Black Dolls: Holding up the mirror to society’s ugliness

 

Disgust. That is the most appropriate term for the video that captured the reaction of a White American child receiving a “Black doll” for a Christmas present. The fact that the adults recording thought it a funny “prank” to present a Black doll to their white children is beyond disgusting. And it is disappointing on quite a few levels.

First, let’s acknowledge that for decades, Black children have had no other option than to play with toys that were not reflective of their own inherent, magical beauty.  I myself can recall a girlhood which lacked options for my peers and I to see/be ourselves during playtime. Even when “Black” doll/toy options were presented, it was always some hue of grey-Black that I have yet to see on any living, breathing human from here to Africa. Features so  exaggerated, no wonder Black children refused to play with their “Black” dolls, which in turns prompts the explaining and cajoling yet again, this time to extol the merits of beauty found in all Black people. See how Black parenting is ever expansive and exhausting? We inherit teaching moments for what White parents take for granted. We don’t get a choice.

So while Black parents have had the onus of explaining, excusing, and teaching our children about diversity and the appreciation for other cultures, white parents have smugly presented the notion that “other” means inferior, ugly, worthless, and alien.

And it must be noted, that because of white supremacy’s elaborate design, historically most Black children rarely scoff at receiving white dolls. The disdain for one’s self and all things representative is the cost Black children pay to play…with dolls, with their history, with their own humanity. So much miseducation. Intense work to relearn and rediscover your value.

That’s the privilege of white supremacy…when YOUR identity is never in question as being the “other.” When everything you encounter reinforces your worth. Everything from toys to movie stars to marketing to policy dictates that you are the standard.

But you are not. Which is what has always been the problem. The problem for whites, really. People of color have no qualms with sharing the human spectrum. We buy into the ideal that beauty and value can be found in other races. Our children are taught to accept differences in others…heck the Church joins in the education of Black child identity and by age 4 everyone believes the words to the song Jesus Loves the Little Children, remember that? It went like this…

“Jesus loves the little children

all the children of the world.

Red and Yellow

Black and White

all are precious in his sight

Jesus loves the children of the world”

My concern is for the children. Working with Black girls, training them in media literacy and to be digital storytellers of their own experiences, my mission is to help them critically examine the messages that tell them they are inferior and stigmatize them. It is work necessary to help them move beyond the mental block of negative media and stereotypes that have been appropriated to them.  It is the work being done in communities of color all across this country; the repairing of girl magic and mending spirits broken by the ugliness of our society.

Yet, while we are tending to our girls, distinguished organizations and programs that claim to serve girls and fight for equality for all girls, seem to be avoiding an imperative teaching moment. I have watched the film Missrepresentation. I admire the writings of those claiming to build leaders amongst girls and end the “mean girl” behaviors. But what each of these have in common is 1.) A traditional white audience  2.) They negate the race conversation, refusing to deal with perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudice amongst those they serve 3.) When/if race is mentioned, it is an aside. The message is, the only change needed is to allow girls/women to be at the table… that is white women and girls.

In the times of Black Lives Matter, some may rebuff this as a tiny distraction to the overall liberation of Black and Brown people. Many may argue that this is just a play thing of no significance.

Well, I beg to differ. First of all, Black children need to love and value themselves beyond the lens of White people. There is no way they will be moved to join a movement for their liberation if they are not conscious to the truth. Secondly, if there is to be trust amongst allies, White adults must unequivocally point out this type of ignorance. There is far too much silence from those who claim to be fighting for equality and feminism. And thirdly, begin teaching their children at the earliest opportunities an appreciation for ALL peoples.

Blacks have gone far above and beyond convincing White America about our humanity. It is high time we tap out. Now it’s White America’s turn to look at their own instances of inhumanity and practices of dehumanization, then work to correct it. This is a prime teachable moment. I can’t wait to see the lessons in practice.

 

Teaching tips:

  • Expose children to other cultures
  • Foster authentic interactions that allow others to fully show up
  • Be honest with children about history
  • Provide cultural reading material, film screenings
  • Invite guest speakers to share their experiences
  • Collaborate for diverse programming
  • Follow #Blackgirlsmatter
  • Choose any of these culturally framed reads from this age-appropriate list
  • Make the Black Doll a conscious consumer choice

Community-based organizations doing the work across the country :

Girls Like Me Project (Chicago)

FAAN Mail (Philly)

Black Girls Rock (NYC)

Daughters of the Collective (Detroit)

WISEE Queen Dream Institute (Oakland/Bay area)

About the author…

keish 1

 

 

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Cosby Show : Dealing with Family Business

IMG_3190Let’s talk the Black family. And not that “ooh, my Granny makes the best sweet potato pie,” or “What city are we hosting the family reunion?” “Or who is Daddy’s favorite?” kind of talk.

