Time to Unplug

Two weeks ago I discovered a writer’s haven – an internet café at a public library. It’s got tables, plenty of power outlets, restrooms, vending machines, and even a microwave. Walled off from the rest of the library by glass doors, it opens into a private courtyard, with benches, picnic tables, and yes, more power outlets! It’s been a great spot to work. Armed with a thermos full of coffee, a lunchbox, and a laptop, I can work there all day – without spending any money!


This morning, though, my haven keeps getting interrupted. Every few minutes, a young man dressed in a sports store uniform, pops in with his cell phone to his ear. A longtime lover of library silence, I’m impressed that he is respectful enough of the patrons in the main space to take his phone conversations elsewhere. I just wish that “elsewhere” was somewhere else. Doesn’t he see me working?!


Cell phone conversations are loud, even when people think they’re speaking quietly. So it didn’t take long for me to get a sense of what was going on. He was being called repeatedly by his job. More than three hours before his shift was supposed to start (like I said, cell phone conversations are loud), his co-workers were tracking him down, asking him when he was coming to the store. By the fifth call, he walked straight through the café to the courtyard. Even with the doors closed, I could hear him giving instructions to someone. By that point, my frustration with the noise had turned into sympathy for this man, who couldn’t enjoy his morning off without constant interruptions.


I couldn’t help but think of a few of my friends in ministry. I have been to a few ministry retreats and conferences this year where I’ve watched colleagues who could not get away from issues back home. Every few minutes, they got a call, text, or email from someone who ostensibly needed their help. And every few minutes, they were responding. It was nearly impossible to have conversations with them without them pausing to take a call or answer a text. “Hold on, I need to respond to this” was the frequent refrain. Their busyness took on a manic element as they rushed from task to task.


If it were just conversations with me that were being interrupted, I wouldn’t be bothered. But I knew that their addiction to busyness was all-encompassing. It impacted their health and their relationships. Is it ironic that it happened most, actually always, with African American men and women? Probably not. My guess is that it’s the StrongBlackWoman/StrongBlackMan thing rearing its head. Layer that with Christianity’s emphasis upon “bearing the cross” and you’ve got a full-scale case of ministry overload and eventual burnout.


A few months ago, my husband and I imposed a blackout period on electronic devices in our household, a two-hour evening time slot in which we would not utilize our cell phones or computers. Miraculously, it was doable. The world didn’t come to an end. Our lives did not turn upside down. Instead, we had two hours each evening when we read, talked, or played games rather than checking Facebook and playing Angry Birds. Over the past few weeks, though, there’s been a gradual erosion in our observance of the blackout. It probably began around the time of a deadline when I “just had” to work on something for a few hours. It’s a slippery slope. I better scramble back up before I fall too far. I encourage you to do the same. Make a commitment to “unplug” for part of your day – even if it’s only one hour. And for that hour, be present to the world in other ways. Spend time with your partner. Play with your kids. Read a book. Take a long, hot soak in the tub. And trust that God is in control of everything else.

Reading and the Black-White Achievement Gap

Since childhood, I have been an avid reader. In elementary school, I almost failed fifth grade because of my love of reading. When the teacher gave the first worksheet of the day, I’d finish it as quickly as possible so that I could reach for the book that I had stashed in my desk. Every now and again, I’d look up to see what the rest of the class was doing. If they were still working, I kept reading. I always marveled at how long it took my classmates to complete a worksheet. It wasn’t until the “D” appeared on my progress report that I realized that my peers had been moving on to new assignments while I was reading.

With a toddler around, I don’t often have the luxury of becoming so engrossed in books that I’m oblivious to what’s going on around me. But I am addicted to books in the way that some women are addicted to shoes. Give me a free minute and there’s likely to be a book in my hand. When I leave the house – whether it’s for a day of work or for extended travel – I often spend more time agonizing over which book(s) to take than what to wear. I swear I get a contact high when I walk into a bookstore.

So it’s probably no surprise that I would really, really, really love to have one of the new e-readers on the market now. The idea of being able to carry thousands of books on one device is euphoria-inducing. And to be able to buy and instantly read a new book no matter where I am…OMG! Given the number of books that I have to buy for my classes and research each year, the comparatively low cost of e-books could mean a pretty significant savings. Well, in reality it’d just mean that I could buy more books for the same amount of money. Okay, but it’d definitely be less weight to carry around, which would help my chronic back pain. Not to mention it’d save on shelf space.

