On The Way To DPL #DigitalIdentity

It’s happening. Next week Digital Pedagogy Lab will commence. Participants across multiple time zones will be chiming into conversations from kitchens and living rooms, attending keynotes, workshops and their selected course. As circumstances require, we’ll be all online for this explosion of digital exchange and encouragement. The lab will be different this year and we’ll be creative in building the special world that has marked the on-site event in past years. In my corner of the DPL world, we’ll be unpacking, examining, then likely repacking Digital Identity for ourselves and each other. I’m hopeful and excited.

woman drinking coffee during daylight
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I’m hopeful that I and my mighty cohort will develop a shared space that offers plenty of opportunities to speak up, share out, meet up and hear each other across varied media, time zones and modes of communication. I suspect that the variety of ways each of us is able to show up during the week will, in and of itself, give us plenty to think about in trying to get a handle on what digital identity is and can be.

I came across an example of inspired critical thinking in a short talk by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in which she dissects the cultural and political significance of the Harper’s Letter which made the rounds in early July, . #TheLetter as it was soon called on Twitter was signed by several prominent knowledge and culture producers railing against the toxicity of “cancel culture” and in defense of free speech (on their terms). There are numerous hot takes on the letter and its intent but for me it was Dr. Cottom’s analysis in conversation with radio host, Chris Lydon that sparked all kinds of creative thinking in its wake. Describing the relevance of social media in catapulting this debate onto center stage among the thinking class, she commented:

Social media, as we now know it, which is, let’s be clear, just because we can all freely participate in social media does not mean that it is a democratic space. So Twitter and Facebook for example are actually not the public square. It is just that, this is what the public square has been reduced to. They’re a new set of terms that have been introduced about how discourse will happen because platforms have incentives. They are there to make money off of our engagement and our intention and the platforms are designed to drive, aggressive interaction, because those are the types of things that drive people to participate in the platform, we become valuable to Twitter, when we are angry. It really is that simple. It is our attention that is being resold to advertisers. It is not the public square that we are seeing in Twitter. Pew data shows that fewer than a quarter of the American population are engaged in Twitter, even casually. This is not a huge swath of America, right. It is a highly self selected group of people who want to have a certain type of discourse. The problem that makes for a lot of academics and I think especially public intellectuals, is that we want to be in that space. It is a space designed for us! It’s text-based, is discourse based, but the terms of the space are just a bit too democratic for them to dominate the space the way they probably prefer.

In under two minutes, she offers us clear and accessible means to make sense of this portion of the online world many of us subscribe to, for better or worse. Particularly when we disagree with others on online platforms, we believe ourselves to be responding to that person or that group. Yes, and. As Dr. Cottom asserts, we are also responding to an environment that rewards our discord, that actually generates profit from and through every stage of outrage. Further, we may think we’re talking to our city, country or even the world, when in fact we are addressing a fraction of it, of which only a fraction of that fraction is likely to register our loudest cries.

For those of us who have willingly immersed ourselves in some form of digital media presence, it’s possible to overestimate our relevance. And when Dr. Cottom notes how traditional print-based public intellectuals may be experiencing the widening of the public discourse via social media as a damper on their assumed influence and reach, it serves as a tiny reminder that all of our efforts to speak and be heard on public channels are fundamentally about exercising power and agency.  So when we talk about digital identity next week, power and agency are the canvas upon which we will draw our maps of digital engagement and purpose.

In a structured dialogue with a colleague which I recorded in preparation for DPL, I responded to the prompt: “Tell me something you wish people thought more about regarding digital identity.” My response on the second round surprised even me.

“I want people to understand positionality…Now that more folks, I’m going to say white folks in particular, have learned to call themselves white and recognize that that’s a thing. That whiteness is a thing. We’ve always known that being male was a thing. And now we have to also recognize, oh wait, there’s a gender spectrum; that non-binary is a thing. So understanding positionality means recognizing, first of all, who am I? … What are my social identity markers?

I identify as a Black woman, American, cis-gendered, straight, able bodied and all those things contribute to how I move through the world, those are all lenses that I apply in the way that I see things, perceive things, the way that I respond to things.

So, I need, I really, really need people, especially online, when I engage with them to have some grasp of that; to understand who they are when they are speaking; from what position they are speaking.

