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.



Let Go?

Thursday evening, my recently-turned-six-year-old was vomiting bright green bile. The bright green was a progression from the yellow of earlier in the day. At about six o’clock, as he lay in his bed with his clothes still on, I noticed his breathing was awful. He lay on his back with his mouth open, and as he inhaled, his chest collapsed – the opposite of one’s chest should be doing. He’s ridiculously skinny, so it’s hard to tell sometimes with his ribs already being exposed. But his whole body was moving as he breathed. Something just didn’t seem right.

Long story short, I took him to the ER and after waiting 2.5 hours, they said he had pneumonia. As they prodded him with x-rays and IVs, sticking wires all over him and swabs up his nose, and as he screamed and cried, “Mommy, I’m scared,” I realized that there is no job more important to me than being that child’s (and his sister’s, and this baby-to-be’s) mother. As I tried to keep my tears in and just repeat to him over and over that it was all so that he could get better and that I was not going anywhere, I realized how empty my life would be without this child. For the second time in his short life (the first was when he was 13 months old and had internal bleeding), I felt like his life and his health was out of my hands and that out of control feeling over this being who depends on me to be in control was…unreal.

He’s much better now, although still on antibiotics and a steroid and an inhaler. I kept him home from school today, even though he was better, because a part of me could not bear to let him go, to let him be out of my sight. I cannot get his scared little face, with his big eyes and huge tears, out of my mind. I’ve been bawling about it every night since it happened, even though I know pneumonia is not a death sentence and he really is okay. But it was an emergency that I could not fix except to bring him to people who could.

Obviously God knew what he was doing when he designed to have my children grow inside my body before their introduction to the world. The bond between me and them created through this process of growing and loving is one that I needed to experience, a bond that transcends what could be considered rational or common sense. I know the biological/evolutionary story is that we care about our genes living on through the generations, I don’t know if I buy that for me. Instead, there is something supernatural about hearing them call my name – “Mommy.”

This love is both strengthening – I would do anything for them – but also weakening. They say “let go and let God,” but…wow – how do you do that? What do you do when you feel like your whole world, in this little tiny package, might be falling away from you? I want to be ready, but I’m not. I’m not ready to give my children over to God.

“for colored girls”? Nope.

I really had/have no intentions of critiquing “for colored girls” by hurling the usual at Tyler Perry. How he hates black women, has mother issues, is a closeted homosexual, etc. Other folks can and have done so. I also really don’t intend to write a review of the movie, which I saw this afternoon. What I do want to do is reflect.

When I first read “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” I was 16 years old. I wasn’t a lady in blue or red or green or purple or orange but a precocious black girl who

usedta live in the world / now i live in harlem & my universe is six blocks / a tunnel with a train / i can ride anywhere / remaining a stranger

except my harlem was philadelphia and my train was the broad street subway. I’d never left my city, except for a girl scout trip to Savannah, and my knowledge of the world outside were through books like “for colored girls.”

When I read “for colored girls” the first time I cried. At 16, I’d established myself as a singer with a voice. I’d performed in assemblies, choirs, solos. But when, at 16, I had my first major depressive episode, “for colored girls” voiced my

black girl’s song / bring her out / to know herself / to know you / but sing her rhythms/ carin/ struggle/ hard times / sing her song of life / she’s been dead so long / closed in silence so long / she doesn’t know the sound / of her own voice / her infinite beauty

In high school, I was passionate about women’s sexual health issues. I chaired our peer health group, which provided peer counseling and peer sexual education. I remember meeting at a Planned Parenthood downtown for a workshop on sexual violence; all of us teenage girls learning about sexual violence and sharing our stories of sexual violence. At the time, we all learned that

a friend is hard to press charges against / if you know him / you must have wanted it / a misunderstanding / you know / these things happen / are you sure / you didnt suggest / had you been drinkin / a rapist is always to be a stranger / to be legitimate / someone you never saw / a man wit obvious problems

yet that date rape is real and we must protect ourselves and almost all of us in that room in the mid-1990s had been a victim of some form of sexual coercion by someone we knew. I remember that session vividly, for the tears and support, the hugs and the empowerment.

I even remember thinking I was one of a few virgins left in my group of friends, and feeling this pressure to not be a virgin anymore. Sexual tension is so high in high school, it threatens to overwhelm. And it’s not just social pressure – I had a boyfriend for which my body exerted physical pressure. So the summer after high school graduation I was

doin nasty ol tricks i’d been thinkin since may / cuz graduation nite had to be hot /& i waz the only virgin/ so i hadda make like my hips waz inta some business / that way everybody thot whoever was gettin it/ was a older man cdnt run the streets wit youngsters /martin slipped his leg round my thigh / the dells bumped “stay” / up & down—up & down the new carver homes/ WE WAZ GROWN WE WAZ FINALLY GROWN

At 16 I learned about abortions when a friend called in the early morning hours about how she couldn’t go through with the procedure because of the

tubes tables white washed windows / grime from age wiped over once / legs spread / anxious / eyes crawling up on me / eyes rollin in my thighs /metal horses gnawin my womb /…./get them steel rods outta me/this hurts/this hurts me

and while I sat in Planned Parenthood waiting rooms trying to get birth control so the same didn’t happen to me.

