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We Wear the Mask, COVID Reprise

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Like Claude McKay said, we have always worn the mask. That part of our lives is not new. Only now, it seems that all of humanity wears an external, tangible mask-not just an eerily symbolic one. It’s true that the whole world is donning a mask right now. But your masks still ain’t like ours. We are not the same. When you take off your masks you can breathe deeply again. Fill your lungs with oxygen, expand your chests and breathe life unencumbered by suffering. While all the while . . .

We literally and figuratively: Can. Not. Breathe. We wear the mask 24-7. We wear the mask eternally. We wear the mask and yet, still – We are dying. We are not allowed to mourn or to bury our dead. We attend drive through, virtual or nonexistent funerals for the countless Black lives that have been lost to the pandemics of racism and Coronavirus and we suffer silently. We mourn inwardly, cause we have to work and don’t have the time or capacity to heal. We mourn inwardly because y’all can’t stand to see our pain. We cry intermittently and out of necessity we work, serve, teach, pray, move, sing, dance, pretend, play and all the while . . . we are grasping at breath and dying slow, miserable deaths in alarmingly disproportionate rates to everyone else. We. Wear. The. Mask.

Why should the world be over-wise,

in counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

To suddenly see people everywhere wearing a mask should be startling, an anomaly to our very spirits and souls. But somehow it makes sense that the truth of the guile of humanity should be partially hidden in plain sight. As for me… I don’t want to see your smiling faces when your wretched souls harbor such hatred for Black lives. To see Black people wearing masks so faithfully, while others fight to go without and declare their rebellious right, indignation to live freely without them; should be evidence that we are simply not the same. What means life or death to us, is truly a nuisance to others. Your privilege absolves you from the losses of life, agency and joy that this global health crisis has uniquely inflicted on our lives. You seem to only know the inconvenience of Black people and other people of color from faithfully and willingly serving you. While we know all too well the very real toll the violence of dual pandemics of racism and its sister global killer, COVID can and will continue to wreak on Black lives.

Empty streets. Economy at a standstill, sane school systems engaged in online instruction. And yet, the vast disconnect between those who want a swift return to business as usual and those who want a reimagined future (without your oppressive foot on our necks), is only widening. Assault-rifle armed Klansmen, women and children protest at state capitols to demand a return to business as usual. Their efforts encouraged by the demented, unfit madman at the helm of the country who increasingly ridicules, berates, poisons and kills at will in the name of a vast, white supremacist version of America’s greatness as their driving force. And sure enough, slowly but surely, states buckle under the pressure to begin to open (but slowly, in stages), so that they can once again be “served” as Black lives and those of others low on the priority rung, re-assume their essential (read expendable), lives and duties continue to engage in the performative preservation of the status quo.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!”

Meanwhile as cities burn and mass protests ensue the pandemic lingers on to encompass a new normal and way of life. One in which there are no more illusions of power, democracy or social justice and order. The masks on our faces only reveal the long term stratifications and intersectionality of identities, layered beneath the surface. Teachers, nurses, doctors, certified nurses assistants, orderlies, maintenance staff, service employees and restaurant staff have now become the essential fabric and components to a society that cannot function without us. America seemingly can’t abide the round the clock, 24-7 realities of life with their own children and families in their own sprawling homes, communities and living freely on their own expansive plots of land. Indeed, from tortured souls arise the cries of a crumbling economy and the disintegration of an age-old facade of a global superpower, now uncovered to be the sordid, broken infrastructure of a vile, racist and rotten to the core cultural framework.

How ironic that as America hastens to its inevitable demise and irreconcilable doom . . . You too, wear the mask.

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Academia So White

All my life I have been blessed to occupy Black spaces. To start off, I am from Blackity Black Detroit “What up doe?” And so, my entire universe has been punctuated by intentional, profound Blackness for so long that I am still genuinely appalled at the ugliness and depravity of the myth of white supremacy, every time I encounter it. Detroit is so Black and proud, that while I would love to devote an entirely different and refreshingly lighter blog post as an ode to my beloved Detroit, until then – I wholly endorse and invite you to drink in the powerful words, imagery and palpable beauty that is Blackness, as depicted in this recent VH1 episode of #GrowingUpBlack and as experienced through the eyes of fellow, imminently talented Detroiters. And in case your’e also wondering just how my Detroit Black experience ties to the subject of academia so white, be assured that a lifetime of immersion in a sea of Black excellence makes one even more appalled and unwilling to acquiesce to the inane demands of whiteness. So, I might as well just go ahead and preface at the outset that I was recently disgusted enough to with my position in academia that I embraced an abrupt hiatus for the sake of both my sanity and well being. But since I’m clear that my own experience is not unlike those of my peers who have exhaustively documented their woes at the interwoven fabric of racism and academia using the hashtag and pertinent Black scholar coined reference, #BlackInTheIvory I hasten to pen this blog post as an ode to those of us who have duly earned our accomplishment of a personal, academic best in publishing dissertation research so close to our hearts and respective fields of study only to now be relegated to the mediocrity of academia so white. For me, even before taking this unscheduled leave from academia I can attest to being wholly disgusted and even reduced to tears while on vacation no less, because of the inescapable horrors of academia so white.

