An Open Letter to First-Year Teachers

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Dear First-Year Teachers,

It isn’t always like this.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

My first year of teaching, an experienced teacher said to me over lunch one day that if we could just get teachers to stick with it for five years, they were much more likely to stick with teaching for the whole of their career. She was speaking generally of trends in teachers leaving while the job was hard, before they really got the groove of what they were doing. But I think she could sense my unrest. My unease. My then-untreated anxiety.

Her words have stayed with me, through multiple teaching jobs across different districts, in both public and private schools, and even during my time spent as a stay-at-home mom to my two sons. Although I am sure she did not intend to impact me this way with her words, I came away from that conversation with a weight: if I couldn’t stick it out for five consecutive years, was I really even a teacher? What if I didn’t stay in one place that long? If I left my job to start a family with my husband, did I have any right to come back later?

Here is what I want to say to you: whatever questions, doubts, and anxieties you have this year – of all years – it isn’t always like this.

On the other side of this pandemic are peace and calm.

On the other side of first year jitters is a second-year stride.

On the other side of learning content and curriculum jargon for the first time is a deeper understanding of what’s expected of you with each year that passes.

On the other side of that one student that just seems to try and find ways to butt heads with you is a tried and true strategy for connecting with similar kids you’ll meet in twenty years.

It isn’t always like this.

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Please take heart in knowing that the muscles you are developing now as you navigate hybrid in-person and distance learning, magick up new ways to introduce yourself to children you may not see in person for weeks or even months into the new school year, will not only make you strong for the kids in your care, but they will also make you strong for yourself. You will be resilient. You will be wise. You will thrive.

None of us has done this before, not even the fifty-year veteran teacher who has had to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow, has taught during a pandemic on this scale. Do the best you can each moment, and know that it’s enough. Protect your physical health and wellness as best you can. Find your marigold. Ignore the tone-deaf advice to always put on a brave face for the kids or to develop a thick skin against criticism [that way lies madness; so stay soft]. Perhaps most importantly, safeguard the boundaries you put in place in order to remain balanced and whole outside the classroom.

Your expertise and abilities are enough. Your creativity and unique personality are needed. Your care and concern are valued.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

It isn’t always like this, first year teacher, and it probably never will be again.

Keep showing up in the most fearless, honest version of yourself you can muster. And we will all get to the other side of this, together.

– Q, a year-ten teacher who believes in you

Who are we?

Who were we in the past?

Who are we now?

Who do we want to be in the future?

Longview native Matthew McConaughey recently stated that based on where we live and where we grow up, we may have “allergies” to certain aspects of our nation’s history. In other words, we may be unaware of prejudices we have that blind us to other people’s perspectives.

This seems to be the case here in Longview. While one part of our local community respects heroic Confederate soldiers who died in service to a romanticized Lost Cause, “lest we forget,” as the statue’s inscription states, a different part of the same community despises the society that seceded from America to protect a way of life that included enslaving their ancestors.

Primary view of object titled '[Bodie Park]'.

The confederate monument that currently stands on the courthouse lawn was erected in 1910 and stood in Bodie Park, at the corner of Fredonia and Tyler.  In 1932, the statue was moved from Bodie Park to its current place just outside this building. An honest look at the political and social unrest prevalent in this country during that time period will reveal the motivation for both erecting this monument and for moving it to stand in a place of prominence on our courthouse lawn. 

What message do we want to send to visitors and citizens who come here? Is our message that a portion of our courthouse grounds is dedicated to confederate “heroes,” as the monument’s inscription states? Is our message that confederate soldiers are more important than veterans of other wars, as the unequal sizes of both monuments on the courthouse lawn suggest? Is our message that if you want to come vote, renew your car registration, or get a marriage license, that you must first observe this monument to history apparently honored by our community? Is our message that we have allergies so severe that we can’t properly contextualize this aspect of our country’s history?

If we are indeed one Longview, as Mayor Mack says, then we need to change that message. We need to look at our community: talented artists, beautiful outdoor spaces, cultural events that represent our community’s diverse population, family-friendly activities to keep our children actively engaged, and savvy entrepreneurs opening small businesses that are thriving even amid our country’s trying economic times. 

We can choose to keep this statue in place to protect a status quo that harms, intimidates, and traumatizes a broad swath of our community, or we can choose to craft a new vision of our city, where old and young, ethnically and religiously diverse, dedicated, hardworking, and talented people work together build something new: an accurate, current, unified message about who we are.

We are one Longview – Strongview, Texas – we have within us everything we need to bring positive change to our community.

Who were we in the past?

Who are we now?

Who do we want to be in the future?

