Is it Really All Black and White?

Interesting, I wonder if we all do this when we speak (use of all intended). I think I need to pay attention to whether I use black and white words at home. I think my other half thinks I speak in black and white terms.  I think I use the word always too much.  Why do you always (fill in the blank)?

E. P. Matthews

I dislike the word “all”.   It’s a demanding, self-important word, even though it’s quite small.  Are we all here?   Are all roofing contractors crooks?  Did you finish all your vegetables?   It is, if you will, the Napoleon of words, perhaps just because it is so small.   It’s the person at the party who insists on topping your joke with his own punchline.   It’s the blind date who decides to tell you the ways you resemble his ex-wife.   Or worse yet, his mother.    All the ways you resemble his mother.

In the name of full disclosure, I confess that I am guilty of using the a-word  more often than I should, albeit invariably with regret.   I use it when I’m arguing with my husband:  “Why do you always dump all the junk mail on me every day?”   (He does.)  Or when I’m trying to get my kids to do their…

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Dear America, We Need To Talk

Dear America,

We need to talk.

We need to talk about #Race and #Racism in America.  My Twitter feed is on fire over #RoxburyShooting.  Please do not turn the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston into another #Ferguson.  I see so many tweets that are attempting to do just that on both sides of the battle.  Continue reading

Imagining Dr. King on MLK Day 2015

Dr. King IMG_0224

Image courtesy of Historical Stock Photo

I spent a fair amount of Monday, Dr. King’s Day, reading and listening to his words.  I couldn’t help but wonder what would he think now.

If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had not been gunned down in Memphis on April 4th, 1968; on Thursday, January 15th he would have celebrated his 86th birthday.  I imagine like any octogenarian on the occasion of his 86th birthday, he would pause and reflect not only on himself, his family, his life but also on the state of affairs of his country, his people whom he served and the nation he served by being the voice and catalyst for change.

Continue reading

‘cuz he’s black – you need to watch this, please

Since Monday’s announcement that the grand jury chose not to indict Officer Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, I have been in shock while at the same time not surprised. At first, I thought that I would wait until I read all the evidence that was released following the prosecutor’s announcement before I write a post. Today, I know that I will likely not wait. There is much to be said both as an American reacting to the existence of institutionalized racism in her country and after reviewing the released evidence.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a post I wrote last year because if there is one thing that is clear to me in the last two days it is that America by and large does not understand what it is like to grow up as a black boy in America. Javon Johnson’s message is powerful and I encourage and implore you to listen to his video.
#PrayingForFerguson

from the sticks to the bricks and back again

Since first viewing Javon Johnson’s“’cuz he’s black”  on You Tube, I can’t stop watching it.  It is a must watch that takes less than five minutes.  Please stop now and watch it even if you don’t come back and finish reading this post.

Johnson, a professor in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, for sure is brilliant, articulate, a charismatic orator who captivates my attention.  Not only have I watched “‘cuz he’s black” at least a dozen times in the first 48 hours since Mr. David Johns shared it on his twitter feed, I have played it incessantly over and over in my head.

As I work, I type, “The Tenant upon twelve months’ prior written notice,” while I hear in Johnson’s deliberately soft voice that makes me lean in and listen intently to his words, “I’m not happy with the…

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Blogging 101: Dream Reader

Blogging 101: Dream Reader

Today’s Assignment: publish a post for your dream reader, and include a new-to-you element in it.

Time to put your writing caps back on, and start honing your blogging focus.

We often create posts hoping that someone in particular will see (and appreciate) our work. Today, publish a post for that person — whether they’re a real-life figure or not — and stretch your blogging chops as you do.

Today’s Assignment: publish a post for your dream reader, and include a new-to-you element in it.


It’s funny; you weren’t my target audience when I started this blog. When I responded to the question: who would I love to connect with via my blog during the first Blogging 101 assignment you didn’t even cross my mind.  But here I am writing to you my Dream Reader.

Let’s be honest with each other; you and I don’t really know each other. We had a chance encounter that lasted all of thirty seconds over twenty years ago.  Yet, I can still see your face and oftentimes think of you when I am in the tunnel where we first met, and believe I would recognize you if our paths were ever to cross again.

But, really we know nothing about each other except what we were able to assess in a snap thirty seconds over twenty years ago.

It was late on a Friday night, nearing 1 a.m. and the subway was going to stop running soon. I wanted to make sure I made my connection for the last Mattapan trolley that would take me home.

