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I Am Not My Hair

Any/all visuals reminiscent of the India Arie banger “I am not my hair” are appropriate here, because yes . . . although this is an educational blog, we are unapologetically called upon to advocate on behalf of the redemptive beauty of our natural Black hair in both educational and professional work settings. Why?! Well obviously, simply being Black is now a crime and our children are increasingly and insanely mandated to conform to the same pre-determined, European standards of beauty which are antithetical to the splendor of our organic African selves – as a means to be educated. As a case in point, in August, an 11-year-old Black student at a private Roman Catholic school near New Orleans was formally suspended because administrators said her braided hair extensions violated school rules. A viral video shared by popular rap artist and actor T.I. on Instagram showed the sixth grader, Faith Fennidy, crying as she packed up her belongings and left Christ the King Parish School in La. Though the scholar student had worn braided styles for the past two years, inexplicably – such styles were now deemed a violation of school policy. Similarly, the entire Kentucky school system only recently lifted their antiquated, unbelievably racist and yet, extremely common ban on natural Black hairstyles. According to their outrageous policy: cornrows, twists and dreadlocks (among other styles), were expressly forbidden. Really? How about we outlaw stupidity, abject racism and institutionalized oppression in your backwards, un-evolved and undoubtedly mis-education fueled institutions?

In Kentucky, their actual, written policy read like an uninformed mandate on a slave plantation, “Hair styles that are extreme, distracting, or attention-getting will not be permitted. No dreadlocks, cornrolls (sic), twists, mohawks, no jewelry will be worn in the hair. No braids will be allowed on males.” As an educator, I am appalled but not surprised at the audacity + the caucasian exercise in White privilege, I.E. the #Caucasity that is required to conceive of such a policy. Having taught for 20+ years, with more than a decade in African-centered schools, comprising curricula centered on the African experience – could our schools have successfully implemented a policy whereby straight blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin, distracting long, oily hairstyles or attention-getting hair flips were disallowed? I think not. To be clear, NO hairstyle or element of identity traditionally associated with White people is deemed a violation of standard policy and has yet to be banned by schools and/or workplaces. Yet, the disclaimer for such innately discriminatory policies is evident in federal court rulings and illogical, non-scientific claims such as, “We feel that a student’s academic success is directly correlated to appropriate attire and appearance”. Clearly, despite increasing parent protests and public outrage, these policies persist in schools as a means to demonstrate a mere sign of the overtly racist times, in which we all live. The indefensible reality is that despite the record-breaking dwindling numbers of White students enrolled in U.S. public schools, American institutions are truly adept at perpetuating a White supremacist ideal – achievable and maintained via denying the rights and negating the very personhood of Black people. For each of the schools which knowingly legislates and promotes such baseless, immoral and racist policies – parents must duly govern themselves accordingly in making crucial school enrollment decisions. Opting to fight against selected institutional protocols, rather than exposing and then divesting of these unfit institutions, is essentially to pay for own disrespect and subjugation.

Of course, such discriminatory educational policies are assumed, even when not explicitly stated, and strictly enforced – although they violate our identity and humanity as a people. Adding insult to injury and harm, these practices are replicated by larger society in the form of government sanctioned workplace discrimination. As recently as 2016, the 11th Circuit U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruled that employment discrimination is legal against people who wear locks (a popular, natural hairstyle as proudly modeled above in my profile photo, sans makeup, in affirmation of our natural beauty ideal). According to Dr. Kaila Adia Story, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville, policies of this nature are “racist,” “gender biased,” and “femme-phobic”. In addition, Dr. Story asserted that “to police or punish students of African descent who wish to express their politics, ancestry, and personal style through the adornment and/or styling of their hair in its natural state” is to enforce policies targeting Black people. Though occupying this battlefront is unconscionable in 2018, it is apparent that we must fight on every front, literally every day just to BE Black . . . as such, #EducateToLiberate wishes to remind the entire world that:

#1 – Black people have the agency, self-determination, freedom and right to BE Black in every sense of the word. We should never be expected, forced nor legislated to manipulate our natural beauty to acquiesce to European norms in either schools nor the workplace.

#2 – For the record, natural hairstyles are NOT a fashion statement, but an immutable element of our identity as a people. Therefore, to outlaw our hair in the state in which it naturally grows from our scalps infringes upon our individual freedom to simply exist as people of African descent, and is akin to outlawing us, as a people.

