for less as normal.
Some years ago I listened to a preacher talk about how far too many of us were “living beneath our privilege.” He went on to explain how we deserve to have peace in our lives. We deserve to have joy in our lives. We deserve to have contentment in our lives. We deserve to have fulfillment in our lives. We deserve to have real love in our lives. We deserve so much more than a piece of (wom)man in our lives!

Stay Black & Smart!

“We Need to Finish Some Stuff”

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The other day I received a card in the mail and the handwriting on the envelope looked strangely familiar. However, I did not recognize the return address. When I opened the envelope and read the card it said, “I intend to clear spaces in my life by de-cluttering my work spaces at home and in my office!” Then it hit me. This was a card I had written to myself back in June when I attended a workshop focused on reducing stress in our lives. Next I looked at the pile of papers, books, articles, and sundry other things on my desk. I did not follow through on something I intended to start back in June. We need to finish some stuff!
Finishing some stuff is what we as a people need to do. My identity was forged in the crucible of the modern Civil Rights Movement. There a bold agenda for justice was laid out by incredible leaders…Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Whitney Young, Rosa Parks, A. Phillip Randolph, Fannie Lou Hamer. Septima Clark and many others. Some of this agenda was accomplished but some of it was stalled by tragic and unexpected deaths. Moments of moving the agenda showed up again with the broad coalition building of Harold Washington, David Dinkins, and Douglas Wilder. But, again those efforts seemed to quickly run their course. We need to finish some stuff!
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the people who initiate a bold plan to “hand it off” to those who come behind them. I take great pride in Nelson Mandela taking up Dr. King’s mission. I was ecstatic to see Rep. Sheila Jackson pick up Shirley Chisolm’s mantel. No, the problem occurs when people just drop the work. And, that’s what I think has happened in our current era. We need to finish some stuff!
We have fallen into such a celebrity-driven era where we expect one person to do it all on the strength of his or her personality and charisma. That’s what has happened to President Obama. People were so excited about the possibility of his election and the energy of a broad-based, multi-racial, multi-generational coalition that once he was elected there was a huge sigh of relief and it seemed that we rested on that one accomplishment. We slept on the subsequent mid-term elections and left him without a working majority with which to do his work. We have not taken up the real agenda for change. We need to finish some stuff!
Today our children are languishing in sub-par school systems often taught by people who refuse to believe they are intelligent. Our jails and prisons are over flowing with our men and women who a couple of generations ago would have been organizing, marching, and fighting for change. We are rapidly slipping into poverty and our health indicators are dismal. We are killing each other and being killed by the very people who we pay to “serve and protect” us. We need to finish some stuff!
This little card I received has truly troubled me…actually it’s convinced (and convicted) me to do the work I committed to do. How about you? Do you agree that we need to finish some stuff?

Stay Black & Smart!

“Parenting Like Our Parents…Or Nah?”

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News and social media have all been abuzz because of the child abuse charges lodged against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson chastised his 4-year-old son who was visiting by whipping him with a “switch” and leaving bruises and welts on his legs, buttocks, and scrotum. The marks were observed by the child’s doctor several days after the whipping and by law the doctor was required to report it as a case of possible child abuse.
Peterson was indicted in Texas for child abuse, posted bond and returned home. Initially, the Vikings suspended him for one game. By Monday the team announced that he would rejoin the team but there was such a groundswell of anger from the public that the Vikings then placed Peterson on their “exempt” list meaning he could not practice or play with the team. Throughout this episode talking heads, commentators, and the entire blogosphere was “on fire” talking about whether or not Peterson was guilty of abuse.
Some folks began pointing the finger at Peterson saying he was an abuser and wrong on all counts. Others defended him saying it is a shame that parents can no longer discipline their children without being labelled abusers. Peterson’s explanation for what he did was that he disciplined his son the way his parents disciplined him. On the next Sunday morning, former Viking and sports analyst, Chris Carter made an emotional statement about his mother who in an attempt to parent 7 children on her own had whipped him. But, said Carter in an emotional expression, “My mother was wrong. She did the best she could with what she had but she was wrong!”
The Peterson incident brought the Black community back into the debate about the usefulness of spanking (or whipping) as a disciplinary technique. One of the oft quoted assertions from Peterson’s defenders has been, “My parents whipped me and I turned out all right!” To such a statement I ask, “Are you?” Are you all right because of the whippings or in spite of them? Some (like Charles Barkley) claim that “all Black people (in the South) beat their kids. This may or may not be a true statement. What is true is that the way we began this form of punishment was grounded in some cultural practices.
Good parents realize that discipline should never be driven by fear or anger. Unfortunately, much of it is. When we save a child from the brink of disaster our first inclination is to shake her violently because her behavior has scared us to death. Or when a child does something so reprehensible or disrespectful we become so angry we want to show him who’s boss. However, our ancestors’ response often was to send us to “get a switch” and tell us “and it better be a good one.” The process of walking out and searching for the switch gave us time to think deeply about what we did to end up in the particular predicament. At the same time we were searching for a switch, grandma was using the time to cool off so that the “switching” did not occur in anger.
The decision to spank or whip children is a personal one. In some 19 states it is legal for school personnel to spank students. Ours is a violent society that regularly solves its problems through violence. Indeed our favorite sport (football) is predicated on violence. This is not a cut and dry issue but we do know that societies change and evolve. What was acceptable in one generation may not be in another. What our parents did with us may not be what we should do with our children. As the late Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better!” I wonder if you think we know better around this issue of corporal punishment,

