Posts Tagged ‘sad’

Still thinking about Chibok, still thinking about those girls.  Today, I tried again to articulate my thoughts.

This isn’t an article about what we can do — or what someone should do — to bring those girls back home.  This is an article about education, about the fear of educated women, about the risks all of us take every time we dare to learn something new, to use education to change our situations.  The girls of Chibok were kidnapped because they went to school.

When I first became an adult literacy teacher, I had a student who was a confident, funny, intelligent member of the class.  She was an absolute beginning reader and was making gradual progress.

One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.  Her greeting and hesitant smile were nothing like the bright, wide smile we saw in class each night.

Instead of a greeting, he tossed her The New York Times, asked her to read to him.  When she told him she couldn’t, he asked why she bothered with school if she couldn’t read, told her she was lucky she had him to take care of her, that she’d be helpless otherwise.

I’ve thought about her so many times since that night, and thought of her as my initial horror and sadness over the abductions in Nigeria churned into anger.  What was that man so afraid of?  How could it have been so terrifying to him that his girlfriend was learning to read?  I know an answer to this question.  He imagined that an education would help her see just how much she didn’t need him.  But while he had every right to be afraid, he had no right to use his fear as a weapon to smash her curiosity, her cleverness, her smile.

In the years after that class, I saw many women for whom attending school was a dangerous decision.  A student in one program withdrew from classes when her boyfriend reported her for child neglect because she left her daughters with their grandmother to attend classes three nights a week.  A GED student missed every test she was scheduled for because as each test date approached, her husband would beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house.  Another student’s partner destroyed her birth control each time she enrolled in school so that she would get pregnant and need to leave school before taking the test.

We aren’t the missing girls of Chibok.  We aren’t.  We have experienced trauma and abuse, but we aren’t those girls … except that we are, too.  I think about past students as my heart aches for those girls and their families because people around me keep saying they can’t imagine a culture in which girls would be punished, would be terrorized for wanting an education.

No?  Look outside.  Look in the mirror.  We are that culture.  And we, as women learners, teachers, researchers, advocates, and allies are fighting back against that culture.

And so are the girls in Chibok, and Warabe, and other Nigerian villages under the shadow of Boko Haram.  They are going to school.  Now.  Still.  They are asserting their right to learn, their right to determine who they’ll be in the world.


I use the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag.  It’s one painfully small way to remind people that those girls are still missing, that many may already have been sold into slavery.  I can’t go to Nigeria and rescue them, but I can work here at home to change attitudes and dismantle systems that harm women.  I can continue to support WE LEARN and education for women as vehicles for equity and change, for putting power in women’s hands.


SOL image 2014

Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

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I am still sad and silent.  But Raivenne is writing.  She is also using poetry to find a voice for the horror of Chibok and Warabe: Bring Her Home.

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Tonight I read as part of the Big Words, Etc. series.  It was my first time participating.  The night’s theme was “expectations.” Here’s what I read:

In her Ramadan journal, my friend Serena blogged about the silence of my sadness in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I am both: sad and silent.  I haven’t cried, haven’t rallied, haven’t ranted.  Haven’t done any of the things I usually do in these moments.

And that’s part of my silence, isn’t it?  That I can say, “any of the things I usually do,” that I have ached through enough of these moments that I actually have an expected pattern of response.


I can come here and do things I can maybe be expected to do — wear a hoodie, wear a picture of this fallen boy on my shirt.  I can come here and say the thing I can maybe be expected to say — “I am Trayvon Martin.” — or I can say what is actually true: I am not Trayvon Martin.  I am more likely to be Eleanor Bumpers, or Yvonne Smallwood, or Marissa Alexander.  I’m more likely to be one of the almost 65,000 African American women none of us have ever heard of who currently make up 40% of the FBI’s National Center for Missing Persons list.

After the acquittal of Sean Bell’s murderers, I went online, [came to this blog] to pick and poke at my sorrow and anger.  It helped and didn’t help.  I needed the time and space to vent, to grieve, but shouting into the void is never more than a temporary salve.  I wanted something to do — wanted to see that something I could do — would mean I wouldn’t have to go to another march for another unarmed black man.  And here we are.  Again.

