For My Mentor and All the Black Women Who Hold Us Up

There are people who come into your lives whose presence changes the entire trajectory of your life; for me personally there have been three such people, two of whom I married and the other who was my first instructor when I went to college in my mid-20s. As I have recounted over the years, I was not a stellar student in my high school years (partially a lack of dedication to class attendance and homework but mostly an inability to pass gym classes). So much so that at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I simply decided not to return, instead running off a few months after turning 18 and getting married and then becoming a mother a few weeks after turning 19. Statistically, my life should have been a wrap given that my decision-making at that stage in life wasn’t great but sometimes the universe has a plan that you can’t even begin to imagine.

My early adulthood journey would take many twists and turns and at 25, I would find myself enrolled the School for New Learning at Chicago’s DePaul University (a program aimed at older and other non-traditional students) where my first class was “Women in the Black Church,” taught by gregarious and warm, middle-aged Black woman with a deep laugh, a sparkle in her eye and a slow and measured way of speaking. Cynthia Milsap spoke with authority, but she was warm and inviting and in that first night of class, she asked us to share about ourselves and, in my self-deprecating manner, I said something to the effect that I probably wouldn’t be in this class too long because I wasn’t known for being too book-smart. Cynthia looked at me quietly and told me that “That was not going to happen” and that she would be with me on graduation day.

What can I say? If I had been a betting woman, I would have lost that bet because Cynthia was correct. Over the  years Cynthia would become not only an instructor but my adviser, my mentor and a dear friend. Cynthia saw me not only getting through my undergraduate years but excelling in a way that I could not have imagined. I completed my undergraduate degree in three years, working full time while mothering and being a wife.

During my last months as an undergraduate, Cynthia saw my passion for African-American studies blossom and strongly suggested that I consider applying to graduate school. I did and much to my own surprise, I was accepted to every program that I applied to, even ones that were extremely competitive.

From that point on, Cynthia would serve as my unofficial mentor over the years. When I relocated to Maine, Cynthia stayed in touch with me through the years and every major transition of my life since my late 20s. If too long went without contact, it was not uncommon to get a call (or several) reminding me that with faith all things are possible. Cynthia’s love and support has nurtured and nourished me over the years and she saw in me (and many others) infinite, unlimited potential when no one else did. Much of what I am right now is directly because of Cynthia’s unwavering belief in supporting Black women and all marginalized people. Cynthia was not merely an adjunct professor, she was a minister with a deep abiding faith. She also spent many years serving as executive director for a Chicago faith-based nonprofit, The Night Ministry, and over the years was a researcher and consultant who wore many hats and worked tirelessly for change.

Hence my surprise several weeks ago when I heard that she has been ill since late June and receiving care at Chicago’s free hospital since that time. Turned out that Cynthia had no health insurance and furthermore was at risk of losing her place since with her hospitalization, she hadn’t been able to work and her landlord was getting ready to start eviction proceedings. Several friends put together a crowdfunding campaign to stave off the eviction.

It shook me to my core that a woman who had given so much of herself over the years would be in this situation but it is the unspoken reality that affects far too many Black and Brown women who nurture and nourish others in a world where economics don’t favor women like us. It’s the unspoken reality that pushes me because I saw both my own mother and grandmother die with little in the way of material comforts.

Unfortunately my beloved mentor, Cynthia Milsap passed away this weekend after receiving a diagnosis of kidney disease and systemic lupus.

There are no words. There are only tears because, as I have learned with the other women whose shoulders I stand on, our time on this rock is limited and yet we carry the essence of our personal change-makers with us wherever we go, hoping that we can be half as good as they were.

There was only one Cynthia Milsap but in countless communities there are Black and Brown women like Cynthia whose unwavering faith and belief in nurturing the human spirit plants seeds that sprout in untold places. Women who give so much of themselves, sometimes to the exclusion of themselves, and we (like that greedy boy in Shel Silverstein’s dark story “The Giving Tree”) rarely think about how we can give back.

Rest well my dear friend, big sister and mentor. This is only goodbye for now, until we meet on the other side.
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On Black women, girls and a side of Lemonade

Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s; I often felt like I didn’t belong. Sure, I had my family, which was for the most part loving and no more dysfunctional than any other family…though we might have been financially broker than most. But as a Black girl who dreamed of being the titular character in Harriet the Spy and later a bounty hunter or assassin…yeah, I was different.

