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.

 

 

 

 

 

#BlackLivesMatter, Positive Propaganda from DNBE, and a poem from Mama C

What the boys will be getting for Kwaanza
What the boys will be getting for Kwaanza

Last night I ordered one of each of these shirts from DNBE, a company that promotes what they call positive propaganda:

If you think about it, your t-shirt is like a billboard, and every day you’re walking around advertising something (or maybe nothing if it’s a blank tee or a meaningless design) .   That advertisement says something about the person wearing it and has an effect (conscious or subconscious) on the people around him/her.  Why waste that valuable advertising space?  Why not use it to uplift the people? … For that brief moment you know that there are other people out there that have not lost their minds.  And that positive energy is infectious and magnetic.  With enough people catching on, we can start to turn this situation around.  That’s positive propaganda, and that’s why we’re here…

To grab onto something that feels positive in the message department for young Black men today is not an easy find. I, like many mamas I know who are parenting young men of color have found myself traveling the continuum from abject despair to enraged disbelief and everything in between. I have been attending rallies, and reading my poems out loud to honor Trayvon, Michael, Tamir, Eric, and, and, and…

I have been talking to colleagues, friends, family, and anyone really who will listen and tried again to get those who don’t seem to care to notice what I am saying for a moment. At work when I am asked how I am, I try to answer truthfully; “In a state of disbelief. Crushed. Shocked that our country has such a broken judicial system, and devalues the lives of so many of the young men and women here in our schools…” I have prayed. I have hugged my boys so much more. Each time I catch myself forgetting, I notice Sammy or Marcel just walking out of the room and think to myself; “he is coming back.”

I say this to honor all the mothers who can’t.

I have also tuned out completely, because I have that choice. I don’t just mean that I deactivated my Facebook, and disappeared almost entirely from social media.  I mean that I can pop into the gas station to get a cup of coffee, and not engage with the headline on the newspaper out loud or in private, if I don’t want to. I can say; “I can’t deal today.”  I am not the one Black colleague in the school who everyone either avoids, or seeks out after another horror show is splayed across the news. I can just carry on and not engage. I can, and I do. I am not a young Black man walking down the street wondering if it is safe here, or in the convenience store being watched to see if I steal a candy bar while I am waiting to pay for my coffee.

I have accepted invitations to be on panels, and co-design Ferguson units with colleagues. I have scheduled several meetings for the next three months with various white men in positions of power in the field of education to talk about how we keep talking about this in schools and beyond, because it is one way I can use my voice, experience and privilege to promote a little more positive propaganda.

I have wondered if I would care this much today if my sons were white. I have not always answered that question honestly.

I have so much gratitude and appreciation for all the people in our lives who can listen, and who are climbing up underneath this massive weight next to us, and offering to do more than just hold it up too.

Sammy just woke up, and asked for a cuddle. I stopped writing, and crawled up into his bunk bed, rearranged his twisted up blankets and sheets, and wrapped myself up in him too. In a few days he will be ten. He will be just two years younger than Tamir Rice who was shot when he was reaching for his toy gun-most likely show the police officers it was fake-when they were all screaming at him to put his hands up. That’s when he was killed. It was a few days after his twelfth birthday.

Sammy will not be getting any toy guns for his birthday, and we have talked about why.  Sammy asked for anything in the remote control helicopter department, an x-box, and some footy pajamas-because he used to love to wear them when he was little…

hoodie and a hug
#BlackLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter

Gathering the poem (week 3 of 52)

gathering a poem, week 3
gathering a poem, week 3

Each week for one year, I have set out to write a poem. The process, as outlined here, includes a visit to a body of water weekly where I “gather” material for the poem (I force myself to draft a complete poem at that time-knowing it will be revisited) and some sustained writing time during the week, so that I can “publish” (print and paste in my poetry journal) one a week. Marcel has joined me for two of the “gatherings”.  Every week a montage is made to help me remember fleeting thoughts, lines, nuances, sounds, and the other stuff of a poem.

This week’s poem-which is still in process–but which I will share, because it delights me for several reasons is inspired by Marcel, and this playground which will I imagine be a significant part of their childhood landscape. Continue reading “Gathering the poem (week 3 of 52)”

Promise is theirs. Let’s try and promise that.

My kids are not white.

I am.  So, I will never know what it feels like to be them. I will never be Trayvon Martin.  But, my sons are.  They are going to be young Black men full of promise, walking down the street.

