MLK Day: An opportunity to start our own Courageous Conversations

noticing the dream in the Trader Joe's
Noticing the dream in the grocery store

Yesterday Sammy and I were at the grocery store, when we had the good fortune to be introduced to this little beauty. Her name is Aggie.  She is brown, and her doting but shy four year old white mama was clearly pleased by the attention her little baby girl garnered when we halted our cart and immediately started gushing.  “You have the most beautiful little baby girl,” I said kneeling down in front of her kid sized cart. Her mother immediately accepted the invitation to celebrate with us, and told us that this was her daughter’s most beloved doll, and that her name was Aggie. I wasted no time expressing my joy that Dr. King’s dream was alive and well here in Trader Joe’s and that she made my day, no my week, because she knows how important it is to love people who don’t look like us too.

Sammy tolerated the entire interaction, as this is what he is used to by now. Mommy sees a race positive potential conversation with a stranger and she grabs it.

In our family “MLK Day” has come to mean: a three day weekend that is kicked off each year by an incredible  gospel music celebration at the performance hall in the city, and an awareness that what we talk about all year other people seem to have more permission to be talking about too.

In honor of this day when areas in the United States gives pause and consideration to the Civil Rights Movement here, I am writing to invite you to do the same.  To give yourself permission.

Permission is something granted to you. I’m formulating an opinion that much of the ability for creamy colored white people to talk about their own implicit bias, or internalized racism will only happen when they are invited to do so in a very explicit and controlled way. I can not imagine how maddening this is to the people who do not have the luxury of not talking about race and racism. If you do not go to a special MLK breakfast today, or a symposium on the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative in your city, or have the benefit of having a magnificent teacher in your child’s school starting the conversation for you, there are many things you can do today, tomorrow, and every day you chose to from now on.

Here are a few examples of ways to give yourself permission, to jump on in, on behalf of your children, your neighbor’s children, and the legacy that you are going to leave behind to the world. Period. It’s never too late.

1. Listen to the I Have A Dream Speech with a kid. A young kid, and older kid. Listen to it over coffee with a friend. Talk about it. Pick one message in the speech to write down and put up in your kitchen to take in every day. Have everyone chose a quote that resonated. Listen to other speeches. Give this day meaning. Give every day meaning.

2. Listen to Safe Space Radio’s series on white racism. Bookmark it, and pick an episode to listen to at the gym, or on the way to church. Share something you learned with someone else. I am featured on this episode talking about my own racism.

3. At the dinner table, talk about a memory you have about a time when you did not understand something you witnessed, or saw on television, or read in the paper that had something to do with race or culture. Talk about how not understanding why a person or group does things differently then the way you do it, does not mean it is wrong, or not normal, but means it is not your experience. Ask your family if they can relate.

4. Go to your library, local video store or Netflix, and find a few books and a movie that features kids of all sorts of color doing really groovy fun things too. For a million great ideas for books go here. One of our favorite feel good flicks is Jump In. Here is clip to preview.

5. Read a book by an author of color, about anything you enjoy. Talk to someone else about the book.Want a radical suggestion? Start here by reading How to Be Black.

6. Find out when Alvin Ailey Dance is coming your way and take a friend, or a kid. I took Sammy when he was six. It was mind bogglingly amazing. He still talks about it. We are all going in March.

7. If you are affiliated with a school, make an appointment with your child’s teacher, or better yet the administrator to ask them to share with you the school’s vision for making sure all staff are grappling with cultural competency in and out of the classroom. If they look at you blankly, or say it is too expensive to begin to tackle, send them here to Teaching Tolerance’s Anti Bias Framework.

8. Find other blogs that are talking about race and culture and difference and leave a link on this blog, or on your FB page. NPR’s “Code Switch” is an amazing resource too. My Brown Baby is a go to for me.

9. Have athletes under your roof? Or who often sit next to you in the synagogue or in church? Or living across the street? Challenge them to research an athlete of color and share out their accomplishments by the end of the week.  Musicians? Scientists? Poets? Kids love a challenge. Make it a monthly event.  Have a potluck.

10. Look in the mirror and say; “Self, I give you permission to talk about race today, and every day for the rest of your life. I give you permission to be curious, confused, baffled, and muddled. I give you permission to mess up and say something you regret and learn from that. Self, I admire your courage.”

P.S. The title for this post was inspired from the book by the same title; Courageous Conversations about Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools, which I just ordered for myself.