Uhn uhn. Time for real talk. Time to go deeper and have those conversations that force us to tend to our wounds and start healing.

When it chose a shattered portrait of the iconic Cosby Show for its November cover, Ebony magazine was simply heeding the call to “break glass in case of emergency.” Now the alarm is ringing, we must run and see what’s the matter.

Personally, I did not take the Ebony cover literally, as if there is some fracture in the Cosby Show, its image or its influence on American pop culture – and more pointedly… the Black American experience.

Let’s state facts: Heathcliff is not Bill Cosby. Claire most certainly is not Phylicia Rashad nor Camille Cosby… ‘cause we all know after Claire had gotten wind of the allegations surrounding her husband, there would be no defense, no victim-blaming. Nope. Our Claire would have delivered her death stare, read Heathcliff for shame, left him for her old Hillman flame, and then represented the women in court. Then there is fine Theo. Down-for-my-people-speak truth to power-working-at-the-community-center- righteous-Theo. He would never sacrifice truth for Malcolm Jamal Warner’s misdirected disappointment.

Well, of course that is my imagination talking. What my imagination hopes would have transpired on our beloved, yet fictive television show.

Yet, here’s the thing about fiction and made up things: It must have some semblance of believability. The Cosby Show, for all its new millennial criticisms, may not have been a reality for the majority of its faithful viewers, but it was believable enough to offer a new hope. Some inspiration.  And while it may not fully connect with the new lens from today’s proliferation of cultural critics, it was a welcome escape in its time as the number one watched network sitcom; a hope for what the institution of family could be. An inspiration for our individual and collective aspirations. It certainly was an influence on the many throes of Black folk heading to HBCU’s and college campuses in record numbers, producing many first generation college attendees in the 90s. It was a space for us to escape our world, to exchange our real families for the one on TV.

The Real Talk we need to have…

For all the reasons I mentioned above, we can certainly say that art inspires life. But there are many instances where it does not imitate it. Exhibit A: the Cosby Show itself is still intact.  Claire can still be seen in all her glory, Cliff stays doling out his fatherly nuggets, and we can enjoy wholesome family jam sessions to our heart’s syndicated delight.

So, I find it quite ironic, yet Divinely aligned, that the Ebony cover served as “The Family Issue” in the month of November:  the start to a season where for good or bad, people are forced to consider their families. A season connected with holiday gatherings, where many are obligated to sit across the table from their childhood sexual predator, aka Uncle Leroy.

It’s the season where many contemplate suicide rather than sit in silence as their family members berate and spew hateful, homophobic rhetoric at them across the turkey as their true identities cower under a protective mask. So many will up their anxiety meds in fear of the triggers that threaten to undermine the strides made in their therapy sessions.

Let us not forget those who are pushed back into the ugliness of childhood, where Aunt Sheila beat, cursed children and directed such derogatory language to shame them, that it would embarrass a drunken soldier. And surely we could dig further and take a look at all the grandparents and relatives who choose to ignore the fact that Troy has brought yet another pregnant girlfriend to dinner, yet has not been in touch with his first 4 children since they were in the wombs of all the other pregnant girlfriends from holidays past. And everyone will ignore  that Aunt Pat, with the cast on her broken arm, seems more skittish every time Uncle Kenny gives her his ice cold stare…the same Uncle who is also known to verbally beat up on all the women in the family.

Dressing will be passed ten times before anyone addresses why Lil Mike keeps jumping up from the table, peeping out the windows and clutching his waistband. Then when Loretta has a breakdown, again, and becomes violent, nobody will finally address the mental health issues several family members are self medicating or criminalized for. And who will stay to resolve the final balance on Big Mama’s funeral arrangements or discuss how folks skipped out on that responsibility?

Nope.

Everyone will just slice their homemade version of Patti Pie and sip tea as they all boisterously share their opinion about the Cosby Show and whether or not “Cliff” “really” “raped” “those women.” air quote air quote air quote.

