I seriously LOVE this message. It has taken me until my 40's and two bouts of cancer to give myself permission to speak my mind in the white spaces I frequent. Even in education spaces, in “progressive” San Francisco, I am shocked at how often I am “counseled” (read: tone policed) to alter my message so as not to make ignorant people upset ?!? (“Yes, we acknowledge so-and-so is racist, but we wouldn’t want to say something that might make him/her uncomfortable, so could you please moderate your language to be vague and positive so we can ignore this unfortunate occurrence and he/she can continue what they are doing and thus save face?”)
I have twisted my tongue in all different directions, almost bit it off in fact trying to find the perfect way to express myself without offending anyone’s sensibilities. As a teacher I even took it upon myself to teach my students how to “make good choices” and “behave appropriately” in “academic and professional spaces”. I’m done with that.
Yet, now that I am free, I find the greatest conflict I come up against is from other Black folks, often my elders, who are still blinded by the meager gains our respectability has afforded us.
Even so, I am well aware of the relative ease I have in challenging the status quo. The challenges I face may be great, yet they pale in comparison to those faced by my father, a man who was the first Black professor at an esteemed California university, a man who was the first in an entire family to earn a college degree, a man who grew up one of only a few “colored boys” in elementary school, a man whose parents had no more than an eighth grade education due to Jim Crow segregation.
My father, a handsome well-dressed psychology professor, made a living being a “magical negro” — he loved language, used humor as a shield and never, ever expressed anger expressed anger in public. I am well aware that my college-educated ideas about speaking ones mind were funded by his “respectability.”
This reminds me of a story my father once told me about his own father’s reaction to my dad going natural. My grandfather had gotten upset at my father and claimed, “You look like a monkey from the jungle!” I am positive that growing up “colored” in Kentucky during the aftermath of the depression, my grandfather had learned that being a southern gentlemen was more than just the right thing to do, it could save your life.
Despite my grandfather’s complaints about it, my father continued to wear his Afro. In that vein, I will continue to be unapologetic about naming racist systems and narratives that hold back Black students and families.
We may stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean they will understand what we see.