Out the Mouth

“If you speak Chinese, you must be white.”


The other day, my son, age 6, my daughter, age 4, and my husband and I (age 30 something) were driving down a busy street on our way to drop me off to have lunch with a friend. On this street, there are a number of restaurants from many different cultures: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, American, Italian. For some reason still unbeknownst to me, my son noticed a Chinese restaurant and said the words that begin this post.

I don’t think my husband heard these words, but I sure did. I immediately responded, “Well, Big A, that doesn’t really make sense. Most people who speak Chinese are, well, Chinese. Not white.”

“Yes, they are. They are white.”

At this point, my husband says, “What? WHAT??” I put out my hand, meaning to signal, “SHUT UP.” Big A continues:

“This girl in my class, Benny*, she speaks Chinese. And she’s white.”

Now, I know Benny. Benny is certainly NOT white. But perhaps she is biracial, so I allow for this possibility. “Well, maybe Benny has a white parent and a Chinese parent. But she’s at least part Chinese. That shows that non-white people can speak Chinese.”

And then something really brilliant comes to me.

“And you know what, Big A? Ms. Arlene* speaks Chinese. Did you know that?” Ms. Arlene is a very close family friend, and she’s black. But she speaks fluent Chinese, and is teaching it to her (black) children.

Big A: “Well then she must be white.” Loving the 6-year-old logic.

Me: “But you know she’s not. She’s black, like us.”

Big A: “Ms. Arlene’s not black. She’s brown.” Ut-oh. Ms. Arlene is light-skinned, but only a little more so than Big A and his sister. At this point, I’m a little lost, especially because we have now pulled up to my lunch spot, on a busy street, with no time to sit and continue to chat. I’m torn between three interrelated issues that I’d like to address in my last words. So I chose what I consider to be the easiest.

“You know, Big A, Chinese is a language. Anyone can speak Chinese. Just like anyone can speak English. You can speak Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Swahili – it doesn’t matter. Language is available to everyone.”

But this point, his eyes have glazed over and he’s on to some new distraction outside his window.


The other two issues, outside that of language specifically, was dealing with the “Chinese = white” racial confluence and the “light-skinned = brown not black” skin color conundrum. Several days later, however, these two kinda intercepted.

We’re watching Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. It dawns on me that this is a perfect time to address the “Chinese = white” issue. Kai-Lan is obviously Asian, right?

“Big A – look! Kai-Lan is speaking Chinese, and she is Chinese, right? Not white, right?”

Never looking away from the television: “She is white.” I suppose it’s not obvious.

“What do you mean? Kai-Lan is not white. Look at her!”

“Mommy. You look at her. She’s white.”


I thought I’d done well by “teaching” my kids that they were black. I wanted them to understand one of the social groups to which they belong, and to have a deep seated appreciation and love for their social group. I never wanted to reduce being black to skin color, but have definitely used skin color as a starting point for our conversations.

But now I realize that I must go deeper, even starting at such young ages. I somehow assumed that they would innately see and appreciate the difference among folks once I pointed out their blackness, but I now realize either (or both) one of two things is occurring: 1) they only see themselves (black) verses everyone else (non-black = white) or 2) they are utterly confused about themselves being “black” when their skin is not Crayola black and therefore are not able to tell the “difference” between other groups with similar skin colorings.


I’d thought that “teaching” them about race would be like “teaching” them about our religion, Christianity. I thought they’d hear the songs and the stories and the admonitions, “You should love God” and a love of the Lord and Jesus would just permeate their souls. And for a while, I thought that was what was happening. We started really “doing church” two years ago and since then, they will say on their own how much they love God and spout their knowledge of the Bible and prefer Bible songs over other songs and will talk about being like Jesus. And while I understand this is indoctrination in some form, it’s also been a full-court blast socialization, full of questioning and misunderstanding (“is God like magic?”). It hasn’t been one conversation here and there every few weeks. It’s been every day.