Piece 11: Kalief Browder

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

A driving reason I think it is so important to reflect on the stories we are told about people who don’t look like us, is so that we understand the biases we may be susceptible to. If, for example, all we ever see of black people on TV is that they are either getting into trouble or being rescued from trouble by people who are not black, then we begin to expect the same of black people when we encounter them in real life. It’s for this reason that if we offer a handout or social invitation to an acquaintance of color, we may become deeply offended if they don’t accept. We were so obviously being magnanimous in offering them an experience they wouldn’t otherwise have access to – which we know, of course, because it’s all we have seen.

It’s super important to check the source of these biases so we can root them out of our minds thoroughly. 

Conversely, young Kalief Browder believed in the goodness of being American: the inherent dignity and legal rights he was owed. He believed that his blackness did not in any way negate his entitlement to equitable treatment under the law. And instead of our system of justice fulfilling his rightful expectations, it let him down with fatal results.

I first heard the name of Kalief Browder several years ago, in connection with Jay-Z. No doubt I heard about his story on a morning show or saw him in a picture with a celebrity who amplified his story in hope of helping him to get justice. A short time later, he was gone. 

Even though he had been released from prison after a three-year stay in one of the most notorious prisons in the country – Rikers Island – Browder succumbed to the lingering ghosts of the horrors he had experienced. 

But let’s begin at the beginning.

Kalief Browder was adopted as a baby, brought into a loving home where his mother had already fostered and adopted other children. By all appearances, he had a loving, open relationship with his siblings and mother but a rather fraught one with his father. After his parents divorced, Browder remained with his mother. And like some of his siblings before him, he turned to his surroundings for connection and guidance. In Browder’s case, his surroundings included gang activity that led him to make some wrong choices. As a result, he found himself on probation at the age of sixteen. So when he was stopped by police on suspicion of having stolen a backpack, and was subsequently arrested, he was unable to be bailed out by his family even after they scraped together enough money, because the arrest was a violation of his probation.

When you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story, you will no doubt find yourself angry at the circumstances of his arrest – a secondhand witness whose story kept changing, a years-long stay on Rikers that included months of solitary and multiple suicide attempts, a judicial system that kept putting off his case, which forced him back into an environment where he was repeatedly beaten. I have no doubt, too, that you’ll want to scream at the guards, judges, and attorneys who time after time allowed his case to be delayed while he remained in custody on Rikers. And I suspect that you will agree with me that Kalief Browder didn’t take his own life any more than his mother died as a result of heart trouble; rather, our country’s inefficient judicial system killed this young man and by extension his mother as well.

So why, then, would I suggest that you watch such a horrific, disturbing story? How could any modicum of peace possibly be found in such heartache? 

Because it happened.

There’s no embellishment or spin that sensationalizes Browder’s story away from the truth of its happening. Every detail of it is factual. The system worked exactly the way it was designed to work. And the result of that system and those facts was that Browder died at a tragically young age, after suffering from physical and psychological abuse made even more harrowing by the fact he endured such abuses during his formative years, before his brain and body had even finished developing.

When I re-watched Browder’s story recently, it struck me that at the time of his arrest, he was the same age as many of the students I have taught. Sixteen: that awkward age when boys’ voices may still be changing such that they don’t hear how the bass in their voices carries across the room, making it impossible for them to whisper. That uncertain age when hormones fluctuate so frequently and everyone else seems to develop faster than they do, yielding sometimes awkward excitement about their facial hair. That wonderful age full of hope and expectation, of unspeakable joys and indescribable lows. I could have been his teacher, constantly pushing him to do his best and then one day wondering where he went, if he had transferred or moved, only to discover years down the road that he had been arrested and later died.

James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know if labor unions and their bosses really hate black people, but he knew black people weren’t in their unions. He said he didn’t know if the real estate lobbies have anything against black people, but he knew their lobbies keep black people in the ghetto. He didn’t know if the board of education had anything against black people, but he knew the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Baldwin said, “You want me to make an act of faith on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen,” echoing Langston Hughes’s assertion that America is the land that never has been yet.

Kalief Browder, beautiful, hopeful, full of potential, and brimming with the expectation that the system would eventually work in his favor, never got to see that America that never has been. He held fast to the act of faith Baldwin speaks of, believing that in America justice must exist. And the system failed him utterly. It killed him.

If we are interested in pursuing peace and reconciliation, we must acknowledge stories like Browder’s that block so many of our friends and neighbors from feeling that sense of carefree idealism that we may take for granted in ourselves. In other words, there is no real peace without real truth. There’s no reconciliation without a reckoning.

As you watch Time: The Kalief Browder Story this week, I hope you will consider the following:

  • When have you turned a blind eye to the agony of your neighbor in order to safeguard your own sense of peace?
  • Have you pushed back when people of color in your life have told you about their experiences of injustice, silencing the voices of their experience?
  • Where in your life and relationships can you find space to breathe peace into your friends of color by offering them a compassionate listening ear?