Before the semester had even begun in this most recent graduate education course I taught from August to October, one student had incredulously documented that as he previewed the course syllabus and rubric governing several modules within the course, he knew in advance that he would require personalized modifications and exceptions in order to ‘excel in the course’. Oh really? Truly there were no surprises here because this presumptuous request for favor had been levied in multiple different forms by no fewer than 3 dozen of my educator/students, per year in my respective graduate courses at a small predominantly white institution (PWI). For the record, the characteristics in common befitting the profile of all those making such formal requests is that the students were exclusively white, arrogantly privileged and every one more demanding than the former, in endeavoring similar modifications to course requirements due to their unique and wildly varying needs. Sigh. It is probably helpful to name that this is a novel occurrence for me as a veteran, K12 educator who has by choice and nearly 30 years of experience, worked exclusively in the Black and Brown Detroit and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn communities in which I have lived. Please believe despite their current iteration as gentrification central, both of these areas boast of brilliant talent which is reflected the countless Black and Brown scholars whom I had long prepared for college, without even the slightest hint of unearned privilege and/or lowered expectations in my skill set. Sadly, I know now that the Black excellence to which I was afforded as both a student and a teacher in the Detroit Public Schools is somewhat of an anomaly. Because just a few years of being a professor in white spaces has unwittingly taught me that the preservation of white supremacy is the only, inescapable goal of the #AcademiaSoWhite environment. In this student’s case, he sought to circumvent the universal expectation that students culminate the course by crafting a rigorous curricular unit which leverages the gist of unwrapped Common Core Standards and ensures the seamless alignment between rigorous curriculum, formative assessments, while still ensuring evidence of widespread student learning. Alas, this student preferred albeit demanded instead to use a less rigorous set of standards, as his subject/district neither required nor mandated cross curricular fluency and/or apparently high expectations. So rather than to rise to the lofty expectations inherent in the course as outlined, this student opted to rather aggressively assume the role of the squeaky wheel in ensuring that this graduate course be relevant and to paraphrase his words, ‘useful to his needs’ as a non-core subject teacher in pursuit of a graduate degree. According to him in clear, documented form he neither planned nor expected to be held accountable for the incorporation of rigorous, core subject standards as it was reportedly outside of his ‘comfort zone’ and other professors had willingly retrofit their course requirements to duly meet his needs in the past. Okay, so now having laid out the key features of merely one case study of the gross perpetuation of whiteness in academic spaces, some of you might still be wondering why this request would be so emotionally triggering and what does it all mean from an institutional and systemic perspective of academia so white?

Essentially, an attempt to leverage privilege in an academic context has little difference from the power imbalance of a racist commander in chief insisting that he has been re-elected when the numbers clearly fail to support this illusion. And it is akin to the now commonplace scenario of a racist demanding that a person of color speak English in their presence or identify themselves and their address/license/purpose on demand, or risk becoming subject to the same institution of police violence and oppression that criminalizes Blackness for simply being. This student’s request was not an anomaly and has come in countless forms, at the behest of any number of students over my time serving as an adjunct in this particular institution. The audacity of the request meant that I would once again be called upon to reinforce whiteness willingly or suffer the consequences of their bad behavior throughout the course, including but certainly not limited to: challenging me on every assignment for which said student was not granted a perfect score; publicly interrogating my professionalism, experience and/or credentials (especially in the presence of their peers), as a means to incite a cadre of likeminded hatred and discrimination fueled queries by others accustomed to weaponizing whiteness. Also, this behavior is typically accompanied by an unending barrage of persistent email requests demanding that assignments be graded and thoroughly evaluated in advance of due dates, so as to require the level of on demand qualitative feedback to otherwise absolve themselves from the obligation of fulfilling the required course readings. Trust me, it’s an exhausting, unending and vicious cycle of truly unadulterated white privilege. Add to this frequent occurrence, the typical rules that apply, which are to provide scholarly advisement and demonstrate evidence of a speedy 48-hour or less response to any/all student requests. Sheesh! This pattern undoubtedly normalizes a systemic perpetuation and inappropriate catering to whiteness and choosing violence of sorts. Because ultimately and no doubt adding insult to injury and harm, these students are wholly prepared to go on record as weaponizing their whiteness by penning scathing and woefully unsatisfactory teacher evaluations (without merit), to punish those like me, who dare resist giving in to them and their illusion of authority. In many ways, this ensures that the ranks of those tenured and highly affirmed at the top rung of academic ranks look like, act like and blindly reinforce the unwritten rules of engagement within an academia so white norm. Somehow, all of us who operate in the unsavory confines of this reality quickly recognize that the goal is to make it easy for whiteness (read: abject mediocrity), to thrive. Of course, this does not apply to all students and all settings and there are thankfully students of every background, persuasion and iteration, who make the latter more tolerable because they openly expect and even welcome and appreciate academic rigor and the true acquisition of knowledge. However, for me the students who admittedly thrive in the face of high expectations, not unearned privilege, being the norm happen to have exclusively been the Black students whom I have had the honor to teach. I have come to know for sure that these are the only students for whom I am prepared to labor for in future academic contexts.