If I had to choose, I want my children to have a better understanding of Christ than I do them having an understanding of race. But now I know what I need to aim toward, at least somewhat. Race, ethnicity, culture, and language need to be a constant part of our conversations. Otherwise, one day they are going to misidentify the wrong person. Someone who ain’t playin’ “I don’t know the difference between White and Chinese because I don’t see race.” Yeah, that can’t happen.



peep this: in case you thought we were post-racial

There really isn’t much to say, as the video speaks for itself. Colorism in the black community is as much a symptom of racism as is white privilege; both stem from a belief that the whiter, the better. While we can applaud that more black faces are being heralded as beautiful, the truth is that lighter skinned black women with longer, less nappy hair is considered to be more beautiful than darker-skinned black women with shorter and nappier hair.

If you don’t believe me, watch the video again.

The question becomes: what do we do about it? Do light-skinned black folks have some affirmative duty, like we call on white folks, to call attention to their privilege in order to denounce it? I don’t know if I “qualify” as light-skinned (that sounds so ridiculous); at various points in my life people have said yes, and others have said no. But I’ve experienced some of what these kids are talking about in the video. I remember a boy saying that he liked my knees because they weren’t dark!

Whatever my classification, I’m pretty sure, according to my sources, that my children are considered light-skinned. And they have less nappy hair (although you wouldn’t know if the way they carry on.) And I already see the privilege that is conferred on them because of it. I’ve heard the comments about their “good grade of hair” and how “beautiful” they are; I don’t remember anyone saying I was beautiful as a child. And while I can’t really stop what other people say, I’m trying hard to make sure they don’t internalize the messages; I try to have every shade of black represented in their books and toys, and talk about how gorgeous all the colors of black are. Both of their grandfathers are darker-skinned, but it doesn’t help that we aren’t particularly close to those sides of the family.

Yet on the other hand, I want to be able to tell my daughter that she’s beautiful. I want to be able to do her hair in her ponytails and say, Little A, your hair is so pretty. I hope that she understands that I am making an individual judgment about her, and that my hair being loc’d reinforces that black hair in its many configurations can be beautiful. But I also don’t want her to grow up with a complex about the whole light-skinned thing either, just like I’m sure white folks don’t want their kids to grow up with a complex about being white.

Ya feel me?

What She Sees

When my daughter was born, complications at the hospital made it so that we were discharged before we established breastfeeding.  I was desperate to nurse her, believing that it was the healthiest start for her, and I was already wary from pumping around the clock.  Our pediatrician advised me to go to a particular lactation center near my home. “Don’t worry,” he assured me; “They’ll get you on track.”  And he was right: Magalee* had me breastfeeding during my very first visit to the center.  It took over 2 months for breastfeeding to become comfortable for me, and I returned to her on an almost weekly basis.  Some of the visits were comic:

Me: It still hurts when she latches on!
Magalee: Okay, put her on the breast….
Magalee: What the heck is that?  That’s not what I taught you!
Me: Well, the book said—
Magalee:  What did I tell you about those books???

Over the next year, even after breastfeeding was firmly established, Magalee continued to be a guide for me as I learned to take care of my baby.  I called her with whatever questions or concerns I had, and she always responded with the same patient and encouraging attitude she had during my first visit with her.  Her belief that I could take good care of my child eventually encouraged me to develop confidence in my own parenting abilities.  As months went by, I learned more about her.  I had always detected a Haitian accent, but she had blonde hair, white skin, and green eyes. I eventually learned that although her ancestry was Syrian, she had been raised in Haiti.  I learned that she dreamed of opening her own restaurant.   “Your leaving this center will be such a loss,” I said to her; her skills, and the success of the center, were legend around the city.  “But you have to follow your dreams.  I’ll come to your restaurant!,” I told her.

As the baby grew older, I spoke to her less and less, although I recently ran into her at our pediatrician’s office for my daughter’s 18-month check-up.  It turns out she has been taking her own son to the same doctor since he was a child, and he was now in for a check-up, even though he was almost 18.  “Magalee!,” I exclaimed when I entered the waiting room.  I was so excited to show off my baby–now a walking, talking, fantastically engaging toddler–to her: “Can you believe this is the newborn you first helped me nurse?,” I asked.

