True confessions of a bougie black girl

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Here’s a true confession.
I’m kind of a bougie black girl.
Cue the fake swoon.
I know it’s obvious.
There are times though when my bougie streak runs truer than fine china and grandma’s pearls.
Like today.
Our daughter takes soccer lessons in our old neighborhood, a community I fondly refer to as hip and hood adjacent.
There was a hastily organized Easter Egg Hunt to follow. I was hesitant about going because I was on solo kid duty today with both children to give my wonderful hubby a break.
And me and hastily organized events don’t mesh.
But I figured “why not?”
Oh Lord. What did I do that for?
The event was slated to start at noon, but when the clock struck 12 folks were still milling about.
“Ugh,” I thought, “we’re gonna do CP time.”
And yeah, that’s some bougie ish to think.
My adorably tubby baby in his Bjorn (read: more bougie ish) was already starting to feel a bit heavy on this increasingly warm day.
Plus, I had our now jittery dog in tow in anticipation of leaving there and taking him directly to doggy daycare (uh huh, yet more bougieness). The playground where the organizer and others were waiting around doesn’t allow dogs either so I needed to move to an area where dogs were okay.
My friend, who is due any day now with her second child, and I exchanged glances. We both started uphill lugging our extra baby weight with us.
12:10…the organizer was still explaining the rules down there.
Did she say we’re starting, we wondered. Our antsy three year olds picked up a few eggs at their feet.
“We haven’t started yet,” she called up at us.
We waited some more.
12:15…Dear God! This woman was STILL explaining the rules. By now the parents on the hill, most of us with babies in body carriers and strollers perched there seeking a quick exit when this was all over, were also antsy.
Our two kids picked up a few more eggs at their feet. I let them.
“We haven’t started yet,” the organizer called uphill.
One parent cursed softly under his breath. Another rolled her eyes.
“Jesus woman,” I muttered under my breath. “How long does it take to explain egg hunting rules?” One dad said it was just like doing your taxes, only more painful, like real life.
I shrugged the “what gives” sign at my friend and her husband. We shook our heads at each other in annoyed disbelief.
12:20…Finally, we start!
And the kids had fun hunting.
Then I noticed that a number of the eggs were hidden near a concrete pad and stretch of grass littered with broken beer bottles.
And hell, was that a discarded needle near that bush?
Whose bright idea was it to hide eggs here?
“No, don’t touch that baby. It’s broken glass,” I told my friend’s son as he reached down.
I turned to my friend in exasperation and said “this really wasn’t well organized.” My friend agreed and we shook our heads incredulously.
I think the woman heard me, but I didn’t care. By now I’d had enough.
I directed my kid’s egg hunting toward the car. I thanked the organizer for putting it together. After all, she did the best she was capable of on a voluntary basis with what she had. I also made myself a mental promise never to do that particular egg hunt ever again.
12:32…we drove off.
Luckily, the whole affair ended quickly and I was able to fashion a do-over of sorts at another egg hunt nearby.
This event had an Easter Bunny, a DJ spinning old school hip hop classics, games, arts and crafts, and yes…eggs.
Still, I recognize that my bougie sensibilities played into my earlier annoyance.
I can’t stand CP time.
Sure there are times when being late is unavoidable, but when folks drone on so long they make events run late, well…that’s just nuts. Reminds me of when my friend would take me to church with her and services lasted all damn morning.
Why, Lord? Why?
I am also really funny about my kid’s physical environment. I’m trying to loosen up on this while not letting go of all standards of health and safety. Public park potty? We did that today (though I’ll admit to scrubbing the seat thoroughly with hand sanitizer).
I draw the line at egg hunting grounds littered with broken glass and an errant drug needle though.
And truth be told, if you were to ask my kid, she’d probably say she had fun at both egg hunts equally.
Now if she can just get her bougie mama onboard.