For some that may sound like a burden, an extra set of things to think about, that perhaps gets in the ways of speaking more freely. If that’s the case, it suggests that it’s not a way that a person has ever had to think because they fell into the default or assumed group. Naming things is an act of power that takes some practice. In Digital Identity, naming ourselves, claiming our full identities will be part of what will allow us to more critically investigate the platforms and services that claim to want to help us in those endeavors (read:personalization).

Alas, I’ve invited a wonderful group of people to come talk about digital identity for a week. We’ll listen and explore, question and respond, create and convene. Digitally. In that unique space we’ll consider both who we are and who we think we are. We’ll try to come to terms with how different platforms see and treat us as users; that is, who platforms think we are and what they encourage us to be more of.

Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking: How A Person Became A User (2020) talks about the difficulty of describing the embodied fragmentation that is the internet. She writes,

…it feels like every user inherits a job, an unpaid library science gig, just for having to think about classifications and representation, the epistemic meaning of data and the written word and images. Identity becomes scraps of enterprise, content and dis-content, an unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse. p. 6-7

There were are, people as users, users as people; amalgams of a gazillion data points over a lifespan – individuals with unique identities. “Scraps of enterprise…and unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse” – this may not be the way we are most accustomed to seeing ourselves in digital environments. Yet in the massive churn of internet facilitated activity across the globe, in that context, the description strikes me as apt, although not especially flattering.

Our challenge in the coming week will be to make our power and agency tangible while simultaneously acknowledging stations of positionality along the way which necessarily will shift depending on the context. Seeing – differently, more consciously, generously; Listening – more intently, less defensively; Discovering – openly, bravely, collaboratively. I hope some -or even all – of this is possible in our cohort. That’s my excitement.

excited barefoot ethnic mother and cute girl doing stretching exercises together
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

 

 

Like A *&%$# Boss

If you’ve read my blog or my tweets before, you’ll know that I use swear words only sparingly. That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking them or using them in more private contexts, I am simply cautious about when and where I write them out or share in other people’s posts for public consumption. But this morning, however, I had an experience that was swear-word worthy, in a good way.

I tweeted this as part of my thread of #delights:

I was feeling so damn confident!

In my late 30’s I lived with a bike messenger for 4 years and he taught me how to ride my bike like I belonged on the road. Once, I shadowed him for a half day and it was certainly one of the best forms of teaching I have ever experienced. We were riding assertively, intentionally with speed, drive and adequate caution. While getting shit done. I live that learning every time I jump on my bike now.

I was thinking of that this morning and how my well of confidence is largely rooted in my body – my body’s ability to perform. In my early thirties I had a phase as a competitive runner. I ran road races and on the track. The 800 ended up being my favorite but my 400 and half marathon best times are objectively the more impressive ones. As a competitor I learned to trust my preparation, to risk more than I thought possible and also to cope with the disappointment when it didn’t work out the way I wanted.* In those countless processes of trials and testing and proving, I enjoyed some great successes. My efforts were rewarded more than a few times. I won some races, picked up my fair share of trophies.

This makes a difference.

I know how to win.

I know how to kick ass

and enjoy doing it.

So now that I’m this older lady and spending time on very different pursuits, I note: the roots of my confidence extend deep into the soil of so many wins. Not only the physical ones, also the intellectual and academic successes along with some professional and personal highlights. It also means that I have learning templates that allow me to grow confidence.

This summer I’ve been doing more inline skating. I’ve got a nice routine that involves about 30 minutes of biking and 50-60 minutes of skating. I LOVE IT! Every time I repeat this exercise, I get a little better, a little stronger, more enduring, more confident! As a middle aged person I chalk this up as a big friggin’ win! It’s something I’m doing for ME! Because I WANT TO! And in those brief shining moments when I can feel the full effect of all that healthy growth and striving and satisfaction and reward – all of that coursing through me while I pedal or push off – well, you better believe I am gonna celebrate LIKE A BOSS!

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Glory Days indeed! I was on the poster because I won it in 1999.

So the next time someone wants to disparage you for thinking back to your glory days of whatever, know that they are missing the point. Glory Days remind us of who we really are, what we’re capable of and that we are here to do the thing! Check your confidence roots. How are you feeding and nourishing them? Are they housed in the right soil? Do you require a repotting, replanting, relocation or, in other words, a significant change?

