lastletterfirstword

this is where the firstword down to the lastletter all begins with Z…

Why We Must Not Go Quietly…

“Yeah, we’re gonna tear it up/ We gonna trash it up/ Gonna round it up/

Gonna shake it up/ Oh no no no, I will not lie down/

Turn this thing around/ I will not go quietly…” –Don Henley

When, Black America, did we go hoarse? When did we become so consumed with Being Mary Jane and rocking 2 Chainz that we could allow our community to be subject to this country’s greatest Scandal? When did we become so afraid of discomfort that we would allow ourselves to be comfortable with injustices that plague our daily lives and our well-being?

And this isn’t just about Michael Brown’s cold blooded murder and Darren Wilson’s exoneration.  This isn’t just about Tamir Rice and our boys’ inability to play cops and robbers with toy guns in a neighborhood park. This isn’t just about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, or the choke hold that killed Eric Garner, or the conviction of Marissa Alexander for telling her abuser to back off with a warning shot.

Oh, it is much bigger than this.

This is about voter ID laws in Southern states– laws that serve to reenact a new Jim Crow era by disproportionately disenfranchising black folks, immigrants and formerly incarcerated men and women from using their voices at the polls. This is about Republican governors’ refusal to expand Medicaid in half of the states across this country, once again disproportionately affecting the accessibility to affordable healthcare in impoverished and underserved communities full of people who are dark like me or who speak languages too foreign for the GOP to care about.  This is about crack carrying heavier charges than cocaine and about what kind of trouble weed in the hood could get you versus pot in the suburbs.  This is about HIV growing fastest among people of color than any other group. This is about an entire nation blatantly disrespecting our President on all fronts because he is a Black man.

And yet, there has never been a time when our people have acted as cowardly as they do today.  Are we so distracted by raunchy rap music and ratchet reality TV that we have forgotten ourselves?  Are we so busy filling the pews of mega-churches that we can no longer preach about our rightful place in this world? Are we so enamored by Facebook posts, Instagram images and Twitter tweets that we do not read in black and white the words of Garvey, Washington, X, Davis, King?—Because they still ring true today.  Oh, yes—their words still ring true today.

And they would not have gone quietly, lying down and allowing the powers that be to walk all over us so we can feel a false sense of peace.  They would not have sat in front of their televisions, lit up with scenes from protests and peace rallies, and pray for it all to blow over soon.  Because it will not blow over soon.

Today, we are more powerful than we have ever been. With social media, cell phones and greater solidarity across color lines than ever before, we have the potential to mobilize, organize and create a force to be reckoned with.  This is not the time to be quiet, to be cowardly, to be fearful.  We must be strong, vigilant, active and brave if we are to pursue fight for justice.  It is time for us to stop living off of yesterday’s legacy and start building up our own.

“We must organize for the absolute purpose of bettering our condition, industrially, commercially, socially, religiously and politically. We must organize, not to hate other men and women, but to lift ourselves, and to demand respect of all humanity. Our goal is not to create offense on the part of other races, but to be heard and to be given the rights to which we are entitled.  We must determine among ourselves that all barriers placed in the way of our progress must be removed, must be cleared away for we desire to see the light of a brighter day.”Marcus Garvey, an excerpt from “The Future as I See It.” (I took liberties and heavily edited, revised and modernized this excerpt– and I take full responsibility for it.)

How to Make Noise? Contact and get involved with these organizations:

POWER

PURP (People Utilizing Real Power)

National Action Network

PICO National Network

NAACP

RAGE AGAINST THE SYSTEM

For the past couple of weeks, I have been deeply affected by the slaying of Michael Brown which happened right in the backyard of my hometown. I have followed and watched the turn of events with my stomach in knots, hoping that the fervor for justice continues in Ferguson, St. Louis and across the nation. Desirous of speaking out about this tragedy and the way Ferguson’s police force, the media and people in the community have responded, I wanted to publish a blog post about what I was feeling.