And in terms of context given my own unwelcome immersion in academia so white, perhaps complicating my visceral reaction to the otherwise customary email sent in mid August when I had deigned to take not even a full week, but merely 2-3 days hiatus from my persistently busy and admittedly stressful work demands; it was my intention to enjoy a family vacation by safely traveling by car to another part of the state and briefly engage in some pandemic imposed relief (and long neglected self-care), prior to the start of another academic year. The thought of true vacation was fleeting as I was still bound to checking my university email and expected to adhere to strict response timelines so as to ensure being present and attentive to students needs. And as you know by now, I did not fall in line to the exhausting, inhumane demands of whiteness, but rather fought valiantly against the system. But before doing so, I cried. I cried because I was simply sick and tired of being sick and tired. I cried because this email was not new, but merely a nightmare of a recurring theme and seemingly a permanent fixture of my graduate professor portfolio at an institution so white that I would often still be the “only one” in professional learning and faculty peer spaces. I cried because there was no scenario in which my capitulation to or abject refusal to uphold and reward whiteness resulted in my favor. Ultimately, my lengthy response to this young man was not unlike my patient explanation to others before him: Yes, you must adhere to course requirements and sure, although there might be infrequent exceptions made to fashion course content to the practical application of your physical education, or preschool or non traditional education course, it was still wholly expected that one would learn to leverage CC curriculum standards alignment as this was indeed an objective of the course. The course was designed to challenge him and all others to learn best, research and evidenced based practice and not meant to cater to his prior level of comfort and experience. His later documented attempts to challenge countless assignment grades and to appeal to the college for a grade change from a B to an A-? Well, this was just par for the course and to be predicted because effort, hard work, and scholarship is merely an unacceptable pill for whiteness to swallow. Truly in their myopic vision, resistance to their feigned delusion of white supremacy is futile and will therefore always be subject to them being a Karen and calling the police, or being a Derek Chauvin and actually being the police armed and ready to weaponize their whiteness. For I have learned the hard way that those with unearned privilege and fragility will always choose violence in defense of whiteness, academic spaces are not a panacea. In retrospect and clearly – I had endured enough and wouldn’t be long for the oppressive demands of this world a few 8-10 short weeks later. Although I did not know it at the time, I had mentally decided I could no longer endure the degree to which countless students’ documented microaggressions prevailed, particularly as it manifested in the form of their relentless demands for unearned favor especially whilst safely ensconced in a system in which their privilege dictated that everyone fall in line to inequitable, lifelong expectations of entitlement. Academia is so white, so mythical and ultimately so dangerous a microcosm of society, that in this space we allow whiteness to prevail in magnified, unchecked, and blatant forms through our own efforts to just go along and get along within the muck and mire of it all. Universal acknowledgement of the ‘academia so white’ truth, is important to establish at the outset of one’s academic career, because to believe that mis-education is uniquely relegated to K12 spaces without permeating a much larger, vicious cycle of dysfunction is as misguided as believing that a kitten can grow up to be anything other than a cat.

Higher education like white supremacy, summons its unearned power and distinction from the intentional, exclusionary nature of its boundaries. Because elitism and so-called specialness is baked into the very foundation of being afforded access in this white supremacist social construct, what institutions of higher learning and whiteness have in common is that they thrive on reinforcing the race, class and power stratifications upon which oppression thrives. What’s more is the academia so white state of the academy is functioning exactly as it was intended to. Despite visible hints of progression in other areas of societal evolution towards equity and inclusion, academia persists as a dated relic of systemic and institutionalized racism, showing little sign of longterm viability or hope. That academic spaces routinely foster anti-Blackness is widely researched and documented by countless numbers of my Black scholar colleagues. Kudos to each of my predecessors, peers and virtually all of us of good conscience, for not shrinking silently into the background but instead choosing retaliation against this violence. Shout out to those of us who amplify our voices, c/o public or private protests and those of us who opt to leave with our talents and Black labor, white wealth rather than opting to subject ourselves to suffer the inhumanity of whiteness in silence. In my own case, it has taken several weeks to process and to somewhat coherently respond to the violence inflicted in this only my second adjunct professor appointment in my brief academic career. This recent experience, spanning for only the past 3 years and 6 months, seems an interminable time to endure the precarious balance between my love of teaching and the invisible labor of being Black in such an unwieldy and inequitable white space.

But if nothing else, I am blessed to have gleaned so many insights from the favorable and especially the tough learning experiences inherent in this work. Ultimately, and this is an entirely personal decision for which I would never judge others for begrudgingly having to suffer; I determined that my proud Blackness, humanity, decency and morality would no longer allow me to uphold the illusion of white supremacy by doing the work of an educated and experienced professional, while being paid pennies on the dollar because of the inequitable adjunct title and full professor workload. Similarly, I say no mas to being the only one in a sea of whiteness. Because this graduate education work was performed at a PWI, with little to no diversity amongst either the students or faculty, I was routinely subjected to the abject racism and white privilege of a seemingly endless line of adult educators who sought exceptions, workarounds, demanded immediacy in the face of their often incredulous requests for deference and who essentially demanded (if not fully expected), to receive A’s for nary the slightest bit of effort nor scholarship. I kid you not, within my three and a half year tenure and much to my chagrin, I encountered graduate students who refused to refer to me as Dr. Nkenge or even professor, but who persisted in referring to me by my first name only – as an expression of their feigned supremacy and refusal to submit to any level of decency, authority or common respect. So this final incident as outlined herein, was merely a nail in the coffin for the increasingly frequent ways that my students (and sadly some of my faculty colleagues), demonstrated their disdain of being subjected to learn or teach graduate course content alongside my Black excellence. It bears mentioning, that in addition to the apparent universal expectation for deference and nothing less than perfect scores, despite less than exemplary performance, the final straw for me came when the college administration and my clueless, white male supervisor openly reinforced and I daresay, rewarded this behavior by affirming that once a student duly interrogates an assignment’s grade (even after the final grade in the course had been posted – that I would in turn, be expected to justify my rationale and/or alter a grade for affording them less than perfection in the face of their piss poor, elementary-level mediocrity.

