In The Church of Grown Folks’ Music

Saeed Jones opens his memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, and this happens:

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” comes on the kitchen radio                                                     and briefly, your mother isn’t your mother –

… Spinning, she looks at but doesn’t see you,                                                                           spinning, she sings lyrics too fast for you to pursue,                                                      spinning, she doesn’t have time for questions like:                                                               What is this nasty song and where did she learn                                                                    to dance like that and why, and who is this high pitched                                                      bitch of a man who can sing like a woman and turn                                                              your mother not into your mother but a woman,                                                                  not even a woman, but a box-braided black girl, …

( “Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music,” p. XI

My God, this scene. I can see it; I can see myself in my own kitchen caught in a revelry that envelopes me like a cloud when the right old school jam is on. One time I’m Chaka Khan singing “Sweet Thing,” the next time I am party to my own undoing while Barry White sets the stage. Grown folks’ music is right. It’s those tunes I knew and sang sitting on the back seat of my parents’ Chevy Impala and then later the station wagon.

WJMO – Cleveland’s soul station was on as long as my big brother was in the car. On the way to middle school, I memorized the lyrics to “You Are My Starship” in Mrs. Robinson’s carpool. I could sing all the songs but had less than a clue what they were really about. When I was maybe 7 or 8 our neighbor across the street, Mr. Bogan, liked to hear me sing “I’m Chairman of the Board” because I knew all the words and had it down. It always made him laugh and I was sure I’d become an actress one day.  My neighbors down the street, the Wheelers, their favorite song for me to imitate was “Can This Be Real.” Song imitations were my out-of-house social currency. Mimicry seemed to be a gift I had.

Like special aromas, the right melody can take us back to who we were in another time, practically in another life. Which how I can see Saeed Jones’s mother become the girl she was when Prince was brand new and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was all any of us wanted to hear on the radio. I always dreamed of myself doing that silky hand dance to “Yearning For Your Love” with a handsome Black gentleman who would have all the moves and eyes only for me.  It never turned out quite like imagined, though. That young gentleman I envisioned never materialized and the consolation prizes who showed up lacked both moves and real interest. Alas, the hand dance of the century would not be my destiny.

When I allow myself to dip into my soul music revelry for real, I am usually alone, free to hit the high notes without shame, to shoop and swing like back in the day. I throw on a little nerve, some attitude, close my eyes and testify.

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photo by Alexandra Thompson

*For those who can’t get enough of these sounds, here’s a playlist I made earlier this year for #31DaysBIPOC

 

Get Ready For PET

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I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.

Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is   populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.

And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.

What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually.  Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:

If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…

…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet.  p. 71

or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13

I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary.  This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.

And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?

As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back.  It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.  p. 140

Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.

I also tweeted about it here. This thread by Sarah Waites also sings its praises.

Thinking About Anxiety

So what’s an anxiety?

I read a post by Doug Robertson: Anxiety and Me and it has stayed with me. He writes openly about his recent bouts with anxiety and describes how it shapes his behaviors in a variety of contexts. He’s a witty guy so there’s a bit of self-deprecating humor to oil the wheels of reasoning that his writing invites. What surprised me was how familiar some of those situations were to me, how true they rang.

I have known for several years that closed spaces make me anxious – places where I submit to an order not of my making – airplanes, elevators, a bus or in my car stuck in traffic. I don’t mind flying, but waiting on the tarmac for long stretches truly challenges me. Elevators that work? No problem. But the prospect of being stuck in one is never far from my catalogue of worst case scenarios. These are situations I know about, so I’ve learned to mentally prepare and cope accordingly.

But Doug’s post led me to think a little more about what constitutes anxiety. My 12 y-o recently remarked on my standing in the doorway of the living room rather than sitting down. I admitted that I tend to feel a little guilty once we get home – like I should be cooking or emptying the dishwasher or doing something productive. So instead of actually doing one of those things, I stand and scroll through Twitter and e-mail. (At some point I do eventually cook something…)

Then consider this: Neatness is not my strong suit. Interior decor has never been an area of particular interest. My workspace is the end of a long table typically cluttered with stacks of books, papers, letters and other fragments which hold (or held) some significance for me. The order in my disorder makes sense to me, but it also makes the table (which is a beautiful, strong, warm wood construction) a collection surface more than a lovely piece of furniture (which it also is). Or that the table could be seen as a metaphor for the organization for other sections of the apartment. Sometimes I feel bad about this. Or even guilty.

