life beyond the well…


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I. CAN’T. BREATHE.

I can’t breathe.

That’s what Eric Garner said over and over again, as the NYPD officer held him in an outlawed choke hold, pressing his knee into his back, eventually leading to his death.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe. I may not be in a physical choke hold, but this- these cases of police misconduct and the killing of unarmed people of color is choking the life out of me, out of my people, out of our communities, out of our children.

I can’t breathe because I am (we are) in this abusive relationship that forces me (us) to be afraid of those who are in place to protect me (us), and I (we) see no way of escape. There are no shelters where I (we) can escape for my (our) protection. I am (we are) searching for refuge, for equal footing, for right standing and it doesn’t appear to be available.

I can’t breathe because I (we) spend all of this energy trying to be the “good” or “safe” black person, even though I (we) know that while I (we) can change my (our) name, neighborhood, job, clothes, education level, friends, behavior…I (we) CANNOT change the very thing that makes other people feel afraid or threatened: my (our) skin color.

I can’t breathe because I am (we are) exhausted by the constant stream of microaggressions I (we) face, of having to deal with “good decisions” that have racist implications, of having to decide if I (we) should speak up because of knowing (expecting) the response to be that I am (we are) “playing the race card” or “being too sensitive”.

But.

If I have to “play the race card” or “be too sensitive” because it forces you to be more careful, more thoughtful, more intentional in your interactions and decisions regarding people like me- so be it.

I will not continue to be uncomfortable so that you can maintain your comfort. No. It’s time for us to be uncomfortable together.

Discomfort produces action. Appropriate action produces change.

What is appropriate action? I challenge our communities, ESPECIALLY our communities of faith to address these issues, then act.  Hear the stories of hurt, of anger, of fear- and then do the work that helps to change hearts. Share the gospel. Love like Jesus. While I hear and understand the cries for justice, I know that the true need is Jesus. True acceptance of Jesus compels our hearts and our minds to change.

My prayer in this situation is best encompassed in the lyrics of “Build Your Kingdom Here” by Rend Collective Experiment: 

“We are Your church.
We pray revive this earth.
Build Your kingdom here.
Let the darkness fear.
Show Your mighty hand.
Heal our streets and land.
Set Your church on fire.
Win this nation back.
Change the atmosphere.
Build Your kingdom here.
We pray.
Unleash Your kingdom’s power
reaching the near and far.
No force of Hell can stop
Your beauty changing hearts.
You made us for much more than this!
Awake the kingdom seed in us!
Fill us with the strength and love of Christ.
We are Your church.
We are the hope on earth.”

Amen.


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A Full-Option Provider

I recently read the book “The Other Wes Moore” and it really got me thinking about education, “the system”, family, poverty, and the reality of life for so many of the students I serve each day, and many more across the country.

Here’s part of the description from the back of the book:

“Two kids named Wes Moore were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence?”

Since reading the book, I’ve wrestled with that last question in the description.  Or with this idea, better stated by Moore:

“The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

But what does that really mean?  And the truth is that I don’t know.  But I wrestle with it as an educator working to prepare students for high school and college, fully understanding the benefits that come from being in the “right” school (or the “right school for you”).  And I guess, if I think about it in the scope of my professional work, my goal is to, as best I can, ensure that my school is a “full-option provider”, meaning that when students leave here, they have the full-range of options at their disposal so that they can create the life that they want.

So that they can have a life of “want-tos” instead of “have-tos”.  So that they can choose instead of having it chosen for them.

And that’s all well and good, but there’s also the understanding that a wrong choice NOW (even as middle school students), can essentially wipe out their options, or reduce them to being so few that they may as well not have any. Today’s poor choices are a down-payment on tomorrow’s problems.

So, while I wrestle with that, I also wonder how do you teach students to make good choices?  Not only make good choices, but make good choices for good reasons? And if you can teach that, then that must be part of the teaching that is included in our school.

I wish I had the answers.  I so desperately wish that I understood what can sometimes seem to be a formulaic equation to success.  Oh, how I wish that I could guarantee that by doing these things and not doing those things, would put students on a path to success.  But it’s much deeper than that.  It’s cultural and institutional.  It’s family life.  It’s access (or lack of access) to resources.  It’s the fact that I’m trying to teach something intangible that an entire segment of the population never has to consider.  Because the truth of the matter is that for some students, a poor choice equates to an elimination of options, but for others, a poor choice equates to an litany of excuses followed by quick explanations and forgiveness.

So, you find yourself teaching contingencies.  You’re teaching “if/then” scenarios, to make sure that your students are always prepared.  You find that being a “full-option provider” also means teaching that you will STILL have to work twice as hard to get half as far. But not only that, you must do it every day.  There are no days off.  There are no shortcuts.  There are no excuses, because somewhere, someone is waiting to excuse your success as the exception instead of the norm.

As I wrestle with all of this, I find myself in a state of gratitude.  Gratitude for those who took to the time to teach me all of those things, to make sure that I had every option available at my disposal.  But also gratitude for the opportunity to mold and shape the next generation.  It’s something that I enjoy, and a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. May God continue to give me the strength and grace to serve these students, who are His children, in a way that glorifies Him.

