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Maya Angelou loved me.

I know because she told me.

I had two occasions to be in her presence. The first was during college. It was a private dinner for her in Alabama and I was in a room full of people who were all, at least in their own minds, way more important than me. I was meant to be decoration for the event. “Youth” for the sake of saying young people were in the room. I sat at my table all evening listening to person after person speak about how wonderful Dr. Angelou was and how Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise were a testament to her strength and wisdom, etc. I agreed and I nodded my head and clapped my hands as an outward indication that I did. But inside my brain I was whispering to myself and rejecting the spurious parade of adoration. The thoughts in my head were coming so fast and furious that I literally started shaking my head ‘no’ and had to tell myself to stop. I was just so uncomfortable.  All of the praise being heaped upon her and no one was telling the truth. No one was saying ‘this is what a warrior looks like’ and no one was saying ‘truth can’t get any truer than what this women represents’ or that ‘this is how joy operates’ and I was getting sick from the omission. At the end of the dinner we were allowed to come down a sort of receiving line to shake her hand and get a picture if we had a camera. It was 1994. No camera phones and no digital cameras. I bought a disposable camera and left it in the car I came in by accident. I stood up really slowly when the line formed and tried to be as far to the back as possible so I could be the last person to greet her – hoping to get more time. The line moved excruciatingly slow and I watched as the person in charge got more and more antsy, checking her watch and whispering in the ear of the person next to her. My heart was racing. I was not about to miss my opportunity and I had a small window to do something about it. Following my instincts, I stepped out of line and made my way behind the dais to a door on the side of the room while there was still so much buzz going on in the space. As I was walking I heard that antsy woman say, “I’m sorry, but we have to let Ms. Angelou go now…” and like I suspected she would – she shut the receiving line down. The other folks in line grumbled and pleaded and held their cameras asking for at least a picture – but I was focused. Ms. Angelou and her party turned and headed straight for the same door that I saw her enter through and when she arrived. When the group got to the door I politely opened it like it was my job and then stood with them quietly as they waited for the elevator. When I got within earshot I said “Did you enjoy your evening Dr. Angelou?” and she said “Oh, yes, dear very much.” Then I said, “I didn’t get a chance to meet you, but I love you very much!” She said, “Aren’t you meeting me now?” The group laughed and then the fidgety women who had been looking at her watch realized I didn’t belong. She asked if I was a student and I told her I was and then she said that I needed to go out of the door in the front. At that moment Dr. Angelou said, “What is your name dear?” and I told her. She said “Well it was great to meet you” and I asked if could I hug her just as the elevator came. She turned and hugged me and I said almost teary eyed, “I love you” and she said “And I love you, Tarana.”

She said she loved me. And she pronounced my name right.

That moment was a highlight of my life, but I already knew that she loved me.

I grew up in a Black woman’s literary paradise. My mother had hundreds of books all over our house and a majority of them were from the most beloved and revered women writers of our lifetime. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and June Jordan and Gwendolyn Brooks and Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. As a little girl who loved to read I was always fascinated with the books my mother read mostly because of the pretty book covers and spectacular names . In particular, the Maya Angelou books had amazing covers and titles, but every time I asked my mom if I could read one she would say things like “I don’t know if you’re ready” or “not yet” and I would be so frustrated – but I obeyed her and left the books alone. I finally read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” at 13. I was in the sixth grade at Sacred Heart Middle School and it was a rough year. I remember when I started reading the book I was confused because it wasn’t hard to read.  I thought my mother held me back from reading it because she thought it would be too difficult to understand. When I got to the part about young Maya and Mr. Freeman I understood. In the book, Maya Angelou talks about being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at 7 years old. I was raped by the big brother of my childhood friend at 7 years old. At 13 years old – at the time I was reading this book – I was being molested and nobody knew. My 13-year-old mind could not understand and didn’t know that this was a thing that happens to girls and women around the world. I thought it was just me. I thought I was the kind of girl who bad things happened to. I didn’t tell my mother or anyone because I didn’t want them to know what a dirty, bad girl I had been. When I read about what happened to a young Maya Angelou it was the first time I even had a thought that another little girl could have gone through what I went through. I finished reading the book and I continued keeping, what was now in my mind, our secret. For me, Maya Angelou at that time was just another name on a book on my mother’s book shelf. She wasn’t “Dr. Maya Angelou” the esteemed poet, author, activist and all around wunderkind – she was a lady who wrote a book that shared my secrets.