Keep showing up to this space each week, and in time, peace will be ours: one piece at a time.

Piece 10: 12 Years a Slave

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

As this series has taken shape, I have begun each week’s post by answering a question or two that I posted to you the prior week. So I’ll share with you what makes people worthy of the title “hero” in my eyes. To me, a hero is a person who is consistent, trustworthy, and visible in the lives of the people who love them. A hero is true to who they are and treats others with kindness whenever possible. A hero leads with ferocity and integrity. In all they do, a hero leads by example. Heroes are people like Solomon Northrup and Beyoncé.

Years ago, when the movie 12 Years a Slave hit theaters, I had no idea it was based on Solomon Northrup’s real life experiences. With only Oscar buzz and the movie’s title as my informers, I assumed 12 Years a Slave was another antebellum revenge fantasy. Following its release, the beautiful, talented, and undoubtedly deserving Lupita Nyong’o received an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave. And even in my joy and excitement at witnessing Nyong’o make history with her win, I felt a deep underlying sadness at the nature of the role for which she had received this critical acclaim. The one thing that had kept me from seeing the movie was not what I suspected was a revenge fantasy, or even the particular type of weariness that arises from repeatedly seeing the same trodden-down narrative of black people play out on the screen; rather, I was held back from seeing the movie by the anecdotal knowledge that Nyong’o’s character had a brutal rape scene. As a personal practice, I don’t watch or read anything that includes that particular kind of violence. This isn’t a critique of actors or writers who portray such scenes; I am simply too visual a person to put those kinds of intimately sexually traumatic images into my mind.

So I avoided 12 Years a Slave even though I wanted badly to see this beautiful actress’s award-winning debut role, even though I was a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, even though it was a movie telling a decidedly black American story – which is typically exactly the type of movie I want to see. I kept 12 Years a Slave at arm’s length until I stumbled across the fact that it was based on a true story, and I became interested in that story. The first resource I recommend this week is Twelve Years a Slave – the book, not the movie. I remain resolved not to see it, especially after I listened to this memoir – which does not include the brutal rape scene depicted in the film. The character and the crimes perpetrated on her while she was in bondage are between the lines of Northrup’s prose, but graphic details of brutal, forced sex acts are blessedly absent. 12 Years a Slave employs the kind of language that 21st century Americans like myself almost have to cut with a fork and knife in order to digest it. His vocabulary and sentence structure are educated, expansive, and positively drenched in his inherent sense of dignity and a dogged determination to win back the freedom stolen from him; none of that language includes a detailed description of sexual assault. 

The second resource I recommend this week is Beyoncé’s Black is King. Where the popularity and overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave illustrate a disturbing American fascination with glorifying black pain – even if doing so means manufacturing some of that pain, as the opening scenes of the film do – Black is King diverges. Black is King tells a story of love, hope, and a steadfast connection that transcends time, space, and even remains once our physical bodies die. Black is King skillfully weaves African artists, imagery, religion, scenery, and timeless beauty, to exalt black joy, black strength, black dignity. To study these two stories and the popular response to both is, I believe, to see with fresh eyes the expectation of the dominant culture in America. Black people are always expected to be submissive to their pain and struggles while observers who are not themselves on the margins with black Americans cry for a moment and then move on with their lives: never changing, never changed.

Truly, what Black is King aims for – and I believe achieves – is an unapologetic, unflinching display of black beauty. If our cultural response to such a stunning feat is to criticize Beyoncé’s wardrobe, to point out that the only white actor in the film is a butler, or to condemn as heresy the visual album’s audacity, then we show the black people in our lives just exactly how we expect them to view themselves and by extension, how we view them: as broken, as weary, as vessels through which to filter our own pain – and nothing more. [Bonus: Lupita Nyong’o makes a brief, glorious, affirming cameo in Black is King.]

As you decide which of these suggested resources you have the time and emotional breadth to absorb this week, I hope you will reflect on these questions:

  • Recall your favorite books and movies that feature black characters. What stories are being told about those characters – are they in pain, struggling, or being helped out of a struggle, particularly by characters who are not black?
  • How often are you taking in stories, books, and movies that showcase black people telling black stories? 
  • Where in your own mind and heart are you celebrating the prevalent cultural narrative that black Americans are situated rightly only when they are in pain, shepherding non-black people through their pain, or magnanimously forgiving others for pain inflicted on them?