#3 – The pervasive nature upon which institutions devise of ingenious methods to discriminate on the basis of race is increasingly popular and the corresponding impact upon all aspects of American society speaks volumes. Despite the fact that race is merely a social construct conveniently and unevenly applied as a tool in the perpetuation of White supremacist norms, discriminatory school rules and racist policy legislation as tied to our identity, are no less damaging to our psyche as a people.

#4 – Any and all veiled attempts to deny our innate right to agency and our legal rights to autonomously be our Black selves only serve to expose the #Racism, so carefully disguised as dress code policies in an institutionally oppressive society.

Within the unique context of celebrating our Blackness in all of its splendor and glory, we hereby affirm the unadulterated, natural elements of our identity and acknowledge that it is crucial to see ourselves and navigate the world around us in a positive light. Positive self-talk far outweighs the impact of the external standards of conformity imposed upon us; so to the extent that Black men and women unapologetically embrace our melanin, appreciate the unique aesthetics of our beauty and adorn our natural hair in all its forms with increasing pride, we thereby lessen and ultimately eliminate any/all expectations to continually conform to unseemly and unrealistic European standards of beauty. As women, many of us have grown accustomed to compromising our values and even burying our authentic selves in order to be accepted, protected and elevated in society. This is a dangerous, self-deprecating legacy to pass down to future generations. We must continue to affirm our own standards of beauty by celebrating our natural, Black selves to provide an increasing community of support to remind Black girls that their identity is a unique point of pride, not an albatross or component of a dress code which can be successfully banned. When I unapologetically present myself as an accomplished school administrator and/or college professor and embody the fullness of my outer beauty and genius persona as Dr. Nkenge, I always do so in my natural state. For all of my adult life I have proudly worn a wide a variety of natural hairstyles, jewelry and attire and have opted to be my authentic Black self – even when it has been to the chagrin of upper level supervisors (I.E. school superintendents and board members). I encourage all of my sisters to do the same. Kudos to the marketing team of My Black is Beautiful and BET’s Black Girls Rock! for their recent efforts in celebrating and extending the VIP treatment to aforementioned sixth grader, Faith Fennidy, in their valiant attempt to assuage her victimization by the racist school policy demanding her ouster (which has since been rescinded), at Christ the King Elementary School. Ultimately, though the world around us may well persist in offending our sensibilities and criminalizing our Blackness – we must fiercely embrace, love, uplift and defend our standards of natural Black beauty at all costs.

Indeed, “I am not my hair . . . I am the soul that lives within”. – India Arie

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My African-Centered Education Experience

Years ago, a well respected educator, activist brother and local charter school founder and I got into a heated, rather public debate about what constitutes an authentic African-centered education (ACE). As one might expect, our exchange was fiercely personal (driven by our own unique worldview), revelatory in its degree of discontent and sadly, the polarizing effects of our verbal sparring endures even today. At the time, I was both a product of an independently founded African-centered school (1970s), as well as a proud educator within a modern (then 1990s) African-centered institution, which is admirably still in operation in 2018. It is safe to assume that I was an admittedly fierce proponent of the vast diversity and value of an African-centered education. Given that my colleague was in the process of leaving a sister school to establish his own innovative, proudly themed ACE institution, I expected there to be greater commonality on our collective definition of what an ideal African-centered school offers and its empowering impact on its Black students. What I did not expect was for an experienced African-centered educator to cast aspersions on my passionate fervor and to openly negate the merit of my own distinct, academic background by arrogantly asserting “You went where? That was NOT an African-centered school!”. Well my dear brother, I begged to differ back then during the course of our legendary debate, and not much has changed today. The only distinction is that in writing, I am typically more thoughtful and explicit than my fiery Aries personality compels me to exercise in verbal communication; thus, I am now eager to provide ‘receipts’ for my earlier assertion with vivid, case illustrations of my own multifaceted, African-centered education experience.