Feeling bad, feeling guilty – these are common themes in my emotional line-up. Every day culprits that easily find their entry into my perception. I feel bad that I’m not a better housekeeper. I feel guilty that I currently prefer writing more than exercising. I feel bad (and guilty) that I’m as tuned in to my Twitter crew as I am to my family. Are you noticing a pattern here?

So now that I’m on vacation and I have more time to spare, I’m having a hard time just kicking back and relaxing. Instead, thoughts keep popping up of all the things I ought to be doing, finishing, thinking about, taking care of. There’s the fear of disappointing others. There’s a fear of the shame of disappointing others. And that’s the thought that really gives me pause: fear of the shame. I suspect there’s a lot to be uncovered in that particular hill of concern.

Thanks to Doug’s openness, I see an opportunity for me to take a new look at myself and my mental hygiene. Where anxiety fits into the picture may be one piece, and perhaps daring to name the daily demons constitutes a fresh start. We’ll see.

Landing Space, Post-PoCC

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In the past, when I’ve returned to school after my singular experience at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (NAIS PoCC) I’ve written a blog or e-mail to share with colleagues, to let them them know where I was, what I experienced and how it might be of interest to them. It feels like good practice on a number of levels: modeling a means of sharing professional learning after an event, giving myself a space for recap and reflection, providing conference organizers and attendees with one person’s publicly documented feedback. I may do that again this year but it may take a bit more time.

It’s Sunday. The day after the close of an intense four-day professional and personal learning experience. I have a long day/night of travel ahead and the calls of re-entry are already audible through my inbox. Frankly, I’m exhausted. The 9 hour time difference is about to serve up another punch to my somatic system upon returning home, my sleep patterns have been off since I arrived and I maximized my conference involvement by hearing all the major speakers and attending a workshop in every slot. I am deeply grateful for every conversation, shared smile, knowing nod, sudden laughter. This is that conference where I show greedy tendencies: I show up here and there and there because this special opportunity will not present itself again for another year. I am feeding my educator soul for the long season in between when I am not surrounded by colleagues of color and local conversations on justice become rare and hushed.

As I leave this place and the thousands of impressions I am holding, I feel a sense of lonely release back into the overwhelming whiteness of being. I have chosen these spaces. I am fully accustomed to being the only or one of a few. Non-threatening, amenable, easy to welcome. I don’t harp on my Blackness and that seems to make everyone feel more at ease. I’ve said it before: for white folks, I’m a very comfortable Black friend and colleague to have.

What I’m thinking about now as I head back into my life in progress, is not so much about dramatic change in myself or others. I notice that my attention is desperately looking  for a good, solid place to land. A place to process and sort. A cleansing space for feeling the feels without apology; an interior home base to reassemble the pieces of myself I have given more free reign than usual in these four days. There’s gratitude, joy, concern, curiosity, wistfulness, pride, fear, overwhelm, ambition, purpose and wonder to make sense of. What’s next? Who do I need to lean on? Where can I lay some of these burdens down? Where do I need to pick up some slack? Who am I now and what is different from a week ago?

After visiting with my favorite uncle here in Seattle I’m thinking about family history. How do we account for all the unknowns which, in my case, outnumber and outsize the known? How have my ancestors’ sacrifices manifested in my life and those of my children? What does it mean to know, I mean really know, whence we came? The older I grow, the more cognizant I become of how deep these questions run. And then to understand the impact of growing up in a society that told me time and time again that my past didn’t matter. It is at turns physically painful to recognize how that double-edged sentiment has been applied to deny the legacy of dehumanizing racism while uplifting the doctrine of rugged individualism and exclusive self-responsibility. It is a shock to my system to decide post-50 that I’m ready to battle these demons.

So, attending PoCC means that a lot of my thinking has been stirred up; my emotions are hanging about me, still exposed. I am vulnerable and unprotected. To name that seems important. The conference is identity based, identity grounded, identity moving, identity shaping. That’s the wonderful part and also the risky part. I will take my time before I decide what and when to share with colleagues. I will try to be gentle with myself as I return to the ocean of other folks’ expectations. I will give myself time to process, rest and heal even if it means saying no to some things.

There were so many people at the conference who let me know that I am valued, accomplished, welcomed and loved. I am taking these gifts with me and thank you for sharing your time, care and wisdom with me.

This this.

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I’m at a conference; at the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference, held this year in the heart of Seattle’s downtown.

I’m also 9 hours away from home. I’m not sleeping particularly well or let’s say, not enough at the right times. That said, my head and my heart are on fire. I am here for a feast.