I can maybe be expected to say I’m angry, hurt, disgusted terrified, disheartened, sickened, devastated, lost … And those things are all true, but what is more true is that I’m tired.  To the marrow of my bones. Tired of this reality, tired of being expected to make change when I didn’t make the problem in the first damn place.  Tired.  Beat, as James Baldwin wrote, to my socks.


I started writing four different pieces to get ready for tonight.  One of them was, I hope, funny.  One of them was a piece of the memoir I’m working on.  One was a revision of a story I wrote last fall.  One was about my hair and all the things I think and feel when people ask to touch it.

But then that verdict came down and all my words were gone.


I spent this past weekend in Rhode Island with women who love me, who asked nothing of me, who hugged me, who made me laugh, who brought me back to myself … at least a little.   But, as of 1:00 this morning, I still had nothing written, still had no idea how to pull any coherent thought from the swirling mass of defeated, painful anger that’s been choking me the last ten days.

Of course, the only thing to do about a writing block is to write.  So I am standing here with these disjointed and rambling thoughts that cling only to the through lines of my pain and my increasing inability to comprehend how it is that I live here, in this place where every day I am reminded in large and small ways how little my life means to the wider society, how vehemently I am unwanted.


Does that sound harsh?  If so, I wonder what other message you think I should take from incident after incident after incident.  From acquittal after acquittal after acquittal.  In my head, there’s a voice saying that for every 5,000 Medgars, there’s only one Byron De La Beckwith … and it took three decades to bring him to justice.  And that voice is followed by Zack de la Rocha’s reminding me: “Three million gone … ‘Cause you know they’re counting backward to zero.”


It’s not just this case, of course.  But it is just this case, too.  This was the case that had to go the right way, that no jury could possibly see in a way different than the way I see it.  This was so clear, so obvious, so irrefutable.  Until it wasn’t, and except that I’m not actually that naive … except that I obviously am.

It’s not just this case.  Of course.  Because it isn’t just the senseless killings.  It’s the slow drumbeat of dread, distrust, and distaste, of dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and dismissal, that make it possible for there to be so many senseless killings answered by so little outrage.  It’s living for seven years in the same apartment in Cobble Hill and having my neighbors walk a little faster and clutch their bags a little tighter as I followed them up the stairs to the front door of our building.  It’s every cab that has never stopped for me.  It’s the landlord who didn’t want to show me his apartment when he realized that the woman who’d “sounded white” on the phone was really me.  It’s listening to the surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope talk down to my Harvard-educated aunt as he explained why sterilizing me was the best care option even though he had no idea what had brought me into his ER.  It’s a million intentional denials and erasures, a million casual and unconscious cuts.

At almost 51, I was alive but much too young for many Civil Rights milestones.  The marches, the police dogs, the freedom rides, the fire hoses, the lynchings, the assassinations.  All were real in my childhood.  My parents were quiet activists.  The news came into our house over dinner every night.  Not the worst bits, not the ugliest, the kids-are-too-young-to-hear-this bits.  But enough awareness seeped in that I wouldn’t join the Girl Scouts because I refused to be called a Brownie.


Nothing that is happening now is new or news to me.  But my inability to breathe, to think, to access my response in a productive way — my impotence — frustrates me.


Maybe I’m not ready, yet, to break my silence completely.  Maybe I’m still too angry, still too sad.  Maybe I’m just afraid to open the well of pain that I’m always and always plastering over, afraid of the thick sludge that will boil up and out.  But then I hear de la Rocha’s voice on another lyric, “Anger is a gift.”  And I believe that, want to harness it, still want something to do — still want to believe that something I can do — could mean there won’t be another march for another unarmed black man.  And getting to that place seems to require the fully unpacked expression of my anger.  And what happens when that door is opened?

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The wheel on her bike, the front one, was busted.  Her father had backed into it the night before backing into a parking space and overshooting the curb just a little, just enough.

Ruined.  Still the same pretty pink that had made her heart swell when she’d unwrapped it at Christmas.  Still perfect and beautiful.  Except for some invisible crimp in the frame that kept the front wheel from turning more than a quarter of its revolution.

He’d brought the bike into the kitchen, her father.  Carried it up from the street and set it on the floor in front of the stove.

