“Now I Need to Have Grit?”

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Well it turns out that the thing that Black children need to succeed is something the experts are calling, “grit!” This grit is the ability to persevere in the face of unbelievable odds. It is the ability to be resilient, optimistic, confident, and creative. It is the ability to set long-term goals, endure and follow through. These so-called experts also claim that Black children lack “grit” and if only they had some “grit” they would be successful and overcome all of the challenges they face. Can I tell you how absolutely sick of the “griterrati” I am these days?
Anyone who has taken 20 minutes to read anything about the history of African Americans would know that we are some of the founding fathers and mothers of grit. Let me use this blog to “deconstruct” the deep down grit that forms much of the Black experience. Please note: these may not be characteristic of ALL Black people, but I’ve had enough life experiences to share some widely shared insights:
Perseverance: This term means to continue on despite how long something takes. Black people continued on for over 250 years of chattel slavery. They continued on as second-class citizens from 1865 to 1965. They continued on despite not being able to count on White people to do the right and just thing. They continued on when all of the signs indicated they should have just given up. In more modern contexts I see Black people persevere on terrible jobs, in substandard housing, and lack of respect. No one has “continued on” as long as Black people. We are the poster children for perseverance.
Resilience: This is the ability to bounce back. Again, no group has bounced back more often and more consistently than Black folks. We were told we were not human, but we bounced back from that label. We were regularly lynched, raped, and brutalized but we bounced back from that. We were told that we would never be considered full citizens but we keep marching, protesting, and speaking truth to power. Do you realize how many times some Black people showed up at the Court House to be told they would never be eligible to vote? Did you pay attention to an entire year of the students known as the “Little Rock Nine” who were harassed, spat upon, and threatened each day as they tried to attend Little Rock, Arkansas’ Central High School? Getting up every morning and going back to that school was the very essence of resilience.
Optimism: Given the sad state of Black life in America we continue to believe in a brighter future. I am not sure I would say we were optimistic. No, I would argue that we are “hopeful.” The combination of our spirituality and perspective helps us to hope as we look toward a brighter tomorrow. Because we often think of things in more transcendent ways we may have this hope in a world beyond this one, but it remains a hope.
Confidence: The mainstream says confidence; we say “swag.” We witness it whenever a talented athlete slam dunks a basketball, smashes a home run, or scores a touchdown. We see it when a dope MC steps on a stage and brings the crowd to a fever pitch. We witness it on a Sunday morning when the preacher takes a text, lays bare an amazing exegesis, builds to a crescendo and drops the mic. We see it when a Sista sings an amazing solo that causes an audience to weep. Yes, we have confidence; we call it swag!
Creativity: One of the critical elements of the incredible cultural form known as hip hop is the ability to “flip something out of nothing.” This is acting imaginatively in the face of dwindling or missing resources. However, this element of hip hop is not restricted to the last 40 years of the artistic expression. No, my mother used to flip something out of nothing when she was able to get me an Easter outfit or Christmas presents when our family resources were stretched to the limit. I have seen Black women turn limited ingredients into sumptuous meals. I have seen Black people literally spin straw into gold and turn 2 fishes and 5 loaves into enough to feed a multitude. We have recycled, re-purposed, and reconfigured in ways to make old things new like no other people.

I would argue that Black people need LESS grit! We need the same supports as White middle class people that help make lives easier and less stressful. We need to start with some of their advantages. We need to have children who are permitted to have real childhoods as opposed to having to grow up before their time. We need to rest in the quiet assurance that our children will return home safely at the end of each day. We don’t need to be any “grittier.”
I am not at all persuaded that “grit” makes any difference in the lives of Black people and until I see White children persevere in the face of impossibility, show resilience after being regularly stomped down, remain confident after being told over and over that they are nothing and are entitled to nothing, and construct a life out of nothing, the only “grit” I’m going to deal with remains in a blue box with a little Quaker man on the package!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“I Only Want To Fight Over Real Stuff!”