My earliest school memories are of being in kindergarten and being seated behind a girl whose name was “Kate.” Kate was everything that I wasn’t: blue eyed and blond with a cool lunch box and even cooler school supplies. Even at five, I had started to internalize the deceptive and destructive messages that white was better, though it would take decades before I could even begin to unpack that. I just knew that the girls who looked like Kate seemed to be treated better than me.  As the years went on, the Kates of the world were my nemeses; they were everything that I could never be. In high school it only got worse. When I should have been discovering young romance, I was doomed for a life of always a friend and never more because I was seen as “pretty for a Black girl.” That is a phrase all too often used for Black women whether directly or indirectly but , in fact, a young dude used that exact wording with me in the 10th grade and I have never forgotten the sting of those words and the feeling of rejection. The truth is even now, occasionally my 16-year-old self rears up inside my 43-year-old body. I am too rarely seen as a pretty woman but as someone who would only truly be pretty if I were white. Too often I’m only desirable as some fetish object or as an exotic distraction, if I’m found desirable at all.

Always an avid reader, I immersed myself in books only to still find myself longing to be what I could never be because at that time far too many of the fun and desirable characters in books were always white. Sweet Valley High anyone?

No, I could never be pretty enough but damn it, I could most certainly be weird enough. So in the late ’80s, I attempted black girl Mohawks and I wore Doc Martens and black lipstick while chain smoking my non-standard little cigarettes. I wore my grandfather’s old trenchcoats to my grandmother’s horror and I listened to music that scared the shit out of my folks and occasionally wore chains as necklaces. Fake ID allowed me to dance all night and drink too. It was my pushback against a norm that I knew I could never meet.

It would only be that when I finally made it to college in my mid 20s after marriage and motherhood that I would encounter classes that would shift my perspective and that would allow me to understand that this culture was the result of white supremacy and that women like me would never find a home in it. We would have to push back against it and work to claim and even reclaim our personhood and womanhood as Black women.

The thing about this system is that, to be honest, it’s not good for any woman. But it is downright toxic for Black women and girls. How do you exist in a place where you rarely if ever see yourself modeled? Where your representation is flat and two-dimensional and lacks wholeness? Where your humanity, dignity and worth is rarely validated or even acknowledged?

Raising my second and last child, my now-tween daughter, I am utterly aware of how Black girls in particular have to fight to be seen. How their intelligence is not assumed, how their soft spots are not recognized and how utterly dehumanized they are. And as a Black girl who has now become a Black woman raising a Black girl, I refuse to let this system have my girl…yet I know I am fighting a war that I may not win. There are moments when my daughter and I are talking when I have to fight my instinct to scream out and punch the air against this system that is already starting to sow the seeds of doubt in her despite my efforts to keep her safe. The subtle messages that she is just starting to internalize that subtly tell her that girls like her don’t have place. To live this life as a Black woman raising a Black girl understanding the psychic scars is something that only another Black woman knows and understands fully.

It’s why when Beyoncé’s latest album “Lemonade” came out that it has resonated so deeply with Black women beyond the story of alleged infidelity. “Lemonade” is an acknowledgment of Black womanhood put on display in a way that has rarely been captured. It is a celebration of Black female personhood in our full spectrum of human emotions with no hiding. I am hardly a Beyoncé fan but watching the visual album  caused emotions to well up in me that have long been dormant and, based off the many pieces I have now read on this album, I am not the only one.

I have written before about how vitally important it is to see representations of ourselves and increasingly we are turning a corner where representations of Black womanhood beyond Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire are starting to happen. While it gives me hope for the future, there are many of us for whom this shift is too little, too late. In the same week that we celebrate Black womanhood thanks to Beyoncé, pictures surfaced of rap star and legend Lil Kim who over the years has transformed herself from a gorgeous brown-skinned woman to a caricature of a white woman. Her appearance is heartbreaking because over the years, Kim has spoken about the pain of being just a regular Black girl and the pain of being dismissed because of it. This is the legacy of white supremacy and the toll it takes on Black bodies. Some of us reach a place where living in these Black bodies becomes too much.

