“I Ain’t Bout That Life!”


I love young people’s language. They creatively invert it and invent new vocabulary. Only a young person could come up with “on fleek” or tell us they “ain’t bout that life!” That notion of not being “bout that life” means there are some things that are not compatible with the person one sees herself as. I think of myself as a relatively positive person. I’m not “optimistic” in that Pollyannish sort of way but I try to remain hopeful in the face of some overwhelming odds. In order to do that, I have to do my best to stay away from negative people. Negative people suck all the air out of the room. They disturb the “molecules” that surround me and rarely understand the concept of possibility.
A long time ago I had a neighbor who fashioned himself a real baller. He was running drugs, women, and all manner of things all the while holding down a job as a bus driver. I found him puzzling because although he had everything he thought he wanted or needed he was always so negative. I never judged how he lived his life. In fact, I felt a little honored that he would tell me all manner of things like I was someone he felt he could trust. He often sought my advice and I think he knew I didn’t judge him. But one afternoon after he had finished one of his mini rants about how he didn’t have enough money and how the women he was dealing with weren’t to be trusted (“these h— ain’t loyal) I noticed my houseplant located closest to the chair where he’d been sitting was wilting. The next time he stopped over I spoke to him from my doorway and would not let him in. When he inquired why I wasn’t inviting him in I said, “Bruh, your vibe is bringing my space down!” He looked at me like I was some new-agey, crystal-gazing freak. But I just knew I had to keep him out of my house.
I have the same concern about some of the people I have to be around on a regular basis in the academy. Everything about them is negative. They complain about their salaries, their work, their colleagues, and their administrators. All I can think of is how much easier this job is than the work my parents did. My dad was a laborer and my mom was a clerk. The sheer monotony of their work would have driven me out of my mind but yet, my parents were joyful and loved life. My dad was a wonderful jokester and my mom was “Miss Sunnyside Up.” I come by my smile honestly. My colleagues and I live a life of luxury compared to that of my sharecropping grandparents but my grandfather attacked life like it was a huge bowl of ice cream. He was a practical joker and what folks used to call a rascal. Negativity—he wasn’t bout that life!
It is almost all I can do to listen to another complaint about people who live solidly middle class lives with comfortable homes, nice cars, and a secure retirement fund. What will it take for them to show some positive signs? I might be wrong but from what I’ve seen most of my colleagues have lived comfortably for a very long time, yet they still complain within their privilege.
I work hard not to be rude—blame it on my well-mannered mom—but when people who have so much start complaining about what they don’t have I have to just walk away, ‘cause “I ain’t bout that life!”

Stay Black & Smart!

“I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired…But I Am Getting A Little Weary!”


This has been a rough week. On the one hand we had the inspirational moments in the 50 anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. President Obama gave what some have argued is the best speech of his presidency. His rhetoric soared to great heights while simultaneously challenging the nation about the reality of 21st century race relations. The Department of Justice’s also released its report on the Ferguson (MO) Police Department that revealed a pattern of systemic racial discrimination that linked its behavior to using racial profiling as a way to generate revenue for the department. In Madison, WI the city is still tense and anxious regarding the shooting of a 19-year-old Black young man by a police officer. And, members of a national fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) University of Oklahoma chapter were captured on video (and posted on social media) singing a racist chant about never admitting a Black member. Later, the chapter’s housemother—an older White woman who could be Paula Dean’s sister—was also caught on video singing along with a rap song and joyfully repeating the N-word!
The University of Oklahoma President took swift action. He ordered the fraternity’s campus house closed and expelled the student who was clearly identified on the video. In less than a day, talking heads started saying that rap music was responsible for White college students’ use of racial epithets. Seriously? It’s Waka Flocka and L’il Wayne’s fault that your children spew racist language? I think that word was both invented and perpetuated by White folks and pre-dates rap music by CENTURIES! Can I avoid paying my taxes because I’m inspired by Al Capone? Can I rob banks because of the allure of Bonnie and Clyde? This is starting to sound surprisingly similar to Geraldo Rivera’s insistence that wearing a hoodie caused Trayvon Martin’s death or a generation ago when we said that wearing short, tight dresses caused women to be raped!
I’m someone who has been in the civil rights fight for a long time. I’ve experienced gains and setbacks but I’ve tried to hold on the old spiritual that says, “I don’t feel no ways tired; I’ve come too far from where I started from…” But I must confess the events of the past week have me more than a little weary. I’m weary of explaining to college students why race still matters. I’m weary of trying to help middle and high school students understand why the color of their skin seems to offend so many people. I’m weary of teachers who insist on ignoring the pain of children who are victims of this madness. I’m weary of colleagues sitting on the sidelines talking about inequality in theoretical terms but never rolling up their sleeves to engage in the fight. I’m weary of politicians and pundits who pimp the entire situation to be re-elected or raise their ratings. I’m weary of “I marched in the 60s brothers and sisters” believing they are “retired” from the struggle. News Flash: There is no retirement plan in place for freedom fighters. You may take on a different role but you do not get to sit back and observe.
I know that once I get a little sleep I’ll probably catch a second wind and will be a little less cranky. However, right now in this moment I am engulfed by the weight of racism in this society. I won’t stop fighting for racism’s eradication. I won’t stop championing the causes of the dispossessed. In the grand scheme of things I don’t feel no ways tired…but I am getting a little weary!