In a nutshell, based upon my own educational background prior to becoming a teacher at Detroit’s nationally renowned Malcolm X Academy (MXA), I recognized that any institution could potentially offer a rich, fulfilling African-centered knowledge base and experience – without ever having to ostensibly classify itself as African-centered. This is true particularly provided that the all-inclusive educational focus is consciously and deliberately grounded in the Black students’ differentiated academic, social, cultural, and environmental framework of needs. Despite my impassioned argument, my colleague proceeded to soundly berate me for my ignorance of what he deemed to be the most indelible component of an African-centered educational experience: the public labeling and intentional structuring of a school as a viable counter to the traditional, albeit Eurocentric, public school. In other words according to my colleague, in order to be deemed an ACE prototype, the founders and curriculum must have been granted a sort of universal, ‘hotep-anointed’ stamp of authenticity to operate under the auspices of what (the select and extremely well-read) Black nationalist community deemed as sufficiently worthy of the ACE moniker. While there is obvious merit to community investment and anointment, in my fiercely opinionated way, I still believe that despite the absence of any formal validation and status – a chosen number of exceptional, tailor-made schools, I.E. Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit (NTSD), represented an authentic African-centered educational experience for all enrolled students. Further, based upon more than a decade of experience at Malcolm X Academy, as one of the founder-anointed ‘Master Teachers’, I am similarly inclined to believe that select, independent school institutions have the capacity to morph into intentionally enriching, ACE environments via a prescriptive set of ingredients which intentionally place the Black child at the epicenter of the learning experience.

In terms of my beloved alma mater, Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, co-founders George and Carmen N’Namdi established the institution in 1978 not as a calculated African-centered school in the modern sense, but as a living testament to the short and meaningful life of their youngest child, Nataki Talibah. Following the tragic, untimely passing of their 14-month old daughter, the N’Namdi’s implemented their sound and collective vision of how their other three children (and essentially entire generations of Black children like my siblings and I), should be educated. It was their Revolutionary decision to focus NTSD on “thinking globally” and creating a place where “the African American child could view themselves as the norm”, which rendered my unique academic foundation as thoroughly affirming, infinitely rewarding, and indisputably African-centered. In the empowered ACE tradition, even the name of the school is reflective of self-determination, self-love and allegiance to historical significance, as Nataki (Nah-TAH-kee) means of high birth and Talibah (Tah-LEE-bah) translates as a seeker after knowledge. Thus, the school’s name (originating from Central Africa), equally represented an important tribute to the African tradition as well as an expression of proud aspiration, centered in an authentic African-centered educational experience. Marked by its innovative curriculum inclusive of a consistent promotion of the knowledge of our African origins and the potential of our inherent genius, NTSD offered a most memorable and idyllic African-centered school experience without necessarily attracting controversy for their admittedly unique approach to education. For nearly 20 years, NTSD operated as a small, private and extremely unique cultivator of the various un-tapped talents and genius of Black youth in the city of Detroit. Among the positive, non-traditional practices embraced by NTSD, the school was featured in the New York Times in February, 2005 for “having practiced transcendental meditation twice daily for years” with a documented record of positive implications and results. According to Mrs. Carmen N’Namdi, “Given the enormous stresses of today’s world, children, like adults, need to learn how to rest and relieve tension.” It was not until 1995, that NTSD morphed from its humble beginnings as a small, private institution with an impressive roster of the children of conscious, educated Black professionals into a larger, public charter school under the authorization of Central Michigan University. Although the remarkable school closed its’ doors permanently in 2016, as an apparent casualty in the systemic dismantling of the entire Detroit’s public schools system via state control and years of ’emergency mis-management’; Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit will eternally command an impressive legacy of innovation, and excellence in education with African students as the prominent nucleus of its’ 36-year formula for academic achievement and success – Asé!