Keep sticking with this hard, necessary work. It’s worth it to show the black people in your life that you are doing the work it takes to show up for them, alongside them, with them. Meet me back here next week, and we will keep working together toward peace, one piece at a time. 

piece 9: Get in the Way

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I wrote about the danger white women’s tears have historically posed to nonwhite people, particularly the lethal effect Carolyn Bryant Dunham’s tears had on young Emmett Till. Honestly, the personal experiences I have had with white tears are few. But even though I have infrequently been in the room when white tears are shed, I have been termed intimidating, told to smile [one of my least favorite things], not asked back to a job, called brittle and standoffish by an employer, time after time coerced into changing my behavior or my demeanor to suit white comfort.

The evening I began writing this post, Congressman John Lewis passed away. My heart is still hurting, and my vision during the last few days has frequently been blurred from tears: of gratitude, of sorrow, of hope, of overwhelm.

The passing of  John Lewis  hit me hard; so many greats who organized and nonviolently resisted on behalf of themselves, their children, and future unborn generations like mine, are no longer with us. Not only did I cry from gratitude, but I also cried because I know we the living have to pick up and continue where they left off. It’s up to us to pick up the torch Lewis and his contemporaries carried on our behalf.

This week’s three resources are all about John Lewis, a personal hero of mine whose life’s work was justice, equity, and liberation.

The March trilogy is an award-winning chronicle of John Lewis’s activism. The time-jumping tale navigates between Obama’s inauguration, where a young child meets Lewis and asks him to share about his life, to Lewis’s childhood preaching to chickens, to his adolescence and young adulthood participating in Freedom Rides, sandwich counter sit-ins, marches, and speeches. It’s beautifully illustrated, and my boys and I read it before we heard Lewis speak several years ago. I recommend it for school-agers on up. While some of the content is thematically difficult, very little of it is graphic.

In the week leading up to Lewis’s local appearance, I felt giddy with anticipation at hearing him speak. When I picked up tickets to the event, I got to speak with a local reporter about the honor and privilege of simply being able to be in the room with him. The day of the event, the auditorium where Lewis would lecture buzzed with anticipation. The phenomenal Wiley College choir sang a few songs, a local person introduced Lewis, and then there he was – a little shorter than I expected, and more powerful and moving a speaker than I could have imagined. I recorded his entire speech on my phone, soaking up his wisdom and experience, and excitedly glancing at my boys periodically to see if they were grasping the significance of the moment.

I remain deeply grateful for this experience I got to have and share with my family.

Get in the Way is an hour-long PBS documentary. Through interviews, archival footage, and contemporary news clips, we see the evolution of Lewis’s advocacy. Not only was he beaten on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965, but just a few years ago, he led a sit-in on the floor of the House in support of gun reform to help keep school-children alive and safe. More recently, we see footage of his marching and dancing in a Pride parade, speaking in favor of an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation. This year, my family crossed that bridge in Selma, Alabama while we were on our Spring Break trip. I paused and breathed in, beckoning my husband to snap a picture of this bucket list moment for me. I felt so connected to the pivotal moment in American history, when a march for voting rights turned into Bloody Sunday, but ultimately served in conjunction with other historic nonviolent resistance to speed along the passage of federal Civil Rights legislation.

When John Lewis first became involved in civil rights-related work, his parents told him not to get into trouble. Rather than obeying them exactly, he found “good trouble” instead. Good Trouble is the most recent film documenting Lewis’s extraordinary life. Released just this month, the movie details Lewis’s lifelong work to secure equality for all Americans. It provides a beautiful, timely examination of his struggle to redeem the soul of America.

As you reflect on what you learn about John Lewis’s life this week, I hope you’ll consider each of these questions:

  • What makes people worthy of the title “hero” in your eyes?
  • Are there people whom you consider personal heroes, who do not share your same cultural, ethnic, or racial background?
  • Where in your life might it be the right time to seize an opportunity to get into “good trouble” on behalf of people who may not be able to get into it for themselves?

Come back next week to continue the work of unlearning racial bias. I believe as we keep working together, we will find peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 8: The Blood of Emmett Till

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I asked you how you would fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country. For me, in addition to working through anxiety and fear to write this series on my own corner of the internet, I will continue drawing attention to advocacy groups and marginalized voices. I’ve also been fortunate to join with like-minded community groups recently – one to start a Be the Bridge group and the other to erect a historical marker commemorating a troubling aspect of our community’s history.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

When I was a kid, having a summer birthday was rough. There was no opportunity to hand out invitations at school. And even if my parents had my friends’ parents’ phone numbers, there was a huge chance my friends were out of town and therefore unable to come celebrate with me. As a July baby, one thing I did to try and feel a sense of specialness when my birthday came around, was to flip to the back of Seventeen Magazine for horoscopes and celebrity birthdays. I would then try to manufacture emotional connections to the actors who shared my birth month, so I could feel cooler by birthday association.