Stay Black & Smart!

“Enough Blame To Go Around”


I have just come from another one of “those” meetings. While I typically write this blog about national issues and trends, today’s message is close to home and deeply personal. Last night in my city, a member of my community—a young Black man was shot and killed by law enforcement. We do not have all of the facts yet, but we do know that an unarmed 19-year-old Black child is dead. As I sat in the packed meeting in a local church I watched the boy’s mother and grandmother sit in stunned silence. I listened to the sobs of the people around me. I wondered as the White news media kept their cameras rolling. The emotions in that room ran from heartbreak to sadness to anger to bitterness. All of those emotions are legitimate and expected however we have to go beyond feeling to doing if we have any chance of surviving.
Here in “idyllic” Madison, Wisconsin we are regularly told we have one of the most “livable” cities in the US…but livable for who? It was apparently not livable for Tony Terrell Robinson (that’s his name…add it to your list with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and countless others). Tony’s body lies in the morgue with 5 bullets in his chest and we are in a meeting pointing fingers. That is some what expected but I need to say that in this instance there is enough blame to go around:
Law Enforcement – The most obvious culprit in this boy’s death is the Police Department (or at least the officer who pulled the trigger). What kept the officer from using something other than a gun to subdue a young man s/he was pursuing? We do know that African Americans are more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police with no probably cause. We do know that in a city with a 7% African American population the county jail has a 44% Black inmate population. I do know that despite having had 2 African American police chiefs, Black drivers are the most often pulled over. I also know that Black people, especially Black children are quickly and regularly criminalized.

Schools – So many of the problems that Black Madison residents experience either start or are exacerbated by schools. Our suspension and expulsion rates are ridiculously high. Our drop out and failure rates are criminal. We are less likely to access honors and AP classes. The schools often are the place where our children have their first encounter with law enforcement because teachers and administrators are quick to call the police when they do not know what to do with our children. Several years ago a group of us proposed a charter school for Black and Brown boys. We were criticized for not including girls so we went back to the drawing board and agreed to include girls. But, when the rubber met the road the “liberal” folks of livable Madison would not approve the school. Meanwhile, they have done NOTHING to address the academic and social disparities our children continue to experience.

Churches – Yep, I’m going there! We have more than 20 African American congregations in this city of less than 20,000 Black people. But those 20+ congregations are NOT pulling in the same direction. They are not addressing the real needs of our children. Our churches are so concerned with condemnation that there is little edification. As Michael Eric Dyson says, “Maybe if we lifted their dreams, they’d lift their pants!” The Black church is so preoccupied with what young people are wearing, what music they listen to, and their sexuality that we cannot help them with the REAL issues of their lives—forming their identities, completing school, finding jobs, becoming successful adults.

Community—Yep, again! We have as much culpability as anyone else. We have stopped engaging our children. We avoid them as much as White people do. We are afraid of them and have allowed them to run rampant without boundaries or responsibilities. This is not love; it is license! Until we are ready to stand in the gap for ALL of our children, what happened to Tony Terrell Robinson is going to happen again…and again…and again.