Within Detroit’s historic Malcolm X Academy, led by its nationally esteemed founding Principal, Dr. Clifford Watson, there was always an intentional African-centered purpose and plan for the school. This paradigm deliberately countered the norm of America’s mis-educated Black students, especially that of the endangered Black male. The proud history of this institution and its’ continuing legacy still in existence today, demonstrates that the city of Detroit was truly visionary and Revolutionary in pedagogical innovation. However, the MXA narrative is equally synonymous with a documented struggle to implement African-centered education “By Any Means Necessary”, because the school only exists because of a remarkable ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Deborah McGriff, then the Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools (DPS), noted in a 1992 New York Times article that, “As a school district we are committed to African-centered education, not only in the (African-centered) academies, but to infuse African-centered concepts across the entire curriculum.” This outspoken, courageous commitment to making African-centered education accessible for all students, particularly the documented majority of Black children educated in the city of Detroit, had the capacity to dramatically turn the tide of the widespread mis-education of Black students in Detroit. However in the end, ACE is embraced by an overwhelming number of Blacks and feared by an equal number of Whites, thus the potential implication of such an objective ultimately positioned an inescapable target on Dr. McGriff’s brief leadership tenure at DPS. The successful struggle to establish MXA also notably popularized the creation of countless, African-centered schools both within and outside Detroit. It can be argued that the entire era of the historic relevance of an African-centered education movement, stands as an enlightening testament of the power of self-determination on the part of Black parents taking control over their own children’s academic success. The African-centered school movement, successfully ignited in the city of Detroit with legendary independent institutions like Aisha Shule’/W.E.B. DuBois Academy, and exemplary public school models like Malcolm X Academy, ultimately expanded to include ACE institutions in: Atlanta, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Washington. The enduring legacy of Malcolm X Academy is that it is a purposeful, proud and unapologetic African-centered institution erected in the face of unprecedented vitriol and White Supremacist hatred.

Contested from its inception, MXA suffered incomprehensible evil repercussions from the unrepentant White Supremacists living in the racially segregated community of Warrendale, MI. In daily scenes eerily reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement led school integration efforts of the “Little Rock Nine” of 1957, a heavy police presence patrolled the borderline-suburban Detroit, Malcolm X Academy location. Imagine the poignant visual of helicopters circling overhead and racist, White residents shouting vile epithets, “I don’t want ni”*#@. in my neighborhood!” and “Go home!”. Despite this madness and the mentally, physically taxing distress accompanied with my early years teaching at MXA, I can attest that within the coveted sanctity of our high-performing, academically rigorous and nurturing school environment, we collectively achieved an ideal African-centered educational experience. While the internal environment offered an academic nirvana, the external scene was that of a virtual war zone. Vandals regularly spray painted swastikas on the school; residents threw rotten eggs at our beloved, uniformed K-8 children and at school buses; the most brazen racists even fired guns into the school and regularly threatened, lobbied and/or protested against the presence of an all-Black school in ‘their’ self-appointed, segregated Detroit neighborhood.

One memorable morning, while en route to MXA with my well-respected female colleague (we caught two buses daily, at the break of dawn and walked several blocks through the neighborhood, to reach the MXA campus), we came face-to-face with a wild eyed, cursing racist who aggressively jumped off their porch upon seeing our approach on foot and proceeded to ‘sick’ their rabid, barking dog on both of us. Resisting the urge to run, we simply stood firm as we had discussed in advance the various ways to defend ourselves against the potential for unsolicited acts of violence. With my colleague’s steely gaze, and our dual symphony of loud, unafraid and equally profane voices we proceeded to warn the resident (and the entire neighborhood), that in no uncertain terms “both you and your possessed canine mutt, will meet your definite end on this morning, if you don’t back the fuck up!”. The resident slowly retreated, whereupon we proceeded to the MXA campus to report the harrowing incident to administrators and the male volunteers on site (who regularly patrolled the school’s a.m./p.m. commute). Without hesitation, the well-dressed, unarmed men promptly separated into three groups, accompanied by our founding principal: one faction opted to remain on site, another drove through the neighborhood in search of signs of potential danger and a third group walked through the surrounding area and specifically surveyed the residence at the origin of the threat, as a means to ensure the future safety of any/all potential MXA staff, students. Needless to say, we never personally encountered additional threats of violence from neighborhood residents. Thankfully, to the credit of a cadré of hundreds of Black parents, national community activists, local city officials and the mighty F.O.I. of the Nation of Islam, an ever-present, strong base of support volunteered to ensure the safety of all original MXA students and staff, on a daily basis. It is noteworthy that the hate-filled White residents of Warrendale did not limit their historic racism to hate-filled rhetoric, petty vandalism and repeated threats of physical violence. Some affluent residents and attention-seeking White feminist organizations even went so far as to obtain legal representation to thoroughly investigate the school and to repeatedly challenge its’ African-centered curriculum, male-dominated enrollment and for such nonsensical offenses as a refusal to pledge allegiance to the American flag (á la Colin Kaepernick), in opposition to the daily recitation of a meaningless pledge which never applied to the freedom of African people in America. At MXA we opted instead to recite our own academically affirming school pledge every morning: “We at Malcolm X Academy, will strive for excellence in our quest to be the best. We will rise above every challenge with our heads held high. We’ll always keep the faith when others say die. March on till victory is ours: Amandla!” The featured image, depicts my own MXA Social Studies classroom early in my teaching career and offers a brief yet revealing snapshot into the powerful portrait of the disciplined, high expectations driven, and overwhelming purpose-filled identity of an African-centered education experience. An Education Week reporter regarded my classroom poster devoted to freeing political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal as suspect, but also concluded “In a city with three full-fledged African-centered academies and 18 other schools with African-centered themes of one form or another, Malcolm X is the feisty granddaddy of them all”. This is an accurate depiction of a legacy of resounding relevance in African-centered education, for which many educators, parents, and grassroots activists are immensely proud.