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There’s always another train

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Yesterday, the bus doors slammed in my face and pulled off before I could get on board.
My family quickly regrouped, put on coats, jumped in the car, and got me to the train station.
I raced up the platform and ran to the train. The subway doors slammed in my face.
For a moment, I was ticked.
“What was all that damned hustling to get me here for,” I thought huffily.
“Damn it! Now I’m going to be late for work,” I thought angrily.
Then I remembered a bit of Zen wisdom from my husband, John, who embodies inner peace:
“There is always another train.”
Indeed, I looked at the scheduled arrivals and, sure enough, a train was headed my way in two minutes.
I made it on time for work. I even had time to grab a doughnut on the way.
Recently, our family faced a closed door.
My husband was laid off from his graphic design job of seven years.
The company loved him and his work, but they are downsizing their print operations and he was caught in the mix. He was given a decent severance, so that helped.
Still, when the news dropped, we were stunned.
We have a new baby.
Our oldest attends a private, co-op preschool.
We have a mortgage on our new home and bills.
We are like the millions of other families who have found themselves in the same situation during our country’s economic crisis.
We were sad. He loved where he worked and his coworkers.
We were angry. Once again we found ourselves facing another major life hurdleso soon after overcoming my high risk pregnancy and baby’s heart defect.
We were scared. Would we struggle to make ends meet, we wondered.
But then, we regrouped.
And we pulled together as a family.
We trimmed and are continuing to adjust our budget. We’re eating out less and cutting extra expenses.
And we realized that the layoff provides my husband with just the right opportunity to expand his art business. After all, he’s a trained fine artist who can paint, sketch, draw, animate, illustrate, layout, and design just about anything for print and web.
We are all very excited by the opportunity this provides for my husband who has long dreamed of animating films, designing board games, and pursuing a number of art ventures.
Like he says: “There’s always another train.”

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Pretty little black girls…

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Every morning and many evenings, my daughter and I read a story about a sweet and spunky little African American girl and her many-hued brown pals.
And when we get to the story’s refrain, I whip out a hand mirror, hold it to my daughter’s face, and together we shout:
“I’m a pretty little black girl.”
Our ritual is designed to help her radiate self esteem and confidence, for far too often negative images and messages dim pretty little black girls’ lights.
I’d like to think these daily sessions are helping my daughter develop a positive sense of self as she operates in an environment in which she is often the only little black girl.
The lessons are simplistic…for now.
But the concept of what it means to be “a pretty little black girl” becomes complicated later in life when what we see reflected in the mirror contradicts what is sometimes projected onto us.
Where we see spunk and spirit, sometimes others see boisterousness and the sass of someone who doesn’t know her place.
If we speak up, we are loud.
If we speak out, we are angry.
If we remain silent, we are sullen.
If we push back, we are aggressive.
If we step back, we aren’t team players.
If we advocate for ourselves, we are troublesome.
If we declare our right to be respected, we have attitude.
Successfully navigating such a thorny path takes skill, perseverance, and not a small degree of luck.
Sometimes we lose a bit of our shine along the way.
When this has happened to me, I pause and regroup. I seek solace from mothers and sistahs–both biological and those whose bonds were forged through friendship.
They know the core of me and hold a mirror to my face to remind me of who and whose I am.
Then I can once again stride with confidence and declare “I am a beautiful black woman.”
And I am loved.

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Beauty on the horizon

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After Hurricane Sandy ripped our home apart, I was so focused on righting the wreckage that I was blind to the quiet beauty blooming in our yard.
This morning, after yesterday’s rough day and night, I looked outside with the kind of clarity that only comes after you’ve worn yourself to mental exhaustion all night puzzling a problem.
There, right in front of me was a tree in full, white, puffy-bloomed glory.
I stood in stunned silence as I held our infant son.
How, I wondered, had I missed something so lovely and so present?
The realization was especially meaningful because, ever since we moved from our quaint (read: teeny) fixer upper to a bigger home in the burbs, I’d bemoaned the loss of two cherry blossom saplings I’d nurtured for years.
I saw those two trees, which we’d planted on either side of the picket fence entrance to our front yard, as beautiful sentinels preserving our idyllic peace against urban nuisances.
I missed their protective presence and looked longingly at them when we passed through our old hood.
I was dwelling in the past.
Here, in my present and my presence, was an even larger, stronger, and fuller tree standing as witness to our new lives.
I felt myself being pulled out of the night’s stupor. My baggage, my worries, all of it seemed to shrink as I stared at the truth looming before me.
I am responsible for crafting the day and drinking in the now in a way that is free of the taint of yesterday’s woes.
I too shall lift my branches up, soak in the sun and enjoy today’s calm blue skies.