So yeah, kudos to any/all who urgently sound the alarm as colleges and university’s nationwide get embarrassingly called on the carpet for such unforgivable gaffe’s as: mistaking prominent Black faculty as the help; hesitating to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize winning journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones, and for otherwise taking an ‘L’ every single time they protect, reinforce and perpetuate systemic whiteness despite the deleterious harm it does in contributing to the oppressive norms of the scourge of white supremacy on the global stage. However, because countless academic spaces exist as a mere microcosm of society, and people like me have the privilege of ensuring that more, not fewer of the Black scholars of tomorrow look like the Black faces of so many of our noteworthy heroes and predecessors who intentionally cultivated Black genius, we must be as fiercely outspoken and proactive in rejecting the harm of whiteness as people of good conscience are called to do in every other space where justice and equity are still elusive. All too often, we forget to include the illusory precursor of the prevalent myth when we refer to whiteness and in doing so we in turn, empower the perpetuation of the sick institution by choosing to silently become complicit in the evils inherent within an oppressive system. In short, no amount of well-meaning platitudes about equity and/or attempts to diversify faculty or student bodies (of course only at the lower rung, because few if any changes are ever warranted at the top rung of tenured, world-renowned, respected scholars), will impact the current state of academia. It is up to those of us who didn’t earn our terminal degrees to perpetuate whiteness to courageously buck the system. We are the few who must continually reject occupying the lowly, status quo positions of being a scant number of gatekeepers. We are those who earned our doctorates in honor and respect to our ancestors who devoted sacrificial lifeblood and scholarship in deference to the pursuit of justice, equality and freedom from oppression. We must continue to testify as we are called upon to document the pervasive whiteness and mis-education inextricably entwined at the highest level of academics. It is up to the people revolutionary enough to usher in the significant changes needed in #AcademiaSoWhite spaces to increasingly render these so-called institutions of higher learning as less than relevant or worthy of our Black presence, research, scholarship, blood, sweat and yes, even our tears. It is especially incumbent upon those of us blessed to work in empowering Black spaces, to still vehemently resist mimicking the mediocrity of whiteness and the internalized self-loathing which accompanies it (akin to the scandal unfolding in our very own prestigious institutions of higher learning, like the proverbial Mecca of Howard University). How demeaning it would be if the larger HBCU exemplars opted to render themselves complicit to the horrors present in white spaces and otherwise obsolete, to the extent that they selectively choose to ignore the righteous and warranted demands of its too Black, too beautiful and justifiably revolutionary scholar ranks, like the students aligned with the #BlackburnTakeover collective. Certainly, a heartfelt salute and credit is due to both the students and the faculty who skillfully and of necessity, navigate these academic mine spaces and who unduly encounter inescapable levels of dysfunction and harm, as we are forced to grapple with the not so hallowed halls of academia. Academia so white is pervasive and must be dismantled in all of its insidious forms. It is up to each of us to do our level best to make it so.

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Educator Conversations

I have often been privileged to glean from the wisdom of other colleagues, but a conversation I had this week was worthy of note and warrants a brief recap c/o this blog.

Specifically, in speaking with a high school English teacher who still has a fire in his belly for the work he does with children everyday, I was immediately struck by his intellect, presence and infectious joy for his work as a teacher. His passion came through effortlessly in conversation with myself and another brilliant educator colleague (who also happens to be a Black male, English teacher veteran). First off, I was in awe of their easy rapport, clear establishment of mutual respect and in spite of my being a big talker (in nearly all situations and on virtually any subject), I chuckled inwardly that I could scarcely get a word in edgewise between the two men, as we all connected via our teleconference call.

They were admittedly in their element. Brilliant, Black, male and bonded in their shared regard for the meaningful work they do as educators. So, although I was eager to join the conversation and am always excited to link with like minds, I abruptly decided to switch gears, no longer attempting to contribute to this riveting conversation, which I was enjoying immensely. And I began to simply listen intently to the message and to focus on deciphering the message behind the message, as my observations typically do. And that’s when I was poised to glean from the true gems being shared within the discussion. Thank goodness for closed mouthed, listening skills. Now having shared this background, I will now attempt to somehow paraphrase the gist of the enlightenment I received, during this brief yet spirited exchange between other committed educators. And while I may not give justice to the genuine and effortless aura of collegiality on display, I do want to share what I learned and the lasting benefits of this powerful exchange.

First of all, I am always a student, in awe of the shared language and unspoken messages embedded when I speak with other Black people, I have literally just met but whom I intuitively know and respect deeply nonetheless. There’s something to be said for the shared narrative of the Black experience. In that often what’s said, doesn’t need to be explained. For example, in this meeting, I met one educator colleague just a couple of weeks ago but in spite of knowing very little about each other outside of work, our interactions have consistently been easy, non pretentious and purposeful. There’s a tacit level of respect we seem to have for one another that speaks volumes. There’s also an ease of communicating and a shared, cultural background that seems to render us as much more than distant colleagues (who happen to be perfect strangers), but cements us as co-conspirators, united in a sort of familial solidarity. In this comfortable space wherein deep, deep Blackness resides – I am, we are simultaneously at ease. There’s almost little to no need for introductions. We know each other or at least enough about one another, to just be ourselves in this moment and in this respective space in time.