“If I can’t fix it, we’ll get you a new one,” was all he’d said at first.

She and her mother, side by side snapping beans over the sink, had turned to stare at him.  She hadn’t wanted it to be true, but had felt her face shift — first crumpling in pain then hardening in anger.

“What happened?” Not really a question, but the clipped, disdainful tone of the woman at the checkout who would announce the grocery total and then look at her mother as if she assumed there wouldn’t be money enough to cover it.

She had cried and refused her dinner, refused to be consoled, had taken herself to bed, still in tears.

But by morning, she had softened.  She knew her father, knew it was likely he could fix whatever was wrong with the frame, knew that if he couldn’t, he would be true to his promise and find a way to buy her a new one.  And she would be happy either way.

That was all true, but she also felt the change.  The bike would never be the same, a new bike would never be the same.  Everything had changed: the magic of her glorious pink flying machine, the certainty that her father could never hurt her,  the safety of surrounding herself with objects.


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Even though I was silent for a few months, I was still writing as if I were going to post something.  I have posts in every notebook I’ve carried around during this hiatus, half-written drafts saved here.  For the most part, I think I’ll just let them all die a quiet death.  This one, however, I wanted to put up.  I went to Detroit last month for the Equity Summit.  I’d been very much looking forward to it.  The agenda was interesting, and I thought there was the possibility for some great conversation and interesting connections.  And I got all of that, but I also got body-slammed by Detroit itself.  On the first afternoon, pretty much the second I arrived, I boarded a bus to take a tour of part of the city.  I was with a few co-workers, and we’d all signed up for one of the various tours the conference folks had arranged.  About mid-way through mine, I wrote the next four paragraphs thinking I’d post them when I got back to the hotel … but instead I needed to unpack my bags and register for the conference and meet my boss and get ready to spend half a week talking about equity … and it never got posted.  It stayed with me, though, the despair and anger.  I’ve talked about it with a lot of people since that trip, but I still haven’t gotten it out of my system, still want to put it up here.


So depressed.  I’m in Detroit today, here for the rest of the week.  I’m on a tour bus for this conference and I’m touring the neighborhoods of Southwest Detroit.

I read all the time about poverty, about economic and environmental injustice, about urban blight, about graft, corruption, racism.  I have experienced a number of these things.  I work in a community and live in another community that are dealing with many of these things.  I have never in my life felt the kind of pain that’s lodged in my chest right now, have never visited a place that made me want to burst into tears.

I don’t understand how it’s possible to so completely devalue people.  Oh, of course I’m not that naive.  But I am, too.

I know that I should read this pain as a call to action, that I should understand it as a reaffirmation of why I do my work, why the project I’m directing is as important as I know it is.  I know this, but right now my despair is too pronounced, too overwhelming.  The tour leaders are trying to inspire us to fight the power, but right now I’m waving a white flag.  I know I’ll move on from here, but right now the pain and desperation are overwhelming.  Right now all I want to do is cry.


Yeah, that was a fun-filled afternoon for me.  I kept wondering how I could have grown up poor but not have realized I was actually living a life of obscene privilege and opulence.   No one else around me on that bus seemed to be having the experience I was having.  They were talking to one another, taking pictures and comparing notes on what we were passing compared to wherever they’d come to Detroit from.  And I was taking pictures, too.  I was comparing Detroit to my neighborhoods in Brooklyn, too.  But I was also having a meltdown.  I must have looked miserable and unapproachable.  After our second stop on the tour, no one even tried to make conversation with me.  My feelings were too strong for me to keep them off my face.  I wouldn’t have approached me, either.

Before I left for Detroit, my mother warned me to be careful because the city’s supposed to be so horribly dangerous.  I’m not saying it’s not dangerous, but … you know, my own city can be pretty rough, too.  I figured I was prepared to take care of myself.  What I wasn’t prepared for was what I saw and heard on that tour.  We visited sites where we weren’t allowed to get off the bus.  And that was for our protection from. the. air.  Yes, we were told quite plainly that the air quality was so bad, we’d feel the ill effects in our breathing and our eyes in maybe about five minutes.  We pulled into two locations and people from those sites came onto the bus to talk to us.  We got to sit in our plush seats, listen to their stories and then watch them walk back into the poison.