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My kids are not white, but I am, and I benefit from this in a gazillion ways that I could not begin to list, or comprehend.

When I was pulled over for speeding when I was 16, I told the cop, and later the judge that I was racing to get to school to take an exam. This was the truth, and the white judge tossed out the ticket the white cop had written. (It was only for going five miles over the speed limit if you must know.) I was screeching with joy when I left the courtroom. My mom told me to lower my voice, I had got off lucky and I should be more contained about it.

Today, if I imagine Sammy being pulled over at 9:00 in the morning in my car racing to school five minutes late how might the outcome be different? *

I have to work actively all the time to not be the oppressor, not the oppressed. When I keep my mouth closed when someone makes a racially tinged  joke, I am that oppressor. When I stay quite in a room full of white when I am aching to talk about who is not there, I am colluding. When I shy away from my own voice and power to make change, I am resigning.

When I stand up and read a poem about what it feels like to hold your son in your lap while he sleeps, and ache for the mamas who no longer can, I am joining.

When I read every uncomfortable line I can about the pandemic of racism worldwide I am opening.

My education, my rearing, my curiosity, my world travel, and the many wise women and men I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from in the first forty-five years of my journey have allowed me to say this-I am resisting.

Resisting the allure of racial and class privilege some of the time.

I was given the opportunity to parent my sons by a force of incomprehensible generosity. My sons have given me a mandate that I must continue to evolve as a person, as a mother, an educator. A mandate to try to be a slightly less racist person at the end of the each day then when I woke up. So I  work at it. I also get lazy and I forget. I have the option to forget.  Therein lies the difference.

My sons are  full of promise, just like so many sons and daughters are and were. My job more than ever is to make whatever part of the world I can- a little more able to see as much of their promise as I do. Period.

Join me?

Push your edges, get uncomfortable, unpack your story of white privilege, and help everyone make some room for them to be all they were meant to be-without fear or trepidation- too.

Not sure how to get started? Here are a few links that have been helpful to me:  What I want you to know about being a young black man in America and also from Rage Against the Mini Van this post on 7 action steps towards becoming an anti racist ally. I also found this tumblr very encouraging as people begin to unpack their own acknowledgement of their privilege.  It has taken me two days to put this post together. It will take me the next twenty to live up to it.

*Although I do not have the actual statistics in front of me I read a report last year on the increased number of incidences where young men of color end up in detention, or worse, for the exact same type of non aggressive police involved encounters as their white counterparts in Maine and nationally.

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

Things in flight, and the boots under the table

It’s been, uh, let’s say rather full around here.

Kindergarten is big. It is about as demanding a shift on a little guy as it gets. A thousand new things to learn how to do well. Add a a zillion hundred new names of your new friends. Take away your mom and brother’s easing, reassuring words, looks, and hugs all day and you are setting up a little person for hard patch.  He’s handling it beautifully at school. His teacher has nothing but great things to say. He is smiling when I pick him up.

getting away as fast as he can…

Then we get home. Two words: OVERWHELMED EMOTIONS.  This looks like outbursts of the vocal and physical variety. Things in flight: toys, fists, demands. Often his entire four year old self racing as fast as he can (which is FAST) in the opposite direction from me. Shrek and I have had some great conversations about how to best support him. Reasoning wasn’t working. Time outs were turning into complete mayhem. Then we reached out to other circles as well. What we’ve come up with that seems to be really helping-more connection-more hugging-less time outs-and lots of reassurance that these are BIG EMOTIONS and they are OK and that he is DOING GREAT.

An example of a successful switch it up intervention was last night. He and Sam were watching a movie. He lost track of the plot because one of the characters spoke in a heavy accent. He stands up right in front of the television screaming; “I HATE THIS. IT MAKES NO SENSE. I AM GOING TO TURN IT OFF NOW!!!” Asking him to please sit down, or count to three with the promise of a time out would lead him strait to Melt Down Avenue before you could say; “Don’t throw that remote!”. Instead Shrek suggested that I stop folding the laundry in the other room, and offer to sit with him in my lap, and explain the narrative when necessary. He was cuddled in my lap, quietly watching and laughing in seconds. When the dishes were done, Shrek joined us too. Maybe this seems completely obvious to you. But to me–who was so into CONSEQUENCES for everything, it has been a great reminder to switch it up, CONNECT MORE and find what works better.  It has also been great to realize that what works for one fantastic kid, is not necessarily working for the other fantastic kid. Why this was an ah-ha this late in the game?