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“Good” schools vs. “bad” schools? Look behind the numbers

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As I bumped along on the bus earlier this week, I overheard an interesting conversation between two African American women.

It went something like this:

Woman 1:”Girl, I really hope we get into school X.”

Woman 2: “I know right, that would be great. I’ve called and everything but…I don’t know.”

For the hyper competitive DC area, the convo about getting into schools isn’t unusual. Here’s the thing though…

The school they were hoping that their kids can get waivers to attend is the very school my neighbor, who is white and childless, had just warned me about in a hushed voice:

“Oh, you don’t want to send your kid there. It’s a bad school,” she said as we stood at the bus stop and shivered in the predawn chill.

She’s not the only one. A number of my middle and upper middle class neighbors and acquaintances of varied hues have warned us about the caliber of this school.

By some strange fluke of zoning, our choice of suburban neighborhood public elementary schools includes one with higher scores that is less diverse and one with slightly lower scores that is more diverse.

Lots of folks have urged us (read: warned us) to consider the former.

And yet, clearly the two women on the bus knew a different narrative about this school.

So what gives? Why the two different takes?

Those who pooh-pooh the school cite test scores, or rather the blanket score given on such sites as schooldigger.com and greatschools.org.

Here’s what I know as a former education reporter: numbers don’t tell the whole story.

So I poked around.

First of all, Maryland schools already rank among some of the highest in the nation. The state’s assessment is considered rigorous (for the uninitiated, each state has its own assessment and some are more challenging than others…but that’s another post).

For those looking for a better snapshot of performance (at least the kind a test can measure…which is NOT the full picture of a school), I suggest going to your district or state’s department of education and breaking scores down by such groups as gender and race. Look at trends over the past three years. You want to see upward momentum.

For a more objective sense of achievement (again every state has its own assessment and they are not aligned from state to state), check out the NAEP ranking and Education Week’s Quality Counts.

Looking at the “scores”, the school folks cautioned us against for 1st-5th actually has test scores comparable to the best public elementary schools over in neighboring DC…the same schools in predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods people break their necks to get into every year.

Furthermore, when you disaggregate the numbers, minority children at our diverse neighborhood school fare better in reading and math than kids at the highly sought after DC schools.

It turns out that black and brown kids at the “choice” school are actually slipping in achievement. The “choice” school did not meet achievement goals last year for African American, special needs, kids who speak another primary language, or kids on free or reduced lunch. So that means that black and brown parents who rely simply on word of mouth rather than checking the facts out for themselves are sending their kids to a school that, while it looks good when given a cursory glance, actually fails kids who look like them.

Meanwhile, the school we were warned against–the one that has a high black and Latino population–has moved those kids forward at a good and steady clip.The class sizes are also much smaller and the money spent per student is much higher at the diverse school.

So what’s up? Why the bit of whispered caution?

Perception.

The diverse neighborhood school has a high percentage of children who hail from the neighboring apartment communities and are on free and reduced lunch. More than a dozen different languages are spoken at the school. Many of the teachers are African American and Latino.

To this I say: we should embrace diversity in all forms.

I’ve spoken with PTA parents and teachers at this school and found them quite knowledgeable and involved. I’ve visited the school (which is also my voting polling site) on numerous occasions and found the environment warm and caring. The other “choice” school is lovely as well, but has fewer teachers of color and a less racially and socioeconomically diverse student body.

As I’ve written about in another post, we want to make sure our children are in environments that reflect ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. We believe strongly that this type of upbringing will help them grow up to be more confident and compassionate people.

We have a while yet to decide on an elementary school, but, for those weighing their options, I recommend taking a similar look behind the numbers.