In retrospect, as spirited as the earlier-referenced debate was re: the specific formula that constitutes a genuine African-centered education, it is highly likely that there are no right or exact components . . . merely a difference of opinion as it relates to the overarching, moral code of ACE. Though it admittedly took far too long, I am now able to recognize (in my 40s), a conclusion I could not calmly communicate (in my 20s), which is that the merit of an atypical African-centered education is likely as varied as the student and teacher products themselves. In any case, based upon my own unique educational biography as both a student and teacher within equally enriching and unique African-centered school setting(s), I am comfortable in outlining what I feel to be the most obligatory components of such an idyllic, potentially transformative and inherently rich African-centered school experience. Namely, African-centered educators must be willing, competent and well-versed in supplementing the curriculum, to reflect the vast African contributions to humanity, as this is (often intentionally), omitted from the universal and overwhelmingly Eurocentric academic curriculum. In addition, a cross-curricular focus upon African history must be deftly weaved into the instructional norms of every core subject area, as a means to promote the ideology that excellence in education is the norm for people of African descent, rather than the exception. There must be an intentional, academically rigorous and strategic focus upon STEM and the Arts, given that Science-Technology-Engineering-Math, are disciplines which were mastered and largely revolutionized as a result of the significant body of inventions, research study, and developments of African people. This offers an obvious counter, to the American mis-education fueled tradition of an overwhelming focus upon arts, humanities, trades and athletics for Black students. This also challenges the common narrative of the natural service, employee ranks and athletic prowess of Black children, while negating the presence of our equally significant intellectual genius and nurturing our natural entrepreneurial capacity. The diversity of the African-centered school’s leadership and staff should aptly reflect the school’s enrollment and the rigorous professional development plan must immerse educators in the ‘best practices’ of African-centered classroom management and teaching, learning (which differs from that of traditional schools, overwhelmingly aligned with an aggressive school-to-prison pipeline). Finally, African-centered schools must place the unique needs, learning styles and agenda of the Black child at the center of all educational decision and should aggressively embrace a year-round school calendar, as a viable attempt to level the academic playing field for America’s unique demographic of oppressed, Black students.

The diversity of my own lifetime of African-centered school experiences, cultivated intimate family-friendly environment(s) inclusive of an immersion in African history, a natural, unspoken pursuit of universally high expectations, an individually affirming disciplinary code of conduct, a school community village reflective of unconditional love and healthy doses of: self-love, purpose, esteem, inquiry, research, discovery and critical thinking to empower lifelong seekers of knowledge and notable leaders among those of African descent. This is the intended goal of similar African-centered education institutions. Current principal and veteran educator of the now merged Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy, Dr. Jeffery Robinson concludes “We’re teaching our children to have full pride in their heritage, to learn and incorporate that heritage into who they are, and into the adults they will become. And most importantly, once they receive an education, they are duty-bound to come back and give back.” ~ Asé

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Born to Inherit Revolutionary Activism