Writing this post felt urgent, probably because that sense of badass confidence tends to be so fleeting.** I don’t usually wake up feeling like this but I do know it’s possible. I’ve learned how to increase the probability that it will show itself again. And again. Getting on my bike often works a charm. It’s a little lesson and extremely effective. Find your confidence roots, friends. Especially my friends who identify as women. Make sure you own some confidence somewhere. And feed it. I’m here to support that.

 

*On this vidcast with Rissa Sorenson-Unruh, I got to talk about the background to this understanding which I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Our general topic is self-care but the elements contributing to growing confidence run throughout our conversation.

**This is simply too true. I could barely get this out before I felt someone actively stealing my joy. (Perhaps not intentionally, but still.)

“Läuferzehnkampf” = Runners’ Decathlon – 4 days of track races: 60 -1500 -400; 100 – 3000 – 800; 200 – 1000 – 5000; 10K

Black (and Outdoors) At A Time Like This

#31DaysIBPOC_BADGE

Cleveland, 3400

Grass/lawn/tree/rosebushes/honeysuckle fence

tree lawn, front lawn, home, backyard – in that order

One summer garden = zucchini abundance, asparagus dearth, too many tomatoes

I grew up seeing green from my window not realizing

how and when this would become a lifetime requirement.

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Me or my look-alike ca. 1967

 

 

List

trails, hills, woods, stony beaches

mountains, meadows, lakes, streams

Give me all of these

they belong to who I am.

 

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Vermont, Summer 1983

 

#BlackAndOutdoors

feels like that’s always been me

but I’m not a hiker/ mountain biker/backpacker

I’m an attendee, if you will.

One who shows up in nature

and attends.

I listen and look and pause

and wonder

how I got here

or here

or here.

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Once upon a time at my godparents’ with my oldest, ca. 1997

AT A TIME LIKE THIS

There are not enough of the right words

to explain

why it matters and what it means to be Black and claim the outdoors, the great outdoors as one’s own, as part of one’s being, as central to one’s every breath and thought. Hanif Abdurraqib has 13 poems with the same title “How Can Black People Write Poems About Flowers At A Time Like This” and each one is so exquisitely distinct. Black people and flowers match up for funerals in the popular imagination maybe, or for Easter hats and brilliant attire. At A Time Like This which has become every time all the time, when, oh when, would Black folks ever have time for flowers? At A Time Like This when might we take pause to contemplate a flower’s beauty and complexity, meditate on flowers’ metaphorical bounty. Apparently that is not for us. There are not enough of the right words to explain. You wonder at this. Or you don’t. Maybe you’ve never seen Black folks striding out into the woods, along the river bank, up the mountain trail; sitting cross-legged around the campfire, as natural. Because our bodies in open, green and spectacularly floral spaces can so readily be misconstrued unless they are laboring on what you presume must be

someone else’s land.

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What it meant, what it means: outdoors(y)

What Outdoorsy Means & For Whom

Not everyone who spends time outdoors can be

outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy qualifies and codifies belonging:

read privilege

read price tag

read middle class and up

read whiteness

read suburbia.

No one calls the homeless outdoorsy

or migrant farm workers outdoorsy.

Outdoorsy is a fashion line,

Outdoorsy completes a dating profile;

Hot or not, it means what it means.

I love the outdoors and I am not outdoorsy.

 

Places I Have Seen With My Own Eyes That Have Also Seen Me (A Visual Poem)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Late Invitation

A life that holds promise

carefully

like a delicate bouquet

requests the pleasure of your company

in a vision of nature

happening wherever you are/ I am/we be.

Claim it children,

chase it children,

be gentle children,

Let it be.

Let us be

us.

 

 

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Parisa Mehran and Alison Collins have entries today as well. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Janelle W. Henderson (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

All images belong to the author, Sherri Spelic, @edifiedlistener

 

 

 

 

 

The Education Can Begin: Meditations on Midlife

Middle age keeps surprising me.

I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was

mistaken

misinformed

under a false

but lasting impression.

These surprises are not always pleasant

or friendly.

some carry a force upon arrival

that’ll knock you down

flat

especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.

I thought I knew love,

thought I knew racism,

thought I knew how to show the former

and counter the latter.

Middle age presents the tests

but doesn’t ask if you studied;

doesn’t question your readiness.