Later on as a freshman in high school we read and studied “Phenomenal Woman” in my english class. I knew the poem but this was my first time dissecting it and reading her work with other students. My honor’s english teacher, Mr. Pieteritan, was in his white-liberal glory and very proud of himself for having this poem in his curriculum for Black History Month. I remember him passing out the handout and saying “you guys are SO going to love this!” Most of the class didn’t know the poem and many didn’t know Maya Angelou at all. I was excited when I saw her name on the paper and really eager to read out loud. Mr. Pieteritan allowed me and my friend Yolanda to read the poem together. I remember acting out a little bit and making the class laugh while I read; and then I remember him asking us what we thought this poem was about. Someone raised their hand and said something like it was about her letting the world know that she was fly and couldn’t be stopped. Mr. Pieteritan immediately agreed and went into this whole thing about how this was her way of saying “hey world look at me I’m a Black woman and I’m just as good as any white woman!” and then I remember very distinctly, he said while doing a weird ditty-bop type movement with his body – “She’s talking jive right? She’s kinda trash talking and saying ‘Yeah I’m better than you and you better believe it!” Before I knew it was going to come out I said “What are you talking about?” No!” Mr. Pieteritian was kind of used to my outbursts so he just turned and held out his hand and said “Ok, Ta-raan-a elaborate.” (he always pronounced my name wrong saying the middle part like the past tense of ‘run’ as opposed to the like the name ‘ron’). I sat up in my seat and said to him and the class that she was not talking ‘jive’ and she was not comparing herself to white woman – at all. I said that the poem, in my opinion was descriptive and that after a life like she had lived she was trying to explain to the world why they were so amazed by her and why she would never walk with her head down because she was a phenomenon. I said a bunch more. I was passionate about my explanation. I talked about how saying she was “jive talking” was an insult and demeaning to her. I talked about how all Black woman should feel this way.  I talked about how she never mentioned white women or white people at all in the poem and it was “just like white people” to think that she had to be talking about them. When I was done, my classmates where a mixture of annoyed and amused. My teacher apologized for offending me and anyone else in the class and then went on to give a long, drawn out mini-lesson on the history of “Jive” in America. I rolled my eyes because although I didn’t know what ‘white privilege’ was at the time I certainly knew when I was experiencing it. I tuned him out and I sat for the rest of the class reading the poem over and over. I had read it before but not really read it. As I read the poem over and over and over my memory of young Maya Angelou and what happened to her was smacking up against what I was reading now. Even though I defended her right to be ‘phenomenal’ intellectually, I didn’t understand what that meant or how it was even possible spiritually. At a time when I was working hard to balance to duality of what I thought my deep, dark secrets made me and who I needed to be in order to keep those secrets covered up – I couldn’t understand how this woman who had been through what I had been through was able to hold those memories in the same body that held joy. I was amazed. I wanted to get to that place so badly and at that moment, with that poem, I started the journey and committed to finding out. I’m still on the journey but I’m as close as I have ever been because of her.  I understand that its possible because I have the lived experiences that I was determined to have because she told me and showed me that I could.

Maya Angelou loved me.

I know because she told me.

From I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Phenomenal Woman and every line in and around those remarkable works – she told me. She gave me a roadmap to myself. She and her friends did that and I won’t ever stop being grateful.

Rest in Peace Mother Maya.

Maya_with_book

 

 

This is always interesting to me. These innanets are a strange place but here I am still. I posted less than last year but had double the hits. I can’t say if I will or won’t post as much this year with my new venture www.fortyisthenewforty.com taking up a lot of my time. But I will enjoy coming to visit these old pieces and I appreciate that they have a home.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 42 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

I posted this three years ago when my daughter turned thirteen. Yesterday she turned sixteen and every word of it is still true.❤

Sing a Black Girl's Song

They said I wasn’t maternal.

I was supposed to be the one who traveled the world deeply committed to “the cause” and fully prepared to burn the dynamite at both ends if it meant results for my work. So when, at the tender age of 23, I announced that I was carrying my first child, the reactions were deeply divided – not between right and wrong – but between degrees of wrongness. Some thought it was a terrible “career move” and that I was cutting short what could shape up to be a promising future. Others thought that the man was just all wrong. “He’ll leave you know,” they said. However, what most agreed on was how much they couldn’t see me raising a kid. Me with the occasional bad attitude who had “bacdafucup” tattooed in the corners of my side-eye, me with the flippant mouth and the…

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I had just started tinkering with this blog post, which I had been planning to write for weeks in honor of my 40th birthday, when my mother called. We talk several times a week and she often calls me before the evening news comes on in NY so that she can watch it and go to bed right after like she does every night. She joked with me about the final moments of my thirties and told me that she knew I would “grab forty by the horns and ride it out…” and then we talked about a crazy mishap with her surprise gift for me and some other stuff. When I hung up from her I laid across my bed and like I had many times in the last year, I thought about her fortieth birthday.  When my mother turned forty, I had just turned 17 the month before. Her birthday that year is pretty vivid in my mind because I threw her a party. It was on ‘the hill’ in our old neighborhood in the Bronx in a lounge called Mr. Jimmy’s. Jimmy’s place looked like the lovechild of Harpo’s juke joint and the smoke-filled back room where Dons get made. There wasn’t nothing but grown folk business being handled in there, but it was where the adults in our neighborhood went to unwind, and one of my mom’s favorite places. In hindsight it might have been a bit inappropriate for me and my four-year old brother to be there, but the occasion called for it.  When I close my eyes I can still see the whole scene. My mother, whose hobby was sewing back then, made her outfit for the occasion, a black and white skirt suit with a black and white head wrap. She wore black leather stilettos by Bandalino, a brand she was loyal to until her back issues forced her out of four-inch heels. Her shoes had a black and white leather rose on them and she carried her black leather clutch. (The one she won’t pass on to me no matter how much I ask.) She was, as we say on such occasions, sharp. Or as my grandma would say she was “clean as the Board of Health.” I remember thinking she looked like a movie star walking in that place. I also remember that my mother had to work that day. She left work, maybe early, and went home to change before arriving to her party that evening, but she did have to travel to mid-town and work like she did any other day. Days off were a luxury in our house, I don’t know how many times I heard something to the effect of: “If I have to take a day off of work for this…” growing up. In any event, the party was a success. It was a modest affair and all of her buddies were on hand to wish her well with plenty of food,  snacks and drinks for everyone. My stepdad helped me with the food and my mom’s girlfriend Lynda made sure she got there. She had a good time. I know she did. I could see it in her face all night long.
I have been thinking so much about her and that day for weeks and mostly thinking “I’m so not her.” As I started to seriously evaluate my life in this last run up to my birthday and think about who and what my mother was at forty, I didn’t feel as grown or as responsible or as together as she was to me back then. And I know I have a child’s perspective from that time, but this is not just random self-deprecation, she and I are very different.

