Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
It’s hard being black. Especially when your degree of blackness is often quantified by other black people–who consider themselves blacker than you. Frankly, I am not sure how the levels of blackness are measured. Growing up, I was told by other black children in the neighborhood that I sounded white, in other words, spoke as if I were a white person. Yet, I lived in their same Brooklyn housing project, attended the same inner city school and played in the same local park.
My mother was well read and kept her bookshelves stocked with a diverse collection of books. The manner in which I spoke was not due to an effort to sound white or even proper (another misconception), but the result of being immersed in a print rich environment with a parent whose advanced use of language was gained by the wonders of reading. Based on recent statistics on the achievement gap of black children, it would seem that reading and the acquisition of a broader vocabulary is the 8th wonder of the world. The truth is, the more educated you become, the better grasp you have on what is known as Standard American English. The same SAE that is spoken in the professional world and taught in the American school systems. The same English that is read in most books, newspapers and magazines.
Ebonics is not good English
The stance that education holds the key to success is a mantra that African Americans must embrace and hold dear. It is the catalyst that will open doors of opportunity and unlock keys to a world that too often is a challenge for people of color to navigate. In this world, being able to communicate in the language of what is deemed white america is not only necessary, but indicative of an educated person. Ideologies of people like Erika Gallagher, a “white passing,” University of Wisconsin-Madison research student, become traps that prevent people of color from advancing in a white dominated capitalist society. According to Gallagher, the English language is racist and discriminatory towards blacks who speak Ebonics –a so called African- American vernacular. In her misguided research of 3 people, she determined that being forced to speak SAE was “overwhelming and disingenuous” to black people. She concludes that institutions of higher learning and the overall educational system needs to overlook the deficits in the way African Americans speak to avoid the discomfort of code switching. However, code switching is not a concept exclusive to people of color, marginalized folks or the like. It is a skill, if you will, that persons with an understanding of language in formal and informal environs adopt to adapt to the situation at hand. It would be unreasonable and unprofessional to go to a job interview and say, “cash me ousside, howbow dah?” the trending phrase of Danielle Bregoli–a white passing person- whose failure to enunciate simple words intelligibly has gone viral. What words of wisdom does Ms. Gallagher have for Bregoli whose behavior is often described as acting “black.” Is she also guilty of speaking Ebonics?
Black by Default
It is not uncommon for certain behaviors and speech nuances to to be associated with black culture. But too often those connections are negative portrayals that diminish positive and empowering influences that more accurately depict the black race. Even representatives like Rachel Dolezal, who identifies with being black, trivializes the black community. Yet for her, being black proved to be advantageous. So much so, that she gained a full scholarship to Howard University because as her father says,”she sounded black on the phone.” Her situational blackness is clearly a case of cultural code switching disguised as: relating to and supportive of the black community. Her ability to sew in weaves, teach Black History, date black men and bear their children is merely a social experiment. But there are many who defend her actions and embrace her “blackness.” But are you black by default? Does experience or upbringing determine the level of one’s blackness?
Despite being raised by a white mother and grandmother in the cozy isle of Hawaii, former President Obama is considered to be the epitome of blackness. His swag, penchant for hip hop, and basketball prowess exalts his status in iconic black culture. But it’s his upbringing and education at universities such as Harvard and Howard that aid in Obama’s ability to code switch. Imagine if President Obama applied Gallagher’s theory to avoid code switching because it’s too hard? His rise from lawyer, president to public speaker in demand may not have been possible or as easily embraced.
On an unlikely field trip excursion, I escorted a group of teenagers, pursuing their high school equivalency diploma, into the upper echelons of Manhattan’s business district. Some had never ventured beyond their Bronx neighborhoods. Even the event’s coordinators were surprised to see these young people in attendance. As I explained who we were and why we were there, I code switched or rather spoke as one professional to another. The students were amazed. “Miss, you speak white?” they asked incredulously. It was a teachable moment that demonstrated how I, an educated person, aware of my environment and audience, can speak in a language that articulates my intended message without compromising my identity. I’m black simply because I am and speak Standard American English simply because I should.
Combating Racism and Stereotypes with English
As an educator, it is my responsibility to teach and model the English language properly. Erika Gallagher’s lofty goal to encourage teachers to “accept any form of English that students are comfortable with,” will not equip young African American children to actively engage diverse groups of people in environments where Ebonics is not the norm.
Gallagher’s research is rooted in racism and perpetuates the illusion that her experience and findings teach society to be more tolerant and accepting of African-Americans. “Just because you speak a different way doesn’t mean you’re not smart,”she says. Fortunately, black folks don’t need her help to realize how smart, capable or accomplished we are. Young black people need more role models like President Barack Obama, educated and well-spoken, or Oprah Winfrey– educated and well read. They need teachers and communities that refute the narrative that says, “feel oppressed by standard, grammatical English,” because only white people speak well.