Until next time…


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The Name Conundrum

What’s in a name?

The “name issue” is one that is frequently discussed among people of color (particularly African Americans), where we sometimes find ourselves confused and baffled by the names that our counterparts have chosen for their children to bear for their life (or until they are old enough to get a legal name change).

I remember being in college, and having two unique experiences in regards to “ethnic names”- one where a friend eloquently argued that “ethnic” names should be celebrated for their creativity as opposed to looked down upon; and another experience after research indicated that having an African American sounding name resulted in less call backs for job interviews. As an educator who has done the majority of work in schools that are predominantly African American, I have looked at many names on bulletin boards and class rolls and have been absolutely baffled by the names that I see before me- which in some cases, look like a random combination of consonant and vowels thrown together.

The struggle is real.

And I say that because it REALLY is a struggle.  The shift toward “ethnic names” is born out of the Black Power movement, and the desire for Blacks to distinguish themselves as separate from their white counterparts.  As our culture has evolved into one that is more “self-centered” where people desire to assert their uniqueness and individuality, I believe that reflection exists in naming trends also- but not just in African Americans, but in whites as well.  I believe this helps to explain names that are “common” (or more mainstream) but are spelled differently (i.e.: Lindsi, Lindzi, Lindsey, Lindsay or Madison, Maddison, Madisyn, Madyson or Erin, Aryne, Eryn, Eryne, Erinn).

Yet and still, there is still a difference that exists.  I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed in this article in the Daily Beast, and found this to really get at the heart of the issue:

“If there is a question worth asking about race and naming, it’s not “why do black people use these names?” it’s “why do we only focus on black people in these conversations?” Indeed, there’s a whole universe of (hacky) jokes premised on the assumed absurdity of so-called “ghetto” names. Derision for these names—and often, the people who have them—is culturally acceptable.

But black children aren’t the only ones with unusual names. It’s not hard to find white kids with names like Braelyn and Declyn. And while it’s tempting to chalk this up to poverty—in the Reddit thread, there was wide agreement that this was a phenomenon of poor blacks and poor whites—the wealthy are no strangers to unique names. The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black, written by a Jenji Kohan (a white woman), was based on the experiences of a Piper Kerman (also a white woman). And in last year’s presidential election, nearly 61 million people voted for a Willard Mitt Romney, at the same time that the current head of the Republican National Committee was (and is) a Reince Priebus.” – The Daily Beast

I think that really hits the nail on the head.  The article goes on to equate the name issue to that of a racial caste system where blacks are at the bottom, thus explaining the extreme response to the name choices of people of color.

I wish that I lived in a society where I knew for certain that I could name my children with as much eccentricity as my imagination would allow without having to think about the effects they may experience later in life.  Unfortunately that’s not the case.  And the truth is that the issue is NOT with the name, it’s with racism.  I can’t “name my child” out of racism.  While a more “mainstream” name, might open a door, the racism on the other side could slam it shut.

What I can do, and what I’ve planned to do is this- name them whatever Preacherman and I agree upon.  And then educate them.  Teach them about the systems that exist that have been designed to keep them down as young people of color.  Teach them how to navigate a world where they will still have to work twice as hard to get half as far.  Help them to understand that because of your color, there will be people who will choose to view you as less than, but that is not the place from which you receive your worth or your identity. Help them to be thinkers and doers, who won’t accept the status quo, but will fight to change it.

All that said, I can be honest and admit that as an educator, I encounter these “ethnic names” and part of my heart breaks- because I know what the expectations of them are, and I worry about doors that may disappear or be totally locked shut because of something they had no control over.  And then I get back to work preparing them to exceed expectations on every level, doing the best that I can with my “generic” name to open as many doors as possible for them, so that they have one less hurdle in their way.

Until next time…

Be encouraged!  Peace and Blessings…


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UPDATE: Charges Against Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Dropped!

Thanks to one of the comments on my earlier post today, I checked MSNBC.com to find out that the charges against Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. were dropped.

Excerpt from the article on MSNBC.com:

“Prosecutors on Tuesday agreed to drop a disorderly conduct charge against Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. after the noted African-American scholar accused police of racism when he was arrested at his home following a report of a break-in there.

In a statement, the city and police department of Cambridge, Mass., said they had “recommended to the Middlesex County District Attorney that the criminal charge against Professor Gates not proceed.”

“This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of Professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department. All parties agree that this is a just resolution to an unfortunate set of circumstances,” the statement continued.”

Well, there we have it.  I’m glad that the charges have been dropped and this situation resolved; however, I do hope that we continue to view this as a sign that racism and racial profiling still exist.  We cannot continue to ignore the persistent role that racism plays in our society; whether blatant or covert.


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Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Arrested

Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the pre-eminent African American studies scholar, was arrested after attempting to get into his locked home.

Here’s a snippet of an article posted on MSNBC.com:

“Police responding to a call about “two black males” breaking into a home near Harvard University ended up arresting the man who lives there — Henry Louis Gates Jr., the pre-eminent African-American studies scholar.