It was in this settled in, free expression component of conversation, when the subjects shifted so effortlessly from the Lox and Jadakiss, to culturally relevant literature and pedagogy, to the cardinal sins of deficit belief systems and social promotions of our best and brightest, (whom far too many, simply refuse to teach), that I was at home. The baby of the bunch is being dubbed so, not for his age (I suspect that he and the other brother get off at about the same stop, while I am the elder of the group), but for his freshness in his professional teaching career, as he had transferred over from another vocation within the last 5 years or so. All at once, we knew that we were in the company of like minded comrades, who instinctively knew what war we were fighting against and how ominously the odds were stacked against us . . . but surely enough, each of us still relished in the knowledge that we would win. No doubt weary from our diverse number of years of experience on this battlefield, it was strangely refreshing to hear someone else competently outlining the crimes against humanity of facing a system in which others would sooner promote us and see us graduate (thoroughly unprepared), than to see us win or be challenged with academic excellence and life sustaining relevance. Sigh . . . Anyway, after a time talking and essentially monopolizing the 3-way conversation, the baby of the Black English teachers in this spirited group declared: I have conditioned my 11th grade, AP students to demand of their other teachers respect. I have challenged them to hold paid professionals accountable for doing something more than the bare minimum, when it comes to teaching me and us. Why? Because I’m worth it and that’s what I’m here for. Whew, a word indeed! I’m here for all of it and so glad to be in the land of the living and in the good company of colleagues with a shared knowledge, love and accountability for our success.

I will end this blog post and my fond, treasured memory of this most recent, life-affirming, educator conversation with my freshly ignited resolve to engage in many more spirit, soul and career enriching talks with my brothers in the field. There was a time, years ago, when my daughter’s Godfather and I could “talk shop” about everything from the most salient strategies to provide our students some refuge from the daily, traumatic rigors of being Black and mis-educated in America. And we would kick it effortlessly, in between reciting some KRS-One lyrics and/or discussing spirituality, our shared struggle to balance our lives and/or our love of our workout regimen that just freed us to be our authentic selves even in the workplace, which is a source of so much stress and strain. I can honestly say I miss that. There’s something about the righteous ma’at (balance, justice and reciprocity), nature of basking in the awe-inspiring wisdom of our brothers, which signals that indeed all is right in the world. My wish for my fellow, sister educators who predominate this field; is to know that we are not alone.

And so, for just a rare moment in time, there was no global pandemic; no palpable exhaustion (from this new school year, which actually just started – sheesh!); there wasn’t even separate agendas, formal introductions or a timed meeting constraint limiting the inclusion of baby girl’s on her talkative daddy’s lap, as he kicked it via Zoom. Especially since she knows full well, that she’s the most important and only priority in this moment and her brief presence was, if nothing else, a pertinent reminder of this unmitigated truth. In retrospect, it was simply the best and most heartwarming educator conversation, I have experienced in quite some time. And I am here for it, for all of it. I am certainly humbled and grateful to have been in the midst. Asé

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Salute to Teachers Everywhere

In this most non traditional and admittedly difficult year – I would be remiss not to pause to pay reverence and salute all teachers, everywhere.

What a taxing year of loss, learning, lack and under appreciation this has been for each of you! My veteran educator, always a teacher first, and whole heart goes out to you for having persevered this unsustainable storm of mis-education personified and increased accountability; without the slightest hint of gratitude and/or compensation to appropriately match your priceless, invaluable input.

We have not survived this year unscathed however. This year will most assuredly, always be the year that an entire world endured a pandemic. But that an entire nation, spoiled by privilege, also showed its proverbial ass. We taught and worked from home, whilst enduring the same sickness and loss an entire world experienced. Yet, the recurring albeit inappropriate refrain seemed to be: when are the schools gonna open up? Like what?! Really… the physical buildings may have been closed, but for so many of us the business of educating other people’s children continued seamlessly. How utterly privileged and out of touch were you all, not to even notice.

You have wondered when, if ever, you would get your mundane, unimportant and capitalist driven livelihoods back, while all the while our people were dying. Our children were suffering and crying out for your attention. Teachers were all but creating magic and attempting to pull rabbits out of our hats to instruct to off-camera virtual screens and all the while you could only lament your missed opportunities to troll the bars, eat out in fine dining establishments and to attend public sporting events and concerts. Not to mention the incessant moaning about missing the coveted opportunity to travel domestically or abroad. All the while, the teachers were teaching their overly exhausted hearts out, students were oftentimes struggling to keep up and/or adjust to this new norm.

Meanwhile, clueless administrators and professional development providers persisted in evaluating instructional staff best practices, and scarcely even pausing to take a valiant pulse check on teachers/students and staffs collective health and wellness. Nor was there any allowance for our the prescient need to ensure the longevity and support teachers’ virtually insurmountable instructional obstacles. No, indeed. It would seem the end of year priorities maintained alignment with the customary and no doubt, outdated methods of accountability such as poorly managed high-stakes teacher evaluations and standardized testing protocols. Alas, I digress…let’s get back to the business of celebrating those who courageously withstood all of this dysfunction without scarcely batting an eyelash: teachers.