Then a few years ago, I realized that I had an iconic birthday buddy: the slain Emmett Till, whose murder catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up knowing some things about Till’s story. I knew that as a teen visiting his family in the South one summer, he supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store; that when the woman’s husband found out, he got a group of men together to forcibly take Till from his family’s home and kill him; that killing him wasn’t enough; that the men weighed his body down and then threw it into a river; that Till’s body was so mutilated that his own mother could not at first identify him as her child; that Till’s mother decided to have an open-casket funeral so that people could see what had been done to her son; that Jet magazine ran a spread featuring Till’s story and funeral.

Over all this, I knew of course that black people – even children – could not truly be free around white people without being punished.

What I did not know when I was growing up, was that Emmett Till and I shared a birthday. I did not know the woman who accused him of whistling at her – the accusation that led to his murder – later recanted the story of what happened in the store that day. I did not know that two men were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder, that they later confessed to their heinous crime in Look magazine for a fee of $4,000 because they knew they would not be tried again due to double jeopardy. I did not know that in time, a marker in Till’s memory would be erected, only to be tossed into a river and shot at, ultimately replaced at least three times.

I learned most of these facts a few summers ago, when I listened to this week’s suggested resource: The Blood of Emmett Till. In this book, Timothy B. Tyson details eyewitness accounts, interviews, and public records to piece together the truth of Emmett Till’s murder. The depth and breadth of Till’s case definitively illustrate how fatal white supremacy can be for black boys in America. The mere suggestion that a black teen whistled at a white woman was enough for Till to be pulled from the bed where he slept next to his cousin and brutally beaten and killed. 

Luvvie Ajayi Jones touches on this insidious phenomenon in this week’s second suggested resource: “About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women’s Tears.” Jones’ blog post sets forth the idea that white tears can be a matter of life and death for black Americans. While Jones’ blog post draws on personal anecdotes, data does indeed bear out her thesis. The third resource I will suggest this week contains such data: Pushout, a book – and soon-to-be-released documentary – which closely examines how black girls are treated in schools. Dr. Monique Morris traces over-representation of black girls in the juvenile justice system, lack of consideration of students’ home circumstances, and the prevalence of vilifying black girls for behaviors for which girls of other ethnicities are not punished. 

All three of this week’s suggestions shine a bright light on disparities in the way our culture treats black and white people. In many ways, the dominant white American culture seemingly must always be protected and upheld,even at the expense of black autonomy and sometimes, like in the case of Emmett Till, at the expense of black life itself. I do not suggest taking on all three resources this week. Choose what you are able to devote time to, and what interests you most. For me, with Till being my birthday buddy, I’m always interested in facts about his life and death. For teachers who are looking for ways to do better for students of color in their classroom, Pushout may be a more logical choice. If time is short, you may only have time to read Luvvie’s blog post. Whichever resource(s) you choose to engage with this week, I hope you’ll consider these questions as you read:

  • When have I witnessed white tears used as a weapon against people of color?
  • In my personal relationships, how have I coerced people of color to change their conduct to suit my own ideals of propriety?
  • When my white friends complain about people of color in their lives, do I question their perception and bias, or do I accept them as tacit truth because my friends’ perception confirms my own bias?
  • Do I have different behavioral expectations of black children than white children?
  • Are my reactions to children’s behavior different – based on their race – even if their behavior is the same?

This week’s work is emotionally heavy. But I hope that as you exhale and peruse these resources to select one, that you will remember this work is necessary. Be kind with yourself even as you confront hard truths, and I’ll see you here again next week. We’ll keep doing this hard emotional work to actively pursue peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 7: Do justice

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

Writer James Baldwin once said, “Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society.” In answer to my question last week of when and where are the right time to protest injustice, I’d say the right time is as soon as you develop that conscience Baldwin speaks of, and feel moved to protest. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a young person who is tired of not receiving food service because of the color of your skin, then it’s the right time to sit in at a lunch counter. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a school-aged child who wants to attend integrated, well-funded schools, then it’s the right time to walk out of school with your classmates. If that conscience-developing moment comes when you are a celebrity who wants to use your platform to draw attention to worthy causes, then it’s the right time to start a foundation to help inform and empower the next generation of changemakers.

For the past month and a half, I have shared podcast suggestions, movies, TV episodes, and books. Today, I want to point you not toward sources of information to take in, but toward points of action.

