My teachers back in St Maarten got me started early with the tales of how the Caribbean islands “came to be.” Here is the short and long of it. The Arawaks were savages. Were it not for Senor Colombus coming through with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, all would be lost in the Antilles. I swear we had to repeat those three ship names over and over and over. No mention of any slave ships. No mention of any slave uprisings. No mention of how all these colored folks came to land on these islands. No mention of a neighboring Pearl of the Caribbean’s influence on this part of the world. Just some tall tale about three raggedy ships and the man who “discovered” the islands.
Fast forward to my American education. I pride myself on having a very good memory and impression. Nerd girls typically do. I read voraciously and school books didn’t stand a chance of catching dust in my book bag. Yet I’m rattling my brains more and more these days to think of anything that introduced me to the pivotal role my color, my culture played in human history. Yes there was the mandatory Black History month events. We even had a cultural day in middle school. And it was back to American education as usual. Science class with no mention of the sistahs from NASA. American History with its subtle warnings of what happened to black folks when they rebelled against this great nation and “our” forefathers.
I’m sure my black teachers tried their best to infuse cultural pride. But standing on this side of education years later, I can see how their efforts may have been challenged at the risk of their livelihood. It took a Black Panther-esque black teacher, then later a hippie-esque Jewish teacher and even later a white woman to exert their respective privileges in the classroom and challenge me to go beyond Siddartha and Catcher in the Rye. Roots took the scales off my lids. Malcolm X wiped some of the cold out my eyes. Kaffir Boy served like saline to my sight. Caged Bird freed my soul and made me soar. My sixth grade copy still holds a place on my shelf. I still weep for my lost autographed Ntosake Shange book. Colored Girls, suicide and rainbows was more than enuf for me. Beloved. The Bluest Eyes. Song of Solomon. These ladies kept pouring and pouring and pouring a new story, a new narrative into me.
Everyone knew that African American history class was for the kids that needed an “easy A.” My guidance counselor felt my time would be best spent taking the European AP class. Side bar: it was the only AP test of three that I ever failed. I had to beg my dad to take me to night school and wait the one hour in the parking lot. I wanted to learn about the Kings and Queens who ruled Mother Africa. You see, at one time in my life I could spit out stories of the Czars and Sun Kings and far eastern Dynasties but the African narrative… well… I was truly mute.
I sense a hunger in the lives of a people to know who they are as a culture and as a people group. Anytime you have folks breaking down doors to watch a movie about a man whose blood long stained this earth, it is cause to pause and ponder. Our people shouldn’t have to wait for a movie to be inspired. They shouldn’t have to wait for 30 second blurbs on social media to get all amped up. If the Black narrative was the first one taught before all else, I’m willing to bet the trajectory of our lives and our children’s lives would have taken a different turn in human history. There won’t be too many people able to afford to tell the story about “us” on the big screen. The onus rests with us.
It is the stories told while picking out barrettes from the cookie can, the political dinner table discourse every father and mother should engage their children in, the random moments spent with someone else’s child while babysitting/carpooling–those are the moments we should seize to help our future learn to be great.
I stood in a circle with 15 other #BlackGirlMagics last evening imparting wisdom to a budding young woman. The moment wasn’t lost on me. Standing to my left and right were women who had to learn the Black narrative the hard way. We didn’t have the privilege of some rites of passage in our youth. It was by hook or crook to get into college. First generation immigrant children are the last on the “privilege” totem pole. The irony was not lost on us. Yet here we stood in unison praying down blessings upon blessings on this young soul. While those in the crowd were either too young to understand or too displaced to even care, we knew it was imperative she heard the words of our ancestors speaking through us just for her.
I can’t peel off my skin, or cut off my Sisterlocks when I leave my house each day. It’s as much a part of who I am as my faith in Christ. I can’t pretend I’m not hurt when the woman at the theatre sees the “Birth of a Nation” poster and huffs “Oh, I don’t want to see that” and casually walks away. To believe for the betterment of my culture doesn’t mean I negate the value of others. It just means that mine needs some “tending to” right about now. I been looking after everyone else’s for much too long.