My story is as cliché and as uniquely individual as any number of brown girls from the Bronx or other urban centers. In a nutshell: raised by a hard-working, single mom, who emphasized education and a strong work ethic. But my mother was also decidedly un-cliché, at least in my neighborhood. She found and enrolled me in an African centered daycare that began teaching me Swahili at three years old. Although she held customer service and clerical jobs for many years, she managed to pay for me to attend Catholic school when I could have easily gone to P.S. whatever number in the neighborhood. I couldn’t pledge allegiance to the flag in school and had to sit down with the Jehovah’s Witness girls every morning. When teachers asked me why, I was instructed to say, “I can’t pledge allegiance to a country that won’t pledge allegiance to me.” I was in first grade.

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My mother sent me to the library on weekends and made me do book reports – just for her. I also went to a pretty swanky summer camp upstate every summer. The other campers were Black and Latino and white kids from the upper West side. Their parents were doctors and professors and they went to schools like Fieldston  and York Prep. I lived in public housing and went to a small parochial school, but if I wasn’t supposed to fit in no one ever told me. I was as smart and talented and charismatic as any of those campers and I learned a great deal about history and art and culture at that camp. What I didn’t learn until much later was that my mom used her income tax return money every year to pay for me to go. The only lump sum of money most working class people can look forward to in order to get nice things or go nice places is their income tax return. My mother has never been on vacation, but I never missed a summer at Goddard.  She also put me in program after program: Cadet Corps, drill team, African dance class, track team – some of which came with a price, all of which came with amazing experiences that shaped my childhood and my life. By the time my mother’s 40th birthday came I had traveled around the country, been to the White house and met world leaders. When I wanted to campaign for David Dinkins she let me. When I wanted to protest about Yusef Hawkins and the Central Park 5 she let me. When I wanted to travel half way across the country to join a national youth leadership program, she let me. If it would expand my horizons, broaden my knowledge base or enrich my life she let me do it, even when she couldn’t do the same things and even when she sometimes couldn’t afford it – she found a way and she let me.

I have been anticipating my 40th birthday for a while now. Like a number of my fellow early ’70s babies, the last few years have been an interesting mix of anxiety, preparation, anticipation and dread. Over the last two years however, I have started releasing some of the typical fears around leaving my thirties and have begun embracing this ever-present sense of freedom that planted itself in my spirit when I was still a child. I feel more determined to do the work I had put off for half of my thirties: writing, working with brown girls, and being fabulous (yes, that’s real work) and that is a wonderfully fulfilling feeling. But I recognize my privilege.

My mother is a great writer. If I have any talent as a writer at all I have to acknowledge it in deference to her. She is incredibly well read, and made sure I was too – early. I once asked her why she read so many books and she said “Because it makes you smart and who can dispute that?” She is also a social and economic justice advocate. It was partly watching my mother fly into action to advocate for those who had difficulty finding advocates that taught me about fighting for what’s right and against what’s wrong. She would have been an amazing activist and organizer, but social justice workers don’t get paid enough to put a child in private school and send them to fancy camps. I know because I tried.

When my daughter was born and I realized that I would be raising her pretty much as a single parent  I was scared. I came home to live with my mom for eighteen months and took a job as an organizer for a small anti-sweatshop organization in Brooklyn. It paid next to nothing and I couldn’t pay my mom much rent. She told me to save up my money so I can move when I’m ready. I did move, a year and a half later, I moved back south. It was a big, risky decision, but she supported it. I moved to Montgomery, AL and got a regular job for a while (regular meaning in an office) but still social justice related. But after three years, my “real” work was calling me. I quit my job and moved to Selma, AL. I took a significant pay cut – meaning no pay – but I was doing everything I loved. My mom, who worked hard to find positions for herself that had upward mobility, and who had gone back to college to earn her Bachelors degree, surely didn’t get it, but she didn’t verbalized it to me. Soon after I moved to Selma I decided to actively pursue writing again. I was accepted into a highly regarded fellowship program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. The program lasted four months, but I couldn’t bring my daughter. My mother volunteered to take her. A few more years passed and I decided to leave the South. I had no idea where I was going or how I was getting there – with little money, but I packed up nonetheless. When I said to my mom, “I’m not sure where I’m going and I don’t have a job yet, but I’m leaving here.” She replied, “alright…but are you sure about that?” I said yes and that was it. By the summer I was ready to wrap things up in Alabama but had a lot of ripping and running to do. Again, my mom volunteered to take her granddaughter while I handled things. Everything worked out fine and now I’m in Philadelphia.

