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Who’s the White Guy?

The radio is a dangerous instrument.  While I used to listen to the radio all the time in the car, I quickly got a wake up call.  It seems the radio – and all of its poptastic tunes – can infiltrate even the youngest minds.  One day when Leila was three years old and we were on our way to wherever, I vaguely heard the sound of my pumpkin singing.  Not even paying attention to what was playing, instead I tuned in to the sound of my muffin’s adorable voice.  “Oh na na….WHASSSS my name… Oh na na… WHASSSS my name… Oh na na…. WHASSSSS my name, WHASSSSS my name WHASSSS my name!”  My baby was hitting those “What’s” with emphasis!  !t took me literally one second to realize that, even though she could barely talk clearly, she was clearly too old to listen to Mommy’s radio.

That doesn’t mean pop culture does not break through.  Somehow, despite my vigilance, this little six-year-old knows every word to every song that is popular.  She is particularly fond of MAcklemore’s “Thriftshop”.  She knows knows all of the words and even added a word (Super!”) in the edited silent space before his “awesoooome!”  Anyway, last night as I tried to sneak and finally watch my DRV’d episode of the Grammys (at least a month after it aired), I found my shadow sitting right underneath me.  As Macklemore approached the stage to receive his award for her favorite song, Leila says “Hey, who’s that white guy?”  I tell her he is the man who made the song.  “That’s weird,” she says.  “I didn’t think he made that song.  I thought only brown people talk like that.”  “You mean make rap music?” I ask.  “Yeah Mommy, I thought only Black people make those songs.”

So I start to tell her how music is for everybody and how you can never guess what a person looks like by the music they make or like or how they sound.  HipHop is for everyone, I tell her, and then I chuckle at the irony.  I mean after all, here I was just thinking about how Kendrick Lamar was robbed and the hiphop gods would be throwing away their mics if they ever thought that beatboxing and breakdancing would give way to a funny looking little leprachaun of a man hopping around talking about wearing mildewy clothes.  And don’t get me wrong, I like Macklemore and the odd little lane he’s created.  But when I think about hiphop, I think about basement parties and Biggie, I think about cyphers in front of lockers erupting wild choruses of “OOOHHHH!!!!”  I think about lyrics and beats commanding the head nod.  The head nod!  It wasn’t a dance or a choice; it was an involuntary movement, an autonomic response to what we heard!  And WE created that!  We started that!  We owned that!  WE… let that turn into tales of hoes, crack, and cars.  WE let it become something a vast majority of us find uninspired, simplistic, and often times just plain distasteful.  But I guess “we” also laid down a blueprint for the ones who come behind us to get it right.  So whether Kendrick, Macklemore, or whoever else may come, there is always someone ready to put hiphop back on the right track.  And R & B.  And Rock.  So thanks to my pumpkin, I am thinking more deeply about not just what I teach her, but what I actually believe.  And that goes for everything from race and religion to hiphop. Leave it to my kid to make an offhanded comment about a rapper that has me reexamining my rhetoric and focusing less on what I preach and more on what I practice believing.

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A Little Known Black History Fact

It is deep in February and that means it is Black History Month.  Or at least it’s supposed to be.  I grew up in a neighborhood that, over time, slowly became predominately black. As the neighborhood turned, so to do the focus on Black History Month.  When I first moved to the suburbs of Chicago, I cannot necessarily remember anything we did in school around the topic.  But by the time we got to sixth grade, it was a full on event.  There were plays about civil rights leaders, there were assemblies that started and ended with “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, there were tributes to the past, etc.  I remember standing in front of my whole school in my mother’s sweeping black skirt with a scarf on my head as I channeled Sojourner, yelling to the heavens “Ain’t I a Woman!”  Yes, from the 1st to the 28th, Black History Month was an event.

But now things seem a little… different.  I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or because my neighborhood is predominately, well, not black, but I am not getting the sense that Black History Month is still getting the same kind of love.  But then it occurs to me: I am an adult, not a school aged child, so of course it seems that way to me now.  All of my memories were school based; after all, the real purpose of the month is to teach the children, right? If I want to know whether or not the month is being appropriately recognized, I should probably look at Leila’s school first.