As I waited to be seen by the doctor, we got to talking about Haiti, and why her parents eventually left the country.  She told me the disturbing story of how her parents were robbed at gunpoint in their home, but miraculously escaped alive.  I shook my head and said, “It’s so sad; the country is in such ruins, and just thinking about the work it will take to rebuild it is overwhelming.”  She responded with:

“Please; Haitians don’t even like their country; they destroy it.  They’re hostile to us, calling us white cockroaches.  They don’t see that we’re helping advance the country.  We’re starting business, and employing them.”

When discussing developing countries, people often fail to take note of the history behind the country’s economic state. As has been addressed by scholars, Haiti’s suffering can be traced directly to the isolation and economic rejection the country faced at its inception, as punishment for being the first black country in the Caribbean to successfully fight for its independence. Haiti’s suffering can also be traced to meddling in its domestic affairs by more powerful countries like the United States. Haiti’s suffering can, for sure, be tied to ruthless autocrats and dictators that have taken advantage of the country’s resources for personal gain. Haiti is not, however, suffering merely because its inhabitants “don’t like their country.”

Uninformed by historical context, it is easy to blame the inhabitants of disenfranchised communities for their poor attitudes or mental outlook; for failing to “appreciate” what they have, even if what they have is barely anything, and even if the critics themselves are so accustomed to having plenty, that it’s unlikely they would be “grateful” to share the fate of less well-off peoples. I recently read an article about George Washington, who believed that slavery was a fair deal. In his mind, slaves should have been happy to work to the best of their ability in exchange for food, clothing, and shelter.  It never seemed to occur to him that his slaves would not think it such an equitable arrangement.  Suggestions that Haitians are irrationally resentful of the wealthy foreigners who make money using Haitian labor echo Washington’s sentiments. While nobody deserves to be called a “cockroach” just for making a living, surely one can understand how frustrating it is to know that in your homeland, Syrians have likely been given advantages you will never be given to get ahead.  That knowledge is not any less painful just because those Syrians have now thrown you a few bones.

The comment didn’t surprise me–I’ve heard such unsubstantiated critiques of people of color before–the source did. As soon as the words left her mouth, I realized that Magalee didn’t really consider herself to be Haitian at all. Rather, she was a Syrian living in Haiti, blaming the people of color around her for many circumstances beyond their control; mistaking pain and frustration for apathy and laziness. She wasn’t at all who I thought she was.

Although I thought her comment reductive and ahistorical at best, racist at worst, I didn’t say anything in response.  I was standing in front of an examination room, my child—stripped down to just her diaper—on my hip, as we waited to be seen.  Babies and parents were all around us, and nurses were scurrying to and ‘fro.  It just didn’t seem like the time or place to get into a debate about the state of race relations, politics, and economic disenfranchisement in Haiti.  And even if it were, I wouldn’t have known where to start.  Instead, I furrowed my brow and nodded, indicating to her that I was listening.  As I sit here now, reflecting on the encounter, however, I feel sad.  It hurts to think that this woman who I respect so much, and who was such a source of support for me, has racist and uninformed ideas about Haitian people; about my people.  I had thought Haiti was something she and I had in common, but now I see that we see Haiti from two different vantage points; and that I don’t like what she sees.  I’m disappointed that I failed to offer up a snappy-yet-elucidating response.  So what if the timing was poor?; sometimes, people need to be checked, right? Finally, I wonder whether, if I had said something, I could have even changed her mind at all.

*Not her real name. Continue reading “What She Sees”

Just An Innocent Question

I was born and raised in America, have a college degree and English is my first language. My 3rd grade educated grandfather felt that grammar and enunciation were important so I am, in fact, articulate. Thanks to a flat iron my natural hair is often straight and when it isn’t my fro earns me the exotic label more often than not. Perhaps the straightness of my nose contributes to that characterization; I guess I owe that and my love of a good drink to my Scottish heritage.