My early childhood was marked by a series of ‘charmed’ life experiences. From being born in Ann Arbor, MI on the University of Michigan campus where both of my parents matriculated – I have always intimately known education and its surroundings. My Mother, then a journalist and my father a social worker (both parents were young activists), had an indelible impact upon my early life. Early photos and many childhood stories revolve around my eldest brother Damon and I living with our parents in the university’s married housing complex and attending countless U of M football games (my Dad played for the legendary Coach Bo Schembechler). When we weren’t in school, we attended classes with one or both of our parents and played outside with our young college family neighbors or spent time with an entire cadre’ of extended family and friends. In this memorable era (the early 70s), all of our friends were like extensions of family and I recall that the twins – our youthful playmates – were willing counterparts in many fun ventures. Likewise, I remember being in and around the ‘Movement’, as my parents assumed an active lifestyle of engagement with other social activists. So we often hosted company at our own home or were frequent guests in the homes of others who were like an extension of family. Basically, I can remember sharing the company of countless Mama’s, Baba’s, sisters, brothers, friends and essentially an entire community of extended family L-O-V-E, in the most authentic and natural sense.

With such a strong foundation it is no wonder that I grew up with an extremely high sense of ‘self’ and an outspoken, bright and loving personality. In general, I have always been described as both a bossy and sweet and I can only hope that these characteristics have appropriately tempered or flourished throughout my lifetime. Though my brother Damon was two years older and by every account, more social, mild-mannered and even tempered than me – he readily consented to playing ‘school’ and even taking orders (of the general playtime nature), from his younger, spirited and outspoken little sister. And even though the traditional sibling ‘battles’ of wills did occur from time to time, between the eldest two and my younger brother and sister (by the time they were born), for the most part there are only good childhood memories punctuated by love. Admittedly, I smile at the picturesque memories of Mama’s fragrant baked goods – her specialties were peanut butter cookies and homemade rolls – as well as the happy, playful Univ. of Michigan days and the warm, cozy, revolutionary strategizing or game-centered nights with my idyllic family unit. Little did I know, the peaceful pleasures of such a youthful innocence and life were soon, regretfully to be replaced with the harsh realities of the world’s depravity and dysfunction – in the form of racism.

For the Black child in America, our identity begins in a vivid knowledge of “who I am” through the lens of the generations of men and women, who were our predecessors. So many of us determine our worth, develop our understanding of life and form a sense of self from our grandparents, parents and through our early life experiences. A thoughtful analysis of my earliest life experiences contributes to my profession as an educator and undoubtedly impacts my unique worldview as a justice-driven activist and freedom-loving woman of African descent. My core worldview stems from the distinct way in which I was raised and includes a unique combination of beliefs forged from my ancestral lineage, my parents’ teachings and my own value system as developed in adulthood. Indeed, my unique family background is the most significant component of the fabric, which drapes my unique worldview. The most memorable story of my family history and lore provides the backdrop for the foundation of my worldview – my admitted justice-driven and freedom-loving persona. The most poignant example of this is the vivid story of survival featuring my maternal great-great-Grandmother, Mary Ella Gardner, a fearless woman of full-blooded African ancestry, whose very life was saved by the sheer power of her words.

Born in 1890, in Grenada City (Copiah County) Mississippi, my Grandmother prided herself on “paying her way” for the daily survival and expenditures of her family despite her legal ‘sharecropper’ status. Therefore, when faced with a ‘fabricated’ general store debt once the time arose for her to be paid for more than a year of hard earned Mississippi labor, Grandmother vehemently accused the landowner of theft. Such an accusation was undoubtedly taboo and this man subsequently vowed to return (and to do so with the intent of furnishing an alternate, more deadly, form of payment). The next morning when faced with a racist, murderous lynch mob, Grandmother used both her quick wit and razor-sharp tongue to escape certain death by slowly bringing her right hand to her bosom and proclaiming “…Now, you take one mo’ step towards me and you’ll step to HELL this morning”. The two held one another in a steady gaze for a few pregnant moments and then as quickly as the mob had descended, they were gone. This historic event prompted my entire maternal family to escape from the degradation of the south to the north (specifically to Detroit, MI) unscathed. Ultimately, Grandmother went on to enjoy a peaceful, well-earned and fulfilled existence for many years until her natural death in Detroit on December 9, 1967 (years before I was even born).