So I ask my pumpkin, “Are you learning anything about Black History Month in school?”, to which she promptly responds, “Black History Month?  What’s THAT!?!” Okay, so I guess I have the answer to my question.  “Black History Month”, I tell her, “is  a month where we learn about all the wonderful and amazing things that black people did and still do that make our country so great.”  My precious baby takes a second to think about what I have just told her and says “well I don’t know about that, but if you want to learn about something special, we can read about Groundhog Day!”  And with that statement, she presents me with a completely new potential little known black history fact: Maybe Black History Month has quietly slipped into obscurity.

Perhaps Punxsutawney Phil and his groundhog predictions are more relevant today than a tiny little black woman leading folks to freedom.  Slavery is over but spring comes every year, right?  And for the last few years there’s been a growing debate about whether the month is still even relevant. Even Morgan Freeman called the month ridiculous, and he was God (in a romantic comedy) for Pete’s sake!  He said that there is no Black history, only American history, which I wholly agree with.  Even Carter G. Woodson himself apparently hoped that at some point, Black History Week (and later, Month) would dissolve into a relevant part of American history.  And we have come so far!  African-Americans have gone from being barred from the political process to an active part of the political process, to presidential success; from sharecroppers to CEO’s; from deprived of education to esteemed professors and academicians, I could go on.  In so many ways, the “dream” has been realized.  Maybe the month is an antiquated notion.

But there is a sentence that I cannot get out of my head, and it is not even related to any race bound theme at all: “Do this in remembrance of me…”  remembrance.  it is the fundamental source of almost every religious tradition, from Passover, to Communion, to just about any other spiritual tradition you can think of.  There is something holy, sacred even, about remembrance.  By remembering who and what we are, where we come from, we pay homage to ourselves.  We celebrate our uniqueness, we honor our identities, we find within ourselves a source of pride that pushes us towards more. We also learn about and are inspired by the strength and beauty of other cultures not our own.  We can make each other’s lives richer, not by ignoring the differences between us, but appreciating them all as beautiful.  All of this can happen, simply by remembering and encouraging our children to remember.  So whether her school does it or not, I am going to teach my baby about Sojourner and Harriet and Nat Turner and DuSable, and her great-aunt who was an aviator in the 1930’s, and her two uncles who helped pioneer Operation Breadbasket in Chicago, and her other uncle who was the first African-American chaplain in the city of Chicago.  Because the little known black history fact is that while yes, black history is American history, black history – like every other culture’s history –  is also distinctive, which is something to be proud of.  And that should never be forgotten.

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The King ‘s Speech (Written 1/16/2017… what can i say?)

This morning, I once again found myself in the mad dash to get my baby out of the door.  It’s an ambitious dash, to say the least.  I have to get her ready, out the door, lunch in hand, bookbag emptied and re-packed to look like it had been done carefully the night before, all in the span of approximately three minutes.  There is not a lot of time to spare.  Yes, I could empty her bookbag the night before, but I don’t.  I’m too busy doing things that I was supposed to take care of the morning/evening/hour before.  So the homework and schoolwork that I should be giving a lot of attention to, really just gets a quick glance over between 8:46 and 8:47 am every morning.  What can I say?  It’s only kindergarten.