Why is origin of my genes a pressing concern in 2011? Why is the “Mixed” question asked with a tinge of hopefulness, as if a certain combination of racial pieces will somehow unlock a treasure trove of American post-racial goodies? It is so tiring to hear people run down the list of bits and pieces that comprise a broken whole. We are all brown Americans at varying levels of consciousness (or lack thereof). Investigating my ancestry in an attempt to reconcile my face with your perception of beauty makes me feel tired and sad for your limited vision. Maybe it’s just innocent curiosity, and you are a student of faces, an artist. It’s just that I’ve been a Black woman in America for decades so I’m skeptical/jaded/over it.

I’ll answer the question though…
I’m mixed with
Angst & fury
Melanin & moxie
Tenderness & tenacity
Hardheaded sensibility and cool logic
Fiery passions and childlike wonder
By turns memorable and able to move without being seen
All of these traits and the unspeakable longing of my ancestors
Combine in the greatest chemistry experiment ever.
                                                Transformation of the highest order has taken place…
Every time I do not respond to provocation.
             Each tear that I hold back when I witness a hungry child.
             As I stifle screams, knowing that Black men are jailed for profit
             When I don’t give in to the lightheadedness that washes over me when I hear a mother’s screams, her child a victim of circumstance.
The fact that I am able to sit still and appreciate the color variations of a flower’s petals
Experience it with all my senses, and pick up on music playing softly in the background
…while Rome, in the form of my community, burns to a crisp
Is a testament to the perfection that is possibility
And what is a remix but a combination of possibilities?
So yeah, I’m mixed…


Ok. The straw has broken the proverbial camel’s back.

I’ve sat in on one to many conversations with mothers going on and on about their child’s over the top behavior. As has been the case lately, I’m the lone Black mother in the room, conscious that  my words, tone, and facial expressions will probably be misconstrued… Yes, I am all too aware of the Sapphiric machinations that non-Black folk tend to expect from Black women.  One example that comes to mind- I expressed my frustration about another teacher, telling two White colleagues that I needed to go and have a talk with the woman. My male colleague says “Uh-oh, it’s about to be on up in here!”, with what HE intended to be Black girl affectations…

My liberated self (ego) won’t allow me to code switch when in mixed social company. Soooo, when I found myself a part of a recent discussion about parenting with a small group of White women, I couldn’t do anything but be who I am. When asked “what do you think?” about an idea, I gave an answer contrary to what was expected, and dare I say appropriate. Silence followed my response. One woman then offered a “compliment”, “I love that you keep it real. That’s so great!”

Later in the conversation,  another parent described a situation with her daughter, a precocious toddler who I’d say has some serious behavior issues. The mother went on laughing, describing how her “sweetie” doesn’t like her preschool teacher, and made a public announcement. Her “sweetie” doesn’t like to eat vegetables. Her “sweetie” doesn’t take naps because she doesn’t want to. And the piece de resistance: one day her little angel was very angry because she didn’t want to put something away and so when mommy took it, mommy got pimp slapped. Ok, maybe not pimp slapped, but you get the picture: the little girl hit the mommy multiple times, yelling and screaming.   Now up until this point, I held my tongue, and kept my facial composure.  But I couldn’t contain myself, I interjected- something akin to the “need to physically exorcise a demon out of your spawn”.    Dead. Silence.  The women were absolutely MORTIFIED that I would suggest such a thing. They each went on to explain why any sort of physical aggression toward a child was unacceptable.

I couldn’t help but feel alien…I suddenly wished for the community of my Sister friends.  They would understand. None of us are big on spanking our children…I didn’t mean it literally, but I didn’t want to have to explain to these women. They just didn’t get it, the unspoken understanding that certain things are unacceptable. Of course I don’t mean brutalize your child –  but I KNOW that in a circle of my Sisters, there would have been the chorus of “girrrrl” and talk about “breaking them off something” and “oh no! it ain’t goin’ down like that!” – and then laughter, and the…solidarity and understanding…


I was at a literary festival this past week and had the opportunity to meet Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, and hear her speak about her blockbuster book about three Southern women–a young, white, recent college graduate and two African-American housekeepers–set in 1960s Mississippi.