Demanding that minorities speak Standard American English in formal settings is not biased or discriminatory. Schools should not make accommodations for black students that do not meet universal standards of excellence. Teaching should be rigorous and learning met with robust challenge– without apology. Standard American English should be expected and not excused for people of color. Anything less is an insult.
So, Ms. Gallagher, how about that?
“I’m gonna tear down those walls,” he whispered
and I wanted to shout.
I’m tired of being restricted and oppressed– beyond my control
I lust for freedom to explode like a cannon ball.
“I’m gonna to tear down those walls,” he teased
and I wanted to burst.
I’m made stronger when tossed and turned
within a swelling storm–spurred to hold on.
Tear down these walls and build again in soil firmer
and more fertile than ever before.
After the seventh time, Jericho fell to the ground.
But I only need one ride on this merry-go-round
and have these walls come tumbling down.
I was young and reckless. All my friends were. We shared a f**ck the police attitude but it never occurred to us to verbalize such angst directly towards them. There was a fear of being identified, arrested or even worse shot. We just wanted to be bad without consequence. The best way to achieve that goal was to avoid the police at all costs. Cross the street, walk pass without making eye contact or just do a 180 degree turn. Policemen were an authority figure we didn’t want to obey but had to respect.
Riding the L train to school, I became agitated with a girl I didn’t know and made up my mind that I was going to confront her when we got off at the Broadway Junction stop in Brooklyn. The Junction is always swarming with cops; there is a precinct at the foot of the escalator leading to the next set of trains to transfer to Queens or Manhattan.
None of that mattered though, because she had angered me so much and I can’t even recall why. However, I vividly remember throwing her down and in a fit of rage, pounding her head against the cement floor of the walkway. Some passengers stood around to watch, others continued on to their respective destinations. I was told later by my friend that I was so consumed in my vicious act that I didn’t notice the policeman yielding his night stick over my head…until she called my name.
I was escorted down the escalator, along with the other girl, handcuffed and ashamed to be caught and leered at by the early morning traffic of those bound for work or school. She nor I were bold at that moment; more like compliant and scared. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want to explain to my mother the circumstances surrounding my arrest. I didn’t want a criminal record to follow me throughout my lifetime. She cried. I was passive in my response to the officers and was allowed to leave. She remained for lying about her age.
Avoid police at all costs. Don’t look them in the eye, keep your voice low and your hands crossed.
The encounter was too scary for me to revisit. It was the first and the last time, I felt cold steel of confinement around my wrists or walked the plank towards imprisonment guided by law enforcement.
Spring forward 19 years, my 17 year old son and I were driving down a lonely, dark country stretch with dim lampposts and trees of intimidation bordering the edge of the road. Who knows what lurked beyond their aligned girth? We were headed home from his high school basketball game and only a quarter mile from his Christian school. The lights whirling behind us from the police car couldn’t have been for me. But they were. I was hesitant pulling to the side of this uncharted road without witness or protection. But I did. It’s the law.
One officer positioned himself on the passenger side, the other approached the driver’s side and the car windows were rolled down so they both could peer inside.
“Do you know why you were stopped?” the officer asked with his hand on his gun. I suppose it was an act of warning or maybe its standard procedure.
Of course, I didn’t know. I was a law abiding citizen…bad girl gone good with a clean juvenile record and a stellar adult legal history.
“Your headlights are off,” he said.
Me, ever the gregarious one, chuckled and responded, “No wonder I thought it was so dark.” My son sat quietly, looking straight ahead.
Avoid police at all costs. Don’t look them in the eye, keep your voice low and your hands crossed.
I never taught him this tactic. I suppose it’s instinctual, the need to survive at all costs, to get home alive on arrival. He never had the urge to be bad as I was in my youth. But our heated society has urged him to be afraid. We joked about our encounter. But it served as a prerequisite for what- not- to do if he ever was in a similar situation. He’s made his own decisions not to drive around with a bunch of guys in one car in the wee hours of the morning and to remove himself from situations that he perceives to be potential landmines of trouble. I never had to tell him. It wasn’t part of his when you grow up speech. Instead, the news broadcasts are sufficient spokespersons of hate, violence, death and rage that consume the air waves daily. It becomes difficult to distinguish facts from exploitation, sensationalism from reality and innocence until proven guilty.
What remains is, “…makes me scared to go outside, especially as a black man in the south.”
I have never been one to close a blind eye, turn a deaf ear, or bury my head in the sand. There is a problem, yet there lacks a concerted effort to find a resolution. There is a growing epidemic. But should we, in 2016, reason that it’s a symptomatic result of slavery, segregation and unjust civil rights?
It’s easy to point fingers, cast blame but difficult to bury sons and daughter. Sons and daughters who in death remain victims because the collective response is reactive and not proactive. Those who are fortunate to live another day are barraged with the narrative that their lives are at risk and it must end today. Come tomorrow and another live(s) is lost; the collective response remains reactive and not proactive.
A student’s genuine first response to an injury I suffered was… “Miss, who did that to you? Want me to shoot ‘em.” In comparison, first responders genuinely are called to protect and serve. At what juncture did the lines of defending another become blurred? The young man was reacting in a manner cultivated by the environment and culture that surrounds him. Men and women in uniform respond the same way.