This is a playground next to a community center, one of the stops where we stayed on the bus.  Notice the yellow plumes of smoke next door, the sulfur filling the air where kids are coming to hang out and play.  That play space used to be on the other side of the community center (a few breaths further away from the sulfur smoke) until a tractor trailer fell off the highway that runs overhead and landed smack on the playground.  I listened to the stories about this center and I stared out the window.  How did anyone think it was okay for children to be playing there?  How did anyone think it was okay for anyone to live there?

We drove past burned out foundations and boarded up houses, past lot after lot after lot where whole communities had been dislocated and their homes razed and the land just left fallow.  For such a big city, I was shocked by how many open fields there were in Detroit.

Open fields and this:

But at the same time, it wasn’t all dismal.  Right next door to these boarded up houses is a mural:  and murals, even when they’re sad or painful, always make me feel a little bit better.  And this one has the Dunbar/Angelou reference, which makes it that much nicer.

I know there are wonderful things happening in Detroit.  I know it because I made a point to do a little research and find out about some of those things.  I know it because my co-worker is a native and she made a point of sharing some of those things with me.  I know it because we got to see a tiny little bit of that at the tail end of our tour.  I know it because the Equity Summit folks showed us fifteen minutes of Lemonade Detroit.  I know it.  I know.  But I also know what I saw on that tour.  I also know all the things I’ve learned over the last year about the group in River Rouge that’s trying to develop the same kind of community revitalization project that I’ve been working on in Brooklyn for the last year.  All of these things fit and don’t fit together.

Detroit made my heart hurt.  It’s definitely not the only place in the country with the power to do that.  No.  I’m sitting in my mom’s house right now in Maryland.  If I want heartache, I can ride up the road to north Baltimore and it’ll be right there to smack me in the face.  I’ll be home tomorrow, and I can find it in my own back yard.  There’s plenty of heartache all over.  It’s not my job to “save” Detroit.  There are plenty of worthier, more capable people stepping up to that challenge.  It was definitely Detroit’s job to wake me up, however.  I needed that slap in the face, needed to see more clearly the importance of the work we’re trying to do in Brooklyn, of the role I play as part of that work.

I need to go back to Detroit.  Any place that grabs your heart as aggressively as Detroit grabbed mine needs more time, needs attention.  So I’ve put the city on my “must return” list, not for a conference and a whirl-wind tour, but for the city itself, to really see and be there.  Even in the places where it’s hard to breathe.  Even in the places that make me want to scream and cry.  If I want the lemonade, I need the lemons.

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How have we gotten (back) to a place where assassination is an answer to those who believe things we don’t?  How have we gotten to a place where a national figure can put an image up on her website that shows a gun-sight’s crosshairs over the politicians she opposes … and then take that image down when one of those politicians is shot and say she’s praying for “peace and justice”? 

Sarah Palin took down her website that had gun crosshairs on Rep Gabrielle Giffords, but here’s a screenshot. UPDATE: The crosshairs map was only taken down from one site.  At last check (4pm) it was still up on Palin’s FB page.

So angry and sad right now.  As Rebecca Walker just tweeted: “I feel so badly for our country, for us.  Who will serve?  Who will want to serve?”

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No Words

I spent some of this afternoon at the wake of a fifteen year old who took his life Sunday night.  That morning, he went to church with his family.  He sang in the choir.  He went home.  He went to his room to take a nap and took, instead, the pills that killed him.

I didn’t know him.  I’d met him once when he was six or seven.  My program used to run out of the upper floor of his father’s church.  I went to the viewing out of respect and sadness for his dad.  And by being there, I got to meet this amazing boy who seemed to have so much love and compassion to give others, but maybe couldn’t find enough to give himself.

One by one the kids who knew him stood up and told funny, touching, revealing stories about him — stories he might not have wanted them to tell but which brought him, vividly, into the room, stories that made me feel I knew him and made me sorry I didn’t.  I loved how open the kids were — turning to the casket to talk directly to him, reciting poems they had written for him only moments before, holding and checking in with one another, sharing themselves as they shared their stories of him.

Afterward, I gave the pastor a hug.  I had no words.  I could and did say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” but it really means nothing, you know?  There just aren’t any words.

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