Middle age says

work this out.

And there you are

grasping at straws

watching the clock

scouring your memory.

And there you are

stuck and stuck and stuck

unprepared

to be so utterly clueless.

But middle age saw you coming,

sees your indignity

at being caught

unawares.

Now, she says,

the education can begin.

 


 

Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?

I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.

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At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.

I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.

In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:

The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)

Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.

Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)

I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.

Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.

I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.

It doesn’t matter if I say

how much it hurts

the answer is always a question:

what did you expect?

Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.

“Now, she says,

the education can begin.”

 

References:

hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.

 – Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.

 – Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.

Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Day After: A Reckoning

I shared:

I was happy to disclose the positive result after the fact. Now it’s the day after and I’m wondering.

My learning

I’m still OK although running this distance untrained was punishing for my joints, especially my knees.

I would actively discourage my friends of a similar age from doing any such thing.

Nevertheless, I signed up (without telling anyone) because I think I know my body. We have a long history together, have even run this course several times in the last 25 years. And while I know I’m not in “running shape”, I know that I have remarkable fitness reservoirs – considerable leg and upper body strength, well tuned joint and muscle flexibility, plus a baseline cardiovascular fitness level that is highly adaptable. I also went into this race with years of experience. I knew how to pace myself for a safe return, how to build in recovery during the race and also let go of any other expectations beyond completing the course in good health.

That’s important. At almost 54, with two knee operations behind me and a job which requires substantial physical investment, I could not run “as if there were no tomorrow.” On the contrary, I ran precisely with tomorrow and the next day and the day after that in mind. I took it slow from the outset. I paid attention to my limbs letting me know if something was amiss. I let myself speedwalk with a smile in some spots, or jog backwards downhill to relieve pressure on my knees. All of these techniques worked.

The final 4 kilometers are a steady downhill in familiar territory. I was able to run the last bit with surprising energy. As I got closer to the finish I was reminded of the hundreds of training runs I had done on this same stretch over the years. I let those layers of muscle memory carry me through the finish line.

 

My body

issued a few murmurs of regret this morning, especially my knees.

My knees and I went for a neighborhood walk up through the vineyards and back down past the posh houses and apartment buildings. The left knee wore a brace and both were forgiving since I wasn’t making extraordinary demands like yesterday.

I may keep the brace for a couple of days just as a comfort measure. I owe my knee that much courtesy.

The rest of me appears to be fine. I never struggled to catch my breath yesterday. Slow and steady didn’t win the race but it did return me to my car safely.

My ambition

grows contextually explicit.

My husband runs long distances more regularly. I don’t envy his training rhythm as much as I might. I had my time in the competitive limelight of middle and long distance running. I won’t be back. Knowing this is a help and relief. It leaves me open to surprise myself at will.

My ambition now consists of outrunning the menaces one comes to expect in middle age: the prospect of disease in one form or another. Not even the healthiest lifestyles are immune to disruption by illness. I think of this often when I choose to spend time writing on my laptop rather than hitting the trails for a hike, bike or other outdoor exertion. It’s not that it has to be either or. My point lies in acknowledging the scope and efficacy of my efforts wherever I apply them. Like my peers, I have no guarantees or significantly better prospects of a longer than average life.

I do have a body that mostly still cooperates with whatever I am asking it to do. That constitutes a blessing in every sense of the word. My ambition becomes one of seeking agreement with my body and its blessings. Satisfying needs, curiosity, and even spontaneous wants – my body, mind and heart are in constant negotiation with each other. Middle age seems a season built for keeping such negotiations as positive and mutually beneficial as possible.

That may be what I wanted to achieve by participating in an event for which I had not specifically prepared and yet could hardly have arrived better prepared to enjoy the experience the way that I did.

Differences

Choosing alone as a feature not a bug. I didn’t ask anyone to join me. I did not recognize any other runners as in the past. I spent most of the time pleasantly on my own while moving along. I appreciated the space to be alone in a dispersed mass.

My inner dialogue during the run was much gentler, forgiving and encouraging than in my competitive days. What a glorious discovery to make!

Given the time without other commitments (son & husband away for the weekend), it was a pleasure to challenge and surprise myself almost secretly. (I only shared the outcome with my husband hours later.) Maybe it’s a guarded selfishness, a way of preserving dignity in the event that the outcome is not so rosy. I’m not sure but I will say that I derived an odd satisfaction at revealing an unexpected morsel of news about my accomplishment.