What is the parable about the rabbi who tells the man that if his home feels crowded and overwhelming it is time to buy a goat, a cow, a horse and so on and so on?

Establishing trust with the new bird.

Yesterday we welcomed “Friendly” or “Sky” or “Bird” depending on who you ask into our home. Sam in particular is thrilled to have a parakeet. I’m enjoying it too. Lots of opportunity for literacy; “Read to us what he can’t eat again Sam?” and “Parakeets really need quiet in the house to adjust.” It was really sweet to have this be a FAMILY decision, including Shrek, to get the bird or not after a student’s family asked us if we’d be interested in the bird, cage and all. Having a pet is a big deal, and this felt like a great place to start. A bird requires daily attention, and care, but it doesn’t poop on your floor, or bark.

So, why did they want to part with such a beauty?  SHE’S ANNOYING according to the daughter. Huh. To be discovered?

Now to some seeing a large pair of industrial strength boots under your kitchen table might be annoying too. Or perhaps it just a sign of a welcomed change, a growing family, and wait what was that parable getting at?

Shrek’s boots on my, I mean, our kitchen floor.

So although I still feel a rather palpable feeling of loss when I walk around the community pool near the skate park and see this:

in a few steps I have the pleasure of watching Sam leaping into his own in magical ways, that remind me how precious it all is, and not just in the summer time.

I hope your new starts and transitions are not all feeling like “dropping into the big bowl”, but if so, remember that once you leap, you do reach the bottom, with another chance to climb up, up, up, and try it again!

Your very fine hat (poem)

This was the extent of our back to school shopping last week:
new sneakers and the hat.
Honestly, that sums things up over here.
We just don’t have room for much else that is new.

Uncle (my oldest brother) has moved out,
after living with, and loving on us
for almost five full on years.
He’s not gone too far but he’s not that near.

We’ve been preparing for this dreaded-
exciting transition for several months.
Celebrating all that is Uncle in one hand,
and grieving all that is his leaving in the other.

But rage doesn’t RVSP to an invitation.
It just crashes the party
whenever he needs to remind the world
that he is both the pinata, and the bat.

Swinging blindfolded into the unknown
like an infant wailing for his mother,
wrapped in a blanket of confusion and fear
hush hush hushed into a stranger’s promising arms.

Eight years later, and a very quiet part of you
may still remember her soft hands caressing your very small head
and for a moment maybe you are still able to hold her hand there,
woven in the flair and the tilt of your very fine hat.

C 2012 Mama C and the Boys

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

things I love about you

Cupid from the archives

Dear Sam,

Here are the first five things that come to my mind that I cherish and adore about you:

1. How you take in so much more than you let on-your depth.

2. How you can complement a friend’s artwork, seconds after they have insulted yours-your generosity.

3. The way every cell in your body works together when a baseball is coming towards you from the mound-your physical intelligence.

4. Your willingness to do something new-your adventuresome spirit.

5. Your forehead under my palm when we cuddle-how you receive love.

Cupid #2-from the archives

Dear Marcel,

Here are the first five things that come to my mind that I cherish and adore about you:

1. How you share whatever is on your mind-your truth.

2. How your hard mood can change so easily with a hug, or an “uppy”-your willingness to let go.

3. The questions. The constant questions-your search for meaning.

4. When you touch me on the nose and say; “I see sunshine right here”-your affection.

5. The way the world revolves around Sam, and then all of your people-your capacity for love.

++++

I am so ridiculously blessed to share this lifetime with you both.

Always, Mama

Classic Mama C and the Boys from the archives

And to all of my readers–thank you for all the love you share with us–the ways you hold and care for us–and the space you create for all of this to happen. To those of you who are waiting for the love (s) you will soon shower your adoration upon–I wish you ease and a moment of peace, that all is exactly as it is meant to be and it will unfold beautifully as it is meant to.

Mama C and the Boys +1. Single mama dating found her Shrek (in a pink boa)

My very fine fellar with a boa

I am in a relationship with an amazingly generous, gentle, funny, socially conscious, caring, reliable and goofy man. He is pictured above. He wore that mask to meet me on a playground and be able to hug me in public. I said I wouldn’t hug in front of my students. I was being weird. He was being funny.OK, so the mask might seem weird to you. To me it was magic. It was about meeting somewhere in the middle, and laughing along the way. Continue reading “Mama C and the Boys +1. Single mama dating found her Shrek (in a pink boa)”