But then, one day last week, I was granted an opportunity to, once again, lead a creative writing workshop at Philadelphia FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice. For our writing exercise, I asked participants, a group of about thirty people, most of them black men, to respond to the questions raised against police brutality and the argument that we, as a community, should first focus on “black on black” aggression. I gave the writers an option to choose from which angle to write an open letter to the community at large.

The ICJ writing group had plenty to say and I had to encourage them to put all of that excitement on paper.
They did. And then they gave me permission to edit and publish it here on LLFW. I am very excited to share this work and provide a platform for the writers of ICJ.

**Please note that while these pieces are the views of each individual writer of Philadelphia FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice it does not necessarily represent the views of Philadelphia FIGHT, The Institute for Community Justice or the keeper of LLFW.

 

A Letter to My People by Sheewo
My fellow brothers and sisters, we need to wake up and realize that we are under attack. Slavery may be over by law, but it is still alive in the mind and hearts of a lot of those in power around us. Look around you. They don’t want us to succeed; they don’t want us to make it; they don’t want us to grow. They lock us away or outright kill us. They keep their foot on us and we attack each other out of anger and frustration instead of attacking the actual enemy at hand.

My black brothers and sisters, this has to stop!

We have to learn to stick together and keep each other alive. We have to take a stand and let it be known that we are worthy, that we are strong, that we possess the ability to excel past the negative stereotypes that have been stamped on us from birth. It’s time for us to raise up and fight back or they will make sure that we are exterminated. Together we are a superpower and that is why they try to destroy us.

My black brothers and sisters, it may be time for war. Our lives and freedom are still at stake.

dont shoot boys

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“Gun control means using both hands in my land. We as African Americans are being hunted. We are the targets and there has never been justice on these stolen lands.”  –DINK

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THIS IS WAKE UP PEOPLE! –by Pattie P.

What is happening in our world today as a people?
Marvin Gaye would say, “What’s Goin’ On?!”
The police are killing our black people
Our kids for no reason.

Please WAKE UP PEOPLE
If we as a people do not do something soon
Our next generation
Will be extinct.
WAKE UP!

 

So What He Was Unarmed –by Khalil Nurdeen Al’mu’min

I am so, so, so tired of hearing, reading or seeing that another man has been slayed by the city’s biggest and most powerful gang—the police. The crime fighters and community servants have declared an open season on us young black men, Trayvon Martin and now, Michael Brown.

Not to take away from all the other tragedies that have manifested where the genesis of the situation where young black men who engage in conflict end up sparking bullets and putting holes in our young men— black men who are fathers, sons, brothers, future leaders, freedom fighters, writers, artists.

Personally, I believe that we need to police the police and crime in our own neighborhoods. We need to take personal responsibility for our own welfare and community. Violence begets violence, and surely that is not the only alternative. I favor a healthy balance of physical might and verbal might.

Still, how does an unarmed young man get slayed by a trained crime-fighting public servant? I thought that the first order of these trained and armed professionals is to protect the public, not rob them, rape them or slay them.

By ANY and ALL Means Necessary –by C. Casey
Why not start telling women who are raped that it’s their fucking faults for wearing such sexy skirts? Why not tell the poor four-year-olds who are being molested that it’s their fucking faults for being so cute? Saying it was Michael Brown’s fault that the police killed him is the equivalent of just that.

Saying that black on black crime is something to look at is a way to divert us as a people from seeing the truth: We are now being exterminated by any means necessary– jail, plain out murder or some sort of biological warfare.

God bless Martin Luther King and what he has done, but I think Malcolm X’s spirit needs to rise again because our children and their children are in danger and we must stop this—by ANY and ALL means necessary!!!

 

I Don’t Trust the Cops –by Mister Man
Cops have been killing blacks for years. This young man, Mr. Brown, had his hands up in the air. Now this young man can’t go to college, can’t raise a family, he can’t wish “happy birthday” to his mom, dad, sister and brother.