Truth

I’m moving a bit slowly today and need sufficient warm-up to walk smoothly. That said, I am curious to see where my curiosity may strike next.

It rained and I did not melt.

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IDK

I Don’t Know

everything about everything or

All

about the things I choose to study.

I Do Know that I’m curious and

I wonder.

A girl who likes to propose

a good workshop for learners she’s never met;

A girl who thinks the topics on her mind

will make for a good conversation

among self-selecting walk-ins.

I Don’t Know

All

About the things I choose to write on.

I Do Know that I feel a certain kinda way

About some things

and that my health will thank me

if I assault the page

rather than a passing human.

Because I’ve realized that my writing, studying, presenting

Is less about KNOWING

and more about LEARNING.

My writing, studying, presenting  – all that’s about

moving somewhere,

changing my perspective (and maybe yours, too),

opening up spaces dark and silent

developing eyes and ears for connections.

What I know is

how to gather and marshal resources.

I know how to welcome what you know

and feel

into the room.

I know how to encourage

movement, spontaneous or otherwise

because we’re going places.

We’ll take our flashlights and hard hats

to investigate ruins and

sites of construction.

We’ll build stuff ourselves: relationships,

bodies of work, archives of resources,

towers of knowledge.

I know how to

raise questions

raise eyebrows

raise the bar

raise the roof.

Knowledge becomes a thing we

unpack

take apart

remix

re-imagine

reinvent

discover

refine

relate

recover

reassemble

.

It’s a dangerous, risky thing

to say

I Don’t Know.

Which is why I say, too

I Do Know

how to listen

for what the situation requires;

how to face the discomfort

of waiting to find out

what happens next.

I am a teacher.

This is my calling.

I know.

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Photo: © Alexandra Thompson

 

 

Written in great anticipation of a 5-day learning experience in Digital Pedagogy Lab, August 5-9, 2019 at University Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

I will lead the #DigitalIdentity Course.

Please come and make it what it fully needs to be.

 

 

 

 

Parallel Playlists: Music That Shaped Me

I.

Senior year of high school. English elective: Logic, Persuasion and Belief. I wrote an essay entitled, “My Rival Is Moving Out Into A Traffic Jam” which my teacher, Mr. Nelson, absolutely loved. I was stunned by the mark he gave me and caught off guard when he lauded my work in front of the whole class. I still have that essay in my archives – 8 yellowing notebook pages of handwritten text. It’s 36(!) years old and I have always known its whereabouts. It has traveled with me from Cleveland to Providence, to Vienna, to DC, then back to Vienna. That means something.

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I carry this artifact along with a few other pieces of writing I am especially proud of in an old blue folder. When I tell people that I was a “good student” in high school, what I really mean is that I was a strong writer. It pleased me to be able to wrangle words to get them to say what I wanted. It also pleased me to be have my skill recognized and praised. (Even if by the wrong name: Jeri!) I was an achiever, so the grammar of school made sense to me.

II.

I graduated from an independent day school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In our class of 104, there were 6 Black students, 4 boys and two girls. The upper school, previously all male, had been co-ed for about a decade before I arrived. It was a very preppy place and  even listed in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), to the chagrin (and perhaps secret pride) of the administration. When I showed up in 10th grade I was clueless about all that, just noticed a lot of kids walking around in collared shirts and corduroy pants (no jeans allowed).

While I was there I made myself at home: found my place on the track team and in the tech theater crew.  In that overwhelmingly white environment I became a keen observer of social patterns because although I had plenty of friends, they were scattered across several different cliques. As a result I had a outsider’s perspective with the benefit of insider informants. As ‘the Black girl’ I wasn’t competing for the same boys as the white girls (or so it was assumed), and among the white (and most of the Black) boys I wasn’t even in the running but I was likable and funny and easy to get along with so I enjoyed a sort of non-threatening popularity that probably in the long run saved me a lot of adolescent grief and drama.