I was young and had been working in the City for only a couple of years at the first job I landed in commercial real estate after graduating from college. I was heading home after a night out with my girlfriends.  I had a few drinks too many that night and I was very aware that my intoxicated state made me vulnerable.  Intoxication also heightened my defenses.

Our paths crossed in the T walkway at State Street, a long, cold corridor connecting several different subway platforms.

You did not know that even during the daytime that corridor and the one that connects Downtown Crossing and Park Street stations creep me out. They make me feel vulnerable as a woman walking through them alone when they are not filled with other commuters.  How could you know?

You did not know that sense of vulnerability did not stop me from using either of these corridors. I just walked through them with intentness and purpose and with an attitude which proclaimed I belonged there challenging someone to dare say anything to the contrary.  How could you know?

I was half-running, half-walking that empty corridor, veering towards my right so that the wall would hold me up if I lost control as I raced towards the Forest Hills platform. Periodically, I adjusted the skirt my junior high teacher, Mrs. Proctor, would’ve sent me to the principal’s office for wearing because the hemline was too short.

You heard the sounds of my high heels clicking and clanking on the cement floor of the hallway before your eyes caught mine.

I heard the sound of your footsteps, a man’s footsteps coming down the hall towards me.

Our eyes met as I tried to somewhat gracefully bolt by you onto the subway platform. I nodded and smiled but refused to stop.

I noticed you were 10 – 15 years older than me, a touch of gray scattered throughout your hair and facial hair adorning your light mocha colored face.

You wanted me to converse with you.

I wanted to get to the subway platform before my train arrived.

You sensed my fear.

You did not know that my adrenaline coursed faster and my defenses heightened the moment I heard the footsteps of a man approaching me. How could you?

I did not know you simply wanted to tell me to slow down, there was still time before my train arrived. How could I?

You did not know that I found the scent of your cologne breathtaking and that I was struck by your handsomeness. How could you?

I did not know you just wanted to say hello. How could I?

You did not know that my fear that you sensed had nothing to do with your blackness but everything to do with you being a man, a stranger and I an inebriated young woman. You did not know it was not my whiteness that feared the man approaching me, it was my womanhood.  How could you?

I did not know that you were going to react to me from a history of being treated with fear because of the color of your skin. How could I?

I could hear the anger rising in your voice as you yelled out “You won’t talk to me because I’m black.”

You did not hear me say, “No, it’s because you are a man.”

You did not know that it was not your blackness that made me continue to dart to the subway. How could you?

I did not know you wanted to compliment the sparkle of my eyes. How could I?

You did not know that before I moved into the City, I spent nearly every Saturday for three months visiting different neighborhoods looking for a racially diverse neighborhood; not wanting to be the only white face in the neighborhood while also not wanting to see only white faces in my neighborhood. How could you?

I did not know that you had endured a lifetime of being treated as the villain – labeled and viewed as the criminal since you were a black boy growing into the feared black man. How could I?

You did not know that I was rushing home to my boyfriend, his skin the same light mocha as yours, the son of a black-American father and Trinidadian mother. How could you?

I did not know that you were going to tell me to stop adjusting my skirt because it looked fine the way it was without me trying to stretch the material down. How could I?

You did not know that it was your footsteps coming towards me that frightened me. How could you?

I did not know you were so accustomed to being viewed as the problem and not part of the solution that even you sometimes forgot that you could be the latter. How could I?

You did not know that at times it seemed, because it was so, that I felt more comfortable, safer in city neighborhoods that were traditionally black than I did in city neighborhoods that were traditionally white where history showed us outsiders weren’t welcome. And, I was an outsider in spite of my whiteness and shared ethnic heritage.  How could you?

I did not know that you were one of the countless black men stopped by the Boston Police Department in the Fall of 1989 after Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife and unborn son, blaming it on the non-existent black male assailant. How could I?

You did not know that when I heard the strong sounding footsteps of a man coming towards me I did not care whether he was white, black, brown or yellow. How could you?

I did not know that you had noticed I was a bit tipsy and just wanted to make sure I got to where I was going. How could I?

You did not know that I had never been judged by the color of my skin before. How could you?

I did not know that you had lived a life constantly being judged by the shade of your skin – too black in the white community and often not black enough in the black community. How could I?

I cringed as you yelled at me. I wanted to sink under the subway floor, embarrassed and hurt because I wasn’t that kind of girl.  The kind who was raised to fear and even hate someone based on skin pigmentation.

Seconds later, annoyed that you mistook me for that type of girl based on my whiteness, I turned to explain to you that wasn’t who I was. You were already gone. You angry, I annoyed.