As I sit here writing this post I have about four tabs open on my computer. Each represents a different project I’m working on. Even though I have never worked a ‘conventional’ job in my whole career, this past May I was laid off from the job I had for the last four plus years. While it was a bit of a set back initially, ultimately it was a blessing. I was freed up to really dig into these projects that I have been putting off for so long and I’m also free to give my baby girl the kind of attention she needs going into her junior year in high school. In fact, at forty, I almost feel like the world tells you to feel in your 20s – like anything is possible and I can ‘be’ what I want to be but that’s not the kind of grown my mom represented at forty. She was stable. She was consistent and she kept a spotless house (no comment). And she didn’t seem to lean on my grandmother the way I lean on her. Not just financially (mommy, I’mma get you back I promise.) but emotionally and in other ways. She also didn’t seem to focus on herself and her personal aspirations as much as she did on mine.  And as intentional as I am about raising  my daughter and shaping her childhood to position her well for the future, I haven’t sacrificed my dreams or set aside my ambitions to do so. My mother surely had other aspirations for her life and there are probably roads she would have discovered just by following her heart as I have. Instead, she hunkered down, found stability, and gave me that freedom.

My mother was who she was at forty so I could be who I am at forty.

She made me brave. She made me curious. She made me resilient. And she made me free.
I don’t think she had some blueprint or master plan for how she wanted me to turn out, she just believed that I could be anything I wanted to be and made me see that I had something valuable to contribute to the world and then found every way she possibly could to prepare me to do  and be just that.

Being forty, at least for me, isn’t about harboring shame or disappointment about who I’m not at this point in my life. It is a celebration of who I’ve become and who I’m becoming. I  don’t know what the immediate future holds anymore than the next person. But I do know that whatever happens next and whatever direction I go in, I will be true to myself, I will work hard and smart to achieve my goals and  I will not be afraid to fail, because my mom made me that way.

Thanks mommy.

 

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In response to the Russell Simmons promoted video Harriet Tubman Sex Tape, I wrote a piece for this blog that was very close to my heart. In the blog I talked about how I had wanted to write about the pain of feeling like the world hates Black women but had hesitated over and over again. In closing I added a short note to brothers:

“Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl’s song…sing a song of her possibilities…”

Dear Brothers:

I guess I want my song. We sisters have been singing to each other for a long time. We have a small chorus of brothers who join in from time to time. But really, we have been force-fed songs for everybody else. We know all of the words to our songs by heart and our songs are pretty, but they don’t soothe our souls like when…you sing. I don’t expect * them * to sing, but I want you to sing. my. song. Love me. Sing to me. Protect me. Make this pain go away. Don’t create this pain. Is it too much to ask to go to sleep and wake up to the melody of you singing my song? I want to go through the day with your song for me playing over and over again in my head. I want to have random memories of your lyrics cross my mind and make me smile. That’s how I want to survive, with you and I singing each other through unjust verdicts and heinous videos and anything the world throws at us. I know how to sing your song. I sing it with a hoodie on, I sing it in front of prisons and courthouses, I sing it every chance I get, I promise you I do.

sing. my. song.

Don’t hate me because I love you. We could sing together but my voice is tired. I just want you to sing for a little while.

Please.

While I was pouring my heart out here, a collective of Black men writers who call themselves Black Men Writing to Live were crafting a response to the much talked about twitter conversation that happened this week based on the hashtag #blackpowerisforblackmen started by Ebony.com editor Jamilah Lemeiux.

While this post is not a direct response to what I wrote – it certainly responds.

Sometimes I draw a hardline in situations like this. I get frustrated with the people who are “in the know” preaching to a choir that anxiously awaits their thoughts and musings so that they can vigorously agree. This is different. This is a touchstone conversation. This is Black men doing what Russell Simmons did NOT do in his apology – speaking directly to the hurt, pain, and challenges of Black women and being accountable. It’s beautiful, and heartfelt, and vulnerable, and needed.

I went through a range of emotions as I read through this. Sometimes I just eagerly nodded my head in agreement and other times I clutched my virtual pearls with a silent ‘awww’ under my breath. It made me smile and think and cry – the good kind of tears. It made me feel exactly how I was looking to feel when I wrote the last blog – understood, appreciated, valued, loved.

These men are by no means perfect, nor do they profess to be. They are not calling themselves “the standard” but I would say this is a starting place for building a standard. I have said for a long time that these conversations that happen about the lives of Black women and Black men cannot happen only between same genders. If Black women aren’t getting married, guess what? Black men aren’t either. It’s a family conversation not a national debate. We need to talk to each other and I’m so grateful to this collective for making that happen.