This is a heartfelt, wholehearted and deep bow of gratitude to all who endured the absolute thankless job of pandemic teaching (amidst so many, countless horrific scenarios), within this past year and somehow, miraculously making it to the finish line. May we collectively pause and afford a moment of silence to the many, unnamed masses of educators, who perished while on the front lines of doing this most necessary first-responder aligned work in the field. ——————————————————————— We honor those we lost to the Coronavirus; those lost to retirement and those who whose time to bid adieu is imminent. May we collectively honor those in our midst who exasperatedly declared no more/no mas and who opted to throw in the towel this year; determining that their lives or their health or both, could not withstand the strain of giving anything more without doing so to their own detriment.

We similarly acknowledge those who remain steadfast, even at the conclusion of this academic year. Many of whom have seen unveiled, the sordid underbelly of dysfunction which lies just beneath the surface of a system which survives off the cheap, undervalued labor of teachers but which fails to honor and recompense educators, in kind. We salute all of you from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. We also commend those who teach within the hallowed halls of academia. We extend this salute to the countless parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, neighbors and extended family and friends who somehow assumed the coveted roles of teachers this year and who joined our distinguished ranks; albeit unwillingly (Lord have mercy), and who now understand it better, by and by, just a snapshot of what it means to be a teacher.

We respectfully extend a nod of gratitude to the few administrative leaders, boards of directors, partners/vendors and professional development stakeholders who innately sensed the urgency of taking their lead from teachers and ultimately students, and made sound decisions aligned with our highest, most priority needs rather than succumbing to the lowest, common denominator of the bottom line. Thank you to those who intuitively centered the voices of our students themselves and were responsive to the pressing needs of their families who often partnered directly with us in whatever semblance of success is yet to emerge from this 2020-2021 school year.

To the innovative, shape shifting, ultra flexible and highly competent teachers everywhere…to those who are anti-racist, culturally relevant and responsive…to those who spoke truth to power in reflecting and/or amplifying students voice and choice…to those who occupied the front lines of movements and social, community activism and who themselves embody the beauty or stand in the gap as allies and co-conspirators to the value of Black lives and intersectional pride in all of its many iterations: Thank you! To those who went above and beyond the typical call of duty and to the many who stood in alignment with their educator peers who were at times under siege this past year: your solidarity is appreciated. The simplicity of the words “thank you” seems so insufficient – but it is certainly a start. So we say it nonetheless: Thank you one and all! Asé ❤️✊🏿💚

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Full Circle Blackness – She/Her/Hers

As I struggle to give voice to all the parts of me that yearn for recognition, I wonder how to become more of who I am authentically and somehow manage not to offend others, still desperately in search of themselves. Then, just as quickly as the thoughts come, to make myself palatable and creatively package all the components of me that the world might find digestible, I reject this assimilationist nonsense and conclude, I may always be “too much” for others. And what’s more is: that’s okay. Imma just sit with all this splendor and offer up my unique parts as a “take it or leave it/love me or leave me baby”, type deal. Yeah. Blackness-proud-unadulterated-unapologetic and full. Perhaps, X-Clan said it best “My science is deep. My Blackness is deep.”

A few weeks ago, I needed to find a baby picture for a virtual shower I looked forward to attending, to celebrate a friend/colleague and her partner in welcoming their baby in May. Here’s the catch: I have never really been a big fan of baby showers, especially of engaging in the seemingly endless games that accompany them. But recently, that all changed, especially considering that in the winter just before the pandemic it was my turn to host such an event for my own younger sister as she enthusiastically awaited the birth of my beloved nephew that January. Aside from the sheer challenge of hosting a traditional baby shower event – mind you my own baby shower two decades ago, was a creatively themed “MamaToto” or Afrikan-centered, mother-child celebration event, which totally matched my personality and value system in design and execution and ensured that zero games were allowed. LOL. Although they came armed with somewhat traditional gifts as opposed to engaging in gameplay, my own baby shower guests also came armed with personal stories of being (or having themselves become) mothers. As such, the real gifts of the shower, those most memorable 22 years later, were not the seemingly endless list of store bought blessings – for which they all received a personalized thank you card of heartfelt gratitude. As you can imagine, the true “gifts” were the stories of self and countless gems of wisdom as shared from women who had been where I was headed. How fortunate I was to glean from people’s unique maternal tapestry, woven together by their respective family traditions, but as eerily similar as is the Black experience.

Ours is that of a shared value system of nearly identical cultural norms – as the “inside jokes” on Black Twitter seem to prove more and more everyday. Blackness is not purely native African traditions because, well the Maafa all but ensured an erasure of that which we instinctively knew and held dear (or so they thought). And Blackness is certainly not American, because what is that? To conceive of yourself as antithetical to the myth of a white supremacist ideal, which has but a singular trait to unite the masses and enact its poisonous agenda, which is that it despises us so. No, Blackness is its own ideal and the rewards are as innately divine as is our irrevocable connection to God. It is the universal blueprint for all things creative. Because I Am, we are the progenitors of the earth. And as God’s first people forged in his/her image, our very nature is to create. Just like haters gonna hate, creators must create. And it is this enigmatic component of who and whose we are, that is impossible to annihilate. Infinitely appropriated, but alas imitation of the divine is expected and is, after all, merely a shameless attempt at flattery. Non-duplicatable. Unfuckwithable. Yeah. Blackness-proud-unadulterated-unapologetic and full.