Stay Black & Smart!

“Why Is It ‘Good’ When YOU Say So?…Please”

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OK, mainstream America has done it again. They have decided something that has been a longstanding aspect of the Black aesthetic is now a “good” thing and I can almost hear them say it in that Martha Stewart voice…”and that’s a good thing!” This time it’s our butts. A few days ago Vogue, the fashion magazine declared this the era of the “big booty!” PLEASE! Centuries of demeaning the Black woman’s physique have now found acceptance in the White body.
In the early 19th century, Sarah Baartman a  Black South African woman was sold into slavery (and resold multiple times) and paraded around the world for people to stare at her near naked body and dubbed the “Hottentot Venus”  for what the mainstream considered her distorted butt. But today, Kim Kardashian and other White women are now being lauded for their “bootylicious” poses that dominate social media. PLEASE!
This is the same process we experienced when the White actress Bo Derek appeared in the film, “Ten” with her hair braided. Of course when Cicely Tyson showed up on the Academy Awards wearing braids they were thought unattractive. When a young tennis phenomenon named Venus Williams took the court at 14 years old with a head full of swinging braids and beads one commentator described the sound of the braids as “distracting.” But, when Maria Sharapova grunts loudly after EVERY swing of her tennis racket that’s apparently not a distraction. PLEASE!
African American women have lost their jobs for wearing their hair braided. The US Army put forth a dress code that said braids were not permitted. All of this is under the guise of an “unprofessional” appearance. The ultimate insult was when the media began calling the hairstyle the “Bo Derek!” PLEASE!
I must admit that I always get a chuckle when I go to the Caribbean and see White women and girls sitting on the beach, paying a Black woman to put a few braids and beads in their hair. Those same Black women once looked at me with my then teenaged daughter (who was sporting a head full of perfectly aligned braids) with a knowing smile that suggested, “Sister, I know…they are going to pay more for these 3 little braids than you paid to have your daughter’s entire head braided!” PLEASE!
Next I began seeing all of these ads for big luscious lips. The very same lips Black women were made to feel ashamed of. We were told not to wear certain colors of lipstick–no orange, bright red, and certainly no pink! We were coached to draw a lip line INSIDE of our actual lips to make them appear smaller. But now that White women would like those lips we have plastic surgeons injecting collagen into their lips so they can appear fuller. Apparently Angelina Jolie’s beauty is associated with those puffy lips…sorry Jennifer Anniston. PLEASE!
Surveys of teenaged girls indicate that historically Black girls actually have had a healthy self-image. They like their generous figures, versatile hair, and all out swagger that makes them what the late Maya Angelou called, “Phenomenal Women.” So we Black women know that our natural beauty is eye catching and varied (from Halle Berry to Lupita N’yongo). We know that beauty comes in all shades, sizes, and ages. We just wonder why our beauty never seems acceptable or “good” until the dominant, mainstream voices claim it is. PLEASE!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Black Women and the Olivia Pope Syndrome”

