“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Education, Liberation – I LOVE YOU!
Just got off the phone with my mom. She and I graduated–spent our last years of adolescent black girlhood–at the same predominately white public school, Richard Montgomery High. It’s located in Rockville, Maryland just outside the beltway in Washington, D.C. Mama was in the 2nd class after Segregation ended (pun not intended, but … take it as it comes). I believe she attended 1958 – 1961. I attended 20 years later from 1977-79. I graduated at the age of 16. With my birthday in September this sounds amazing but it was not. That’s an altogether different story for another time. It sure looked good in the eyes of others to graduate at 16 but the real circumstances were not cute. I might write about it in another postif folks are interested.
It’s early Saturday morning and I’m sharing about my upcoming TEDx talk I’m givingMarch 20th at my alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The talk will be about race, value and black girls’ self-worth so I can really talk about racialization, sexualization and structural racism on YouTube. I am planning on starting my talk with a story about stage fright at my first audition at UofM.
Somehow we got to talking about our different experiences with Integration across our life courses. I was recording it in case I said something good for my talk. I transcribed the exchange because it rich with meaning and relevance esp. as I finish up an article highlighting the re-segregation of black girls on YouTube. Wanted to find a way to talk about segregated spaces on and off line, the blurring of public/privacy, the meaning of publicity in what are essentially segregated bedrooms broadcast online, and the inherent racialization of adolescent black female body and image while valorizing their white female counterparts. Even though big butts are valued they are stigmatized on black bodies. Kim Khardasian can “Break the Internet” but when black girls try in twerking videos…as Nicki Minaj put it when talking about black girls doing a black thing, “it ain’t that poppin’!”
My new friend and one of the newest TED Fellows (Rock the TED Stage girl!!), choreographer Camille A. Brown articulated the dilemma we black girls face today, young and old,
Your body has value, but not on you!
Un-gawa, Black Powa
My conversation with my Mama is always like a roller-coaster. We cover lots of emotional terrain — sometimes it’s not easy but this was one of the more precious moments I want to remember forever.
She mentions the store Zaire’s which was a local department store in Wheaton, MD that my mom went to most of my childhood. She paid for new school clothes put on law-a-way often working 2 jobs a day. I got my first brown cordoroy bell-bottoms at Zaire’s when they were the “in” thing. Wish I had a copy of my 7th grade picture sportin those pants as the cheerleading squad assistant. Ungawa, Black Power was one of the cheers we black girls brought to the white junior high squad.
I was an integration baby. So you were supposed to fit in. I was always– the only black student in classical music until I got to Michigan. [That’s a little exaggerated. Tony Scales and his friend Virgil were in the music department with me to Montgomery College but no one else for 10 years of my classical training from 1979 until Michigan in 1988].
What made Michigan great for me was that there were THIRTY OTHER BLACK STUDENTS there. It was AWESOME! But…we didn’t see each other, ya know. Even when I was [back] at Julius West [Junior High I thought] all of the black students, I thought we were in different classes, because I never saw them at school [in the spaces of learning, in the classroom; I saw them everyday at lunch. We played Spades on the regular]. [I later learned] They were [all] in another class [tracking them vocational ed and not college prep].
Mama: The bad part of that was, in order for you to get a half-way decent chance to go to higher learning [college], I had to be on [them]… making sure you were in the right courses. Because there was some courses where the kids just played in the class all day [ME: a function of curriculum design not student laziness]. And that mighta been fun but in the long run. I mean…
24:59″ I never thought that Integration was the best thing.
I wanted to have the experience of being… [of] graduating from Carver High School. George Washington Carver high school!! I wanted to graduate from there!!
25:09″ But..but they– said–[parents and school authorities brokering the transtion], I was a student that who would be successful in going to the white schools.
I didn’t like it!!
And when I started to have problems with the teachers, my father said “you oughta be glad you’re going to school with whites.” That’s what he said.
Me: Ye-ah! Our…our experiences are like mirrors ..
Mama: We all had things we had to go through, ya know? and I had a few teachers at Richard Montgomery — my U.S. history teacher — probably if it wasn’t for her I probably wouldn’t had — her and maybe Mr. Preston — I would have had just a TERRIBLE time at Rich’rd Montgomery all together. I mean 9…well…I had…well, less than 50% good experience there most of my time there, and I was just glad to get outta there! (she laughs at the irony)
26: 19″ And I had to work at Zaire’s behind the food counter! [It was] my first job after I got outta high school.
Me: Wow, I didn’t know that. [She’d never told me this before. And we continued shopping there for years.]
Mama: YE-AH!!! So what was the… ya know..
Me: ..the benefit…
Me: You got to go to a white school with white people but you didn’t get any better of a job. Mama: Right!!!
Mama: … an’ COULDN’T SIT AT THE COUN’ER!
Me: WOW!!!!!! <pause> Really??!?
The Flawed System of Race
Notice how even as black woman’s own daughter, I respond in disbelief at racism. That my moms went to a predominately white school–we have arrived–to still deal with segregation in the rest of society, in her first workplace, after getting her degree. This ish is a trip! And this trip around the sun for black folks has come with way too much ish. Situations matter. There is not global solution to the racial ideology that still fools far too many of us into thinking what we do online or off is ok if I own my own body. No man, woman and child is an island.
We are all accomplices, co-creators — past and present — the shaping black girls’ social identity and their self-worth. That’s it for now. But our conversation reminded me of a poem set to music in an African American art song by David Nathaniel Baker. Thought the poem was by Langston Hughes. Delighted to learn and remember it was written by Mari Evans, whom I spoke to when writing my first book. She wrote a fabulous poem about black women and the poem “status symbol” [note the lower case spelling] is from her book I am a Black Woman (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1970).
By Mari Evans
am the result of
World War I
Red Ball Express
white drinking fountains
Marches on Washington
They hired me
is a status
job . . .
with my papers
gave me my
White . . . Locked . . .