I’m posting the entire blog below. Please feel free to comment directly on the blog and repost liberally. Especially if you feel like I do and want to hug each and every one of these brother’s necks.

http://thefeministwire.com/2013/08/blackpowerisforblackmen/?fb_action_ids=10151538725365780&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_ref=.Ug0-W4eUCYo.like&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%5B222825501207522%5D&action_type_map=%5B%22og.likes%22%5D&action_ref_map=%5B%22.Ug0-W4eUCYo.like%22%5D

bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/I haven’t conquered yet” -Ntozake Shange

This says it all.

This quote says everything about how I feel in this body, in this skin, with this face, in this world some days. Waking up woman and brown, for me has increasingly becoming an exercise that has to be undergirded by a mental, spiritual and at times, physical armor. When I get up and face the world, I never know what new attack on the body, mind, and spirit of black women or women of color or poor women has happened in the illusive still of the night. If we are not being publicly humiliated by national radio hosts, then we are warding off mainstream media’s attacks concerns about why we aren’t married or “marriageable” or worse we have to be faced with 40 foot tall, full color, attacks on our wombs, using one of our babies.
Our murders go unnoticed. Our children are unprotected. And our existence and humanity becomes couched in the sexualized, unforgiving lens of white men, the incessant needs of black men or the whiney, intrusive, pseudo omniscient agency of white women.

It’s humiliating. It’s infuriating. It’s unconscionable. But mostly, its exhausting.

I have started and stopped this blog post three times. It was meant to be the very first blog I posted back in 2010. At the time I just wanted to introduce the world to the space I created for and about Black women’s lives – I wanted us to be able to sing our songs loud and proud and unapologetically. I didn’t publish what I wrote because I thought there were enough spaces like that on the internet. I was wrong, there are never enough. I attempted to write it again, from a different perspective in February of 2011 when the Anti-Abortion ads went up around the country attacking Black babies in the womb and Black women at the core and again in March 2011 when the 11 year old girl was gang raped in Texas, but I couldn’t quite express my outrage in the way I wanted to at the time. I wanted to cry for Black women all over the page but I didn’t think either narrative needed more pain, so I digressed. Every time a major news story hit the web about Black women or girls, I tried. When Too Short released the video instructing jr. high school boys on how to sexually assault little girls, when the Black maid was raped by Strauss-Kahn, when Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone, any number of the GOP attacks on reproductive health and poor women and children – over and over again – I wanted to write something, but something stopped me.

Tonight, like what has become all too commonplace, I returned home, sat on my bed, opened my laptop and was gutted. Russell Simmons, co-founder of iconic hip-hop label, Def Jam, and often called the “godfather of Hip-Hop” launched a new digital media venture called AllDefMedia. One of the first projects released from this new Youtube based project was called… “Harriet Tubman Sextapes.” Yes, you read that right. By now you might have seen it and definitely should have heard about it. It’s vile and disrespectful and unscrupulous to put it mildly. The immediate response around all parts of the social media spectrum was a resounding “No!” It was shared over and over on Facebook and Twitter with messages of anger and appall at the unbelievable images being acted out in the name of our patron saint of ‘get free or die trying’ – Harriet Tubman. H A R R I E T — T U B M A N!!!!! Who does that? However, The uprising from the virtual black community worked. The video was removed and Russell Simmons issued a (lame) apology.

Ok, so now what?

Today all of the people who missed it last night will wake up to the story. There will be fresh outrage. There will be long, diatribes and open letters. There will be virtual commiseration happening all across the interwebs. And while that’s good – great even. It still doesn’t help me sleep at night or ease into my mornings any better.

I went to a private, catholic school from first grade through eighth grade with the exception of one year – fourth. In the fourth grade my mother put me in The Parkchester School – P.S. 106. I got along fine in the school for the most part. I made a friend or two and our little group played together at lunchtime and did group projects and generally held each other down. The thing we didn’t do was walk home together. I didn’t live in Parkchester, the privately owned apartment complex where the school was housed. I lived in Bronxdale projects about 20 minutes away and used my grandmother’s address to attend the school. That fact was little known to most of my peers, but when a particular group found out, the resident “mean girls” of the class, they decided to torment me about it. Everyday they would say something to me, write notes about me, or do things like tell other kids I was dirty and bummy (and y’all know that’s not even possible – I was born fresh to def). I tried to be friends with them. I tried to tell the teacher on them. I even tried to clap back at them – but nothing worked. They hated me.

This went on for a while until finally, one day they caught me walking alone and said something slick about my moms. I decided to do what my mother had alway taught me to do when surrounded by a group that might attack me. I grabbed the biggest one and began wailing on her first. I was actually getting her good because she was tall but gangly and awkward. Of course the other two jumped in and they eventually overpowered me. They dumped my book bag out and stomped on my glasses. They tore up my bus pass. They even threw dirt on me. I got home and told my mother who of course came up to the school the next day. These girls had committed the ultimate offense by putting their hands on me and she was going to put her foot down. Well, the school said it happened off of school grounds and they had no evidence of the fight, but they brought all of the girls to the office and we had “the big meeting.” The girls apologized half-heartedly – not for jumping me – they didn’t admit to that, but for “making me feel bad if they had done that in any way.” When it was all over and my mom went home and I returned to class, the principal called me over and said “are you okay Tarana, do you feel better?” And because I hadn’t yet been taught to put the comfort of others before my own, I said – “No! They still hate me.” I tried to explain to the principal that this wasn’t over and that wasn’t a real apology. What I said specifically, and I still remember, was “I’m okay today, but what about tomorrow?”