We did not know had we just met each other an hour before the last subway train or under other circumstances we could have been friends.  How could we?

Our brief encounter took place before there was a Missed Connections feature on Boston.com or Craigslist. Otherwise, I would have written: W4M Mocha skinned brother who yelled at me in the State Street Corridor on Friday night after midnight, let’s meet for breakfast at the Silver Slipper on Sunday morning.  And, I know you would have met me there.

We did not know we could’ve been friends. How could we?

So instead, I periodically think of you when I hurriedly pass the spot where our eyes first met.  And, when after the killing of an Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, or Mike Brown our nation’s attention turns momentarily to the dastardly way black boys and black men are treated in this country and so many in white America still do not get it or believe it, I think of you.  And, I get it.

the n-word

After posting ‘A Nation of Trayvons’, I had several lengthy discussions with one of my best friends about racism, how far we have really come, whether the election of a black President signifies hope for race relations and the use of the n-word in present day American society.  Her viewpoint was and is if a word is hateful and bad then no one should use it, period end of story.  If only, life was that simple.  Life is, however, messy and a bit more complicated.  So is the society we live in.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the daughter of fairly politically liberal parents, my sisters and I were taught that the n-word was a hateful and mean word we did not use.  If any one of us had dared to utter that word, our bottoms would likely still be sore today from the spanking we would have received only after being sent to our room to ponder why we should not use the word.  That word was not part of our vocabulary.

My personal reaction to the use of the word is as visceral as my reaction to first seeing the Confederate flag flying over the Capitol Building in Columbia, South Carolina.  I remember thumping my head on the roof of a college friend’s car when I jumped up in disbelief that in 1997 a symbol of such hatred was flying over a government building.  I love the South, its people, their hospitality, its food, its weather, and, I understand that for many Southerners, the Confederate flag symbolizes not hatred, but Southern pride.  I think, however, for the vast majority of Americans, myself included, the Confederate flag symbolizes indoctrinated racism and hatred.

Like the Confederate flag, the n-word represents hatred to me – pure unadulterated hatred.  When I hear it no matter who is saying it or their intent, I cringe at the sound of “the bad word” being uttered. It is hard not to given the vile history of the word.  One word, two syllables filled with hatred and ugliness used for centuries to control, degrade, dehumanize and keep down an entire group of people for no reason other than color of their skin.

Collectively, we like to pretend our country’s racist past and slavery was a long time ago – and on the one hand 150 years is a long time and on the other hand when you look at the connection between generations, 150 years is not that long ago.  My great grandmother, who I knew, was born roughly 125 years ago.  That’s three generations prior to mine.  My other half’s grandmother, whom we both knew and loved, was the granddaughter and great granddaughter of slaves.  For most of us, who were children of the 1960s and 1970s, we are separated from the days of slavery by 4 – 5 generations.

And it was barely 50 years ago that the Civil Rights Movement occurred and President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  America’s racist past (read overt institutionalized racism, because racism still exists today it’s just against the law) was really not that long ago.  As recently as the late 1960s, the lynching of black men was a commonplace occurrence like that hauntingly portrayed in Billie Holiday’s song ‘Strange Fruit’.

‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.’

The n-word, as well as a litany of other derogatory words, was spat at black men as they were being dragged to their death at the end of a lynching mob’s rope.

In a recent interview promoting her movie “The Butler,” Oprah Winfrey spoke quite emphatically about the reasons the n-word will never fall across her lips. Winfrey simply stated that she knew that was the last word some of her relatives, her ancestors heard before they were killed.

Winfrey spoke of an undeniable truth – the last word countless black men heard was the n-word. It was the final act of degradation at the hands of racist white mobs, sometimes the KKK, sometimes not.  Knowing the vicious history of the word, I cannot condone its use by anyone.  I recoil at the sound of it coming out of anyone’s vocal chords.

Today the word is overused in rap lyrics.  It has become common place in our society and has developed a new meaning – a term of endearment used largely within the black community when referencing one’s closest friends. Jay-Z has discussed at length how the use of the n-word in rap lyrics and the community has taken over ownership of the word.  His viewpoint on and justification of its use is that by taking over ownership of the word, turning it into something it was not initially intended to mean defuses the word and does more to fight racism than trying to remove it from our vernacular.  There is merit to Jay-Z’s argument.  There is strength in taking ownership of the word and stating you can no longer use that word to control or degrade me or my people. There is power in that.  Yet, I still cringe when I hear the n-word whether it is coming out of Mr. Carter’s mouth or someone else’s.