Seek out and patronize black-owned businesses. Many businesses these days have online storefronts. Take Crayon Case and Honey Pot, for instance – these two businesses are founded and run by black women, and their high-quality products can be shipped right to your doorstep. I encourage you to look for businesses that provide goods or services you regularly use, so you can patronize them on a continual basis. Once you find a product you love, be sure to like and share the business’s social media pages with your emphatic review. By intentionally diversifying the businesses we patronize and freely sharing our positive impressions, we can draw attention to people in our communities who are sometimes overlooked, and we can contribute in a small but meaningful way to restorative work.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

Donate to organizations that are actively involved in justice work. Through the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson has led a team of individuals dedicated to educating the public about dark, often overlooked aspects of American history, and advocating for incarcerated people, especially those whose families live in poverty. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund approaches race-related justice work through litigation and advocacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a hub for education and remembrance, in addition to carrying out the important work of tracking hate groups’ activities, to help people remain informed and safe.

Donate to victims’ families. The list of victims of police brutality is long and horrific, particularly when you consider that in most cases, the victims’ killers are never brought to justice. Although we cannot bring back any of these lives that were senselessly cut short, we can call, email, and write to legislators to advocate on their behalf. These cases need to be investigated and murderers brought to justice. And we can donate to victims’ families and protesters’ bailout funds, knowing that an immense amount of time, money, and expertise will be required to bring killers to justice and ultimately, to reform a historically jacked up legal system.

This week, I will ask you to consider these questions:

Photo by Alexas Fotos from Pexels
  • What actions have you taken in your own life to work toward healing racial rifts?  
  • Who have you begun to read and follow in order to broaden your understanding of marginalized people’s reality? 
  • How will you fulfill your role within the larger movement for justice in this country? 
  • What will you do to ensure that tomorrow is better for your black and brown neighbors than yesterday and today?

Once you decide which actions you can take and reflect on your purpose in this newly awakened racial justice space, come back next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time. 

Piece 6: Lift Every Voice

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

At the end of piece five, I left you with a list of questions to guide you in some self-reflection. One reason I was able to come up with the questions quickly is that I’ve been on the receiving end of several of them. I’ve been shushed by a white friend in a restaurant for wanting to send back food that had hair in it. I’ve been confronted by the principal of the campus I worked on and told I was brittle and standoffish for not smiling in the hallways, for not always responding “hello” when greeted [even though in all likelihood the loud, crowded hallways prevented me from hearing his greeting to begin with]. I’ve had my campus principal called by a workshop host because in my frustration, I asked questions, and then, when it seemed I was asking too many so I shifted my focus to note-taking, the workshop presenter found my smile odd – apparently – when she came to ask how I was doing. 

Photo by Ralph Rabago from Pexels

I’ve been labeled intimidating because I am confident, introspective [read: quiet when thinking/regrouping], and opinionated. While this may seem harmless, when people feel intimidated, they tend to do whatever they can to knock down the people who intimidate them. In some ways, to me, “intimidating” is the new “uppity.”

But alas, this week, we’ll shift our focus away from the violence of stifling black people’s autonomy, toward a different kind of violence: the kind that invades a  sacred space.

Churches in this country are segregated not only by race but also by culture, ideology, theology, and politics. While white supremacist racism was the reason for the black church’s emergence separate from white churches in this country, it is not the only reason the black church has remained. Black churches are our haven. Here, we find catharsis, community, engagement, help, peace, family, acceptance, and connection. From the time we are pre-schoolers, we learn Easter speeches, watch our older cousins perform praise dances and mimes, pass out on our grandmothers’ laps during the sermon, and sneak more peppermints from our mothers’ purses than they realize. In black churches, we exhale – away from staring eyes that wonder aloud about our hair texture, cultural references, or blaccents. We are free to live and move and have our being without explaining how we exist the way we do in this world.

photo of James Weldon Johnson,
author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,”
Courtesy: Library of Congress

And we sing.

At least once a year – in my experience – we sing the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” My church back home would switch out the congregational hymn at the beginning of each month. For every February I can remember, this anthem was that month’s congregational hymn. Today, even without a hymnal to guide me, I can sing most of the words by heart. The familiar tune carries in it a feeling of home for me, a sense of connectedness that is deeper than I have words to express.

Last week, an anonymous person who claims to be in discussion regarding racial tension in the NFL claimed that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be played before “The Star-Spangled Banner” for week one games in September.

This is a terrible idea for a plethora of reasons. If the NFL follows through with this supposed plan, I fear that the opening anthem sequence will lead black and white sports fans to sit, stand, kneel, seethe, and likely argue and eventually swing at each other as much as they physically can before the songs end. 

Permeating all the tension is a violent act visited upon a space black Americans hold as sacred. Out from the gloomy past of our people being forced to create their own churches, traditions, and culture, have emerged a richness we hold dear. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is not a call to conflate cross and country as we tearfully revere America’s founding fathers. Instead, the black national anthem is a holy call to remember our people’s oppression, faith, struggle, triumph, and resilience.

Simply put, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” belongs to those of us whose weary years and silent tears have been seen by God. It is a hymn of worship to God, not an anthem of allegiance to a flag.