What about tomorrow? What about when this happens again?

Those three girls were just bullies, yes. But I also remember that incident so well because it was the beginning of a shift for me. I knew then that I would *never* let another person beat me and if I ever did get jumped again I wasn’t going to rest until I paid each person back. There was a seed of anger and bitterness that was planted during that situation and eventually rooted itself in other growing feelings of unworthiness which I fed and nurtured. I met girl after girl over the years that I felt like represented what those girls in the fourth grade represented and I figured that they hated me too because of things they said and did, but they were just hurt black girls surviving off of a pittance of bravado, healthy portions of other black girl’s pain and giant gulps of internalized oppression. I figured out how to conquer black girl hurt with unconditional black girl love. I took time to dig into my hurt and anger and bitterness and in the course of doing so I discovered a roadmap to loving Black girls and women in spite of and because of what they had been taught about loving themselves and loving me back. But this ain’t about us loving us. It’s about everybody else hating us. When those girls were tormenting me, before I got jumped, I would go home and spend hours at night trying to understand why or what I could do differently to get them to like me or at least leave me alone. The more things failed, the more determined I was to try something new. Not because I wanted to be down with them but because I didn’t want to hurt anymore.

This hurts.

And its a complex pain. Sometimes it’s sharp and jabbing, but most of the time it’s an unrelenting and indescribable kind of dull, lingering pain. Feeling like you have to carefully navigate your existence around the whims of any number of others is continuously painful. Will they attack my skin color or hair, will they call me an unfit mother, will they say I’m not marryable, will they attack my child, will they harass me at work, will they rape me, will they kill me – and if they do who will care? Carefree feels like a luxury when our reality is a practice in vigilance and resilience. It may sound outrageous, but that’s why I kinda-sorta envy the reality show chics and those who aspire to be like them. There is a disconnection from ‘giving a fuck’ that they wield with supreme precision and expertise and sometimes I just want – that. I want that so that during the times when I can’t find an ally who doesn’t bamboozle me into expending what energy I have left on heaping praises on them for ‘allying’ for me in the first place or the times when I feel like I’m screaming into a deep, dark well that sounds like a groundswell of support but in reality is just my own voice screaming back at me – I can say fuck it, I’m twerking by the cakes and get on with my life. But I don’t have that luxury and I’m not throwing a pity party about it because it’s a clear choice, but damn, it’s a choice that’s isolating as hell. I love that I have the support of my online community in the midst of these whirlwind storms, but then I shut down the computer and lay in the dark of my room thinking, “damn, even Russell Simmons hates me? Do they all hate me?” And I don’t know him, or particularly care what he thinks or doesn’t think normally and I know he by no means represents all Black men, but today, that thought makes me cry a little bit. Nah, alot. It makes me cry because, I have to go to sleep and then wake up tomorrow (God willing) and I have to crawl through my daily download of information and try desperately to avoid the land mines and hand grenades that can be waiting to rip me up from the inside out. And then when I don’t avoid them, because I never do, and they continue to tear away at my spirit…then what?

“Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl’s song…sing a song of her possibilities…”

Dear Brothers:

I guess I want my song. We sisters have been singing to each other for a long time. We have a small chorus of brothers who join in from time to time. But really, we have been force-fed songs for everybody else. We know all of the words to our songs by heart and our songs are pretty, but they don’t soothe our souls like when…you sing. I don’t expect * them * to sing, but I want you to sing. my. song. Love me. Sing to me. Protect me. Make this pain go away. Don’t create this pain. Is it too much to ask to go to sleep and wake up to the melody of you singing my song? I want to go through the day with your song for me playing over and over again in my head. I want to have random memories of your lyrics cross my mind and make me smile. That’s how I want to survive, with you and I singing each other through unjust verdicts and heinous videos and anything the world throws at us. I know how to sing your song. I sing it with a hoodie on, I sing it in front of prisons and courthouses, I sing it every chance I get, I promise you I do.

sing. my. song.

Don’t hate me because I love you. We could sing together but my voice is tired. I just want you to sing for a little while.

Please.

“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer breathe”
― Frantz Fanon

In March of 2012, a few days after I first heard the name Trayvon Martin, I wrote a blog post about being outraged that Zimmerman had not been arrested and how “justice” for Trayvon was in order. Less than a year and a half later I find myself outraged again – this time crying into my pillow and staring off into space trying to wrap my mind around the events of the last few weeks leading up to this verdict and I’m having a hard time.