We all get looks from cops all the time. They can’t be trusted. I don’t feel safe around cops and there are a lot of people who feel the same way—they don’t trust the cops.

I can’t believe they shot this young man in cold blood with no answers. Did they even apologize? Did they say they were sorry, please forgive me? Did they say, please forgive me God?

Me, myself—I don’t trust cops.

 

Aren’t We Bigger than “Black on Black?” –by Maurice 18
What I think about black on black crime is that it is ridiculous.
I mean everybody coming at the police for killing us—not to say that they are right—but we are killing ourselves. Every day, a black person is killing another black person.

Not to defend the police, but everyone is always coming at the cops, but we are not coming at each other. Black on black crime is the biggest stock in America and it is only going to continue to grow unless we as a people wake up. That is what we must do, “Wake Up!”

We can come together to smoke crack or weed, but we can’t come together as a people and get along with each other. Just a group of us—black people—sitting together, sharing good times without a fight or someone getting shot or stabbed.
I believe we could make that happen if we stop thinking we are better than each other.

Wake up, black people. Wake up.

W.A.R. –by Joel Batchelor

This is a declaration of war.

We are no longer able to function as a society within a society without a life-giving, cathartic battle. Frantz Fanon said that armed rebellion would do more than just free us—it would be the salve that heals the psychological scars that plague us. In other words, to go to war would be “cathartic.”

We—and I mean “Black folks”—are the only animals on this planet that will not fight an enemy that we have clearly identified. No other animal does what we do. No other animal has a known enemy that kills its members’ children and does not retaliate.

We are at war. It is high intensity, brutal and genocidal. What other examples do you need besides America’s own history? What more do you need than manifest destiny?

We are already at war.

Dancing for Dollars

I just left a crowded trolley platform at City Hall. Everyone waiting for everything: the #34 for University City; the #11 going towards Upper Darby; the #36 to Eastwick. I was waiting for the #10 to take me to West Philly.

When I came up from the subway, I immediately noticed other waiting passengers watching some sort of spectacle. When I got around the bend to see what had mesmerized the people, there were two men with two young boys and a toddler around a large square piece of cardboard on the ground– all of them, in turns, breakdancing to a barely audible radio playing hip-hop (the good shit) from a nearby bench.

All five of them as dirty and gray and brown as the floor of the platform, but as energetic and lively as a preacher in a pulpit on Sunday morning. They were jumping around, dancing in-sync, passing hats for head spins and hi-fiving each other in between body moves. The performance was priceless– it’s the stuff you stay in big cities for– and I wanted to dump the contents of my purse in their hands.

The boys, between the ages of 3-6 years old, moved with ease, mimicked the men, mouthed the lyrics of the 80’s rap songs and took the dollars from the old ladies who refused to drop the greenbacks in the bucket for fear that the performers would miss acknowledging their generosity.

I smiled too much over a span of ten minutes and groaned when the #10 trolley showed up. I thought about taking pictures, but I didn’t want to embarrass the pack, working in their grunge, making dollars to maybe make a meal later or to buy tokens to get around or pay bills to keep lights on. Instead, I took snapshots in my mind, dropped my dollars in the orange bucket and waved at them as I stepped on the trolley and headed West.

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” –Rumi

Blue Line Black Men: I am not afraid

There were black men yelling on the Market Frankford El today.  We all got on the train at the same time, but separately, at 69th Street, the end/beginning of the line.  The first guy, who sat across the aisle from me, was on his cell phone.

“Did you hear about the Sixers?… They tradin’ Hawes!… That’s a bad move, man!”

Other guys pile into the car, in uniforms and work boots, bundled in puffer coats or in hoodies covering their heads.  They take empty seats or stand near the poles at the double doors, some of them with their friends and in their own conversations.  But the man on the phone is loud and the other passengers are forced to eavesdrop.  A murmur begins among the strangers.