In a place where fear and hate mongers thrive, anger poisons the heart and corrupts the mind. Rational thought is replaced by irrational behavior; the collective response remains reactive and not proactive. Drawing on history we could chant “by any means necessary,” or protest and march peacefully. Unfortunately, our futures will not be transformed with past methods of reconciliation and lives won’t be saved. Where are the giants of hope to deescalate, coordinate and perpetuate change?
There is a massive problem in America but there is yet to be an enormous solution.
The marketability of feline fodder is apparent with the recent movie premiere of Keanu; a comedic romp about a kitten who is dangerously coveted by gangbangers and rescued by comedy duo Key and Peele. This farce inspired my own tabby tale of mishaps and adventures.
I have always been a cat lover. Hence my nickname Kat. My fetish for all things leopard print includes, scarfs, sunglasses, purses, shoes, sleepwear and throw blankets. It has become my signature style. Even the front covers of my writing journals are graced with images of cats to reflect the stages of my life’s journey. Demure, coy, sassy, bold and most recently regal. But of late, I have begun to reevaluate my relationship to these fur balls and ask myself what do I really know about cats?
Meet Fonzie. The feline formerly known as Cosmo. The wretched cat owners before me chose the name Cosmo keeping with the weird behavior patterns of similarly named television characters such as Cosmo Kramer from Seinfield. But I didn’t want a crazy cat. I wanted a cool cat. So I changed his identity and the Fonz was born.
I agreed to pet sit for a colleague who was set to vacation in California for a week. At the end of the 7 days, she told me via text that she would not be returning and hoped the cat could stay. My ex said I should be honored that the woman left him with me, it proves that she believed I have a “good heart.” But my relocation to China was, in part, an attempt to shirk all semblance of responsibility. Caring for a pet does not fit that mold. It’s like having a perpetual infant at home who you need to feed, bathe, and clean up after for the rest of its life. I am not interested in such a burden. Especially since I find him unusually odd. But my 20 year old thinks he’s a genius and declares his un-catlike antics “cool”. So what to do?At present, my role is to grin and bear it like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. But at times, I want to fling him off the balcony and watch him spiral 23 floors downwards. I could also kindly open my front door and let him venture into the wild (otherwise known as my residential community) and pray that some poor bloke adopts him or skins him for dinner. These are suggestions from well meaning friends equally appalled at my newfound chore. But I’m no animal cruel-tist, so to avoid PETA protests and animal rights activists, he remains an unfettered member of my family. However, unlike them, Fonzie waits by the door when I come home from work and sits at my feet while I eat, watch TV or just lounge around the house. He also enjoys getting sprayed with running water in the shower before I get in.
Despite his affection, the evidence of a cat is quite troublesome. The shedding hair, the smell, the constant meowing, the rip roaring through the house in the wee hours of the morning and the scratching of furniture despite the existence of two scratching poles. Far worse, was the fact that he was unneutered upon arrival. As a male cat, he has a tendency to spray his foul odor in designated areas to mark his turf. I dreaded taking him to the vet to pay for an unforeseen procedure that was not in my budget. But I realized, despite the expense, I could not allow cost to outweigh comfort.
On our first trek to the vet, I stuffed Fonz in a knapsack to get him snipped. But I ended up at a vet that spoke zero English. So, I called a Chinese acquaintance to convey my message. At the end of the conversation, she told me to leave because the procedure was too expensive at that location. She referred me to an animal doctor that was far cheaper and more foreigner friendly. The second trek brought me to a clinic whose English was limited, accused Fonzie of being a stray and told me that the doctor would arrive in over an hour. My frustration grew. Once again, I called my pet liaison who clarified all matters and I waited impatiently for the doctor to arrive. It was a whole day affair.
Poor Fonz was not fond of all the attention he received. The poking and probing was too much for him to endure. He literally became a scared-y cat. I watched as they gently gave him a manicure (the proper way) and laid him upon the operating table. He was weighed, then had blood extracted to determine if he was healthy enough for the operation. He was. While he was anesthetized, I was taken to lunch by the vet’s assistant who also helped me shop for a traditional cat carrier; which I bought in leopard print. For five days, Fonz was forced to wear a cone of shame to prevent him from licking and irritating his wound. But his spirit was beat and he moped around miserably unable to do what he enjoyed best…drive me mad and wreak havoc in my house. It was then, that I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to care and nurture him out of his depressed state. I cooed and cuddled him and reassured him that soon, he would be free from the strait jacket attached to his head. I waited with anticipation. I don’t know who was more excited.
Like Keanu, the story has a happy ending. Both kitties, are adopted into homes with caring humans who give of their time, love and money to keep them safe. It’s not the path I would have chosen to acquire a pet, but its the hand I have been dealt. For now, from the Kat’s eye, I am the new wretched owner. Fonz is my cool and crazy cat and I love him.