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There is perhaps no television character more popular in Black communities than Kerry Washington’s, “Olivia Pope.” Olivia is a highly educated, beautiful stylish Washington operative who is noted for solving the most intractable problems of her clients–most of whom are high profile officials and business people. Of course, the intrigue of the show is that Olivia has crossed her own ethical line by conducting an affair with her previous client–the President of the United States.
Although the steamy sex scenes attract most viewers’ attention, this post is about Olivia’s role as a “fixer.” This is the same role that far too many Black women play in the lives of their families and friends. We are too busy trying to fix things. We think it’s our responsibility to fix the money problems that our families and friends encounter. We think it’s our responsibility to fix the relationship problems of our friends and families. We think it our responsibility to fix the emotional problems of our friends and families. The problem with all this fixing is that it leaves us precious little time and energy to attend to our own care.Black women have some of the worst health (physical, mental, and emotional) outcomes of any group in our society.
Almost 80 percent of Black women are overweight or obese. We have a high percentage of high blood pressure and hypertension. We have increasing rates of type 2 diabetes and heart disease and stroke. No group in the society is as likely to be raped, assaulted, and otherwise physically, mentally, and emotionally abused. All of these things characterize our lives and yet we are still running from pillar to post trying to “fix things” for everyone else.
One of the key examples of a Black woman fixer is Gloria Naylor’s character Mattie Michael in her book, “The Women of Brewster Place.” Mattie spent her life indulging her only son Basil who eventually cost her the home she inherited. Mattie lost her home because she was trying to “fix” things for her son.
Far too many Black women neglect themselves in order to fix things for the other people around them. While there is nothing wrong with being generous and caring, Black women find themselves rarely having reciprocal relationships. Their friends and family members don’t pay back the loans, cook them meals, or come to their aid in the midst of an emergency. Instead, when Black women are in distress they are likely to hear someone say, “Oh, but you’re so strong…you’ll get through it!”
Given that most of us will never live in the lovely condo with the Crate and Barrel wine glasses, and the designer clothes, or rub elbows with the world’s most powerful people like Olivia Pope, we need to refrain from taking on the burdens of Olivia Pope–we need to stop trying to “fix” everything!

Stay Black & Smart!

“And Who Else is Responsible?”

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By now almost everyone has either seen or heard about the vicious assault that former NFL player Ray Rice did against his then fiance (now wife) Janay. Now we are in that place that America loves to go…analyzing what went wrong and who is at fault. The media, talking heads, and social media is going crazy with critiques on Ray Rice and indeed, he deserves the harshest punishment we can mete out but I must ask the question, “Who else is responsible?”
For one, we know the NFL is responsible. Domestic violence is notorious in the league. Some of you might remember that activist and Hall of Famer Jim Brown had a reputation for abusing women. He allegedly threw a woman off a balcony. Ahmad Brooks (Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers) abused his partner. Warren Moon (former Houston Oilers, and Canadian football player) allegedly abused his wife. Brandon Marshall (Chicago Bears) was involved in domestic violence. The statistics indicate that NFL players are more often involved in reported incidents of domestic violence. The league knows this, the coaches know this, and the Commissioner knows this. Clearly the NFL is also responsible for the domestic abuse Janay Rice experienced. But it is not only the NFL.
The justice system is also responsible. When we check how few NFL players are actually arrested and sentenced to jail time for domestic violence we recognize that the justice system turns a blind eye to these assaults. Many years ago a woman named Roxanne Gay was accused of stabbing her husband to death while he slept. Her husband was Philadelphia Eagle, Blenda Gay. The records indicate that Mrs. Gay called the police 20 times during the course of their marriage. At her murder trial she indicated that when she called the police they showed up and then fell under the awe of the celebrity of a local football star. Instead of responding to Mrs. Gay’s complaints and cries for help, the police officers sat around listening to football stories and getting autographs. So indeed, the justice system is responsible.
But who else is responsible? I say we are ALL responsible. We are posting and tweeting about Janay and victimizing her all over again. We ask why she stays when most of us have no idea what it is like to be in her situation. We claim we wouldn’t take this or that when the truth is most of us don’t actually know what we would do in her situation. We know nothing of her terror. We know nothing of her economic dependence. We know nothing of her emotional dependence. Instead, we gladly participate in the “victim porn” that this situation has become.
I ache for Janay Rice individually but I ache for women, particularly Black women, collectively. Through this entire ordeal all I could think about is how Black women’s bodies continue to be devalued and disrespected. We have watched them brutalized, sexualized, and objectified. When we view, post, and re-post fights between women and attacks on women we become responsible for what happened to Janay Rice. Who else is responsible…We ALL are!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Oh Look…A Kitty!”