Needless to say, since it was both her fearless persona and the sheer, powerful words of my Grandmother, which protected my family legacy and lineage. I have always had a distinct respect and reverence for the power of words as well as for freedom, justice and equality in general. This rich, historical background is now a part of me, and because my unique worldview was formed unconsciously and inherited from my strong ancestors who left an indelible impact; now as an adult, I am required to intentionally synthesize my family history and my various beliefs to reap present-day significance. From the framework of transformative learning, a relational, dialogic approach to my family legacy means that I must realize that “through critical examination of themselves, we provide the context for transformation; the exploration of alternative understandings of how one sees the world and their roles within it” (Cranton, 1994). Thus, the formative learning, which occurred in my childhood, collectively informs my identity, cultural values and present-day reality.

My parents have likewise had a powerful impact upon my worldview. As the product of two highly literate, college-educated parents who fell in love, married and reared two of their four children while engaged in their own undergraduate and graduate pursuits at the University of Michigan campus upon which I was born, my childhood was blessed. My earliest childhood memories are filled with a host of positive experiences including being read to from both traditional bedtime stories to unique African fables, which always contained a moral. The lessons of these stories resonated much more than the titles themselves and I retain fond memories of learning the virtues of honesty, self-love, responsibility and self-sacrifice for the good of mankind. These are core values and cultural character traits that somehow, still resonate with me today. As I move to synthesize this early template into present-day significance, I am affirmed by the positive memories. However, I am also mindful of Sorokin’s acknowledgement of the cultural crisis of our time and that “no fundamental form of culture is infinite in its creative possibilities, but is limited” (Sorokin, 1992, p. 22). This means that in order to maintain value, my cultural foundation must be transformed to reflect a logical, rather than emotional, form of decision-making.

A practical example of one of the many ways I must now learn, as an adult to select, identify, prioritize, reconstruct and rehearse adult beliefs is to be more tolerant of the world’s injustice. In fact, Mezirow refers to adult development as “an adult’s progressively enhanced capacity to validate prior learning through reflective discourse and to act upon resulting insights” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 7). This means that I must struggle to work in a largely flawed pedagogical system that places little to no value on the widespread academic growth of all students. Society may find multiple ways to rationalize the institutionalized racism of disparate educational funding through state and local taxes. Therefore, I must appropriately channel my revolutionary activism and launch an otherwise silent, ongoing and seething protest to this reality, by doing my very best to counteract injustice in a rational, targeted fashion. This propels my work to decrease the widening achievement gap in the most high-needs schools as an effective educator. Thus, while my desire to teach and conscious choice to work in social justice is undoubtedly a direct outgrowth of my early template. My reasoned contribution to teaching in a flawed, unequally equipped system is to raise student achievement, in spite of the insurmountable odds, by any and all means necessary.

Given that my parents were well-read, outspoken campus activists who were active participants in both the Black Student Union and the Black Panther Party during the late 60’s, my elder brother and I were made privy to countless Pan-African, community activist events where we observed revolutionary lectures/activities taking place. Many of my early childhood memories occurred in an idyllic setting and were crafted to teach the values of other-centeredness and strong community connections. Because the context of this real-world education was received in the comfort of a middle-class setting (a college campus) at the hands of two conscious, college educated parents; I feel required to make an extra effort to relate to students with less than ideal backgrounds, in order to build the mutually respectful relationships. This means that I must incorporate my pro-Black consciousness and middle class experiences, avid community activism, proud Black Nationalism and self-avowed revolutionary leanings on behalf of the downtrodden masses of my people through my career as an educator. Thus, the vivid portrait representing my early template, now relevantly takes shape as both an ideology and inspiration in my enhanced, adult decision-making capabilities.

Clearly, throughout my development, my earliest life experiences significantly influenced my unique worldview in countless ways. Indeed, from the way I have prospered as a student throughout school; to my inherent love of reading, speaking and all things written; even to my present career as an educator – my core ethical framework and unique worldview is a direct by-product of my lineage, and early belief system. The practical application of my early template and worldview is to live a life of integrity. Ultimately, as I incorporate the full summary of my early template with my work as an educator, I recognize that my path may well have been predestined by my early life experiences. Certainly my present-day worldview is consistent with values, cultural traditions and beliefs I inherited from my great-grandmother, parents and the values that I have adopted as an adult. I am admittedly grateful for my rich heritage, replete with the lessons and spirit of activism I inherited and the freedom-loving lifestyle that I presently embrace. I feel capable of divorcing emotion from my informed, rational adult decision-making and in retrospect I consider it an esteemed privilege to play a significant role in the development of literate, educated individuals. I feel that it is my supreme obligation as an educator and a fulfillment of my life’s calling to give back at least a portion of the ‘gift of a strong childhood foundation’ that my family so readily extended to me.