I am at a point in this process where I don’t care if people are angry, belligerent, and beside themselves with rage. I just want people to own the part of the problem that belongs to them and start fixing it. I don’t want to go to another meeting, rally, sit-in, or protest. I want to act on behalf of our kids and I am willing to work with ANYONE who wants to do the same thing!

If you want to help Tony Terrell Robinson’s family afford a funeral for their son please go to www.gofundme.com/tonyterrell

Stay Black & Smart!

“I Don’t Think Of You As Black And Other Confusing Comments”


Linguists who study the language of African Americans, commonly known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Black English Vernacular (BEV), or Ebonics often talk about the way most Black language speakers learn to “code switch” so they can fit more easily into so-called standard English spaces. But has there ever been a conversation about how White people “code switch?” No, I’m not talking about White people learning to talk like Black people but rather the coded language Whites use when they talk to and about Black people. Here are a few of the codes I’ve picked up:
“I don’t even think of you as Black” – This is code for, “you are better than the rest of them. You have enough education, money, and “class” to fit in with me. I can feel comfortable around you.
“What if we…[insert some action]?” – This is typically code for either some action that the speaker intends to take on him or her self OR some action the speaker is committing you to. For example, “What if we turn in this report?” This is NOT a question. This is someone deciding that THIS is the report s/he plans on submitting. It may be work on which you’ve had no input or work you did all by yourself that will be submitted as a “group” effort.
“I think I could learn so much from you.” – This typically comes in a relationship where the Black person really is the more accomplished person and it comes across as a compliment. However, this is actually an incomplete sentiment. The coded part of this statement is, “and when I learn it I plan to take your job or eventually be your boss.”
“You’re wearing your hair differently, aren’t you?” – The direct translation of this statement/question is “What the hell happened to your hair?” Black women have the most versatile hair on the planet and we regularly go from straight to curly, short to long, and changes in color. These changes both baffle and fascinate our White friends and the only way they make sense of it is to offer a question that appears to express interest.
“What do you do?” – Now to be honest, Black people ask this too, but we’ve learned to ask it as a result of moving back and forth in Black and White linguistic spaces. This is the nosiest of all White middle class questions and it’s all about getting in your business. It is also about determining whether or not you fit in their circle. I hear this question at White social gatherings with a kind of high pitched, “And…what do YOU do?” A couple of times I have replied, “I live…what do you do?”
“I don’t mean to offend you, but…” – Rest assured whatever comes after that opening WILL offend you and the speaker knows it. Somehow s/he believes that by prefacing the offending statements by “I don’t mean to offend” gives them a pass. My quick comeback to this one is, “Then don’t!” It catches them off guard, mouth open even and sometimes (not always) prevents them from proceeding. If the do continue you are obligated to say, “Yep, I found that pretty offensive!”
“What’s up my N-word?” – Now, this phrase is only said by White people who are attempting to be cool, hip and part of an in-group with Black people. “Liberal” White people would never say this to a Black person. But those who say it believe they are in solidarity with Black people and want to tell you how they are not robbing the N-word of its power…Excuse me?
“I think we need to stop talking about race.” – Ostensibly, this statement suggests that we are not getting anywhere by talking about something that is making everyone so nervous and uncomfortable. The actual translation is “Shut the f… up!” but then saying it that way would “offend” us!
“You have a [insert some luxury item]?” – This is never a compliment. It is a question steeped in suspicion. You have a Mercedes? …a vacation home?…a kid in private school? …a nanny? The questions always imply a sense of wonder about how you can have something they don’t have. I travel extensively and because of multiple airline delays I learned to invest in an airport lounge membership. Once when traveling with a White colleague I offered to take the colleague into the club during our layover. “Wow, you belong to this club?” The amazement was palatable, almost as if Black people are not permitted to join airline clubs.
“How you doing…[insert shortened name]?”—Over and over I have heard Black people have their given name shortened by White colleagues and associates. William becomes Bill, Theodore becomes Ted, Richard becomes Dick (note NEVER call a Black man Dick unless he tells you to), Patricia becomes Pat, Pattie, or Patsy, Beverly becomes Bev, or Deborah becomes Deb. This name shortening is code for a familiarity that may or may not exist. It presumes that the speaker has the right to rename you and re-define you. Rarely is the name shortening a result of someone FIRST asking, “What do you like to be called,” or “Is it all right if I call you…?”
“Let me suggest?”—This code switch is one of my pet peeves since I have never known it to actually refer to a SUGGESTION. This is stated by someone who is either your superior or perceives themselves to be so. It is never a suggestion. It is a direct order. If you ignore it you may lose your job. But of course, the person making the statement will insist they were making a suggestion…that you had the good sense to take.
These are just a few of the White code switches Black people negotiate every day. Words like “articulate,” “urban,” “aggressive,” “poverty,” “affirmative action,” “you people,” are all examples that most of us are familiar with. Over time we grow immune to the twisting and shifting use of words that mean something totally different from their literal definition. Thus, the work of being Black in this society involves incredible linguistic gymnastics to ensure that we clearly understand how words said with a smile can actually be daggers aimed for our backs.