It’s difficult not to like Stockett. She is nice, cute, perky and well-polished, and had the mostly well-to-do audience in Aspen wrapped around her little finger for most of her humorous lecture, which she delivered with a two-beats-per-vowel Southern drawl.

She told stories about having lived in New York for over a decade, about how hard she worked at a New York magazine, how she lived downtown after 9/11, how she was sometimes condescended to for being a Southerner.

She did a reading from her book—the part of one of the black maids—because Octavia, her friend who travels with her during her book tour to read the part of the African-American housekeepers, is off filming the movie being made based on the book. She did a pretty good job. Her book has been a New York Times bestseller for over a year and I assume she has the spiel down pat.

Many of the writers at the festival had read her book already and most endorsed it enthusiastically. I picked it up and read a few lines, written in the voice of one of the black maids, but then closed it quickly and put it back down.

Will I be reading the book? I don’t know. I don’t think so. It makes me uncomfortable. I wasn’t born in the States and wasn’t around for any of the racial trauma of the 1960s and 1970s, but I do know my American history—both the past and the present—and I must say that the idea of a young white Southern woman giving voice to Black women in the particular way that Stockett did leaves me supremely wary. I admit that it could be my own hang-up. And as a writer, I don’t believe in censorship unless what’s at issue is something extreme, like hate speech inciting violence.

My discomfort has sat with me for days now, since I saw her. Most of the reviews I’ve read claim that she has handled the nuances of the characters well, some going so far as to say that her representation of both the white and black characters are “pitch perfect.”

I will leave you with something interesting that I myself didn’t notice but that was pointed out to me by another one of the attendees–a brilliant young writer. Toward the end of her talk, Stockett held up the picture which will be used for the cover of the British version of The Help. It’s a picture she said was found at the Library of Congress of two black women caring for a white child in an old-style stroller. The photograph was said to have been taken in Mississippi in the 1960s. Stockett told the story of how she saw the photo and then called someone in her town to find out who the people in the photo were. Why, that’s just so and so, the person told her, describing exactly who the baby was. Well, my friend wondered, what about the black women? Who were they? And why were they invisible and only relevant in reference to the white baby? It was odd and off-putting to my friend–and to me, once it was pointed out.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the book. Anyone care to throw in their two cents?

Whose Children Are These?

I am conflicted when I read about the orphans taken out of Haiti in the days after the devastating earthquake there.  By now, we’ve all heard the story of the missionary group that improperly removed children from Haiti, despite repeated warnings to their leadership that they lacked the authority to do so.  Lest we conclude this was just the mistake of misguided, but well-intentioned ordinary people who didn’t know any better, the U.S. government has also been responsible for improperly conceived plans to take children out of Haiti.  Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, with the support of the Obama administration, successfully organized an airlift of 54 Haitian children who were supposedly in the process of being adopted, despite being aware that not all of the children were orphans, or even in the adoption process.  It is not, however, only rescue missions and airlifts that give me pause.  In the days after the earthquake, a feel-good story surfaced of a widowed white woman who had all but completed the adoption process for twin babies in Haiti, a boy and girl.  With the help of the U.S. embassy and a non-profit group, she was able to hasten her adoptive childrens’ arrival in the U.S. after the quake.  When reading the article, I scanned the page for a picture, wanting, in particular, to see the little black girl.

Children need and deserve supportive homes where they will be loved and taken care of.  My child is in a home with two parents who adore her and are committed to her well-being, no matter the sacrifices that her well-being will require.  I am in no position to deny that to any other child, regardless of whether that child is of the same race as his or her adoptive parents.

There is something unsettling, however, about the speed with which these children were improperly (and, likely, illegally) taken out of their home country.  I see a troubling arrogance behind the intentions of the missionaries and the U.S. government: the assumption that anywhere but Haiti would be better for those children; the assumption that the life Americans could provide for the children would surely be better than any life Haitians could provide for them in Haiti.  The assumption, even, that whites looking to adopt these children would necessarily be capable of raising a black child in the United States.