What you learn just might surprise you.

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The color question

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It began with my daughter’s mention that the backup nanny was “very black chocolate.”
Inwardly, I stopped dead in my tracks.
Outwardly, I asked questions in a casually light voice just to gauge her awareness and perceptions of race and complexion.
Oh, what color are you?
Peanut butter-vanilla.
Your brother?
Peanut butter-vanilla.
Your parents?
Peanut butter.
Your classmates?
Vanilla
Your teacher?
Vanilla.
Satisfied that she was merely noticing complexion differences and had not assigned value, we chatted about how people come in all sorts of flavors and all of them are good.
But a niggling feeling that I’d mentioned to my husband as an aside from time to time came to the fore.
Our daughter was far too often the lone brown child in a sea of white faces.
Her ballet class is full of adorable little pixies in tutus. But, looking back at the photos of a term spent learning to plié and leap, my little ballerina was the only brown girl.
And she and an Asian American classmate are the only children of color.
Ditto with gymnastics.
Her preschool class is a bit more diverse with several biracial children. However, at a recent school fundraiser, I counted on one hand the number of black parents–and heck, my husband and I were two of them.
As they danced to some rockabilly song that left my husband and I clueless, I thought to myself “Yeah, this has got to change.”
Two years ago I agreed very reluctantly (read: dragged kicking and screaming) to move a 10 minutes drive north of the DC line after we were priced out of our preferred urban neighborhoods.
And I love our tree-filled, urban-adjacent neighborhood with its bohemian and family friendly vibe.
Our home is filled with eclectic African and African American art. We read a diverse selection of adult and kiddie literature and listen to music from many genres.
Our friends include a mix of folks who represent varied ethnicities, sexual orientations, social economic statuses, etc…
We are, quite undeniably and more than a bit proudly, an African American family.
So we were stunned when, just a few short weeks after my daughter’s mention of complexion flavors, she described a substitute teacher as “the black teacher.”
Wait…what?
It wasn’t so much that she noticed the teacher’s race.
It was that, already for her at age 3, white had become the normative race and others are, well…other.
Cue tire screeching.
Pump the damn brakes.
It was time to intervene in a big way. We had a discussion about people looking differently and how those differences are great. We reinforced that we call people by their names, not their color.
Her father and I decided that when the term ends she’ll attend a much more diverse dance school in the fall.
We enrolled her in a community rec league soccer team back in our old “hood” with a black coach–even though we’ll pass a huge soccer field with much less diverse teams to do so.
Ditto on summer swim classes.
We do these things because little African American children are bombarded often and at an early age with negative images that eat away at their self esteem in ways that are subtle and profound.
I still remember keenly the first time I traveled to Ghana and saw a sea of billboards, commercials, and television shows that reflected people who look like me.
I wept.
I cried from joy and the pain of realizing what seeing only a few token images of yourself does to you.
I had no idea such lack of reflection had caused deep pain. And, mind you, I grew up with very culturally aware parents who did their best to provide strong images and examples.
I want much more for my daughter.
I want her to move in varied circles with a bone deep confidence that reflects cultural pride.
Already her world is so different than the one I grew up in.
She has only ever lived an existence where the First family occupying the White House resembles her own blue house-dwelling family.
We are not naive enough to believe that’s enough.
But it’s a start.

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I am woman. And I do the damn thang.

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I have been forged in the fires of life threatening illness, the loss of several children during my pregnancies, and grief about all of these and so much more.
And yet, I wake up everyday, find joy in the smiles and laughter of my husband and children, and press on.
I learned a long time ago that you can’t control what hand you’re dealt in life, but you can damn sure control how you play your cards and your overall attitude about the game.
And I am so incredibly blessed to have an amazing, caring, giving, loving spouse who is an equal partner and fantastic and enlightened father.
I am blessed to have two beautiful, healthy, and blissfully happy children.
And, after nearly 40 years on this planet, I am happy with the glorious, creative, fiery, loyal, honest, spiritual, nurturing, loving person that God saw fit to create in crafting me.
I am woman.
And I do the damn thang.

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