While I can’t go through what all the poems taught me and left a lasting imprint on my life, what I can say is this: Ntozake Shange’s original poem was truly “for colored colored girls.” The ladies in their various colors were meant to symbolize the many colors of the diaspora; the namelessness of the characters (with notable exceptions) to symbolize the universality of the experience. The title suggests that the concepts are aimed at colored girls – aimed at telling colored girls stories, from their point to view. For colored girls can be described as a healing safe space to share their pain, without any shame, without any further infliction of pain. For colored girls was for us, by us, in a language that only our souls could understand.

Yet this movie destroys this concept of being a safe, healing space for colored girls to share their pain without having to consider other people’s pain, to be a mother, sister, friend, without having to take care of others without having to consider others without having to take responsibility without having to be the superwomen that others think is a compliment but that is really killing us with the weight of the burden.

Without “giving away” the movie, in typical Tyler Perry style, he wants colored girls to “take responsibility” for their condition, understand the men in their lives and why they do the things they do, to explain some of the complexity of black relationships. And that’s al well and good. But that’s not what “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf” was about. Because understanding the complexity of colored girls and their pain is enuf. Its enuf to say that I’m in pain because

i stood by beau in the window/ with naomi reachin
for me/ & kwame screamin mommy mommy from the fifth
story/ but i cd only whisper/ & he dropped em

without having to also “consider” beau’s pain and why as an abused partner and mother she didn’t leave him before. Its enuf to be in pain because I was date raped in my home without also visually suggesting that my clothing was actually suggestive. Its enuf to be in pain because my husband sleeps with men without having to also understand the “plight” of black men on the DL.

Why can’t I have a movie where being and feeling and living as a colored girl in this society is enuf, where I don’t have to consider everyone else’s feelings and being and lifestyle when nobody else is considering my feelings and being and lifestyle?

are we ghouls? / children of horror? /the joke?
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul / are we animals? have we gone crazy?

It’s a good thing that

i found god in myself / & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely

before I saw this movie. Because I feel sad for the multitudes of colored girls who will think this is what “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf” is about. For unfortunately, this movie is not “for colored girls.” Its just another way for TP to tell us how fucked up our lives are and how we need to take responsibility for it.

But I’m here to tell you that being a colored girl is enuf.  You don’t need to always consider others. Other people are sometimes screwing with you, and its NOT YOUR FAULT. If you’ve been date raped, ITS NOT YOUR FAULT. If your partner is beating you ITS NOT YOUR FAULT. If your partner is cheating on you, ITS NOT YOUR FAULT.

& this is for colored girls who have considered / suicide/ but are movin to the ends of their own / rainbows

All quotes from Ntozake Shange, (1977). “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf”

Teaching God…I think

Part I

7:40 pm . Olivia, my soon-to-be -4-year old, is in bed but not yet sleeping. Her eyes flutter, and she yawns. I drag the comforter from the floor, its usual place at nighttime (my two-year-old son, 30 minutes earlier, climbed on top of Olivia’s bed, threw her pillows and stuff animals and comforter onto the floor, and jumped his little heart out. Olivia joined him, and this is the bedtime ritual I have allowed, and it lasts for several minutes.). I pull the comforter over Olivia’s chest, stopping below her chin, and then she startles me with: “Mommy, we forgot to say our prayers,” and she says this in a loud whisper but she does not make any moves to get out of bed because she is sleepy and tucked in so nicely. Part of me just wants to let her sleep because she’s had a hard day (um, pre-k?) and she looks so angelic in bed. But a voice in my head suddenly starts criticizing me for even thinking this heathen thought so I reach for my child, pick her and place her on the floor. She’s leaning over the bed, burying her head in her folded arms. I am kneeling. “Kneel, babe.” She does so. We do not recite memorized prayers, but I do ask her, “What are you grateful for today?” Tonight, she does a half-shrug and yawns. She usually does a full-shrug with a half-smile.  I remind her of all the “good” things that happened to her today: singing songs at school, playing with her brother, talking to her aunt on the phone, and the cookie her grandmother gave her when she thought I wasn’t looking. And then I tell her to ask God to watch over all the people that she loves and cares about. She does so. This lasts two minutes, and I pick her up and put her back to bed.

We pray because this is the easiest way to explain God to her. I do not know how to answer “Where does God live, Mommy?” without feeling like an idiot-hypocrite when I say “He’s everywhere” and then quickly changing my answer to “He lives in the sky” and then I’m thinking, “Oh, shit. I made God a male.” We do not go to church regularly (I never did when I was growing up), and I am not interested in forcing a religion on her, but I do want her to have a relationship with God. But what does that mean?  I could not even tell you. The only way I can articulate God is through prayer, and praying is spiritual for me. Praying is a time to be reflective and to help my child articulate her gratitude toward being alive and being surrounded by people who love her. Am I crazy? Is this too much? Is it too early to teach empathy and sympathy through prayer? Do I tell her about the earthquake in Haiti and the devastation and for us to pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti?

Last fall, my daughter’s school held a can drive, and Olivia reminded me for days that I needed to give her cans to bring to school. Then one afternoon, after I pick her up from school and we’re in the car, she tells me, out of slight frustration by my forgetfulness, “Mom, we need to bring cans to school for the poor people. They don’t have anything.” I look at my daughter’s face through the rear view mirror, and her expression is thoughtful and concerned. I make a detour and head straight to the grocery store.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I go shopping for a church…

Martha has lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for 30 years (with a few years here and there in Princeton, New Jersey and Washington, DC), and is the proud Cocoa Mama of two children, Olivia and Abraham. She is also a doctoral student and writing instructor in the English department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and her research interests are women’s and gender studies and American literature pre-1900.