Which brings me to the last story this week that has just gutted me as a person, a Black woman and a parent. A 16-year-old Black girl, Amy Inita Joyner-Francis was beaten to death in a school bathroom.  A young girl walked into a bathroom at school and left on a stretcher being airlifted to a hospital and, within hours, is dead. We live in a world where even among ourselves seeing our own humanity has become increasingly harder to do and instead violence becomes our norm. Yet in many ways, violence against Black women and girls has been the norm since our ancestors, enslaved Africans, were brought to a  land that was not theirs and forced to work and give life against their will. Many times having their children taken away from them. This is a nation and a culture that has normalized violence and dysfunction against Black women and girls.

But the pushback has started. And it begins with the recognition of Black female humanity and a tearing down of all that holds us back from full participation in the human experience. We’ve been here a long time; soon enough, we are going to make sure society does not ignore or disregard us any longer.

So, if you have been, wake up and take notice. We’re not going away; we’re not going to cringe in the shadows.
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When mama just isn’t domestic…a confession and a revelation

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had no idea at the time how “different” my family was; in my mind we were just a normal family.  Of course being Black and working class, what exactly does it even mean to be normal? My Mom spent most of my childhood being a housewife (I don’t recall her ever referring to herself as a stay at home mom hence my choice not to use that word in this piece when referring to my mom) aside from a brief six month stint in retail when I was seven, she didn’t work outside of our home until my late teens when my dad was diagnosed with throat cancer.

In my family, my mom pretty much wore all the hats and my Pops only wore a few hats.  He wore the earn money hat. It was an arrangement that worked for them for many years until my Dad’s cancer necessitated a change. Until my Mom’s premature death at 50; she enjoyed taking care of her family.  The night before having a complex and risky brain surgery less than two months after lung surgery, my mom was cooking my favorite meal to teach me the recipe in case something happened.

This “traditional” arrangement that my folks had frankly left me conflicted, growing up I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be like my mom growing up. So at an early age, I rebelled by not learning to cook and doing the bare minimum of housework that I could get away with because I wasn’t comfortable following in her footsteps. So what did I do? At 18, I pretty much followed in my mom’s footsteps and married early and entered motherhood at 19…just like my mother.

Early marriage and motherhood were game changers since of course I had no money and there are only so many cans of spaghetti o’s a gal can eat. I quickly learned to cook because while I may not have wanted to cook, I needed to eat. Over the years, I have slowly added skills to my domestic arsenal at the same time as I’ve worked on my professional chops, juggling motherhood and partnership while going to college, graduate school and moving up the professional ladder.

I have never been one to loudly talk about my domestic conquests but in a Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram era; I am realizing that to be a woman and mother who is only marginally interested in domestic matters is to feel as if you have no place in the world. Turning 40 this year has been a place of learning to accept myself for who I am in this moment, not some dream image of myself. That has meant accepting the fact that I am not by nature a domestically inclined woman. I know how to cook, there is even some consensus by others that I am actually good at it, but frankly I hate cooking. I cook because while my husband is a proficient cook, most of what he cooks is not to my liking.

To be honest, my only requirement in my physical living space is that it is clean and free of clutter. My dream space has white walls with little within those walls except the bare minimum to be comfortable. I don’t spend time creating the perfect physical home because when I am home, I would rather spend time with the other people in my home.

Yet in a social media driven world, the constant bombardment of cozy homes with handcrafted food and an increasingly dazzling array of handcrafts has a way of making a woman like me feel as if I have no place in the world. Throw in the holiday season and I am ready to curl into a ball and give up my mom/wife/woman card. Despite the lip service about women having choices, it seems that at the end of the day there is a tacit expectation that if you are a woman, you must have a certain set of skills and if you don’t, clearly you are deficient.

Sorry, but I am not having it. After years of forcing myself into a domestic mold that at one point had me baking my own bread and doing all manner of things that are not instinctive to me, I am no longer interested in playing that role. Looking back, I wasted a lot of energy striving to be the woman I thought I had to be instead of being the woman that I really am. This past Thanksgiving in choosing to celebrate the day in a way that made me happy by not cooking, it opened up the holidays for my entire family. The grayness that I had assumed to be part of the never ending grief of holidays and dead relatives was actually angst at feeling forced into tasks that I hate.

So this holiday season, the gift that I am giving myself is the okay to embrace my lack of domesticity and accept myself as I am in this moment.