To this day, I remain immensely grateful for those intentionally unique baby shower gifts that centered powerful traditions and cultural heirlooms, that were undoubtedly of great value to raising a uniquely well-adjusted, Black Nationalist child, in a thoroughly racist and spiritually devoid culture, which obsessively centers whiteness. Jendayi’s rich, full, innately affirming Pan-Afrikan, Nationalist upbringing was fashioned after me and my siblings own coming-of-age. What results from a full-scale immersion in your God-self and your Blackness as unadulterated by outsiders influence is and was astoundingly rich and memorable – a foundation needed to nurture greatness and to fashion an unconquerable sense of self. It is upon this solid rock foundation that I present myself and all of my parts to the world: full-circle, African Woman, possessing deep, deep Blackness. She/her/hers. but I digress . . .

It was not easy to put my hands on the baby pictures for which I sought. I am frustratingly and distressingly apart from both of my parents-who might have more easily put their hands on one of the faded, undoubtedly dated, 70s photos. An image featuring me with a knowing smile, and a contented, well nurtured-fresh from homemade peanut butter cookies look. I might have an afro, naturally reddish-brown and framing a heart shaped smiling face. Or me with two cornrows, one on either side, symmetrically feeding into afro-puffs. Perhaps photographed solo, but likely accompanied by one, or both of my brothers. Damon, with his handsome, chiseled features and huge grin. Or Stephen, with his pillowy soft skin, and rounded baby parts, grinning infectiously from ear-to-ear and being held by my gorgeous, afro-crowned, ebony faced mother and/or affectionately cradled by my handsome, bearded and reddish-brown, football playing father. Either way, my initial search turned up empty. And we, as a family, now separated by the miles and still secluded from one another as a direct impact of having lost (at least) a dozen family members, give or take a few, to this horrid pandemic…have yet to commune under the same roof. So locating baby pictures of Nikki, my affectionate childhood nickname, was admittedly pretty low on the totem pole of our collective priorities. Or so I erroneously thought.

All of a sudden, it was as if the entire universe conspired on my explicit behalf, so that I could put my hands on at least a digital copy of a childhood photo and somehow manage to show up as graciously requested, for Rachel and Jenna’s highly anticipated and ultimately intimate, lovely, and memorable animal-themed baby shower. I sort of casually mentioned to my sweet, revolutionary and fiercely family-centered, Queen Mother that I was having a bit of trouble attempting to comply with not the conventional, obligatory gift request to contribute the amount of your choosing to the Venmo group-gift pot. But in fact I was struggling to fulfill the seemingly routine request of submitting our baby pictures for a collage to be prominently displayed at this memorable, joint virtual party and baby blessing inspired event. Well unbeknownst to me, mom launched into action from her corner of the world (roughly less than 5 miles away from my own, secluded abode), and called/texted no less than 10 members of our huge extended family, to see if anyone in our collective midst, could forward a baby picture of Nikki-stat. Like whoa! 👀

Soon, pictures of me at all ages (one as young as 3; but many from my teens and early adolescence), began flooding in through text. Funniest was when my own Mama, who birthed me as the second eldest fruit of her blessed womb – sent me a beautiful photo of my own, one and done, peacefully sleeping baby girl (ha!). Meanwhile , members of our family I never imagined would be solicited on my humble, baby-picture-needing behalf, shared of their collective bounty and reasoned that most of all family pictures were likely to be in the possession of a singular, oft-time photo-hoarding Auntie in particular. But alas, an immediate call to her turned up empty. Then, there was a bit of hope when later, one of her two daughters admitted that she had once had in her own possession, many of our family pics (that she had gotten from her mama), but that they had sadly been destroyed in a flooded basement some years ago. The other daughter of my beloved, picture hoarding aunt, convincingly hinted to my mom that she would soon make a visit to her mom’s house in accordance with her frequent, pandemic style check-in’s and that she would keep her eyes on the lookout for any such baby pics of yours truly. In fact, it could be that during one such visit, my sweet , community activist baby cousin soon unearthed a long lost family photo of many of us surrounding our beloved family and extended family matriarchs, including my own maternal grandmother, famed Detroit City Council trailblazer Erma Henderson, and legendary freedom fighter, Rosa Parks. Yeah – that part! But ultimately, it was the sheer “all hands on deck” nature of the baby shower inspired, baby picture of Nikki, all-encompassing search that endlessly affirms and otherwise speaks to my indescribable yet deep well of gratitude and appreciation for the fullness of my Blackness. Non-duplicatable. Unfuckwithable. Yeah. Blackness-proud-unadulterated-unapologetic and full.

I will end this baby shower story with the proverbial happy ending that I did, in fact, show up to this animal-themed, virtual baby shower in accordance with the animal theme: gasp-I was wearing a skin-tight, cheetah printed, move something dress, with a plunging neckline (thank God that Zoom covers up a multitude of sins!). But most importantly, I was confident in reflecting both my 1970s version as juxtaposed against this inappropriately dressed 2021 version. I was admittedly relieved, proud and grateful to have sent in my earliest recovered toddler-aged picture either on, or surprisingly maybe even before, the appointed deadline. As such, my collective family project artifact was somehow unassuming and neatly situated within what turned out to be a diverse and beautiful collage of my closest educational warrior-colleagues; within which a long-legged, pajama clad and distinctly poised George literally stole the spotlight from all of our adorable pics. As his striking beauty and camera readiness is the unmistakable focal point amongst a bevy of beauties. Except that my baby picture had an entire narrative of the Black experience behind it and in its representation I was and am eternally blessed to have been in the midst. It is of little consequence that the honorees, and other shower attendees were thankfully none the wiser for the collective sacrifice my entire beloved family (and especially my mother), made to ensure that I was represented in my self-assured state of full-circle Blackness (she/her/hers).