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My African Spirituality Explained

Religion is manmade and as such, inherently flawed. Despite addressing the seemingly innumerable soul and spirit devoid shortcomings of religion, I prefer instead to highlight that I am unashamedly and deeply spiritual and acknowledge my oneness with the divine source of life – God. Finally, years after having been raised as a devout Christian and then later having cultivated a healthy knowledge and love of the discipline inherent in Islam – I am proud to have wholly embraced and proudly raised my daughter to have a deep spiritual base and an equal acceptance of and respect for religious freedom. As such, my journey to African spirituality begins…

Though my life has spanned the absolute extremes of: periods of religious fanaticism; multiple Christian church inspired instances of ‘giving my life to Christ’ and baptisms; an abrupt, ideological rejection of Christianity and an eager embrace of orthodox Islam in college; a permanent, legal name change and spiritually affirming, African-centered name change ceremony; a hesitant yet spirit-filled and brief return to Christianity in young adulthood (but with an informed, discerning and inquiring mind – adoring qualities which the Black church generally frowns upon); an African-centered and decidedly ecumenical marriage ceremony which featured an idyllic commune with nature and was jointly officiated by a team (my A.M.E. pastor, revered members of the elected and Black Nationalist centered “Council of Elders”, AND spiritually uplifting, culturally inspired dancers/drummers), and a wedding ceremony, reception replete with ancient African traditions; only to determine (throughout my 30s and now in my 40s), that I am no longer a willing convert to organized religion, in any form. On the contrary, for the past 8 years or so, I have evolved to adopt a non-organized and much more fitting, affirming form of African spirituality – which I realize now was always implied in earlier, pivotal life decisions – and which, I pray, sustains me through the remainder of my unique life’s journey.

My increasingly intimate relationship with the divine source is strengthened through a unique combination of (previously learned and admittedly religious routines), including prayer, meditation, song, dance, praise and worship, charity, activism, physical exercise, work and using my life toward the fulfillment of the greater good. Yet, even in my heightened spiritual consciousness and innate joy of having grown closer to the divine, it is not lost on me that my unique African spirituality is yet another representation of the many ways in which my life differs from the accepted norm(s) of this society. Admittedly, my enlightened embrace of a powerful and affirming African spiritual base, also draws unfavorable judgments from some ‘holier than thou’ religious zealots (primarily among close family and friends), who consider it their obligation or self-appointed, pious duty to damn all who fail to subscribe to their myopic and various, un-enlightened forms of organized religion, most often expressed via the more popular routes of Christianity or Islam.

There is at least more widespread acknowledgement of other religious and spiritual paradigms in 2018. In light of a recent New York Times article highlighting Black people’s widespread abandonment of Christian Evangelical churches (and its corresponding White Supremacist ideology); and data reflecting the Millennial generations’ reticence to subscribe to virtually any of the traditional tenets of organized religion-I am convinced that a depth of spiritual growth may well ascend to a powerful universal movement. My own adoption of a rich, spiritual life in favor of organized religion, is a powerful testimony of my personal growth, an expression of Revolutionary faith, and a fierce acknowledgement of the divine. I am enormously blessed and affirmed to honor God in much more substantive ways at this stage of profound enlightenment.

Perhaps there are some who after reading this blog, would still reserve judgment and prefer to pray for my salvation and soul’s redemption as they struggle to fully comprehend my name, abandonment of organized religion, or unique form of African spirituality and all-encompassing praise. However, in my ultra peaceful household with strategically placed, ancient Egyptian/Kemetian symbols of life (the Ankh), and daily rituals which inspire prayer, praise, worship, joy, and most importantly, LOVE… I am at peace with my unique spiritual ascendancy to this coveted rank. I am interested in upholding the sacred tenets of divinity in my conscious, Revolutionary and purpose filled life which solely honors God and my ancestors than in being preoccupied with the judgment of others (who may unknowingly still be on their own, individual journey to spiritual fulfillment and spiritual enlightenment).