People have used words like “activist” and “organizer” and even “freedom fighter” (mostly my daughter) to describe the work that I do and have done over that last 25 years. I never know how to describe any of it personally, but if pressed I usually say something like “I love Black folk and I’m committed to the work of making us free – in whatever form that takes.” Although I could never predict the twists and turns my life in this work would take, I was clear from a very early age what it would involve: commitment, tenacity, honesty, resilience, and love, lots and lots of love. But, what I didn’t know until it was too late to turn back, was that it would involve living my life in a political, spiritual, and sometimes moral duality that I can never quite fully comprehend but have an overwhelming need to maintain. I know what Dubois said about Double Consciousness and what Fanon said about Cognitive Dissonance, but I’m talking about my lived experience not intellectual rationalizations as much as I appreciate them. For example, when I heard Trayvon Martin was murdered my deepest desire was that his murderer be brought to “justice” and arrested for his crime. I wanted George Zimmerman to be arrested by the police force that, like every other police force in America, is grounded in white supremacist principles and racist practices. A police force that could have very well been the culprits in the profiling and murder of Trayvon Martin. I also wanted Trayvon’s murderer to be prosecuted in a state that has routinely and systematically disenfranchised and discriminated against people of color. In hindsight it seems preposterous but, it’s the same thing I wanted in the countless other cases that I rallied around in the last 25 years (Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, Yusef Hawkins, The Central Park 5, Bernard Goetz, Sean Bell and dozens of other names between New York and Alabama that never made a blip on the national radar) – justice.

But what is justice?

This is not a diatribe about how “I knew the verdict was going to be not guilty” or “why anyone would be surprised at this outcome?” This is a person who loves Black folk with all her heart trying to make sense of the hate and vitriol heaped upon us on a daily basis, the all too familiar pain and anguish and heartache that accompanies these moments and the seeming insanity of consciousness. Each one of those ideas is a study unto themselves, I know. But I have been so numb for the past few days since this verdict and every time I read a status message or an article or look at a #justiceforTrayvon hashtag, the same questions keep crawling through my mind and I don’t have any answers, I just have thinning breath, and swelling temples and teary, bloodshot eyes. I feel crazy in a sense to think that what we commonly refer to as justice in the context of the American judicial system is possible for Black people in the way that the people who devised the system intended. This is not to say that I don’t know what justice can look like outside of the American judicial system. The opposite side of this coin is that I know that I have to, like thousands of others who have the capacity to do so, create “justice” for Trayvon Martin and others like him. That form of justice happens as we take to the streets to express our outrage, as we, not just call for people to organize, but make efforts to help organize groups of people to continue work that protects and empowers young black and brown men and women and it happens when we use these moments to turn inward to our communities and spread the compassion and understanding that we have for the Martin family and friends amongst each other. I know this is happening everyday in some communities and as a result of this trial and verdict will continue to happen. I’m not completely dependent on America to provide closure through their system of justice because I know better. But, I also can’t stop myself from ramping up every, single time to * demand * it or from being genuinely outraged when it’s not served. For the larger part of my life I have described myself as an “African living in America” or just Black. I was raised not to pledge allegiance to the American flag – for political, not religious reasons. There were never any flags in our home unless they were RBG and although, as a family, we gather together some time around the first weekend in July – we NEVER celebrate American independence day. In fact I can’t even wear a combination of Red, White and Blue clothes around my mother. My grandfather gave me Before the Mayflower to read on my 11th Birthday and moved up to Franz Fanon, J.A. Rodgers and Ivan Van Sertima before I was out of Jr. high school. I have studied at the feet of Dr. Asa Hillard, Mama Marimba Ani and Faya Rose Toure and have read practically every speech ever made by Malcolm X and I do know better – but still I yearn for American “justice” and ache when I can’t find it – and that makes me feel unhinged. I knew there was a good chance that Zimmerman would be acquitted, but I still had some hope that he would not get off. I had to have hope. I can’t live a life where hope is outweighed by cynicism – not if I want to continue to love Black folk. And, not if I want to feel sane. Part of me feels like having hope is for suckers and the other part knows that if I don’t hold on to hope then what does that mean about me and the work that I say I’m committed to. The duality again.

Really, I’m just talking. I went through the range of emotions like most of my friends and millions of others when I heard the verdict. I haven’t been extremely vocal on social media because…I just didn’t know what to say or had too much to say, I’m not sure. I’ll have more to say soon, I’m sure. But for now I just needed to get these thoughts, feelings and emotions down in the off-chance that someone might relate.

meandmrwes

January 30th is my father’s birthday. He was born in 1930, so if he was alive this year would have been his 83rd birthday. He died 12 years ago on January 21, 2001.

For a decade after my father’s death January was the worst month for me. It actually started in December around the holidays, which he loved to celebrate. I could always get through Christmas thinking about how happy it made him and how happy he made me in turn. Christmas was never the problem. It was after Christmas and right before New Year’s Eve that I would be struck with a random, painful memory of him and the void left in my spirit when he died. The feeling always started with a joyful thought of a joke he told or a meal he cooked and then suddenly, like being pierced with a sharp object, the pain would come — in full force and it didn’t dull any as days went by either. In fact, it increased by the day, causing me to feel alternatively sick or sad or mean or lethargic. It was anyone’s guess.

I hated January.