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I feel like this has been a year filled with fights. The shooting of Michael Brown, Jr., the #Black Lives Matters campaign, the choking death of Eric Garner, the shooting of Tamir Rice, Tony Terrell Robinson, and Walter Scott all have been causes worth fight for. I have been in meetings with Black community leaders, my county District Attorney, grieving mothers, and religious leaders. Some of these meetings have been very difficult and involved “fights.” But they were all worth fighting over and fighting for.
Now we find ourselves in the midst of a “fight” between two well-paid public intellectuals over who is more “down” for the people. Who is a sell-out; who is a charlatan; who is keeping it real; who is a big phony. All I can say is, “Who cares?” When real people’s lives are at stake I really don’t have time to be in “water gun” fights. There are plenty of things I am willing to fight over:
I will fight over Black children’s education – This is the fight I have devoted my life to. I will fight with school people, policy makers, legislators, so-called reformers, pundits, and anyone whose ideas about education denigrate and harm Black children’s educational life chances.
I will fight over legislative policies that harm poor people – The lives of poor people are hard enough without elected officials doing things that make them harder. Taking away basic services like food stamps or the ability to take care of their children makes me mad enough to fight.
I will fight for raising the minimum wage – Everyone knows that making less than $15 an hour makes it virtually impossible to live in a decent home and take care of one’s family. It makes sense for me not to support places that pay less than a decent wage.
I will fight for maintaining peace –It sounds like an oxymoron but I think war is a barbaric and senseless way to operate in a world filled with weapons that can annihilate us all. Thus, I am willing to fight to avoid the crazy fighting that nation’s engage in.
I will fight for my students – I have dedicated my entire professional life to teaching, advising, and researching. And, I realize that students regularly need an advocate for them. I sometimes take the advisee no one else will but I realize the reward in getting a bright, young scholar is actually mine.
I will fight to maintain the dignity of women, especially Black women – Every message we receive about the worth of Black women is negative. What we see on TV, the movies, print ads, or the Internet (especially via social media) all tells us that Black women are some lesser form of humanity. Having been raised by and supported by incredible women, I am compelled to fight for Black women.
I will fight for immigrants and displaced peoples – Recently we saw the horrific death of North Africans desperate to get to Europe drowning from packed boats that unscrupulous traffickers preying upon the oppressed and disenfranchised exploit. Similarly, people crossing the US southern border are worth fighting for. Unaccompanied minors should not be arrested, detained, and shipped back to unsafe situations.                                                                                                                                                                               I will fight for missing Nigerian girls –Do you remember the more than 200 Nigerian girls who were abducted by Boko Haram? I do, and they are worth fighting for.
I will fight for prison reform – Our nation incarcerates 2.3 million people. This is inhumane and uncivilized. I am willing to do what I can to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and work for treatment programs for substance addicts and diversion programs for first offenders.
I will fight for the cultural integrity of all peoples—The ability to speak one’s language, practice one’s customs, and see oneself reflected in school curriculum and text is something everyone should enjoy.

There are a whole host of things I am willing to fight for but some things are just not worth my time or energy. I will not life one finger in defense of the various “housewives” of whatever city. I will not invest one penny on behalf of the gaggle of Kardashians. I would be just as happy to forget that Justin Bieber even exists. And I don’t care that two Black men who have made plenty of money pontificating about all manner of things are in some kind of blood feud. I have had occasion to speak with each of them over my career and I actually “like” each for some of the work they have done. But, the idea of choosing “sides” and supporting one rant over the other while our children are dying in the streets and metaphorically dying in our classrooms is antithetical to the values that matter most to me. For me, Black lives matter, but two highly paid “intellectuals’” lives don’t matter more. Grow the “heck” up guys!

Stay Black & Smart!