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I love the many clever memes that are circulated on social media. One of my favorites reads, “I don’t have a short attention span, I just…oh look, a kitty!” What I like about that meme is that it so succinctly captures the American society’s lack of an appetite for staying with an issue of any depth. Instead we have become masters of the “flavor of the day.” What is not amusing about our quickly distracted populace is the fact that serious issues only hold our attention for a little while.
For weeks we focused on Mike Brown, Jr. and the seeming widespread police abuse in cities and sections of cities serving poor, Black communities. Folks marched, held rallies and protests, made speeches, and demonstrated in the community. That’s exactly what we did when Trayvon Martin was killed and then, we figuratively said, “Oh look…a kitty.”  Distractions are inevitable in a world filled with problems. There are wars in Afghanistan, Gaza, and the Ukraine. There is a deadly Ebola virus attacking the people of 3-4 west African nations. We have no coherent immigration policy and desperate parents are allowing their children to travel dangerous routes through Central America and Mexico to get to the US.creating a challenge of attempting to shelter thousands of unaccompanied minors. Any one of these issues is worthy of our attention and there is certainly nothing wrong with being preoccupied with any of them.
However, when I say, “Oh look…a kitty” I am referring to the way frivolous, insignificant things cause us to take our eyes off real issues. Someone organizing around police brutality in Ferguson, MO can certainly also be concerned with immigrant rights or the Ebola crisis. Unfortunately, what is actually capturing our attention is the fact that celebrities have had their nude photos leaked from a cloud or Beyonce may be divorcing Jay-Z, or Nick Cannon IS divorcing Mariah Carey, or it’s football season and it’s time to organize our fantasy teams, or President Obama wore a tan suit.
The issues plaguing our communities should be making us SO angry that we cannot take our eyes off the prize. We have to stay focused on those things that are threatening the very fabric of our community life. We cannot allow young people like Mike Brown, Jr., Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and Renisha McBride to be passing fancies in our activism. Whether we are a part of longstanding organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, PUSH, The National Action Network or service organizations like the Divine 9, The Links, or 100 Black Men. or ad hoc coalitions that emerge in the midst of these tragedies, we HAVE to stay focused. Those who work against us are counting on us to grow weary, lose momentum, and lose our focus. They cannot wait to make us turn our heads and say, “Oh look…a kitty!” What do you think?

Stay Black & Smart!

“Back to School”

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If you’ve spent any time on social media this week you have probably seen scores of photos of smiling Black children and teenagers in spiffy new clothes (or school uniforms) heading off for their first day of school. The photos represent the hope, promise, and yes, the mythology of schooling in the United States. In the best of circumstances those smiles represent children and youth who will find school to be a welcoming place that will challenge their minds and encourage their dreams. For some school will be a site of growth and safety. It will do everything it advertizes and the results will be amazing.
Unfortunately, far too many of our children have something less optimistic lurking behind those dazzling social network smiles. What the camera cannot capture is the anxiety, fear, and mistrust that those children experience. Similarly, the proud parent or other family member who snapped that photo may also have those same thoughts and feeling.
Most parents send their children off to school with an odd mixture of feelings–both optimistic and fearful. That’s to be expected. Sending our children off to a bigger world is scary. But the anxiety and fear I am speaking of goes much deeper than the “separation anxiety” of a loving parent. This is the fear and anxiety of a parent or guardian who knows that there is a high probability that the adult who is supposed to be her child’s teacher is woefully under qualified and inexperienced. There is the fear that the teacher will not work hard to meet the child’s academic needs. There is the fear that the child’s behavior will be interpreted as “deviant,” “aggressive,” or “non-conforming.” There is the fear that the child will hear things that suggest she is “dumb” or that her parents “don’t care about her education.”
My thoughts about what “might” happen this school year are supported by mountains of statistics. More than one quarter of the Black boys will face suspension (sometimes multiple times) this year. Black girls will have a 12 percent chance of being suspended while their White counterparts have a 2 percent chance. Although they are but 13 percent of the public school population, Black students make up 39 percent of the special education population and 47 percent of those designated with “emotional disorders.” I also know that 75 percent of those Black students who, based on their PSAT scores are predicted to be successful in an Advanced Placement course will never enroll in one.
This is my 46th year of teaching and I begin every school year with the same hope exhibited by the parents and children in the social media photos. I WANT to believe that each year will be different. I WANT to believe that all of our children will be in classrooms with caring, effective teachers. I WANT to believe that schools are willing to “stand in the gap” for those students who have other life challenges. However, just as I question what’s actually lurking behind some of those “school smiles” I also question what’s lurking behind the school house doors. What about you?

Stay Black & Smart!