“Naw, that’s good!”

“That’s a good move for the Sixers, dawg!”

“That’s what they need!”

The man on the phone hangs up with the caller as the train begins to leave the station.  Before hitting the button to close the call, he is responding to the other passengers. The men all become passionate about the subject. There are hand gestures and scrunched up faces, “naw dawg’s” and “C’mon man’s.” The oldhead tucked in the corner of the car offers up a comment and they all pause to hear him before they all chime in at once again.

The train stops at Millbourne, 63rd and 60th Streets, gaining and losing passengers, both pushing traffic through the loud, good-natured discussion.  It’s all gibberish to me. I know nothing about the 76er’s and could care less about basketball.  But I enjoyed being caught up in that moment with them—black men yelling, unafraid for those moments, interacting with each other, passionate about a thing.

I am used to black men yelling: my father is a Pentecostal preacher, my grandfather was a bit of a pimp, my brothers get pretty riled up when telling stories, my Uncle Joe sits on my grandmother’s couch quoting Farrakhan from behind an open Final Call.  I am not intimidated.  I am not shaken. I am not moved.  As a matter of fact, I feel right at home when it gets loud and rowdy—whether it’s on a Septa train, in a family room back home, or when walking past a neighborhood basketball court.

More importantly, though, I am used to black men.

I am reminded of this when I enter the classroom of Philadelphia FIGHT each week to teach my writing workshop, “Making Each Word Matter.”  When collaborating with FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice and their weekly creative writing class, I am in a classroom with black men, 20-30 of them, ages ranging from early 20’s to late 60’s, all of them armed with pens and paper, spilling ink and creativity.  And I tell you, it is only here, in this room full of black men, first loud with their ideas, then quietly writing their words, then patiently waiting to share what they’ve written while patiently listening to others… it is here in this room, full of stagnant stale air, yet vibrant with fresh art, that I become afraid.

I am afraid that no one will hear their stories or know their worth.  No one will hear the rhyme, the rhythm, the cadence of their poetry.  No one will hear the questions, the answers, and the brilliance of their tales.

I am afraid that whether black men are yelling on the El or yelling on the page, the only ones who will listen are those of us who are not intimidated, shaken, or moved—those of us who are used to black men yelling. Or more importantly, used to black men.

The others, too busy blinded by the darkness and deafened by the noise, will continue to keep black men silenced and make up their own stories.

And I am afraid that that will not be enough.

It’s raining sunshine

I am soaked down to the bone

My skin is my proof

—- John Tolbert, haiku from “Making Each Word Matter”

Lookin’ Ass Nigga: How Black Entertainment is Selling “Niggas” for Free

There has already been a lot of talk about notorious female rap star, Nicki Minaj’s new single, Lookin’ Ass Nigga, since it dropped a few days ago. And rightfully so: Just in time for Black History Month, the artist and her team thoughtfully selected an image of Malcolm X which has been coined “By Any Means Necessary” and depicts him holding a gun and looking out of a window. There is going to be plenty of dialogue about this in the days to come, I assure you and already, in less than twenty-four hours since the video’s debut, Minaj has issued a lackluster apology to her critics. Of course, I have many issues with all of this, but none of it is what I want to address here.

Instead, I would like to point out the fact that there are too many “niggas” in mainstream rap and hip-hop music.

A day after the song’s debut, TIME Magazine’s Entertainment Section praised Nicki Minaj for getting back to her “rhyme-spitting roots” and referred to the lyrics of the new single as “wickedly spat put-downs and punchlines.”

Really? Because all I heard was “nigga.”

And I’m sure that’s all a lot of listeners will hear, whether they are fans or not, whether they are black or white, whether they live in the city or suburbs—they will hear Nicki Minaj, watch the video of her fishnet covered bubble butt balanced on a chair and, after a couple of views, learn a few lines and sing-along—“niggas” included.