 

 

 

 

 

I can talk about race in the classroom

Over the last few months I have been researching and designing a unit that any parent, volunteer or teacher could use in an elementary school classroom to foster a race positive environment that enhances the cultural competence of the group. I have been collaborating with Sam’s 3rd grade teacher, who opened her doors wide to the offer after I had been volunteering all year-once a week during math (of all things-not my forte). After building relationships with the students, and her, it was an easy and seamless transition for Sammy’s mom to be reading stories and talking to the kids about who they see, and often don’t see in books.

I can see myself in the books I read
I can see myself in the books I read

The impact of this unit-which we delivered once a week for four weeks-is palpable in her classroom.  The comfort level students have with talking about people of all colors, about race, and difference, and the changes we all can make on our communities is evident in their larger discussions now about history, fiction, and current events. It feels different when you walk in the room–a cohesiveness that I didn’t feel before exists now.  Granted, I am biased. But, as soon as I find a way to measure such a shift empirically I will!

This weekend I will be presenting this curriculum along with other components of my; “I can talk about race in the classroom” workshop to administrators, educators and education majors in Augusta. A few months ago I presented another version of this to a group of students pursuing a masters in counseling. This June, I am speaking to a symposium on early childhood educators. This is wildly satisfying work, and after years of volunteering to do it, it is gratifying to be sought out and paid!

Eventually I hope to offer the curriculum itself through this site, or another avenue. This was one of my big goals for working part time this year, and it feels really exciting to see it in action. Have any of you done work of this nature in the schools in your community? What were your discoveries? Or if you haven’t but would like to, what do you feel would be most helpful to get you started with your planning?

On being a donor kid: checking in with Marcel and Sam

Marcel Marcel
Marcel Marcel

Often a driving impetus for a blog post comes from the outside. The most recent query came in the form of an email from a reader who was seeking the experience of one who came before her, on the issue of having a biological child with the help of a donor, specifically chosen with the consideration that the biological offspring would then share certain traits with her first child, who happens to be adopted.

Translation: we are white, our kid is not. If we enlist the help of a donor who looks a lot more like our kid, what are the implications later on for the kid? More specifically how did I teach Marcel to celebrate his story, and how does he understand it? Does he or did he resent in anyway his being outside the normal understanding of how we get here?

I decided I would start by asking Marcel. His answers were really revealing, and not in ways I necessarily was prepared for:

Me: Marcel a woman is writing to me asking if having a child with the help of a donor is something that will make sense to her kid one day. Can you tell me what you think?

Marcel:  Well, it was very hard. It takes a long time to get used to it.

Me: Can you tell me, what is the hard part?

Marcel: What is a donor? It’s hard to figure out. A donor is like a parent. But he doesn’t want to be a parent- he just loves you enough to bring you into the world.

Me: That sounds like you have put a lot of thought into it. Is it hard to understand why Mommy chose to bring you into the world that way?

Marcel: A donor gives you all these good things, and you still get to have a dad. But if friends asked me to explain it? I’d be scared I wouldn’t get it all yet. Well, maybe I would. Would I?

Me: If you need help with it, we could talk it about some more.

Marcel: Sometimes it makes sense. But people don’t always ask when it makes sense.

Me: Hmmm. Maybe we should work on a script for when it isn’t as obvious?

Marcel: That helps if I remember the script.

Me: Do you feel like your donor loves you?

Marcel: More than anything. And I love him more than anything. When I see him we have to figure it out all over again. And we do. And so does my dad.

Me: Why do you think I decided to have a donor help me make a baby?

Marcel: Because you and Sammy wanted Sammy to have a brother that looked like him, and understood him, and loved him. So it worked out that way.

+++++

Me: Sammy, why do you think I used a donor to bring your brother into the world?

Sammy: Because you weren’t ready to be in a relationship.

Me: Did it have anything to do with you?

Sammy: No.

Me: What about the part where Marcel’s donor is brown skinned like you. Did that matter?

Sammy: It mattered to you. But I don’t care.

Me: You think if I had a white kid, and not a brown kid, it would be the same to you?

Sammy: Well, maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know yet. I want a sister. Probably a brown one. Then you can worry about her hair and not mine.

+++++

So clearly there is more work to do in the big picture part? Or maybe there isn’t. What we intend, and what they take from it, are so wildly unrelated despite all of our intentions. What I learned most from all of this? Clearly there are questions, and unknowns, and ways of constructing the world, that the boys are holding onto that I had no idea about, because I hadn’t asked. This is often the case. My best intentions, play out so differently than their experience as a result of my best intentions.