I feast my eyes of the multitude of beautiful skin tones, the bounty of hair textures, styles and expressions. I feast my ears on the stories we share with one another as colleagues of color, as parents of black and brown and multiracial children, as aspiring leaders, as conference veterans, as old friends, as trusted allies, as people who need each other and who desperately need all of this.

Which this?

It’s the this I cannot draw well with my words because language falls short.

It’s the this that keeps me writing in my head as I listen and digest; that compels me to look around whatever room I’m in and sigh with a satisfaction that says, “Yes, just this…”

It’s the this that makes me reach out with both hands to shake the hand of someone I’m meeting for the first time. It is me saying, “Thank you for reminding me that I have a place here and a purpose. Thank you for confirming my belonging.”

It’s the this when we open up with each other in ways that defy the logic of individualistic and competitive norms we experience in other contexts. We bring our whole selves to the conversation because, for once, here, we can.

It’s the this in acknowledging each others’ accomplishments and ambitions with encouragement and pride. The way we rally around each other and also hold each other up when we have to contend with our demons.

It’s the this in being accorded a fundamental benefit of the doubt about my competence, my expertise, my positive intent and willingness to learn. It’s in being valued and seen as valuable.

It’s the this of being warmly welcomed and in turn extending that same welcome to others; a deep abiding kindness that permeates this whole space in its incredible mass and complexity of moving parts.

So much of this.

Here for it,

here for me.

Thank you, #NAISPoCC.

Dear Shea,

Once we got to the point where we could publish your piece, I was pleased, relieved, proud. The sentences had become familiar to me and there were passages that lingered in my mind hours after I had last read them. And I told myself, this is Shea’s story. This story of bearing burdens, of carrying heavy loads most often for others, that’s their story.

Well, we published the piece and I went to bed. Of course I stayed up later than I intended. I went to bed tired and woke up almost the same way. I know there is a better way, but I’m not pursuing that right now. I’m not.

I teach Physical Education. I rely on my body to tell stories that children will understand and follow. I paint the movements I just described with words so my kids can see what it is I want them to try. I walk up and down lots of stairs in a day. Depending on the lesson plans, I may end up performing any number of stunts including cartwheels, handstands, or squat jumps. And yet most of my class time is spent moderating, guiding, correcting, comforting, cautioning. My classes are full of movement, words, expression, music – they are loud and busy affairs.

When I woke up tired (again) this morning, I remembered your piece. About burros, about being a strong Black woman bearing loads proudly and without complaint. Until of course, you learned different. That you cannot bear the weight of the world without attending to yourself, to your own needs for rest and recovery and all the things that belong to keeping yourself well. I told myself, that’s Shea’s story.

Until it dawned on me that I am doing a lot of the same things, not to the same level of selflessness, mind you, but apparently more than I can bear well. The more public I become in my personal disclosures, the more thinly spread I feel. An avid communicator, I like to talk and listen and dialogue and share. But 200 or 50 or 3000 to one is not serving me especially well, I fear. I’ve become one more megaphone among many. And even if I believe that I am using that megaphone for good – good people and good things, I am losing things in the process.

It probably begins with sleep. I certainly need more of it than I am getting. Less time in front of a screen would make sense. Fewer simultaneous projects, less multitasking, more time off, time away; more recovery.

I stay up writing because I want to be a good responder. To show people I care, I’m here, I’m thinking alongside you. Putting my thoughts on the screen can seem like a relief but perhaps that’s merely a mirage. Those same words could just as easily find space in one of several journals I have handy, right?  But those are the words that stay private, that have no audience, that garner no further attention.

Yeah, so I’m wrestling with this tension between being in multiple places at once and ideally with the same level of care and authenticity in each space. And now I am spent. Your writing helped me see it because I really didn’t want to look too closely. Although I’m still standing, still climbing stairs, running down the halls, running to the store, my days at full steam are numbered. I need to put rest higher up on the agenda and let it stay there for a bit. The world will not fall apart if I take my foot off the gas for a minute. Everyone will have more than enough to read and process without me tossing more words on the pile day after day.

I hope I can learn to step back before I get knocked back the hard way. Thank you for helping me to see myself in a way that I needed but didn’t necessarily want. Honesty stings sometimes. This is one of those times.

Healing with you,

Sherri

*in response to “a burro learns to breathe” by Shea Martin

Reading “Same As It Never Was” by Gregory Michie

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Dear Gregory,

I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.

I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:

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Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Was lay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.

You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.

There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.

I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.

I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.

In gratitude,

Sherri

 

Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.