In spite of my gut reaction, I am well aware that with any word one has to look at how it is being said, by whom, and what the speaker’s intent is. When Jay-Z sings “So I ball so hard muhf*ckas wanna fine me/But first ni**as gotta find me/What’s 50 grand to a muhf*kaa like me/Can you please remind me?” or uses the n-word in conversation, I cringe but I am not offended. When a white man on my commuter train runs his mouth off about how he can’t’ stand working with the ni**as, I cringe and I am offended. (And, I am compelled to open my mouth and set him straight.)

My other half on occasion uses the n-word when talking about his boys. I accept that his blackness has earned him the right to use the word.  His mom and aunties who came of age in the South in the late 1940s and 1950s, however, scold him.  It is a generational thing and their experiences were so much different than ours; they witnessed America’s ugly history.  I still cringe.

Along with the proliferation of the n-word in our society has come the debate over when it is okay to use the n-word and who can use the word.  It’s quite simple, if you are black and use the n-word with love, then go right ahead and use the n-word.  I will still cringe.

White folks you may be married to a black person, your best friend may be black, but let me emphatically state, you do not, I do not have the right to use the n-word. And if you ever foolishly think it’s okay for you to use the n-word, the least of your concerns will likely be whether I cringed or not. I will, by the way, still cringe.

The easiest way to explain this is I have three sisters, anyone of them can call me a beyach, but let you try and they will give you a beat down. My sisters and I share a common experience of growing up together we can talk to each other like that. You cannot. Same thing applies to the use of the n-word by black people and non-black people. Black people share a common experience around the historical use of the n-word. They can use it, you cannot. It really is simple. If you are black, use the n-word if you wish. If you are not black, don’t you dare, it’s not your word. You have not earned that right on the whip-lashed, strung up, and beaten down backs of your ancestors.

It, however, is not really that simple.

Jay-Z has stated in interviews that his music, rap music helps break down racism. If white America’s children listen to Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne and idolize them, their music, sing their rhymes, want to be like them and otherwise worship these black performing artists at least some of America’s racism is going to have to dissolve.

And here lies the gray area where this all becomes not so simple. Our children think Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne and others are genius and brilliant. They sing the lyrics to their music along with them. White boys and girls are singing the lyrics to ‘Ni**as in Paris’ along with Jay-Z and Kanye: “Doctors say I’m the illest/Cause I’m suffering from realness/Got my niggas in Paris/And they going gorillas, huh!” So if white fans of these artists can sing the n-word in lyrics or shout it out at a performer’s behest at concerts, they must be able to say it, text it, tweet it as long as the intent is not racist.

Not so simple. Remember the Gwyneth Paltrow twitter controversy from last summer. Girlfriend is tight with Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Kanye. There she is backstage at the “Watch the Throne Tour” concert in Paris and the excitement of the moment gets to her head and she tweets: “Ni**as in paris for real …” GP, I cringed because you tweeted it and because you were going to face some backlash.

Image of GP's offending tweet.

Image of GP’s offending tweet.

GP, I feel you, the moment was surreal, the air was charged, your backstage Jay-Z and Kanye about to sing ‘Ni**as in Paris’ and you get caught up in the moment, throw caution and your common sense to the wind. By the time your common sense returns, it’s too late you cannot hit delete fast enough. I would have been drunk with excitement too. I would, however, have retained my common sense. The Dream tries to rescue you by tweeting that he grabbed your phone in the excitement. No one really believes that. Lesson: If you are not black you may sing the n-word in lyrics, but never ever use it in conversation. And yes, twitter is conversing.

Up to two weeks ago that was exactly how I felt. I will never utter the word. Black Americans can use the n-word freely if they choose; they’ve earned the right and now own that word.  For anyone else it is off limits.  I will still cringe if anyone uses it.

And then my 12 year old niece showed me a picture on her instagram account. She left herself signed in on my iPad, so I did what any slightly overprotective aunt would do, I scrolled through. As I scroll, I see lots of selfies, girls loving and living for basketball, softball and gymnastics, pictures of their fro yo, and cotton candy frappes from Starbucks. Nothing alarming or concerning.

Yet another picture of a cotton candy frappe from Starbucks posted by one of my niece’s young friends.  Harmless; mundane, innocent.  And there in glaring typeface, I see the conversation between two of the girls:

“You at Starbucks, my ni**a?”

“Just left.”

“I’m there now.”

“I didn’t see you. How’d I miss you, ni**a?”