But every time I think about these miraculous devices, I experience a twinge of reluctance. There’s just something about a physical book that can’t be replaced. I tried to convince myself that I’d adjust to an e-reader over time, but I still couldn’t imagine switching over to a virtual library.

A few days ago, I finally realized why a Kindle, Nook, or iPad could never replace physical books for me. It’s because my library is not just for me. It’s for my children.

For years, I’ve been trying to accumulate a library that includes books that I think all progressive families should own. There are certain books that I want to have sitting on the shelves so that my children might be compelled, in a moment of boredom or curiosity, to pick them up and read them. These include books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Carter G. Woodson’s Miseducation of the Negro, W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Not to mention Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lewis’ Narnia series, and the entire Harry Potter series.

Last week, as I was writing in the journal that I’m keeping for my son, I felt compelled to list these books, and others, as required reading for him to be a thinking Black man (I’ll post the list sometime soon). It turns out that I was making this list in the same week of publication of a study showing that the number of books that a family owns is a better predictor of children’s academic success than the education, occupation, and socioeconomic status of the parents. Children who grow up in a home with 500 books complete an average of 3.2 years more schooling than children who grow up in homes without books. And the effect is even greater for children from the poorest families. For parents with only primary-school education, having as little as 25 books in the home means that children will complete 2 more years of schooling than their counterparts with no books. USA Today has a brief article on the study, which appears in full in the June 2010 issue of the journal, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.

While the study didn’t look at race, I can’t help but to wonder about the impact that a family library can have on academic achievement among African American children. Studies like these often focus on poverty (and they should). However, there’s a long line of research documenting a significant and persistent achievement gap between middle-class black and white children in America. As one researcher states, “the school performance of middle-class black children is closer to that of poor white children.” By the age of 5, black children in middle-class homes own an average of 60 books; their white counterparts (i.e., children of parents with similar levels of income and education) have 100.

More than once, I have visited the homes of middle-class African American friends and family and have noted that there are few, if any, books in the household. In contrast, these homes are usually well-stocked with DVDs and state-of-the-art entertainment and gaming systems.

A few months ago, when I proudly posted a video of my then 20-month-old practicing his alphabet, a few family members asked what our secret was. Quite simply, we limit his television consumption and we read to him often. We take him to story hour at the library, buy at least two new books each month (at not quite two, he has at least 60 books), and have read a minimum of 4 books per day since infancy (the current average is 6-8 books per day). In fact, 99% of the time, if he brings a book to us, we will stop whatever we are doing and read it. Even if he brings 12 books in a row (which he likes to do), we read all of them. You might call us a child-reading-centered household.

Does it mean that he’ll be smarter than other kids? No one can predict that. There are a ton of social factors out there waiting to influence him as he grows up. We may not be able to combat all of them. But hopefully, our attempts to raise a reader will give us a head start.

The Fascination with the American Negro (Episode 1)

I have spent much of my life being the first, the only, or the youngest. It comes with the territory as a black person in the academy and as a woman in ministry. When I began my current position at a historically black seminary three years ago, it was the first time since elementary school that I had been in an academic setting (either as a student or professor) that wasn’t dominated by whites (although my high school was predominantly black, the AP classes in which I was enrolled were decidedly not, but that’s another story).
My husband’s experience is similar, albeit in reverse. The day that he graduated from college was his last time that he spent his days in a majority black setting. Over the past 15 years as an engineer, he has always been one of a small handful of people of color at the firms at which he’s worked.

So it’s not surprising that by virtue of our socioeconomic status (as well as our commitment to racial reconciliation), we spend a lot of time in places populated mainly by whites. In our home city of Durham, we’re part of the granola crowd. We shop at Whole Foods, are members of the NC Museum of Life and Science, and take our son to classes at the Little Gym.

Herein lies the challenge. Because we are usually the only African Americans (or among a small minority) in the contexts that we inhabit, so is our 18-month-old son. As a result, he’s become something of a celebrity. Being the “only” makes you highly noticeable and recognizable. When you play the go-around-the-circle-and-introduce-your-child game, everybody remembers the name and face of the solitary black child. It’s not uncommon for my husband to have unfamiliar white women greet our son by name at the grocery store or museum. We’ve gotten used to it.