Anyway, today I pulled out her work from the day before and I see Martin Luther King’s face.  That’s right; it’s almost Dr. King’s birthday.  As I am remembering this very fact, Leila says “Mommy, is it true that that man changed things because people with skin like you had to sit in the back of the bus and people with skin like me could sit in the front?”  I am flooded with guilt for not teaching my baby about Dr. King before her school did.  After all, my family was full of activists; shouldn’t she just have some institutional knowledge about civil rights already built in? I went to an HBCU, dammit!  Isn’t that sort of knowledge passed through the cord?  And even if it is not, I can’t help but feel like I was supposed to teach her this anyway. “Yes, I would be in the back of the bus”, I say to her, and she would have had to sit in the back of the bus with me, but Dr. King changed all of that.  I told her that people of color used to get treated very poorly.  “Unfairly, Mommy”, she says with such definitive expertise.  “People with skin like yours were treated unfairly“.  “That’s true,” I tell her.  “People of color couldn’t eat in the same places as others, or drink from the same fountains.  Do you know that it used to be  crime for people with different skin to even love each other?  So your Daddy and Mommy would not have even been able to love each other and make a Leila?  Thank God that is different now, right?”  “Thank GOD!”, she says.  Then as we walk to school she tells me she’s only “a lil’ bit African American”.  And I count it as growth that that does not offend me.  Because the truth is, she is right.  She is a little bit of me, and a little bit of john. And I guess I have to accept that we do have different skin.  “Yes, Pumpkin.  You are African American and Hispanic” I tell her.  “I should know more about my Spanish, Mommy.  I only know a little bit about Spanish because we only learn a little bit in Spanish class and we say the same words over and over again!”  “Mommy has to do better to teach you about your Spanish, Pump,” I tell her.  For the first time it dawns on me that I don’t have an obligation to teach her about her black side, I have to teach her about her whole self.  The Black and the Spanish.  The Spanish and the White.  It’s all in there, making her her.  She has been aware of it longer than I have wanted to acknowledge it, and none of it is making her any less anything than the other.  And maybe that is some of the legacy of Dr. King and his effort.  After all, if we are all created equal, then maybe I have to give all equal importance.

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Cupid’s Lessons

It is now February, and Valentine’s Day is upon us.  Now that Leila is 6, she is old enough to really understand what these holidays mean, and to be excited by them.  She looks forward to each one on the calendar, because it means that there is some new reason to celebrate.  And her excitement about the holidays is contagious; suddenly days that meant only a little bit are now a lot more fun.

Which brings us back to Valentine’s Day.  A friend of mine forwarded me the cutest idea; everyday for the month before Valentine’s Day, I would write a compliment on a heart of colored construction paper and tape it to her door.  The idea is that by the time Valentine’s Day rolls around, her door is covered in hearts that don’t just show her how much she is loved, they reaffirm all of the wonderful things that make her special.  The first five were easy:  You are an awesome ballerina!  Your smile is brighter than sunshine!  You are the smartest girl in the whole world!  But as the days grew on, I discovered myself struggling.  The compliments that started to spring to my mind first were all physical observations.  Your hair is perfect, you have such pretty eyes, you are the most beautiful girl in the world.  And that was after some real thought, because after around the fifteenth day, coming up with any compliments at all suddenly – I am ashamed to say – became a struggle.  I even secretly considered googling good compliments for little girls during some down time at work.

Wait a minute!  What was happening here?  Since when was it hard to come up with 30 compliments for my baby?  And why were the first ones that sprung to mind based on her outside?  I mean, I compliment my baby all the time…right? Right?    I got to thinking, really thinking, about the notion of a compliment.  It is reaffirming, it is encouraging, it is loving.  Anything that positive should happen all the time.  But does it?  Or does the compliment come second to the correction?

What has been amazing though, is that this little exercise has forced me to sit down and consider all these things.  This simple little activity that has taken five minutes out of my day has pushed me to focus on my baby’s strengths, not her flaws.  It is making me dig past the surface of cute smiles, shining eyes and springy curls, find the true value in my baby, and then lift it up in her face to her to marvel at also.  Her compliments are less obvious and more meaningful:  You are a wonderful listener; you are a leader; you have a heart of gold; your kindness is amazing; you are as talented as you are smart as you are kind; everyday you make choices that make mommy and daddy proud.  And with each heart I cut out and taped to her door, I began to realize that the problem is not that I don’t have anything positive to say about her; it is that I just haven’t developed the habit of expressing it as often as I should.  It is so much easier to correct inappropriate behavior, or compliment what is obvious, like a little girl’s smile or her outfit.  But I am promising myself today that everyday I have an opportunity to remind my baby about all the things that make her wonderful and I will take advantage of it.   Thank goodness for Cupid and his lessons of love!