black women Archive

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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Raising her, saving her: a Black mama’s pain and reality

Lately, I look at my daughter and it’s increasingly clear that the childhood years are coming to a fast close. As the dolls and stuffies that used to be in daily play rotation lay untouched and our evening talks center more on the intricacies of managing friendships with the occasional questions about more mature fare, I look into her beautiful face and see signs of the young woman she is becoming—a sensitive, headstrong, occasionally verbose being who still believes in fairness and goodness in a world that is often anything but fair or good, especially for those of us with darker skin tones. I also find myself scared shitless thinking about the current state of the world she will be coming of age in.

When my son was little, I knew that the world would judge him harshly. He was a Black boy; that’s just the way it is and was. By the time he was entering his tween years, I saw the looks that no longer regarded him as a cute kid but saw him instead as a potential threat. It hurt my heart but he had our village to help steel him against the realities of Blackness and maleness.

Yet I was naive when my daughter was born. I didn’t think that she would face the same racialized tensions that her brother would face. Oh, I knew there would be challenges as a Black girl but the events of the past year have really driven home for me how unprepared I am for the realities of raising a Black girl in this current climate.

I am raising this almost at times ethereal soul in a world that finds justification in the degradation of Black women and girls. A world in which a white police officer can sexually assault 13 Black women and girls and the mainstream media can barely be bothered to report on his trial. The same officer whose guilt or innocence will be determined by a jury that has nary a Black person on it. A world in which a foster child is attacked viciously in school by the school resource officer for the “crime” of typical teenage behavior, with far too many adults believe that she should have done as she was told and, in some sense, deserved that wanton violence.

This year we have seen the cry of Black Lives Matter yet far too often that cry excludes Black women and girls and as a Black mother raising a Black girl, I cannot sit comfortably in that reality even when I know that my son and his peers are under attack for their Blackness and their maleness. What about my daughter? Hell, what about me?

I knew that I would have to raise my daughter to deal with the very real microaggressions that occur when existing in white spaces. The “friends” with the backhanded comments about appearance, hair, family…I lived that life as a girl, I still live it to some degree as a woman. But the acceptance of Black womanhood and girlhood as permanent second-class status that is worthy of state-sanctioned violence? No, I can’t accept this; I refuse to accept it. Yet what can I do? I have no pearls of wisdom other than my own lived experience. The last female member of my immediate family died six weeks after my daughter’s birth. I have no mother, sister, aunts or cousins to surround my girl and give her the strength she will need to rise above it.

Black women and girls have always existed in spaces that elevated white womanhood, but what we are facing now is more than just the elevation of whiteness and femaleness. It is a systematic attack on Black women and girls. It is an attempt at complete erasure of our lives and our experiences.  In a world where one missing white woman or girl is broadcast on a 24/7 loop, it is agonizing to know that only the degradation of Black women and girls is worthy of media coverage. Rarely is the humanity of Black women and girls deemed worthy of acknowledgement. It is enough to make a mama weep. How do I raise her? How do I save her in this cruel and ugly world that sees no beauty or worth in girls like us? 
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Zoe, please sit this one out…my thoughts on the Nina Simone film

My skin is black, my arms are long, my hair is woolly– Four Women by Nina Simone


Growing up as a cocoa brown child with nappy hair in the 1970’s and 80’s, I never felt very cute or pretty. Oh, it’s not that anyone told me I wasn’t, my Pops used to call me his beautiful black bunny! However society let me know that compared to my latte and peach colored friends, whatever beauty I had only existed to those who were obligated to say such niceties. Rarely did I see reflections of my type of beauty; even growing up in Chicago!  Sadly my story is the story of hundreds of thousands of cocoa colored girls with nappy hair. I would like to think things have changed since my childhood but even in my day to day life here in Maine, I see the seeds of self-hate being planted daily with little brown girls, who look at me with the same raised eye brow that I used to give me family when I tell them otherwise.

I remember as a child stumbling across one of Nina Simone’s album covers and thinking that ugly woman looked a lot like me. Childish thoughts for sure! Thankfully I grew up and found my own beauty and realized that there was not a thing wrong with being a cocoa brown nappy haired girl and Nina Simone’s music has been one of the soundtracks of my life. Along the way I saw Nina’s beauty, a beauty that in my childish and simplistic mind I was not able to see. It’s safe to say I am a huge fan of Nina Simone.

Hence when I heard news that a film about Nina Simone’s life was going to be made with the beautiful and talented Zoe Saldana playing the role of Nina, I was momentarily shocked. Zoe is an attractive and talented actress without a doubt, however she looks not a whit like Nina and to play the role of such a legend, well you do need to look like Nina.

For those not familiar with Nina Simone, she was more than just a wonderful singer and the “High Priestess of Soul” she was a force to be reckoned with! Nina Simone had many faces yet they were faces that capture her essence and beauty at a time when a dark brown woman was rarely seen to be beautiful.

Hollywood has a way of playing it safe when it comes to casting for Black roles, rarely picking actresses darker than a paper bag and when they do; well we get to be The Help. Frankly I am tired of seeing only light complexioned African American women in roles; I need the next generation of brown girls to see themselves. I need to know that a day will come when a little girl who looks like me won’t be damn near 30 before she sees her own beauty.

So Zoe, this is not personal, to play the High Priestess and capture her essence, you need to resemble her and has lovely as you are, you simply don’t.

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