And now that Bill Cosby has moved to file lawsuits against a number of his accusers for defamation,  this family focused holiday season will be just like old times. The Cosby Show escape from their real family problems.

Still the opportunity is here. Ebony pushed us to the line. And it’s high time we all step up, that means Ebony too, with its new generation of editors and staff writers who may not be familiar with the “culture” that was nurtured for years in the iconic red carpeted halls of their Michigan Avenue offices. But just as they arrogantly task the Cosby Show cast as collectively inheriting the sins of its father, it may want to look in the mirror. Ask around about the dysfunction, sexism, and adult indiscretions that were  embedded within the work culture. Any employee or associate intimately familiar with practices at Johnson Publishing Company from back in the day can speak to what built the figurative house they live in, even though it currently boasts a newly renovated version.

So, yes, we have to fully consider and examine how the Bill Cosby rape allegations (can we point out the deposition confessions while we’re at it) impact the Cosby Show family as a business and cultural icon. But while we’re looking over there, we’d all better be looking right at home tending to our own family business.

#SaveOurLibrary-Chicago students stage read-in

Reading is fundamental, or so the saying goes. Except maybe the significance of that statement hasn’t reached the rationalized logic of Chicago Public School officials who have cut budgets for its school libraries which in turn has closed libraries in all  but two of its schools with predominantly Black students.

The findings are common knowledge these days: school librarians are connected to improved student performance, reading expands the connection and understanding of the larger world, school libraries are safe havens and playgrounds to foster imagination, reading is primary factor in closing the achievement gap.

Still, the nuance of all the related statistics wasn’t what prompted young students at three affected schools in Chicago to stage a unified read-in  demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the impending library closing.

What lead the students housed in the historic DuSable high school building to sit en masse in the halls  with books from their library was learning their beloved librarian would be terminated at the start of their Holiday break. For students, the devastation is personal.

A few were quoted in local newspapers expressing how they were losing their refuge and one peaceful place to study.

While I myself am all-too familiar with how life-saving school libraries can be, even more I am proud of the agency these young people have harnessed to address a system that has consistently left them disenfranchised.

The read-in was just another facet of the movement that has been steered by the audaciousness of young people…a movement that says we will no longer be devalued and locked out.

Veronica “Precious” Bohanon, a social supports professional, arts therapist, and counselor to students, qualified the acuteness symbolized by student’s joining the voices of resistance to status quo.

“It’s bigger than a librarian. It’s about youth knowing they deserve resources and using their voice to demand it,” Veronica offered. “This intersects with every struggle happening in the city. Students are honing their voice and learning to follow their gut.”

Also on the line is the moral and financial ties of those professionals who answer the calling to be librarians. Korvetta Spencer answered the call and paid a hefty $$ price to earn her 2nd Masters in 2nd Master’s degree in Library Science. She did so after feeling restricted by classroom teaching measures, and longed for the autonomy to teach what she sees as  important and the most beneficial to her students.

After cuts at two different schools, she finds herself right back in the classroom, unable to use her Masters degree, yet carving out opportunities to transport the minds of her students.

“It’s a constant battle, however, we become librarians so that we can share the world with the students, to enlighten their minds, feed their curiosity, and expose them to what’s beyond their neighborhoods,” Korvetta affirms. “That’s why I taught my students about the Little Rock Nine; we read, discussed, and wrote about the Willie Lynch Letter; Bill Cosby’s speech, Can’t Blame White People;  Emmett Till and the present-day impact. I educated them about the Harlem Renaissance, Kwanzaa, Black scientists and inventors, how society views them, and the best ways to combat those stereotypes. For many students, the only books they have access to, are the ones in the school library because no one at home buys books, and no one has the time to take them to the public library. So, without a well funded, functional library program; staffed with a trained, certified librarian who truly understands who they are, where they come from, and what they need, our kids will continue to be lost, mis-educated, and ignorant to the possibilities of who they can truly be.”

The librarians get it. The students get it. How come CPS doesn’t?

How can you help? Glad you asked?

  • You can support the efforts to keep libraries open in Chicago Public Schools by signing this petition.
  • Parent/community groups can raise funds for a librarian
  • Philanthropist can donate and/or endow a library fund for a specific school of their choice
  • Volunteer as the librarian at a disenfranchised school

UPDATE as of 12/16/2015- it was announced school librarian was reinstated for all three schools housed within DuSable campus.

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