My father died nine days before his 71st birthday making it impossible to remember his life without dragging forth the pain of his death; the two remained inextricably linked in my mind. Some years were harder than others. In 2006, a particularly hard year in general, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his death, I completely shut down. I was able to function enough to feed my daughter and get her to school, but for about a month, I was no good otherwise. None. And strangely enough it didn’t bother me. My grandfather, the only man I loved as much as my father, had passed away eight years before my father and at the time I had no frame of reference for how to proceed with the rest of my life without his love and support. A part of me died when granddaddy died. The other part died with Mr. Wes (that was my nickname for him).

In 2009, on the eighth anniversary of his death, something wonderful happened. By that time I had settled into the idea that January was just a bad time for me and as such, I began to prepare for it. I would tell close friends not to worry and say things like, “I’m going to be a little depressed for a few weeks, but I will snap out of it.” I had a playlist of sad music that reminded me of Mr. Wes. I had pictures that I would sit and sift through everyday. I had a routine. And I thought it was sane. That year the first Sunday in January happened to fall on the day after New Year’s day. I sat in church that day just waiting for the wallowing to begin, but instead I had a complete revelation. My Pastor preached from Philippians 3:13-14

“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

This is one of my favorite scriptures in general, but on that night he talked about it in reference to baggage and posed questions that seemed to be directed at me specifically. He asked how long would we wallow in the tragedies of the past and he asked what did we take that was good from those things to use in our testimony as we moved forward. After the service I went and talked to my Pastor and explained the situation. He was so enlightening and explained that I was using my father’s legacy in a way that he would not be pleased. That was a big turning point for me. That night I came home and I created a collage in honor of him on my Facebook page and I played his favorite songs loud in the house, but this time I danced to them instead of wailing in my bed until my eyes were swollen shut. I showed my daughter his famous dance moves to classics like “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Buffalo Soldier” two of his all time favorites. My daughter, who was three when he died, asked me all sorts of questions about him and our life together and I obliged her and divulged all sorts of tales from my childhood.

It was magical.

I felt free for the first time in years. I had managed to figure out (with God’s grace) how to remember him and love him and be happy at the same time and for the last three years I have reveled in the memories of my dear Mr. Wes.

This year I forgot.

I didn’t post any pictures of him on Facebook, I didn’t call my mother to have a conversation about “back-in-the-day” when we were all together and happy. I didn’t play his music. I simply forgot.

I remembered a few days back though. A friend told me that she had recently had a birthday and I said out loud “oh snap” (I didn’t really say snap but whatever) “my father’s birthday is coming up!” That had to be Saturday. Now, four short days later. I forgot.

Today was a normal day. I went to work and I was very busy. I had a few meetings and phone calls this morning. I had an afternoon appointment as well and then I was back to the office before going home to prepare for my evening attending the opening night of Alvin Ailey here in Philadelphia. I came home after the show and talked to my daughter for about 40 minutes and then went back to work finishing something that is on a deadline for tomorrow. I did all of this today and I didn’t remember him.

The strange thing is I don’t know how to feel. I don’t know if I should feel bad because — he’s my father. If he were alive I’d feel bad so why shouldn’t I feel bad in his death? Especially when it occurred to me that if I had forgotten his birthday then I most certainly forgot the day of his death. *deep sigh*

I dont’ know what it means. I will never, every forget him as a person. I will never, ever, not miss him being here with me. And I will never, ever know another human being like him. But, I am not in mourning anymore; and I am happy about that. Some part of me thinks he would want me to forget and live my life only from the memories of the care and attention and generosity that he showed me. I believe with all of my being that he would want that and that’s easy to do because I carry it in my heart every, single day along with all of the love I had for him and he had for me. And that is easy to remember.

Continue to rest peacefully.

I love you Mr. Wes.

Daddy was a number runner: my memories of Mr. Wes

Pray

I am doing my best to set my intentions for the new year and a part of that is seeking greater spiritual grounding. My faith in God has brought me through all of the most difficult challenges that I have faced as an adult and somehow I seem to forget that when I need to remember it the most. I often forget that I have this awesome gift of faith and try to rely on my own will to get through the worst of times. This year I am determined to stay focused on my goals and “lean not on my own understanding…

This is my daily prayer for 2013:

Lord,
I want to walk in your perfect will all of my life. I do not want Your permissive will; I don’t want to do anything without your approval and blessing. If I try to do something that’s not Your best for me, please let me feel hesitation in my heart and a check in my spirit, to keep me on the path of your plan. Help me not to be stiff-necked. Help me not the be stubborn. Help me not to be hard-hearted. God, I want Your will to operate fully in my life. I’ve experienced the fruit of my own will enough to know that if I get my way, and it’s not what You want, it’s going to turn out bad. I’m willing to obey You, but please help me to hear clearly what You are telling me to do.

Amen.

Whatever your particular faith is – I hope that you are able to lean on it to help you set your intentions for the new year and whatever your goals are for this life – and then work diligently toward them. God has brought me this far for a reason. I know that I am doing my best not to forget that again.

I know I need to do better in 2013 as this report shows, but I’m really proud of the writing I did and am motivated to do triple the work this year!

#newyearnewme

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 6 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

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