In my all Black neighborhood, I was occasionally referred to as an Oreo – Black on the outside, white on the inside, but that designation never bothered me quite as much as it should have. In my own estimation, it felt like I had learned to make the contrasts work for me. At school and at home my academic inclinations were supported and applauded. If some kids accused me of ‘talking like a white girl’ I could only tell them that my parents talked like that, too. Of necessity I was building up a repertoire of both/and behaviors and attitudes. If I didn’t feel beautiful in the white mainstream sense of the word, I at least felt comfortable in my own skin. I looked like my dad and socialized like my mom. I soaked up the rigor of classical ballet and prized the spontaneity of school sports.  I internalized my city neighborhood’s nuances while I learned to move through east side suburbia like a resident. I sang along with the Gap Band and Billy Joel. All these aspects were a part of me. I was and wanted to be many things at once.

III.

Which brings me to the parallel playlists. When I thought about writing this post for the #31DaysIBPOC Challenge, I was flooded with possible ideas. In reading some of the initial posts, I was struck in particular by those stories which reflected on the past; on upbringing and negotiating various social contexts. So I decided to look back, too. And what I found was music. Song and dance offered me an emotional home base; countless spaces for me to rejoice and rage, recover and revive. My youngest son jokes that I have a song for every occasion. He’s not wrong.

Mr. Nelson’s favorite essay involved an analysis of song lyrics of Steely Dan’s My Rival, Billy Joel’s Moving Out and James Taylor’s Traffic Jam as illustrations of social alienation in modern America – all late ’70’s songs that were on heavy rotation on my rinky-dink turntable. Steely Dan is still my favorite band of all time. I feel like I owe half my life to Billy Joel for his song Vienna in which I felt seen and understood at 13. (“Slow down you crazy child/ you’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart/ Tell me why are you still so afraid…”)  And on the same album as Traffic Jam, James Taylor’s Terra Nova rings in my ears anytime I think about the tension between heading home and staying away. These were my songs by artists who helped me know myself as I muddled through adolescence.

At the same time, I knew well the pleasure and pain of singing Heatwave’s Always and Forever, minus the expectation of having that kind of match up with any boy. The same was true for Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love and Outstanding. I sang those songs as if my life depended on it – especially in the car driving between the burbs and home. I dreamed of that one special slow dance with a boy who actually knew how to hand dance and would show me the ropes gently and lovingly. Listening to Cleveland’s AM R&B radio station, WJMO, I would go mad dancing to Parliament’s Flashlight, while the Commodore’s Jesus Is Love made me wish I was more religious than I actually was.

Parallel playlists have been my life’s soundtrack. Soulful rhythms followed by pop rock anthems sweeping into sad boy ballads coming around to mellow funk and old school slow jams. All of those tunes belong to me, to the person I’ve become, underscoring my collection of missed wishes and dreams come true. I know the words to all these songs. In singing them, I sing myself in a thousand and one ways.

Listen to the pop playlist here. Soul playlist over here. Putting these together gave me a great deal of joy. May you find a few tunes to soften and sweeten your day!

#31DaysIBPOC_BADGE

    • This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Joel Garza (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).

 

 

A Complicated Response

Unpacking the unreal response to my last post. “Unreal” applies to my perception. I wrote my poem with some urgency but could not, would not anticipate the scope and depth of feedback I received. I am still reeling from the experience.

I wrote a thing about wearing my hair in its natural state to school one day. In fact, it was the fourth day of Spirit Week which called for different dress up themes each day. Thursday was ’60s Day (in honor of our school’s 60th anniversary celebration) and being the minimalist that I am, I opted for wearing my hair out, adding some silver hoops, dark sunglasses, wearing all black, and Voila! I became a symbol of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement in 3 easy steps.

When the day was done, I felt a deep need to process all the attention my new style garnered. The rush of comments and compliments felt sudden and a little overwhelming. I’ve been working at the school for 25 years. I am a known quantity. Until I wear my hair out, apparently. Blogging helped me parse the emotions of being on display (by choice), causing a stir (not intentionally), and remaining true to myself. In the morning I tweeted out a snapshot of my ambivalence.

Exactly! “In character and out of character at the same time.” It’s me and it’s not me. Based on how I usually move through school – hair worn close to my head, pulled back away from my face, braided, twisted and almost always contained – this Afro-look represented a radical departure. For the eyes of the beholders, it must have arrived like a revealed secret, a mystery unveiled. Hence, the excitement. I let folks see what I have previously chosen to keep to myself. Turns out, I have a long history guarding this aspect of my Black abundance.