Stay Black & Smart!

“And What About The Sistas?”


So we’ve finished up with February and the various Black History Month celebrations. Given the events of this past year, many 2015 Black History Month events have understandably focused on the wanton killing of Black people by law enforcement—especially the killing of Black men. So we have mourned Mike Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice—all senseless killings that have made our community weary and in some cases broken from not just the murders, but also the subsequent exonerations of those who killed them. Now we are at the beginning of March, which is Women’s History Month. We will probably see the list of “women worthies” and that list is likely to be dominated by White women.
In the recent Academy Awards Ceremonies actress Patricia Arquette stood on stage railing against the lack of equal pay for women and Meryl Streep, the Queen of Hollywood, jumped to her feet to applaud her. Seriously, Patricia Arquette and Meryl Street are in danger of being under paid? Perhaps so, but I could not help but think that their cause was once again championing that of White women. So if Black History Month is about Black men and Women’s History Month is about White women, what about the sistas? Where is the space for recognition of Black women in our society? When does society stand up and say, “Black women are some of the world’s most incredible people who continue to go under appreciated and unrecognized?
As always, Black women are rendered invisible because both race and gender are held against them. The Kardashian women apparently are more desirable than Black women. Kanye West claims he had to “shower 30 times” after having been with Amber Rose so he could get with Kim. Seriously, Kanye…how many times did Kim have to shower after going from Ray Jay, Reggie Bush, and Chris Humphries before she got with you?
I am really tired of Black women being overlooked in this society. We are still responsible for holding our families together. We rarely have the luxury of being stay at home mothers but are expected to be caretakers for White children and White elderly. We are too tired to cook our own families’ dinner at night because we’ve just cooked dinner for a White family. Even if we don’t work menial jobs we get treated in menial ways. We’re expected to be the “office mammy,’ taking care of our other co-workers and maybe occasionally bringing in “some of that great soul food!” We’re told that we are too fat with big booties but White women are being celebrated for having curvaceous bottoms. We are told our lips are too big but White women get collagen injected into their lips to plump them up. We are told we are too aggressive but White women who cry in inappropriate settings like the work place are typically comforted.
Being a Black woman in this society is incredibly difficult. We are asked to turn ourselves inside out to meet a European aesthetic concerning skin color, hair, body type and other physical features. And, when we do all of these self-denigrating things we still don’t measure up.
The continued 3rd class citizenship of Black women in not news to me and quite frankly I am too old to be bothered or controlled by an image of womanhood that holds no fascination for me. I was blessed to grow up with proud, confident Black women who celebrated me for being me. No, my concern is for the young Black girls I see doubting their beauty, their brains, and their sense of themselves. I am so tired of our girls believing that having lighter skin or straighter hair are the only keys to success instead of focusing on developing their minds, their spirits, their souls, and keeping their bodies fit and healthy. I’m sick of little Black girls believing they are not good enough. So my solution to our constant exclusion and invisibility is to declare a Black Women’s History Month and I’d like for it to be a nice warm long month like July or August so we can wear halter tops and short shorts and sway ample hips as we walk down the street channeling both Chaka Kahn and Whitney and singing at the top of our lungs, “I’m every woman…it’s all in me!”

Stay Black & Smart!