Though it was telling that some of my adolescent and teenaged photos were only notable in that they were absent my trademark smile, from my earliest childhood depiction to my current iteration – it is me in unapologetic and full formed Blackness. And I am proud. In perhaps the most touching spirit of brotherly love, just yesterday my big brother shared an open-mouthed, gleeful photo of my younger sister and I when she was clearly a teen and I was in my early twenties. I appreciate this representation as well, because I had already morphed into the self-assured, well read, Pan-African Nationalist named and fully formed woman I am proud to have embraced. I will conclude this love letter to my family, ode to our Blackness and perhaps way too personal blog post, by sharing a representative few of the photos discovered, in our collective quest to ensure that my own, rich and deeply immersed Black experience might be shared with others. I am immensely grateful for I Am because We Are. Asé

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At the Intersection of Black and Woman is Power

February has, rather quickly, come and gone. March is upon us and for some, brings the familiar promise of spring while for others, NCAA Madness. But somewhere at the intersection of our rightful centering and celebration of Black History Month + Women’s History Month there is the delicate balance of beauty and power that is the Black woman. In this hallowed, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined space of Intersectionality, we respectfully pause and pay homage to the truth of the power of The Black Woman.

Ours is an inheritance of birthing all of humanity and giving divine light and love to civilization. We are at the same time God/Goddess, Mother Earth incarnate, giver and sustainer of life and from our very ample bosom flows the coveted milk and honey, from which all people derive nourishment. We are: Mother, daughter, sister, souljah, she/her/hers and in us is every woman, “Its all in ME, anything you want done baby, I do it naturally” ala Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson, Chaka Khan AND Whitney Houston. In a word (or two, or three): I. Am. Bad.

And as my favorite poet, Nikki Giovanni so poignantly stated, “I’m so hip, that even my errors are correct”. I mean, I’m so aligned with the creator and source of life – God – that even the Black woman’s thoughts wield the divine power to grant y’all the presidency (ala Stacey Abrams), or to strip unearned power, whenever and wherever warranted. And since we have effortlessly blessed presidential eras with our anointed words, commanding inaugural podiums in unforgettable and patented, Black woman style, with inter generational, poet laureate energy – let’s just take a few moments to deconstruct the ways in which we have read your thoughts from A to Z while casting spells and mixing special brews to put fire inside of you. From adeptly weaving America’s bloody, historical past with an optimistic, hopeful nod to the future in the Clinton era with Dr. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning”. To the impactful, spoken word science and socially conscious, sober acknowledgement of “The Hill We Climb” in Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem . . . it is Black women’s words that have symbolized a mic drop simultaneously heard and felt around the globe.

And as further evidence of who (and whose) we are, Black women are equally poet/Goddess and conquerers in our everyday resonant context. We. Are. Bad. And every Black woman in America who survives (and ultimately thrives), does so in spite of an oppressive duality which seeks to upend our ethereal spirits and progenitor humanity. In fact not one, but both aforementioned poet laureates, equally exist as powerful testaments to our predisposition to overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. From Dr. Maya’s transformative coming of age triumphs over so much including: her parents’ divorce/abandonment; a victim of childhood rape; one well versed to both courageously exercising and then intentionally withholding the power of her voice; to a teenaged mother whose son Bailey was the divine blessing which resulted from merely her first, consensual sexual encounter-explored as a means to willfully define her own identity, against the backdrop of adolescent bullies who erroneously asserted that she was a lesbian. It is as important to chronicle Dr. Maya Angelou’s brief stint as a sex worker and madam, to which she proclaimed “I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, culture and intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores.” -Dr. Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name as it is to celebrate her countless honoraria and international esteem because she authored her own narratives as inspired by her brother friend James Baldwin to both mourn the murder of her friend Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and to accomplish the huge undertaking of writing her own autobiography as literature. This self-named, intensely self aware and fiercely outspoken Black woman of Stamps, Arkansas would later emerge as one of the most prolific, highly awarded and celebrated literary giants/philosophical thinkers of our times. Asé

And little sister Amanda, gifted with a spoken word artistic flair reminiscent of an innovative and legendary hip-hop era which precedes her birth, but is her righteous inheritance as it was born of the beauty and genius which is Black people – we have one who is as transparent about grappling with a childhood diagnosed auditory processing speech impediment as she is forthright about her intentions to run for president in 2036. Righteous indeed. A native of Los Angeles who had already named the first, national youth poet laureate of the United States in 2017 (at the tender age of 19), the recent Harvard graduate notes that it was her stutter that drew her to poetry in the first place. She told the Los Angeles Times “It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.” The naturally beautiful and stunning, 22-year old phenom recently signed a modeling contract with IMG Models. And while some erroneously proclaim that she ‘landed both a modeling and a Super Bowl gig’, Black women the world over smile and even laugh subtly, because we know that it is the divine power of the inimitable intersection of our Black womanhood that gives others the permission and privilege to elevate your brands through our very presence, endorsement and existence. You’re welcome world . . .

I Am/We. Are. Bad.

Asé