Gates had forced his way through the front door because it was jammed, his lawyer said. Colleagues call the arrest last Thursday afternoon a clear case of racial profiling.

Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing “two black males with backpacks on the porch,” with one “wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry.”…

He was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he “exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior.” He was released later that day on his own recognizance. An arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26. Police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates, 58, also refused to speak publicly Monday, referring calls to his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree…

Ogletree said Gates had returned from a trip to China on Thursday with a driver, when he found his front door jammed. He went through the back door into the home — which he leases from Harvard — shut off an alarm and worked with the driver to get the door open. The driver left, and Gates was on the phone with the property’s management company when police first arrived.”

Hmmm…I must say that it will be interesting to see how this turns out, and how Harvard University and Cambridge respond to this incident.  I can most definitely understand Gates’ perspective in this situation, and what bothers me most is that there is the automatic assumption by the caller that these two black men must be breaking into a house.  At no point does it ever cross the caller’s mind that this person might live there, that their door might be jammed.

Would there have been the same action taken if the only thing different about the scenario was that it was two white men seen at the house?  While I’d like to say yes, my experience has taught me that the answer would be no.  But I guess we’ll never know.

The bottom line is that when it comes to race in America, we still have a ways to go.


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Yes, We Need HBCUs

I suppose that it’s a bit strange for me, a proud alumni of both the University of North Carolina and the University of Georgia, to write about the necessity of historically black colleges and universities.  But in these struggling times, it seems that historically black colleges and universities are facing extremely difficult times.  I recently posted about how the recession was affecting schools such as Morehouse College and Spelman College.  But, it’s bigger than that.

The major question that seems to be floating around is somewhere along the lines of, “Is there a need for a historically black college and university?”  People use all sorts of reasons to justify, citing the recent election of Senator Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States.  Or people will argue that racism isn’t “that bad” and having separate schools will only perpetuate the problem.  Regardless of the reason, historically black colleges and universities are important beacons of higher learning that are still needed today.

There was a time when African Americans could only dream of attending the universities that I attended.  Unless we were planning to work in the kitchen, on the grounds, in housekeeping, or some other servile position, African Americans were not welcomed.  HBCUs were established to provide African American students with the higher learning that they desired, as well was instill a cultural pride and tradition.  Students were encouraged to take what they learned at Howard, Hampton, Fisk, North Carolina A&T, or North Carolina Central (just to name a few) and go serve their communities.

Students who attended these universities will tell you of how the experience changed their life.  And while I will be quick to say that I loved every bit of the time I spent at UNC and UGA, there’s a different spirit that envelops the campus of an HBCU- from the administration, to the professors, to the homecoming celebrations, to the family lineage of attendees.  Its a spirit that celebrates being African American, and all that it means, in its various forms.

Historically black colleges and universities gave African American students an opportunity to achieve when there was no other avenue available.  And that is still so today.  Many HBCUs still hold on to their access mission; hoping to bring in as many of the best and the brightest that they can.  And while there are a number of African American students who are now able to choose between Johns Hopkins and Johnson C. Smith, we’re still finding that some will choose the Johnson C. Smith because there’s something special there that makes it a better fit.

Two articles, one in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the other from MSNBC.com detail how the financial recession is affecting HBCUs.  It’s not the first time these institutions have faced hard times.  It’s not the first time that they have been critiqued.  I believe that the schools will be able to overcome this situation, by cutting back (as several schools are doing), and hopefully with increased donations among students, faculty, and alumni.  It’s imperative for it to happen.  And honestly, I can’t see the landscape of higher education being the same without historically black colleges and universities.


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What Losing White Privilege Sounds Like…

For those of you who haven’t heard/seen the John McCain concession speech, I like to think of it as “what losing white privilege sounds like.”

Tim Wise wrote about white privilege and the role that it played in the election.  You can read my entry on it here.

But for now, I think I’ll enjoy the droning sounds of Senator McCain, as he gracefully bows out…and hands over a little white privilege at the same time:

And, in all seriousness, it really was a good speech- and not because it was a McCain concession.  My sincere hope is that our nation will come together- and that we ALL take part in making our country the best that it can be.


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Apparently, It’s Not Too Late to Apologize…

Yesterday, the House adopted that policy when they issued an apology for the African Americans for slavery and for Jim Crow.

Here’s an excerpt of the article that appeared on MSNBC.com:

The House on Tuesday issued an unprecedented apology to black Americans for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws…

Congress has issued apologies before — to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.

Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations — payment for damages.

There was no mention of reparations, and I think that’s okay, for a number of reasons.  For one, we are all so intertwined, that I can see people being upset when people who aren’t African Americans receive benefits.  Additionally, I’m not so sure what issuing a check would do- other than be a symbolic attempt at what had been previously promised (40 acres and a mule).  Perhaps that’s important; however, I can’t see that being something that fares well in the United States.  I also see that being something that will divide more than unite.

But, as we’ve learned- it’s not too late to apologize.  And I am glad that it’s happened.