In terms of celebrating adoption and donor assisted conception equally? Differently? These are good questions. Marcel seems super confident that his coming into being was intentional and the result of a lot of love. What more is there? If anything I think I err on the side of making a bigger deal of the adoption story, because I want to make sure Sam always feels that his arrival into the family has the same core value as a biological entrance into the family. Marcel, is often trying to establish that he “knew Mama longer than Sam because I started in her belly..” We talk about how Sam was growing in my heart while growing in Tea’s belly (his birth mother). To that Sam usually just says; “Dude. I have been with mom for three more years than you.”

Additional resources: I found the following article of interest while considering my approach to this post.

 

Fruitvale Station & Ma Rainey: Recent workouts for my whiteness

Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station is an emotionally wrenching cinematic foray into the last twenty four hours of the true story of Oscar Grant, the young man who was “accidentally” killed by a BART transit worker on New Year’s Day in Oakland, California in 2008. After the movie my mother of Black sons heart left the film on a stretcher writhing in uncomfortable whiteness. Wrenching in it’s realism the viewer experiences an unshakeable journey as she/he becomes easily enamored and charmed by Oscar, and woven into the life of his daughter, his family, his relationships, and the consequences both good and bad of all of his choices.

In the opening minutes of the movie the viewer sees the actual cell phone footage of the real Oscar’s last few minutes alive. (It was this montage of footage from other passengers that was instrumental in bringing so called “justice” to the situation.) I went to the movie with my dear friend Edwige, a woman of color and a sister to two brothers Oscar’s age. I sobbed through much of the last thirty minutes of the film. Sobbed. After, I found myself feeling oddly apologetic about all the crying and shaking I was doing. She reassured me, saying it was even a relief to have me crying next to her. We sat in a cafe for a few hours after talking about Oscar’s life, and unpacking the experience of watching it unfold, and ultimately end in front of us.

For the next several days and weeks after seeing a film like this, or a play, or reading a book by and about people of color is when I find myself riding my own internalized racism merry go round from one scene to another. For example, on New Year’s Eve Oscar is at his mother’s house for her birthday dinner. The house is cozy, and filled with relatives and friends, food and festivities. In my head I noticed that I expected to see a house that didn’t look so much like the one I grew up in. The next question I ask myself is what did I expect to see? Where were the drugs? The yelling? The things that can explain why this could have happened. In that moment is where my race and class assumptions come floating to the top, like dead things on a lake. If I can stand my own current assumptions and truths, I accept an invitation to change.

Where this used to be a very painful process, now it is unpleasant, and reassuring at the same time. Reassuring that I am opening up more and more to these dark and recessed places where my assumptions, prejudices, and ignorance still hides. Unpleasant because there seems to be no end to the socialization, the conditioning, and the privilege.

One of the hardest moments was when I realized that if Oscar had been on my subway car that night with all of his friends, and I had been alone on the car with them I KNOW I would have felt threatened by their very presence. This man, who will be my son in nine years looked scary to me. Without seeing Fruitvale Station I would not have had the opportunity to have lived with that moment, followed by wanting to fight my way into the ambulance with him and insist every step of the way that MY SON get the BEST CARE EVER RIGHT NOW. Watching I was aching to be able to insert myself into the film, and work every ounce of power and privilege that I had to make sure he lived. If I was there, would things have been different?

Ma Rainey's Big Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Big Black Bottom

Seeing a play that is set almost one hundred years ago, might seem at first to have a little less potential for cathartic exploration in the white mind and race department. Not true. In this case the opportunity to witness the “hidden under world” of the Black experience in this historically rich play by August Wilson (who was biracial, which I never knew) was uncomfortable for the viewer for an entirely different set of reasons. When the band members are downstairs  in the windowless cold basement, waiting for Ma Rainey to arrive for the recording session, their story telling safely out of the gaze of the white man, paints a very real picture of past and present institutionalized racism.  The anger, humor, defeat and passion of the play all combine into a surprise ending that left this the white viewer with a cataclysmic sense of both shame and enlightenment.