But it makes for some very strange moments at times. Take this week’s gym class, for instance. There was one little girl who had apparently never seen a black person. Or at least black hair. Or at least a 1″ Type 4B Afro that had been packed under a winter cap (I admit it, the boy looked like who shot john). For the bulk of the 50-minute class session, this little girl followed my child around the room, pointing to and patting his head. He seemed oblivious to it and kept playing. But his mother, who has some major hang-ups around race and hair, was not.

“Oh here we go,” I thought, “It’s time for another ‘fascination with the American Negro’ moment.” Since the majority of African American women do not wear their hair in its natural texture, when we do, it is often a source of heightened attention and discussion by folks of all races. But with whites, there is an added element (especially if you have locs, which I did until two years ago) – morbid curiosity:

“How did you get your hair like that?”

“I didn’t. This is what God gave me.”

“I’ve never seen hair like that.”

“That’s because it’s usually hidden under relaxers and weaves.”

“Ooh, can I touch it?”

Hell no.

Sorry, that was a flashback. Post-traumatic hair syndrome, I guess. But having absolute strangers or casual acquaintances try to turn you into a hands-on museum exhibit is beyond maddening.

I once spent a week at a retreat for black women. Toward the end, after days of spending every waking moment together, one of the women said to me, “Your locs are so beautiful. Can I gather them?” I could tell her motives were pure, so I said yes. My spine tingled as she stroked my locks from crown to nape, pulling the wandering strands – in the most gentle way possible – into a single stream flowing down my back. In that space, surrounded by women trying to love ourselves and one another, that was an act of love.

Of course, none of that – the dehumanizing-museum exhibit moments or the intimate acts of sister-love – means anything to a blond 18-month-old who thinks the fact that her new friend’s hair looks and feels like a cotton swab is cool. Her mother was clearly embarrassed, trying unsuccessfully to make her stop. “Don’t worry about it,” I told her, “he doesn’t even seem to notice.”

Meanwhile, I thought to myself, “Okay, this is really the last straw. He won’t sit still long enough for us to pick it out, it gets messed up anyway, we have to get soy nut butter and applesauce out of it twice a day, and now he’s getting harassed by little white girls.”

He was in the barber’s chair three days later.

The Week in Review (09-26-09)

In my daily wanderings around the internet, I usually run across some pretty interesting articles, blogs, and essays that are related to issues of race, gender, relationships, sexuality, and parenting. Some of these are certainly worthy of sharing to like-minds. So from time to time, I’ll post them here as a sort of “week in review.”

Here are a few that caught my attention this week:

“Good Luck Raising That Gender-Neutral Child” by Tracy Clark-Flory @ Salon.com

Many of us so-called progressives attempt to live out our commitment to gender equality in our parenting, trying to avoid gender stereotypes as we choose our children’s toys, friends, clothing, etc. But a common refrain heard among such parents is that once children enter the preschool years (around ages 3-4), they begin to exhibit traditionally gendered behaviors that may run counter to everything the parents have tried to instill. In other words, gender is not just a social construct (or performance). In this article, Lisa Eliot, a mother and neuroscience professor, discusses her recent book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Big Gaps – and What We Can Do About It, in which she reviews the research on gender differences and similarities. She also weighs in on preschoolers’ gender stereotypes, the “boy crisis,” and South African runner Caster Semenya.

“The New Generation of the Young, Gifted, and Black: What Are Their Responsibilities to the Black Community?” by Max Reddick @ soulbrother v.2

This is an older post that I just discovered this week. Max Reddick raises some really good questions. What responsibilities, if any, do the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement have to “the race” in our so-called “post-racial” age? And is it possible to feel any sense of responsibility to the race without also carrying the burden of representation?

Black Men and Boys Week @ soulbrother v.2

This week, blogger Max Reddick did a series on black men and boys, in which he examined the definition of black masculinity, the prison industrial complex, and whether single mothers can effectively raise black boys. He also provides several web resources for parents and educators of young black males.

Curing Manhood?