Staring at the picture of the little girl, I first wondered, “has this mother mastered the most basic of parenting tasks for those fortunate enough to raise a black child—that of grooming a black child’s hair, in all it’s curly and kinky glory?”  More substantively, I questioned whether she had grappled with the harder questions, like how race will impact the twins’ educational experience.  Has she considered the assumptions that teachers may make about their intelligence and capability on account of their dark skin?  Is she, and the other white adoptive parents implicated in these news articles, prepared to confront the lack of celebrated role models for their adopted children; to counter societal preferences for blue eyes and straight blond hair that their brown children do not have?  In the hopes of raising a “colorblind” child, will these parents errantly avoid discussions about race and racism in their home, thus leaving these babies to draw conclusions based on their observations of a world that inevitably places black and brown people at the bottom of a social hierarchy?  Have these parents confronted their own beliefs about race, both conscious and unconscious?  Have they considered how their own understanding of race, or a lack thereof, will affect their ability to parent these children?  Considered, even, whether their own psyches harbor the very same assumptions that allow missionary groups and government officials to disregard the right of a sovereign black nation to control when and how their children might be removed from their country?  Do any of these white parents believe themselves to be superior parents for these black children because they are, well, white?  Note, I haven’t even begun to address what the adoptions mean for the loss of Haitian identity among these children.

My suggestion is not that being white should necessarily preclude white people from adopting black children.  No race has the monopoly on properly raising children, and black children do not “belong” to only black parents.  Indeed, to open your heart and home to a child you did not conceive is a beautiful thing.  But like any adoptive parent, you shouldn’t be deemed fit to adopt a child if you’re not prepared to address the unique circumstances of that child.  Growing up as a person of color can be challenging enough; to grow up without parents who can understand—or worse, refuse to acknowledge—that experience is doubly difficult.  It would be a mistake for a white parent to assume that because race is not a factor in their own life, that it won’t be a factor in the lives of their black adoptive children.

Even I, a black mother, struggle with properly contextualizing race in my daughter’s life.  And if I can struggle, then I’m left wondering about how these white adoptive parents are faring.  Who, I wonder, are the best parents for these black children?  To what type of family can a black child properly be said to belong?

Is your vagina angry?

Last week I had the extreme pleasure of seeing a student performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Approximately 40, brave undergraduate women participated. Far more of them were white, but there was also a handful of black women, including one of my advisees. She played the role of “The Angry Vagina.” It was a fantastic performance, she was convincingly angry, her vernacular was appropriately explicit, she checked hypothetical partners (and gynecologists) for all hypothetical atrocities. I couldn’t help feeling like she had been chosen for this role because she was black (we discussed this and she agreed), even though it also seemed like the role was inauthentically black (we both agreed as well). It didn’t seem like what any black woman I knew would say.

While I applaud Eve Ensler for her progressive theatrical piece, and I have willingly seen now a professional and student production (and left the latter happily with my “Team Rihanna” and vagina buttons), I wonder what black woman would say about sex, body image, rape and sexual assault, etc., if given the platform. I’m thinking about Tricia Rose’s phenomenal book, Longing To Tell. I am also fearing that black women are not really ready to talk openly about the issues raised in that book, that they feel protected by silence and anonymity. I see this explicitly in my current book project.

One of the interesting things about Vagina Monologues is that there is only one very recently written piece about childbirth. It was quite curiously an afterthought. I am certainly liberal enough to think that a woman’s body is not entirely reserved for  bearing kids, however would black women have omitted this altogether from our stories about our vaginas?

My vagina is feeling a little spent! 🙂 Three kids later, multiple partners in, one rape, and countless dreaded gynecological visits, I’m feeling like at the very least I should be other-bodily-part centered. Like, I would love to be more focused on my stomach, thighs, or my arms. Last night in a spirited conversation about weight loss with two other black women, one of my homegirls told me, “you know sex is supposed to help you shed calories!”  I said something like, “I’m married and I don’t have sex,” which thankfully is not true, but I wanted to say something like, “who cares about the vagina, and all activity therein, I want Serena Williams’ abs and arms not her . . . . vagina.” Damn, I don’t even have a working, blog-friendly, authentic vocabulary for it!?!

I do not think my vagina is so much angry as it is exhausted.