The Star-Spangled Banner” is at best a patriotic call to take off one’s hat and fall silent while thinking of people who have died for freedoms all citizens can enjoy. At worst, Francis Scott Key’s anthem is a tone-deaf call to remember American whiteness fondly while overlooking the writer’s own view of black people as subservient, subhuman. So for the same national sports organization that blackballed Kaepernick for kneeling in memory of citizens victimized by police brutality, to now invite itself into a sacred space black Americans have made for ourselves, is at best naive and ill-fitting – and at worst, violent and blasphemous.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This week’s suggested resources will hopefully help illuminate the meaning of the black national anthem to our community. First, I suggest a close reading of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I encourage you to read each verse and reflect on its meaning, depth, and the collective history it incorporates. Second, I suggest taking a look at Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” on Netflix. She began her show with the black national anthem, and the spectacular concert that followed carried an HBCU theme, which I think will help to further highlight the beautiful, affirming traditions and institutions black Americans have created for ourselves, after being banned from white American spaces that never intended to include us except as servants. Third, I hope you’ll take a careful look at the lyrics to all three verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem, like our country, has a complex author with a complicated and at times conflicting history.

Some questions to consider as you read and watch this week:

Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels
  • When you first heard of Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, what was your reaction? Why?
  • When and where, in your opinion, are the right time and place to protest injustice?
  • Think of your family’s favorite song, tradition, or hymn. If your family member was publicly harangued by a group that later wanted to play that hymn publicly, but still had not repaired its broken relationship with your family member, how would your family feel?

I hope you’ll sit with these texts and these questions this week. Get quiet and determine what these songs and traditions mean to you, how important they are in your life. I’ll see you here again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 5: Strange Fruit

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Last week, I left you with several questions about how black people are represented in media that you consume. When I sat with the question about interracial couples and how often they are depicted as dynamic characters, without their differing cultures as a major plot point, I came up with almost nothing. Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series technically meets the requirement, as does The Mindy Project, but other than that, I’ve got nothing.

breakfast or nah?

In all the many shows and movies I watch on a regular basis, interracial couples rarely appear, let alone as major characters primarily focused on something other than their differing cultures.

On the question of brand representation, I remember an odd conversation I had with a friend years ago, when Cheerios released a commercial featuring an interracial couple and their child. When I saw the commercial, all I saw was a commercial that was maybe a bit refreshing in its casting. But the friend whom I talked to about it mentioned backlash on her Facebook wall – and presumably, from some online publications – from people outraged by “political correctness” and a perceived attack on their own values.

I know, it seems preposterous. And it is. But in a country where this type of representation is so rare, we should almost expect such a reaction until a majority-white consumer base is accustomed to seeing ads that are not designed to appeal only to them – something marginalized Americans are accustomed to from their earliest experiences watching TV and reading books.

This week, we’ll shift our focus from representation to strange fruit.

During the past few weeks, several men across the country – predominantly black men – have been discovered hanging from trees, dead from apparent suicide. Our country’s history of inciting terror in black communities by lynching black men in the dead of night, by popularizing postcards that glorify these hateful murders, by carrying out riots in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, should be enough to poke holes in any authority’s theory that no foul play is at hand in these men’s recent deaths. And yet, suicide is exactly what these authorities preliminarily suggested, pulling back in order to reevaluate only after having pressure exerted on them by public outcry. 

I am recommending two podcast episodes this week:

Code Switch’s “Claude Neal: A Strange and Bitter Crop” time hops to tell the story of Neal’s tragic murder while following poet L. Lamar Wilson as he uncovers Neal’s story and runs the path along which his mutilated body was dragged before being hung in front of the courthouse.

Isadore Duncan

My second episode recommendation is “Unfinished: Deep South.” This brand new podcast will unveil the story of Isadore Duncan, a financially successful WWI veteran who was brutally murdered, and whose family later fled their home with none of the financial wealth their patriarch had labored to earn because all pertinent records were destroyed when Duncan was murdered.

Here are some questions to sit with this week:

  • In what ways have you pushed back against the idea of black autonomy and equality in your own life?
  • Have you tried to silence or minimize the opinions of black people when they have disagreed with your own?
  • Will you devote the time this week to researching your own city’s history of racial violence? What will you do with that information when you find it?
  • What action have you taken to tear down the vestiges of racial terror in your own community?
  • In what ways might you have unwittingly ignored or encouraged violence against black Americans asserting and exercising their own rights to protest, vote, and otherwise carry out their civil rights?

This isn’t quick or easy work that we are doing. But it is necessary to build a better country for ourselves and for future generations. Keep at it, and come back again next week so we can keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.