“The Hard Work of Being A Magical Black Woman”

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For those who are viewers of the BET series, “Being Mary Jane” you may have seen a recent episode where Gabrielle Union who plays the main character, Mary Jane Paul a cable news host, has a panel of cultural critics. These critics are real life Cultural Studies Professor, Mark Anthony Neal, neo-soul artist, India Irie, and writer and image stylist, Michaela Angela Davis. The topic of discussion is an article that appeared in Psychology Today a while ago that declared that Black women were “scientifically” ugly. Please note, the reaction to the article was so vehement that the magazine decided to remove it. The TV show focused not just on the article but, on the failure of Black men to come to the defense of Black women. One by one the panelists talked about how Black women were always ready to have Black men’s backs but these actions were not reciprocated. Black women had no trouble taking up the causes of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. But, where were Black men when Rekia Boyd was gunned down? Where were they when Melissa Alexander was being held in prison for firing a warning shot in the air to ward off an abusive husband? Near the end of the conversation Michaela Angela Davis remarked, Black women are magical—they come in an infinite number of shades; they rock the world’s most versatile hair that they can wear straight or curly with the addition of water; they can invert beauty standards by insisting that big lips and big butts are desirable. However, I think that being a magical Black woman is exhausting. Just think about all the ways we are expected to be magical:
We are magical money managers: Black women can take minimum wage salaries and stretch them further than anyone else I’ve ever known. When I was growing up my mother and her sisters could pass one ten dollar bill around 5 or 6 times to ensure that everyone got their needs met. Indeed, my mother sent me off to college with enough money for ONE semester. She encouraged me to use my magical Black powers to figure out how to finance the rest of my college career. A visit to the registrar’s office helped me see what I needed to earn a scholarship and a financial aid package to cover my expenses. From that moment I realized landing on the Dean’s List was not only an honorific—it was a necessity. My mother never had to pay another semester’s tuition.
We are magical food preparers: Again, as a child I can remember believing there was nothing to eat in the house and seeing my mother come home with no groceries. However, within 30 minutes there would be a delicious home cooked meal on the table. One of my aunts was “on relief” (today we refer to this as welfare) and received government surplus (e.g. cheese, butter, flour, peanut butter, dry beans, etc.). She was a fabulous cook (especially of baked goods). She would make a pot full of navy beans with a tiny, bit of meat (actually a ham bone, or neck bone) and bake Parker House rolls served hot with butter. My mouth still salivates when I think about those beans and rolls meals. This same aunt rarely gave store bought gifts for Christmas or birthdays. She always baked your favorite—a 4-layer coconut cake, a sweet potato pie, a lemon meringue pie, or chocolate layer cake—and it was magical! Just go to a Black funeral repast and see the magical food offerings that Black women prepare.
We are magical style-setters: Black women go into their closets and come out with looks that few designers could imagine. We pair all kinds of textures, patterns, and styles and rock them with confidence. We are rarely limited by what fashion magazines or apparel stores say we should wear. We ignore notions about bright colors or what direction the stripe is supposed to go. We do this because we don’t get style from the garments; we infuse our garments with our style confidence and that’s what turns heads. That’s why a character like Taraji P. Henson’s, “Cookie” intrigues us. She is over the top with 80s animal prints and still catches the attention of everybody in the room—male and female.
We are magical mothers: I don’t care how much you mess up, Black mothers are going to be there. Now of course she may knock you upside your head somewhere along the line (my favorite is being mad enough to throw a shoe at you) but when everyone else has left you a Black mother is going still be there. This is probably why I insist that Jesus must have been Black because his mother stood right there at the cross when everybody else had fled. Black mothers show up in the principal’s office, the police station, the hospital, and the courtroom. Black mothers do not believe in “wait til your daddy gets home!” Black mothers are going to handle the business right then and there. Even when a Black mother can’t do something, when she says, “Remember, I love you,” that’s a sentence you can bank on. Her failure to do what you want is either because she actually cannot or because she does not believe it is in your best interest. Watch major college sporting events and see how many magical Black mothers are in the stands whether they understand the sport or not!
We are magical partners: Yes, I have heard all the negative comments about how Black women are too hard on their partners. I have heard how they won’t cut them enough slack or excuse certain behaviors. But, magical Black women are looking for magical Black partners. We are not looking for partners we have to raise. We have children for that. We are not looking for partners to take care of or to take care of us. We are actually looking for PARTNERS…people who share our goals and dreams and are willing to work TOGETHER to make them realities. We are looking for partners who step up when we can’t and who will allow us to step up when they can’t. We are looking for loyalty, fidelity, and love. We are looking for magical partners that compliment (not supplement) or overshadow our magic. We want to shine alongside of our partners.
A few days after seeing the “Being Mary Jane” episode I watched the BET “Black Girls Rock” Awards Show. In addition to all of the magical Black women on that show—from teenaged girls to our First Lady Michelle Obama to our elder Cicely Tyson—I was struck by the magic of Hollywood power couple, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. Their magic was not about their fame or riches. It was about the way they allow space for each other to be magical.
While American film and literature is filled with the trope of the “Magical Negro” (e.g. in depictions such as Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghosts,” Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” or even Kerry Washington in “Scandal.”) the magic that matters to me is the magic we display in the face of relentless racism. We keep doing what we need to do and we do it in the most magical of ways.