Am I the only one who thinks that with the racial integration of hip-hop (so much so that three of the four Grammys won this year by rap/pop music duo, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, were in rap categories), the n-word is heavily overused and sensationalized by black artists?  And if the defense is going to say that it is a form of expression and that we have a right to give the word its power, am I the only one who thinks that if the word won’t be eradicated then it should be completely desensitized?

I can’t be the only one who thinks that fighting for the sanctity of the n-word while simultaneously recklessly using the word makes us look incredibly incompetent to the rest of the world.  Here it is that one half of us demands reprimands and jobs when white folks—the same people who are now buying and listening to Lookin’ Ass Nigga, Niggas in Paris and every other “Nigga” song out there—utter the word publicly while the other half of our community laces every other line of their chart-topping hits with the n-word.  So are we also supposed to pretend that people don’t sing-along to songs anymore just because they pause at the word when they’re around us? C’mon.

Listen, I am just as uneasy as the rest of us when I hear non-blacks say the word.  It is incredibly uncomfortable.  But as rap music becomes pop music, interracial relationships become more prevalent and America pushes towards a “post-racial society”, I think it’s time we have a real, honest conversation about what we are going to do with this word. We can’t keep pretending that the non-black kids of this new generation aren’t saying/singing it behind our backs, whether endearingly or maliciously. And we can’t just pretend that “You just can’t” is a sufficient enough answer when we confront them and, as a response, they ask why they can’t say it.

Yes, there are much bigger issues, implications and answers.  There is, there is! But we need to start with our music—or maybe the whole entertainment industry.  Can rap music eradicate the word? Can actors stop using it in movies? Comedians in their stand-up performances? Us in our everyday vocabulary? Does this seem like a tall order? Maybe. But presently, black entertainment seems to be selling “niggas” for free and giving away our dignity.

Is it just as hard to desensitize the n-word?  What are we preserving by keeping the word around? What have we accomplished by dropping the –er and adding an –a? What do you think about the n-word and it’s supposed sanctity in the black community? Thoughtful and constructive comments/criticism welcome.

must be the gods’ black

I am, unfortunately, down and out with the flu this week.  Please enjoy a creative piece instead of new commentary.  This was an assignment to describe beauty without using the word.  I think it’s the perfect piece to usher in Black History Month.   

 

she had that black skin that was much deeper than the blacks from savannah, memphis, or new orleans—places where they say the sun don’t show no mercy on the backs of colored folk who belonged to slaves.  you could tell that she wasn’t blackened by no angry, punishing sun.  it was like her color came from gods who grew tired of pinks and yellows, tawnies and terra cottas.  she wore the color of the sky before it knew stars and moon, and when they arrived, situated themselves behind her lips only to shine when she parted them.  there were no lines, no flaws in the darkness that blanketed her body which she sometimes clothed in printed cottons or pieces of matching mud cloth. but I preferred her nakedness and its enviable endlessness of the color from which I came.  that blackness untouched, untainted, and Righteous.

In Thinking About My Mortality: My Top 5 “Regrets”

“I’m less interested in why we’re here.  I’m wholly devoted to while we’re here.” Erika Harris

I am in my backyard sneaking a cigarette.  I am NOT a smoker, but, lately, I will bum one, light it up and suck it in deeply.  It is cold tonight, only days after this week’s snowstorm which left ten inches of white stuff above our rocky grounds.  Jaxon is running around me, paw-deep in the hardened ice, excited that I am outside with him while he plays.  It is after 1am and I have been home for less than a couple minutes, enough time to put my purse down and coax my pet out of my housemate’s room and drag him to the yard to help mask my dirty, smoky secret.  The cold bears down on me after a few drags and I start to feel the tingle in my fingertips and the flare-up from my toes.  I inhale some more, looking up at the sky. It is clouded white and the silhouette of the bare tree branches are black beside it.  Suddenly, I feel alive.

