Isaiah Brown

Questions to my son: What Does It Mean to Be Black?

Every year since Isaiah was old enough to understand I’ve made a routine of asking him questions that the world will try and give him answers to. I want him to think about things right now, before extreme bias or outside sources can persuade him. I want to teach him to be a critical thinker about things, that at face value, are confusing and hard.

I’ve been continually amazed how Isaiah answers my questions. I’ve asked questions like:

What if a boy wanted to marry another boy?

Hey. Do you think girls aren’t as smart as boys?

What would you tell someone who was making fun of a person who had an arm missing?

Isaiah usually answers with a sense of frustration. His expression curls up and he rolls his eyes. “Mooooooooom,” he moans, “Boys can marry boys because you just marry who you want to marry and kiss! Do they love the other boy? Because you get married because you love that person most, but only as adults because kids don’t get married!”

It is as simple as that to him. He has also answered:

“Girls can be so much smarter than boys and they are better at being friends. The girls in my class tell secrets and share things.”

“People have missing arms? Oh! That is weird. I would just help them if they only had one arm, because it would be hard to clap.” 

And so I ask hard questions about his life as a person of color. I want the echoes of his mind to have the right answers when people try to debate his value after he was shot unarmed. I want him the echoes of his mind to have the right answers when people comment that he is “so smart for a Black man” or “he doesn’t look black”. I want him to know that what it means to be Black  is about more than what his peers have been raised to believe. So I asked Isaiah:

What does it mean to be Black. This is what he still believes about his cultural and racial identity. I want him to hold on to this as long as possible, because it is a beautiful and innocent belief that the rest of the world doesn’t share about us.

Camille

Camille

I sat at the table in the Mexican restaurant covered in sweat and salt from an intense practice for Northwest Arkansas Roller Derby. My company were other   new recruits. They called us “fresh meat”. A seasoned and long standing member of the roller derby league laughed at another one of my jokes. “Ooooooh,” she grinned, “I cannot WAIT for you to meet Zilla.”  I’d heard of Zilla the way you hear of most people who elicit extreme reactions from people. Her skater name was “Blackzilla” or “Zilla” and her name was Camille.   Everyone I met who knew her asked if I knew her. “Do you know Zilla?” they would ask me with an edge of panic and intrigue. I guess they thought that we’d be two titans. Two huge personalities clashing and leaving disaster in our wake.

I tried to head off the anxiety of this woman people kept warning me about by friending her on Facebook. I requested three times. She responded back in a private message. “I don’t know you. I am not friending you. I don’t friend people I don’t know.” I shrugged.

She is a direct communicator. Cool.

The day we finally met we made eye contact. She looked me over and half grinned. I commented about her kinky curly hair. “They say we will hate each other…. My name is Jasmine,” I said leaning in toward her. She scoffed loudly, rolled her eyes. “Why?” she puzzled with annoyed tone. We laughed and spoke at the same time, “angry black women!” She threw her head back laughing, “You don’t even know!” We surprised ourselves by the identical words that left our mouthes. I high-fived her and we cackled loudly. That was it. That was the night Camille and I became friends. That was two years ago.

Since the inception of our friendship Camille has stuck beside me through all kinds of life. She has been a beacon of light for me in the fog of life when all other lights went out. Likewise, I’ve held her down. And we have this kind of energy between us that allows me to look her in her eyes and say, “Now you know you are…..” I’ve had best friends. I’ve had best friends that I considered family. I’ve had best friends that I considered family that I worked my ass off to be in a relationship with. But I have never, until Camille, had anyone match my level of dedication and commitment. I always gave too much, or loved too much, or felt too much.

You the best way to learn how to spot a counterfeit? You have to become exposed to the real thing.

I thought I knew ride or die friends. I didn’t… until I bet Camille.

Camille,

Thank you for being willing to not back down from life with me. Thanks for reading this bullshit blog. Thanks for being a hand when I need one to hold. Thanks for the laughs and the smiles and the inside jokes. Thanks for being “framily”. Thanks for being real for real and having enough grace for the people you love. We are better because we know you.

Happy Birthday, Boo. Happy to be an “Angry Black Woman” with you, forever and ever amen.

How To Be Authentic Without Being A “Debbie Downer”

 

 

I love that Saturday Night Live Skit! Rachel Dratch personifies that one person we all know who brings the level of a conversation down by offering the latest morose and depressing news. I’ve been that person. I’ve been Debbie Downer so many times!

In my TedxFayetteville talk I discuss the need to be authentic. I was surprised, after my talk, by how many people approached me and wanted to know what to do because “they were kind of depressing” if they were authentic. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

 

Facing Negative Comments and Trolls Online

I sat in a session at a conference the other day. The panel of experienced speakers fielded questions from the audience on how to be a blogger. “How do you do this,” they asked, “What do you do when…” they puzzled. It never fails that THE question comes up. This is the question that brings into visibility popular blogger hate sites, mean comments, and critics. “How,” we always ask, “do you deal with mean comments and Trolls on your blog.”

I’ve always thought this is the wrong question. I don’t think we should learn to deal with them. We should learn to deal with ourselves and the buttons in us these mean spirited commenters push.  I won’t begrudge anyone who feels they need to close comments, delete attacks, or altogether block folks. But I don’t think figuring out how to “thicker skin” or manage the discomfort is the right path.

St. Ambrose remarked that “no one heals himself by wounding another.” These commenters know what they are doing. They aren’t looking to learn, to grow, or to connect.  At a point,  you have to say to yourself they need that hate. They need all the dark and hate and mean to hold them in whatever place they are in to avoid whatever they are avoiding… and once you realize that, you realize that you have happened upon a person so deeply in need of your compassion—because they’d rather to exist in a space that rejects softening and kindness for daggers. That space has no water and very little light and is usually filled with voices that haunt. You and I know that place because we’ve been there at times, and in hard moments we’ll find ourselves there as visitors… even just for moments.

So we should stop asking how we can protect ourselves from these interactions. We should lean into the discomfort and let those moments when someone calls you ugly or stupid or dumb in an anonymous comment inform the gravitas of your writing.

Why did it get to you? Is it because you do feel ugly? Write about it.

Why do you bristle at being called stupid. Is it because you adopted that belief as a child and it still informs some of your fear and self doubt? Write about it.

Let each dagger be a moment to reflect and write about your truth and your power.

Can we redeem the whole internet? Nah, dawg…. have you seen some of that bullshit? It would take a mighty big existential broom to handle that mess.

BUT.

We can redeem our own URL spaces. We can learn to not be afraid of the voices of the haters…even the voices of the haters in our own heads.