Readers of this blog, and participants of presentations often want tangible next steps on their own journey to racial justice. Reading a book by an author of color (alone or in a book group) or going to a film or play written by a person of color, about people of color is a great start. Not only are you are giving an important message to the publishing, film and theater industry with your financial vote, but by bringing along a few friends you are creating a space for a shared inquiry into your experiences as viewer of any race. Herein lies the potential for expanding your edges, and shedding light into your personal and shared racism. This, in my experience is when shift on a much larger scale is allowed to happen.

_____

I would like to “dedicate” this post to the students in the graduate counseling program at the University of Maine, who I recently had the opportunity to work with on the topic of racial justice, counseling, and white privilege. I was so struck by their honesty, and openness in class, and in their pre and post evaluations of my presentation there. Our shared experience was transformative.

Telling it like it is, and then some (Black Enough the poem)

Mardi Gras mask 2013
Mardi Gras mask 2013

This week I had the pleasure of speaking to a counseling class at University of Maine, about my experience as a transracial parent, white mind, internalized racism, privilege, and adoption. Suffice it to say, that an hour seemed to evaporate in front of our eyes.  The feedback from the professor and the class was tremendous, and the invitations to come speak here and there are beginning to materialize. I am developing a five year plan that involves designing many more speaking engagements organized around talking about race in the classroom and beyond, so all of these opportunities are shaping that vision beautifully.

This was quite encouraging in the wake of not winning “Best of Portland Phoenix 2013” blog award.  The winning blog was a photography forum called “Unseen Portland”. The pictures on the blog are incredible. I took comfort in knowing that I continue to write my own version of the unspoken here in Portland and in many other communities across the country. It was an honor to be nominated, and thank you to all who voted.

I meant to start the class with my now signature poem, “Black Enough”. Since it is POETRY MONTH, and I am leaving on my residency soon, what better time to share it here, again.

Black Enough

I can’t wait to tell you Sam,
that when you were just two
one of my very black students asked me
why I went
all the way to North Carolina
to have you.

I can’t wait to describe to you the look
on that student’s face
when I told him
that I didn’t have you
like his mom had him,
but that your birthmother
placed you in my arms
in the hospital in North Carolina
on Christmas Eve
as she smiled bravely and
kissed you.

Oh. What? He asked. And then,
It’s not that I thought you were black black
he proclaimed.
But I thought you were black enough to have him.

Black Enough.
Black enough?
True I wondered if I was black enough
to walk through the door of Cordell’s barber shop
that first time six months ago
to get your black and curly hair
cut properly, what would they think of me?

And I can tell you that I am just
black enough to keep walking in that door,
where all the men
in that barber shop,
who have never asked me my name
Call you by yours-
Hey Sammy my man-
and What’s up boss?
They ask you
as you strut
right
up
to Cordell’s chair to demand
a lol-i-pop
for a line-it-up
and black enough to notice
as they stare at me
and stare at me
as if by looking
just a little longer
I might become
black enough to them too.

Black enough to notice that
now I own
many more brown and black sweaters and shirts
and brown corduroys
too
because I must want you to think I
am a little more black
and a little more like you

Black enough Sam
to know
that I’ll never be black enough
and because of that
I must never forget
that you
are.

*Copyright May 2007 All Rights Reserved
by Mama C

Talking race in the classroom, on the air, at the salon

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of engaging in a series of conversations/interviews with a conscientious, thoughtful reporter from our local public radio affiliate. She contacted me to discuss how Black History Month is or is not a part of the classroom.

Samantha was ready to tackle the topic in an informed and respectful way. She was very successful at putting me and my students at ease in our one on one interviews as well as the taping of the class. It was such a gift for me to have more practice at integrating my core beliefs and values within the framework of my professional life in such an accommodating venue.

To view the online piece, or listen to the audio, please click here.

In the classroom. Photo by Samantha Fields.
In the classroom. Photo by Samantha Fields.

This past week I hosted a “salon” where I invited twelve friends, colleagues, and fellow race journeyers to join together in circle to share a poem, a story, a journal entry, a song, an article, or any other medium where the intersection of race and the body were at play.

The night was energized and exhilarating. We shared. We laughed. We were still, uncomfortable, and grateful as we witnessed the crisis, the grief, the depth of the unknown, complicated, triggering and complex territory of race in our collective bodies. Yet, it felt safe. How amazing.

It was one of the more hopeful evenings I have had in a long time. Special thanks to Justice in the Body, for providing the space and the encouragement to host the event.

How are you reaching out in your personal lives to create a space to talk about your experience with race? What is working? What is helping? What can you share to give others the courage to take the same risk?