This morning, a friend called me to see if I would be interested in going out to see WAR.  His lady-friend had to work at the last minute and, of course, he thought of me.  It was perfect timing, I told him.  I was feeling really low, staving off depression and suffering from cabin fever. I needed to dance. He did too: His father recently stopped chemo and has maybe a few weeks.  I gasped.  It’s okay—tonight, we will dance, he assured me.

And we did! Lonnie Jordan and his crew got into it and by the end, I swore I would order myself a harmonica from Amazon.com!  The concert ended promptly at ten and we decided to get a beer and some burgers before we called it a night.  We got back to our side of town and stopped at a neighborhood tavern near his dad’s house—a place they all frequented as a family.  It was busy, but there were two seats at the bar waiting for us.  We talked about the concert, his lady-friend, my recent love and the highs and lows of our lives over the last ten years we’ve known each other. And then I asked about his father. Having lost my granny less than two years ago, I still feel the ache of her absence.  He had been spending a significant amount of time with his dad since his diagnosis a couple of years ago, and I know there would be no guilt about that, but I wanted to know that my friend was okay.

Yes, yes—I’m fine, he says. Listen, my dad’s so brave. You know, they say people sometimes have so many regrets when facing death.  But my dad, in all his years, he says he only has one: that he waited to have kids when he did and now he won’t be around to see his granddaughters marry.

I stared at him.  My heart heavy—for my friend and his father, of course, but also for myself.  How many regrets would I have if, at this moment or even years from now, I was looking at my imminent inexistence?

Somewhere between exiting his car at my door and the last couple of puffs on the cancer stick, I thought of what could be my top five regrets should the curtain close on me before these things are accomplished.  Even at the risk of being a bit morbid, I would like to share this short list. So, with no further ado, here it is:

5. Never carrying and birthing a baby.  I have a plan to adopt within the next couple of years if I have no partner to create a child with, but I have always wanted to have life growing inside of me and I feel like I would be forever unfulfilled if I am unable to experience that.

4. Never having owned a house.  These days, I truly believe that I am a city girl.  However, I do have a strong desire for a country home where I can write and spend summers on a swing porch reading and sipping lemonade.  My dream has always been to build a little cabin on our land in Somerville, Tennessee near our little summer house that was once my great-grandmother’s home.

3. Never having published a book.  Although I am currently working on my first novel and a memoir that I envision as a short story, I think all writers suffer from anxiety that something will happen to their computer and backup and all of their writing and longsuffering will be lost somewhere in cyberspace, no matter how many drives it’s saved on.

2. Having a strained and somewhat non-communicative relationship with my younger sister.  My brother recently confronted me about how little my sister and I interact with each other and I was so embarrassed that our lack of engagement with each other was so obvious.  We live on opposite coasts, she is married with a family, I am busy with my ambitions— none of these reasons justify why we haven’t spoken on the phone with each other in over a year and haven’t seen each other in more than two.  I should be more proactive—I have this conversation with myself daily.

1. Not loving who I want to love and to the best of my ability.  I was recently in the relationship of a lifetime with someone I thought the world would not approve of.  It ended just as I was coming to terms with the fact that I only get this one life and I should spend it with who I want. At once, I realized that I wasn’t living for my parents, for my friends, or for those who I love in other countries—I am living this life for me.

There is a great quote from the movie, Braveheart, which says:

“Every man dies; [but] not every man really lives.”

Make no mistake about this blog post, I have no plans of dying anytime soon. I do believe, however, that in thinking about death, we are inspired to live our best lives.

Building Character(s): A Call for Personal Stories

I am working on my very first novel, which has been both daunting and exciting.  I am also simultaneously finishing a couple of short stories and writing speeches– it is a very busy time.