Piece 4: Representation

Peace by Piece

This post is part of a year-long series. If my work is helpful for you, consider a contribution through Venmo to keep the anti-racism work going.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay 

Last week, I left you with several questions. One of them was whether you would set aside any part of your identity in order to be part of a movement for justice. As a mother, a Christian, a black woman, I have had to claw and scratch and fight for every aspect of my identity. I’ve been called white. I’ve had my faith questioned because I disagreed with someone else’s theology or interpretation of Scripture. I’ve miscarried a child. I’ve lived the pain that so many people feel when they finally discover the truth of their identity, only to have people whom they may love and trust, question them so much that they begin to question themselves.

I won’t set aside any part of my selfhood. No matter how much other people might want me to erase or minimize part of myself, I’ll show up as fully myself in all facets, no matter the task.

Aunt Jemima probably got more Google searches in this past week than any other time in the brand’s history, since the company that owns the name and its iconic image announced they’d be removing Aunt Jemima’s name and face. And although I did not know anything substantive about the brand’s history until last week, I did remember when the namesake’s head covering was removed years ago, I did find it easy to connect Aunt Jemima’s image to the mammy trope, and I did think of Kimberly Reese.

Kimberly Reese

I love 90’s sitcom “A Different World” so much that I have whole episodes memorized. I own a t-shirt that declares I’m an alum of its fictional HBCU. Its characters, theme song, and storylines aired in syndication so often during after school hours when I was a child, that they are interwoven with my memories of growing up. So when Facebook blew up last week with news articles and opinions about Aunt Jemima’s announcement, I thought immediately about an episode of “A Different World” in which Kim Reese has a painful breakdown and tells her mentor Mr. Gaines about a childhood memory she associates with Aunt Jemima.

The episode, entitled “Mammy Dearest,” depicts the core cast of characters putting together a black history program that traces black roles in entertainment over time. Due to Kim’s dark complexion, insecurity, and the aforementioned painful childhood experience, Kim wants the Aunt Jemima-adjacent mammy caricature excluded from the show. In true 90’s sitcom fashion, all identity issues are illuminated and resolved within the show’s half-hour span. But the episode also touches on colorism, guilt that can result from ancestors who made decisions we cannot be proud of, and disagreements black people sometimes have among each other about how our collective history should be addressed. For these reasons, along with the current relevance of the episode, “Mammy Dearest” is the first resource I am suggesting that you watch this week.

Rae & Nanjiani

My second suggested resource this week is dramedy “The Lovebirds.” When theaters nationwide closed because of COVID-19, Netflix swooped in and purchased this gem so we all could still enjoy it. This lovely romantic comedy stars the wonderful Issa Rae, of “Insecure” and “Awkward Black Girl” and “I’m rooting for everybody black” fame, and the hilarious Kumail Nanjiani, whom you may know from “Stuber” and “The Big Sick.” Because I love all things Issa Rae, and because my husband and I are an interracial couple, I knew from the first trailer that I wanted to watch this movie. So when it came out, we had a date night at home. We laughed heartily as well as exchanging sad face looks when the main characters hit relational snags.

As soon as the credits rolled, I began to wonder when was the last time I saw a movie like this: funny and honest and heartwarming. And starring an interracial couple whose different cultures are acknowledged but aren’t central to the plot. Essentially, I wondered the last time I saw a regular movie about regular people having regular problems (albeit in exceptional circumstances since they are inadvertently involved in a murder at the movie’s start). And I couldn’t think of the last time I saw an interracial couple on-screen, where their interracial couple status wasn’t The Main Thing. This makes “The Lovebirds” my second recommendation this week.

Hair Love

And finally, I want you to watch “Hair Love.” This beautiful, Oscar-Winning short from  Matthew A. Cherry took my breath away the first time I watched it several months ago. In this short film, we see a young black father struggling to do his daughter’s hair. Everything about this seven minute feature is brilliant: gorgeous hand-drawn style animation, a young dad with tattoos and locs, a beautiful young gap-toothed daughter insisting her dad keep trying, and a final scene that will undoubtedly have you reaching for tissue. 

As you watch this week’s recommended shows, I hope you’ll consider the following:

  • What positive and negative portrayals of black Americans have you seen in movies, TV shows, and other media such as product branding?
  • When was the last time you saw a movie starring an interracial couple, where race and culture were part of the plot but not its entirety? 
  • When brand names and images are changed in order to be more considerate of a diverse customer base, what feelings does this elicit inside you?
  • What do you think is the importance of intentional, positive, affirming portrayals of black individuals and families?
  • How might your own concept of self and family be different if you never saw positive portrayals of individuals and families that looked like you?

I hope you enjoy this episode, movie, and short film this week as you continue opening your mind to new ideas of what it means to be black in this country. And I hope you will bring an open mind back here next week, and we will keep working toward peace, one piece at a time.