I cringe.  I’m relieved that my niece was not one of the little perpetrators.  It was shocking to me that two twelve year old white girls from the working class suburban community I grew up in were so nonchalantly using the n-word.  They were seemingly unaware of its historical meaning.  I’m sure my immediate reaction had it been my niece, would’ve been to school her on the inappropriateness and history of the word.

And then, a lightbulb goes off.  I think Mr. Carter is on to something.  By replacing the meaning of the n-word, taking ownership of it, eventually the viciousness associated with it fades.  Not that we should forget or rewrite history.  We can, however, give the word a new future.  Eventually, will the n-word fall out of use, just like other words have? People once used daddio and cool cat, don’t hear those words very often anymore.  This will take generations and decades to happen.  But it could very well happen.

It seems to me that Jay-Z and other artists may have started a cultural revolution; slow moving but revolutionary and our children are at the forefront.  But until the time comes that the n-word no longer triggers strong reactions, I revert back to my earlier stance.

If you are black, use the n-word if you wish. If you are not black, although you may sing it in lyrics, don’t you dare use it in conversation, it’s not your word. You have not earned that right on the whip-lashed, strung up, and beaten down backs of your ancestors.

And for now, if you use it, I will cringe.

‘cuz he’s black – you need to watch this, please

Since first viewing Javon Johnson’s“’cuz he’s black”  on You Tube, I can’t stop watching it.  It is a must watch that takes less than five minutes.  Please stop now and watch it even if you don’t come back and finish reading this post.

Johnson, a professor in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, for sure is brilliant, articulate, a charismatic orator who captivates my attention.  Not only have I watched “‘cuz he’s black” at least a dozen times in the first 48 hours since Mr. David Johns shared it on his twitter feed, I have played it incessantly over and over in my head.

As I work, I type, “The Tenant upon twelve months’ prior written notice,” while I hear in Johnson’s deliberately soft voice that makes me lean in and listen intently to his words, “I’m not happy with the way we raise our black boys.  Don’t like the fact that he learned to hide from the cops well before he knew how to read.”

I think of my own nephews – ebony, ivory and mocha colored boys.  Would my nephews learn to fear authority, to hide from the cops out of fear of being hurt?  In one large extended family, would some of my nephews – the white skinned boys – grow up adulating cops, wanting to be one when they grow up?  While my mocha and dark skinned boys grow up fearing the 5-0, ducking and avoiding them at every intersection.

“The Landlord shall use commercially reasonable efforts,” I continue, as Johnson’s voice booms in my head. “‘Get up,’ I yell at him. ’In this car, in this family, we are not afraid of the law.’…  We both know the truth is far more complex than do not hide. We both know too many black boys who disappeared. Names lost.”

I think of “my kids,” the students I mentor and teach in the Boston Public School system.  Do these sweet, engaging cherub faced 11 & 12 year olds already possess a healthy fear of the police and authority?  A natural byproduct of the reality of growing up as a black boy in America.

“The Tenant must respond within five business days, or …,” I note. Johnson’s voice continues in my head, “… it’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we are treated as people.”

I am not a black man so it would be wrong for me to conjecture that I know what it feels like to be a black boy or man dealing with a law enforcement and judicial system that is more often than not predisposed against me because of the color of my skin.  I can only imagine the pain and humility associated with systematically being treated as less than, as being consistently looked as the problem and never thought of as the solution.

I am, however, a woman who loves a black man.  I have held my breath during a routine traffic stop as I witnessed his very demeanor switch from confident male to a submissiveness that goes beyond politeness and the rage that followed that encounter.

I close the file on my desk and I hear not in Johnson’s voice but in my nearly three year old nephew Alex’s sweet, inquisitive voice, ” ‘But Uncle,’  … ‘Uncle, what happens if the cop is really mean?’ ”

I think of my two youngest nephews: Alex nearly three years old, with his deep brown eyes and a smile that could melt the ice off the coldest of hearts and Austin, not even one year old, blonde and blue eyed, playful and carefree as babies are meant to be.  Both beautiful babies, showered with love, yet Alex will face the struggles of growing up a black boy in America while Austin, who will likely not even be aware of it, will have the privilege of growing up a white boy in America.

I wonder am I supposed to teach my nephews differently.  They will, after all, face two different realities.  Teach Austin to soar simply because he can while letting Alex know to always be aware of how people react to him and the color of his skin, to be cautious and mindful, to watch his back and realize that no matter how accomplished and successful he might become there will always be people who fear and disdain him for his blackness.  I cannot.  How can I?  That would make me part of the problem not the solution.

Like that four year old, apple faced boy in the back of Javon’s ride, I want Javon to be more hero than human.