However, in comparison to the short stories, which are primarily memoir pieces, the novel requires so much more time and energy and RESEARCH. When writing essays and creative nonfiction, which has been my focus since undergrad, I am telling stories from my own memories and experiences– what I’ve seen and felt and conquered, if you will. But when creating fictional characters and scenes, some of which are complexly different from me and what I’ve experienced, I am learning that I may need to go beyond beautiful language and pictorial settings to get at the heart of my characters. Instead, I must actually meet these people, live their lives, hear their stories, and watch them work– that is, if I desire a well-rounded, well-written body of work.

That said, I am looking to meet people and hear some stories.  So here it is, my call for personal stories:

  • I am looking to meet young black men who are or have been members of a traditional, predominately black church and active in some form of ministry (ie. choir, praise dance, mime etc.) who are or have also struggled with sexual/gender identity and lives or have lived a double life or ultimately left the church because of it.
  • I am also looking to meet pastors or church leaders who have relatively strong views regarding same sex relationships, gay rights, and “homosexuality” as a whole.

There will be no judging or telling here– I simply want to hear your story. All correspondence will be kept confidential.

Lastly and for the record, I will not be telling your story, but rather listening and gathering information to help inform my characters’ point of view and help me create a narrative that is both realistic and relatable.  If you are interested in sharing your story or would like more information about what I am writing, please feel free to contact me at lastletterfirstword@gmail.com

No Makeups for BFF Breakups?

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known. Love is…something that we nurture and grow.  Shame, blame, disrespect [and] betrayal…damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.  –Brene’ Brown

In high school, like most teens, I had a best friend. We were both dark-skinned, pretty and popular. She was my ace. But one day at school, after we spent the weekend together at my house, I heard a rumor that my BFF was talking smack about my little sister. Although it was merely high school hearsay, I was still upset with this and went to confront her. Emotions ran high, we said things we didn’t mean and, in an instant, our glorious friendship disintegrated. For months thereafter, everybody (and I do mean everybody) asked what happened to me and my friend and no response given was enough to satisfy the interviewer. The feedback was almost always the same: “Yo, y’all need to squash that.”

But we never did.

Over the years, I often thought about my friend, asked about her when I ran into my former classmates, and frequently replayed the events in my head, wondering what I could have, should have done differently to resolve the situation. Our “break-up” never seemed right in my spirit. It wasn’t until many years later– 2009, to be exact– when we ran into each other at a mutual friend’s 30th birthday party that we acknowledged each other with hugs and catch-ups and then partied the rest of the night as if we’d never missed a beat. We left things unsaid, and that was okay because it seemed as if time had healed the wounds.  However, when I look back over the time we lost, I wish I would have reconciled earlier instead of suffering that loss while waiting for her to make the first move.

In almost 20 years, I’ve either been responsible enough to not allow such heartbreaking losses or I haven’t cared so much that I’ve felt that pain. Then, this past fall, I had a major disagreement with a close friend and, just like before, I allowed my pride to cripple me from reaching out to her after the irons cooled.  Again, it wasn’t right—I could feel it in my heart and I had to conscientiously numb myself to avoid grieving the loss of this once great friendship.

Then one day, after months of agony, I just contacted my friend and asked to have a heart to heart conversation about what happened between us. She agreed and we made plans to get together.

Leading up to our meeting, though, I felt like the weaker person because I initiated contact. But, I also later thought about some of the unhealthy intimate relationships I’d been in and how easy it was to be the first to wave the white flag (sometimes over and over again) after an argument, disagreement, and/or breakup.  But with this best friend—a person who 1.) has had my back when all the other relationships have faltered 2.) has supported me in my personal endeavors 3.) has showed up for every high and low moment in my life— and one major argument, I found it hard to be the one brandishing the olive branch.

When we finally met, we had a difficult talk about our relationship. I cried. She cried. We blamed each other. We apologized. And afterwards, we hugged each other and made plans to move forward and actively work on our reconciliation.