Stay Black & Smart!

“Not ‘Either-Or’ but ‘Both-And’”

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Lately I’ve been noticing a number of social media posts that ask people to choose between what are perceived to be competing issues, perspectives, activities, individuals or viewing choices. The last one I saw was “Empire” or “Black-ish?” Why can’t I like both? Why does there have to be only ONE representation of Blackness available to me? This choice that I’m sure was all in light-hearted fun did remind me that Black people often are caught in that trap. One some level I understand the deep desire to be in solidarity and present a united front, but in general this pattern of pigeonholing Black folks is almost never good for us.
I remember when Eddie Murphy was asked if he were the next Bill Cosby (of course, that now has multiple meanings) or the next Richard Pryor and he correctly responded, “No, I’m the first Eddie Murphy!” We would be so much poorer culturally if we only had one Black comedian. Today, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, Wanda Sykes, Mo’Nique and many others regularly demonstrate a wide range of comedic talent.
Whenever a Black person is set up as “the one and only” they get called upon to represent Black people in areas far beyond their expertise. Why on earth do people ask Charles Barkley what HE thinks about race relations when basketball is his acknowledged area of expertise? Now, because John Legend and Common have won an academy award for their song, “Glory,” we are supposed to rely on their perspective as the valid one for improving problems of racial discord.
The technique of “divide and conquer” is an old one. W. E. B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were pitted against each other and Booker T.’s seemingly more accommodating approach was seen as the “correct” one. But, a perusal of some of the correspondence between the two indicates that they had a longstanding friendship and respect for each other. Booker T. was a pragmatist. He knew White folks would give no money to build Black schools unless they believed these schools would produce more manual laborers. DuBois was perceived as arrogant because he was pushing for Black people to have access to elite education. But we did not have to choose between the two—we can have people who do either, or both!
During the 1960s we were being pushed in the same way to choose either Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. They had different strategies and tactics and we could learn from both. It did not have to be either-or; it could easily be both-and!
Our children should have a world of choices available to them. They don’t have to be relegated to one vision of themselves or their futures. It does not matter if they choose the arts or STEM related fields. It does not matter if they wear their hair natural or straight. It does not matter if they are light complexion or dark skinned.
Our survival is dependent on a full embrace of our humanity. That means that we must have access to a full range of choices for each and every human endeavor. This also means we have the right to say that we don’t like some people or that human beings are complex by nature and we can like some things about them while abhorring others…can you say Kanye West?
When “Black-ish” first aired I wrote a blog suggesting it was a little weak but I also said I would reserve judgment because it was new. I pointed out that the beloved “Cosby Show” started out slow and gained speed as the actors surrounding him got better. “Empire” hit the ground running. It’s two main actors—Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson were veterans who had worked together before. The inclusion of hip hop music with a classic melodramatic plot made it a phenomenon. And, with the invention of DVRs and On Demand I can enjoy them both. But for real…Cookie Lyons or Olivia Pope, y’all?

Stay Black & Smart!