Pilgrimage to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC

At the Dr. King Memorial in Washington, DC Photograph by Samantha Smithstein 2012 All Rights Reserved

Last weekend the boys, Shrek and I made the long awaited journey to the new Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. Seeing family and friends was deeply important, but this was about an event, an arrival that had taken on a life of its own in my heart. I have been plugged into this venture for years, including fundraising for it with students as part of a unit on Civil Rights two years ago. I had shown the boys photographs, and nearly climbed out of the airplane when I saw it from my window during our descent into Washington on Friday.

The number of people there with us, on the atypically crisp spring like day in Washington was exhilarating. The fact that the majority were Black was exciting too.  School groups, church groups, and just group groups were there milling about, taking photos, and claiming the space. For the most part my kids were more interested in what could be climbed on, and how close you could get to the water than reading the quotes, or taking in the significance of the monument. But I didn’t care. We were there, and they knew that getting there, and witnessing this GIGANTIC BLACK LEADER-MAN (who is carved out of white stone, which is still odd to me) was our collective priority. That we shared it with one of my dearest from high school and her extended family-as planned months ago- added another layer to  the significance.

If Sam and Marcel weren’t in my life, would this have been our collective priority? Would I have felt this palpable sense of arrival, and togetherness with all of these other Civil Rights pilgrims? Would I be taking in on such a cellular level the importance that Dr. King shares the stage with Lincoln, Roosevelt, Jefferson and Washington, along with the Vietnam, Korean, and World War veterans? Have other transracial parent readers here ever had that almost mythological feeling of; “returning the boy/girl king to this place of great import. See how well they  are cared for…” at these events? I’ve come to embrace it. Maybe then I can get through that tape, and just enjoy all the learning that being Sam and Marcel’s mama affords me that my life without them may very well not have had? What a gift the entire event was, and if I needed the excuse of being their Mama in this life to embrace it, so be it.

MLK Memorial, 2012. Photo by Mama C and the Boys all rights reserved

In the air (poem)

In the Air

Daybreak-
I am momentarily alone,
meditating in the big blue chair,
framed by orange yellow daffodils,
reaching for that sliver of light in the air.

The creak of the bunk bed ladder
delivers his little heavy footed feet
barely balancing
his needing
to climb into my lap,
wearily
and crawl sweetly back
into an earlier version of himself.

His skin is the color of the warm coffee
suddenly out of my reach.
I watch as he returns deeply into
his gentle mocha dreaming
on the backs of flying dragons
still so easily within his reach.

I pull him closer towards me all the seven years
I’ve had so far to hold him
no amount of this will ever be enough.
Now I am teetering on the edge of another mother’s grieving with
all the other mothers now fearing
their seventeen year olds
leaving the house (and not coming back).

Maybe it was seeing Trayvon’s mother’s vacancy
where her son, and her heart ought to be
that made me
cross the street the other day
when we were all outside at play
over to that young Black man
who was just walking along,
ignoring us until I got up in his way
to just say; hello!

He stopped short and looked long into my eyes
and told me how he
used to live across the street from my family.
He remembered when my littlest boy was little little

Those curls of his, they were so wild, and free.
They’re all gone-he asked or was he telling me?
Surprised, I blurted how I cut them off, because they were- unruly.

He nodded and smiled while walking slowly away from me-
this twenty something version of Sammy
has every bloody reason to be unruly.

Unruly.

Be unruly in your dreams boys
whack the ball clear
over Jackie Robinson’s legacy
leap and extend yourselves
further than Alvin Alley.
President, engineer, poet and astronaut-
not holding back but
breaking free from our shared history
and stomp, don’t stand all over the unequal ground
bequeathed to you indirectly.

Like the time the referee
held onto Sammy a little too long
while he was squirming, anxious to move along.
Admonished apparently to pass the ball more
and shoot less,
I wondered when the other light skin boys
might get a similar address.

But for now my little love,
just sleep and breathe in deeply your
luscious dark brown dreaming
conquer your dragons while clad in
your heavy armor and mesh hoodies.

My brown skinned prince so sweet and near me-
if squeezing you tighter will keep you fear free
and holding you here
will not let (my) fear ever take you from me.

Evening-
I am no longer alone,
meditating on that moment in the big blue chair
framed by orange yellow daffodils,
and sensing a mass of hope in the air.

– C. Anderson 2012