I believe we all experience great discomfort when we know there is something profoundly wrong with a BFF breakup.  If you have to work at being angry, revisiting the argument to fuel your resentment, but at your core, you really want to share your exciting news or funny stories or some juicy gossip with your friend, you probably need to makeup.

If you see your friend around your town, in your mutual circles, or at your favorite hangouts and you give him mean looks when you really want to hug his neck, you probably need to makeup.

If you run into old friends who ask how ya’ll been and you run across pictures that make you smile, have memories that make you laugh, and reminisce on moments that make you cry, maybe it’s time you, too, be the first to throw in the towel, pick up the phone or compose an email and say, “Yo, we need to squash this.”

How I Fell in Love with “Shaniqua”: Why African-Americans DON’T Need New Names

I spent my formative years in the small predominately black city of East Saint Louis, Illinois.  I grew up with friends whose names were Shaunta, Kwintessa, LaCreshia, Tameka, Ariana, Tanisha, and Miesha.  The boys who chased us had names like Lamont, Tyrone, Demetrius, Terrell, Malik, Darnell and Jamal. Everything about what we called each other felt right.  These were our names and we carried them with pride, correcting pronunciation when warranted, enunciating each consonant and vowel, spelling it when the listener didn’t return the right phonetic sounds associated with our identity.     

It wasn’t until I moved to the suburbs that I realized the shame that had been misappropriated upon such names.  How both black and white folks with plainer names snickered at those of us who had more intricately “ethnic” names. It was when I shared classrooms with the Sarahs, Emilys, Kates, Connors, Dustins and Lukes that I embraced nicknames—dropping “-nique” and adding an extra “e” to “Ze” or taking on the highly regarded Buddhist term which also happens to be the first syllable of my name. 

As I got older and my social circles continued to diversify, I became more lenient about how others referred to me, readily offering “Zee” as an alternative during quick introductions and in insignificant small-talk interactions. 

Then, last year, these things happened:

  • A reporter dismissed Quvenzhane’ Wallis’ name altogether and wanted to call her by the character she will play in an upcoming movie   
  • Following that debacle, this quote from Somali poet, Warsan Shire surfaced:

“Give your daughters difficult names.

Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue.

My name makes you want to tell me the truth.

My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

  • At an event, a stranger scolded me when I allowed a man to automatically shorten my name after I had uttered my full first name to him twice
  • I spent two weeks in Nigeria and attended a workshop in Lagos with Damilola, Okechukwu, Timendu, Kelechi, Arinze, and Uchenna who represented the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa tribes
  • And then I went to Uganda for three months and hung out with Margaret, Ruth, Alice, Ben, Mark, and Alex – my Baganda, Bakiga, and Acholi friends who preferred their “Christian” names versus the names of their ancestors
  • I had a conversation with a close Ugandan friend who gave her daughter an African name after a talk with her husband where he suggested that they give their children African names. She quoted his question, “Why should we take on the names of white people? Would they take on ours?”

Somewhere in the midst of these experiences, I began to see the beauty of African-American names, both subtle and extreme.  Yes, even the stereotypical “black” names that are used in sitcoms and parodies—the Shananaes and Shaniquas and Tyrones; the names we chuckle at when reading it on applications and Facebook profiles; the names we laugh and ask, “Now what were his/her parents thinking about when they named that child that?”

I will tell you what they were probably thinking: They were probably thinking of a unique and royal title for their child—something strong, significant, and complicated, much like our history, our legacy, our obstacles.  They were probably thinking of a name that curls and catches on the tongue with the clicks and slits reminiscent of the languages we lost long ago.  They were probably proud of their blackness, their heritage, their culture and they made the decision NOT to give in to the societal pressures of dumbing down a name to something common and insignificant to appease the naysayers.

Today, I think these names deserve an apology and applause—even if only in our hearts and even if these are names that we wouldn’t choose for our own children. Let us uplift the parents who are brave enough to bestow such a brand of names on their children who, in turn, should be able to bear them proudly.       

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