Tanji is a wife and mother of three. She has two boys and one girl. She lives in Philadelphia, her favorite chocolate city. She is an educator and her first “baby” is now a Howard University graduate and a Cocoa Mama.

Good Fortune and Good Luck

Although “Mazel Tov,” a Hebrew phrase, translates literally as “good luck,” the expression really means “good fortune has occurred,” hence its use as a term of congratulations.  I had a baby girl 8 months ago: Mazel Tov to me! I have been lucky enough to be able to stay home with her since her birth, and with the exception of the nine hours a week that I teach and hold office hours, I will continue to be her primary caregiver until she is at least 15 months old.  At that point, I will need to take more hours out of the day for work.

I had it all planned out: at 15 months we would enroll her in the on-campus day care program, a mere 5-minute walk from my office. We live near campus, so there would be no commute; only a leisurely stroll across well-manicured lawns to her classroom.  I could stop by to have lunch with her, or stop by, just because.  She would never be too far away, and she would never have to stay longer than necessary.  At the end of the day, we’d walk back across lush campus greens together.

Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans.  The on-campus daycare has elected not to renew its NAEYC certification (the gold-standard for child care facilities), it is losing its manager of over 20 years due to retirement, and faculty are starting to pull their children out, citing a decrease in the quality of care, insufficient “free-play” for the children, and an environment that is not as warm or nurturing as other day care facilities in the area.  I am no longer mapping out our walk to school together in the mornings.  Instead, I am now considering one of the best Jewish day-school infant programs in the city.  Although the program is described as secular, a non-Jewish colleague who enrolled her child fondly recalled that her child grew up singing “cute Jewish nursery rhymes.”  I now envision my daughter doing the same, using Hebrew words to tell me about body parts and manners.

I’m worried.

Jewish religion and culture are as beautiful and relevant as any other religion and culture, and have impacted my own life in both significant and superficial ways.  The problem is what consideration of a Jewish day care program has forced me to confront: I do not have access to a “Haitian” day care program; there is no “black” day care facility.  For much, if not all, of my daughter’s education, she will engage with a curriculum that will, at best, ignore her experience as a person of color, and at worst, focus only on the oppression of people of color in this country. As if to signal things to come, there is not one picture of a black child in the day care program’s brochures.

Raising a black child is not for the faint of heart.  A mere 8 months into her life, my husband and I regularly question the choices we make regarding the formation of her identity: is she playing enough with other children of color?; should we only hire black babysitters?; Spanish is nice, but maybe we should expose her to French or Kreyol…; does she see enough women of color?…does she meet enough women who look like me?  We are committed to creating an environment that will affirm the color of her skin, the shape of her lips, the texture of her hair: the artwork on our walls intentionally feature black women; her bookshelf is filled with stories about children of color; we will not be bringing the March 2010 issue of Vanity Fair into our home.

And now, we must start thinking about the educational environment that is best for her.  What does “best” mean?  Surely, it must mean a day care that meets the highest child-care standards.  It must also mean a day care that gives her a couple of minutes to stack the darned blocks whichever way she wants.  But does it also mean a day care that will celebrate the beauty and worth of her cultural background?  I am under no illusion that the on-campus facility would have taught her songs about Haitian independence, the words to “Frere Jacques,” or the accomplishments of black women in the Americas.  It is one thing, however, to be one of several black children in a mainstream day care program; it is quite another to be the only black child in a Jewish day care program.  Can I enroll her in this program without somehow undermining the sense of pride we are trying to instill in her regarding her own racial and ethnic identity?

We have officially entered the morass of steering a child of color through the American education system.  Good fortune has certainly occurred, but moving forward, I now need wishes of good luck.