In her book THICK, sociologist, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom takes on Beauty in black and white and explains how capitalist structures insure and promote a very specific cultivation of white feminine beauty as a form of capital. “In The Name Of Beauty” is a downright masterpiece of deconstructing what we think we know and serving it back to us sliced, diced and neatly displayed. For instance, she explains

…beauty can never be about preferences. “I just like what I like” is always a capitalist lie. Beauty would be a useless concept for capital if it were only a preference in the purest sense. Capital demands that beauty be coercive. If beauty matters at all to how people perceive you, how institutions treat you, which rules are applied to you, and what choices you can make, then beauty must also be a structure of patterns, institutions, and exchanges that eats your preferences for lunch. p. 58

Pause here. Take a moment to collect yourself if you need it.

The whole essay is fire and uncompromising. Tressie McMillan Cottom allows us to get away with nothing.

Big Beauty – the structure of who can be beautiful, the stories we tell about beauty, the value we assign beauty, the power we give to those with beauty, the disciplining effect of the fear of losing beauty you might possess – definitionally excludes the kind of blackness I carry in my history and my bones. Beauty is for white women, if not for all white women. If beauty is to matter at all for capital, it can never be for black women. p. 65

It’s a lot. And I turn to this text in particular because in response to my post, I received so many kind words referring to my beauty. My point here is not to reject or deny those but to investigate my own ambivalence in receiving them. Tressie offers me a frame for that line of questioning. Choosing visibility is always fraught. Choosing visibility as a Black woman in a predominantly white space is another level of fraught. Willingly putting myself and my magnificent hair on display as a Black woman in a predominantly white workplace turns out to be a surprising choice for someone who leads a life of deliberate understatement in that same institution.

I walk into my school every day regardless of how I’m feeling about my level of attractiveness. I have work to do. And that work requires that I remain approachable, open, modest and welcoming. The show that I put on is not about me but about all the people I come in contact with every day. My appearance must afford me a high degree of comfort and flexibility and few distractions during the work day. After that’s done I just want some peace.

I went to school one day in a costume of myself, of

who I might be

if I chose

Not to give a damn

about packaging and expectations.

It’s complicated. And unfolding in my mind. My experience is not only about beauty standards and where I fit in some nebulous hierarchy. It’s partly about how I see myself and how others see me and how that is wrapped up in how we identify ourselves and each other. It’s about who I can be and choose to be at work and on which terms that can happen. It’s about the crossover effects of private versus public behaviors – costs, benefits, and fallout. It’s about markets and patterns of consumption in the attention economy. My experience is about the ongoing tension between doing and being, between choosing and being chosen.

My experience requires more words than the world may have space for. I keep writing anyway.

 

Tressie McMillan Cottom, THICK and Other Essays, The New Press, NY. 2019.

What Happened When I Went To School With My Hair Out

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Hair out. That’s how I’d have to say it, right?

Hair out, as in: not down, not “open” as one would say in German.

I wore my hair

my natural Black hair

out

at school

all day long.

Which is to say I wore an Afro.

An unpicked, unshaped tussle of curly strands

crowning my head.

A supersoft bouncy castle up top

framing my brown round face.

I added big dark sunglasses

and silver hoops,

Wore all black and a serious look

and suddenly my kids could not recognize

the teacher they were expecting.

Colleagues stopped in their tracks, smiled wide

then threw their roses at my feet.

Behind my glasses I felt protected, shielded,

safely distanced.

I kind of liked it.

My hair out

with its own righteous agenda

let me tap into

who I might be

if I chose

Not to give a damn

about packaging and expectations.

With my crinkly crown out and about

I cannot go unnoticed.

I cannot float under the radar.

I cannot not be seen.

Being able to choose visibility

and which damn to give

are privileges of the few.

But for a limited time only

I tested the waters and dabbled in a role

I could find becoming

and welcome:

sharp, fierce, unbothered;

proud black all-woman.

Imagine what it means,

what it meant

to wear my hair out,

my eyes covered,

my expression nonplussed,

brown skin gleaming

surrounded by a well meaning white gaze

that wonders but can

never really know

the extent of that Black abundance.

“It’s still that black abundance?”

“Yup” LaThon told me. “And they still don’t even know.” – Kiese Laymon, Heavy. 2018