Haiti, My Darling

Ayiti Cheri…

Fok mwen te kite ou, pou m’te kapab konprann vale ou…

Fok mwen te lese ou…

Pou m’santi vreman tousa ou te ye pou mwen

Haiti, Darling

I had to leave you to understand your value

I had to leave you

To really understand everything you were to me

I burst into tears when my mother announced over the phone that MereMere (my grandmother) and Uncle—the last of my immediate family who were not yet accounted for—were safe.  The relief I felt, however, only slightly tempered the grief I was feeling over the disastrous earthquake, and its nightmarish aftermath, in Haiti.  No matter what news channel I turned to, the message was the same: the damage is unimaginable; the loss of life incomprehensible; the survivors needed food, water, shelter, and medical care that would be slow in arriving.  Haitians were suffering.  I sat on the couch, immobilized by, as one friend put it, “the limits of my own humanity.”  Was this it?  Were praying and sending money the only things I could do for Haiti, a country that has given me so much?

I am a first-generation American.  Although my mother married a West African, family circumstances and relationships made us a primarily Haitian household.  As a result, I identify closely with Haitian music, food, art, and language.  Growing up, I spoke Haitian Kreyol and French, requested “pwa an sos” with every meal (sometimes to the embarrassment of my mother when we visited guests), and wore ribbons in my hair until well past the 6th grade—as all Haitian girls are unfortunately forced to do by their mothers (so un-cool!).  Like many first generation children, the rules and expectations in my home were sometimes a little different than that of other American households: greeting all elders with a kiss when you entered a room was expected; permission to attend sleepovers was not (“why would I send you to sleep in somebody else’s house, when you have your own bed right here?”); fast-food and the movies were exotic experiences, if they were experienced at all.

Being of Haitian descent shaped my identity in ways that protected me from the onslaught of negative messages to which black girls are often subject.  Haiti was the first black country in the world to gain their independence (a distinction for which white countries have made them pay dearly, but that’s for another post…).  That fact allowed me to lay claim to a heritage that was not defined solely by slavery, unlike many of my black peers who often resorted to the old trope of “we were once Kings and Queens” in an effort to do the same.  Although Haiti is politically unstable, I could pledge some measure of allegiance to the Haitian flag without having to reconcile my loyalty with evidence that the country still didn’t want me, as black Americans often have to do in the United States.  Although most of its inhabitants are poor, Haiti does produce professionals of color.  Growing up, my mother’s friends were, more often than not, Haitian doctors who enjoyed the respect that comes with that professional achievement.  It never occurred to me that people of color didn’t hold positions of power; most of the people of color to whom I was exposed growing up, did.  In middle school and high school, when my academic achievement triggered accusations that I was “acting white,” I merely shrugged off the insult: I was Haitian; how could I not be black?

I know that my Haitian-American status will never insulate me from the barriers I must face as a woman of color.  Nor do I want to be estranged from other folks of color based on national origin; we are all in this struggle together.  I do realize, however, that my Haitian background provided some padding for the bumpy ride.  I am proud of my Haitian identity; I value the influence of Haitian culture in my life.  And I am desperate to pass some of that on to my daughter.

But how?  Culture and identity are not things you just talk about.  They are reflected in the day-to-day tasks of life.  I have never been much of a cook, and the ability to prepare a Haitian meal eludes me.  Although I can still understand Haitian Kreyol when it is spoken to me, and even formulate the sentences in my head, something happens in the transmission between my brain and my mouth.  The words get stuck at the back of my throat; my lips won’t form the right sounds.  The language comes out choppy and halted; embarrassed by my own difficulty with a language I spoke growing up, I stop trying almost as soon as I start.  I have not been to Haiti since I was a baby, and do not even have memories of the country that I could pass on to her in stories.

I am inspired to renew my connection to Haiti, not only for my child’s sake, but also for my own.  There is a Kreyol class offered at the nearby community college that I will take this summer.  When my mother visits this weekend, I’ll be paying attention to what she’s doing in the kitchen.  A trip to Haiti sometime in the future is a new goal; re-establishing connections to the Haitian community in my area is a more immediate priority.  My only regret is that it took a disaster like this to make me realize that I was losing touch with part of what makes me, me. As I sit on the couch in front of the television, where my tears fall harder when images of women clutching their young children flash on the screen, I am crying not just for the additional suffering that Haitians have been asked to endure, but also for the loss of a meaningful connection to Haiti in my daughter’s, and my own, life.   Haiti, my darling, I had to leave you, to find you.