A few months ago, I attended a continuing education seminar for psychologists on men and grief. At one point in the discussion, the instructor commented, “If you think of manhood as a sickness that needs to be cured, you need to work on that.” With that one sentence, he gave voice to an uneasiness that I had been feeling in our discussions all day. Despite their biological sex or gender, those of us working as therapists tend to embody and value personality traits that are typically considered feminine. We like to listen, to process, and to talk about our feelings – about nearly everything. We place high esteem on intimacy, that is, feeling connected with others on a psychic level. And quite frankly, we think everyone should too.

Towards the midpoint of the seminar, I began to suspect that maybe we clinicians were on a mission to make men be more like us – to feel more, reflect more, relate more, and to talk more about all of it. More importantly, I recognized myself in the charge my by our instructor. In fact, I could easily imagine myself leading the campaign to have Hypermasculine Identity Syndrome (HIS) added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychiatric disorders. Gender identity is what I read, write, teach, and talk about. Thus, with one statement, I found myself charged, found guilty, and sentenced. So for the rest of the afternoon, I began thinking that maybe we…maybe I needed to accept gender differences as another example of “apples and oranges” and to let men be men.

But (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) there was just one problem with that: our traditional notions of masculinity in America (which, by the way, have only been traditional for about 200 years) aren’t working. Not for men, not for women, not for children.

Case in point: life expectancies. While the gender gap is decreasing, there’s been a stark gender disparity in life expectancies. On average, women in the United States live 81 years, men 76 years. The gender gap is even greater among African Americans, with African American women living an average of eight years longer than their male counterparts. The earlier deaths for men aren’t attributed to sex chromosomes or sex hormones. Rather, they’re more likely resultant from behaviors like the way men handle stress (bottling it up, not talking about it, not asking for help), take unnecessary risks, and behave violently and aggressively toward themselves and others. Okay, you won’t really find any of those factors on a mortality chart. But they are factors related to the diseases that account for some of the gender disparity. Anyway, I’m trying to make a point here, not write a research paper. The point is this – the fact that men die so much sooner that women indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with the way they live.

But perhaps more compelling are the data on how our ideas about masculinity impact relationships. In fact, this has convinced me, more than anything, of our need to rethink manhood. A major theme in that continuing education seminar was the father-son relationship, particularly the issues that many men (of all races) have with their fathers.

I see this in my undergraduate classes, especially among male students, who talk about fathers who have never told their sons that they love them. During his segment on the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week, D.L. Hughley talked about this very issue. He described once asking his father whether he loved him and getting the response, “You ate, didn’t you?” It was a tongue-in-cheek response, one which Hughley found funny at the time and one at which I chuckled even as I shook my head in sympathy when he told it on the show.

But as Hughley noted in his commentary, he later realized that the whole exchange wasn’t funny at all. He, like all children, needed to hear that his father loved him. He needed a father who did more than provide for his physical needs and comfort, a father who did more than provide rules, structure, and discipline. As he said:

I don’t know one black men who isn’t broken in some way. Broken either by the relationship he had with his father, or by the relationship he wished he had with his father…It’s a shame that you’re a casualty if you have a father, and you’re a casualty if you don’t. Finding the blend, the right way to be a father, the right groove, the right tempo to be a father, is an amazing thing…We can break a family with our presence as easily as we make them.

Our understanding of fatherhood is bound with our understanding of masculinity. And as I begin to hear more stories about men’s issues with their fathers – the ones who stayed and provided – I realize that there is some serious work to be done.

So no, we can’t just let men be men, any more than we can just let women be women. We are all deeply broken, our divine likeness obscured – hopefully not obliterated – by our conformity to societal norms and expectations about who we should be. This includes our gender identities.

Reflections on an American Election

Silence.

A thought emerges…but it too is silenced.

I’m not sure how to respond to this – this new America. The possibility-turned-reality of a person of color – a black man – being elected to the presidency of the United States is not one for which I’ve been prepared. I can still envision that little girl with the afro-puff wearing the pink shirt that said, “Future President.” The little girl who, when asked what she’d be when she grew up, responded without hesitation: “A teacher, a scientist, a doctor, and president.” But then she learned that while teacher, scientist, and doctor might be within her grasp if she studied hard and went to college, president was never, ever, a dream to be reached. Not by little girls and especially not by little brown-skinned girls or boys.

And now, some thirty-odd years later, that little brown girl has exceeded her dreams. And still she wonders “what might have been” had the specter of race not cast a net over her dreams. A political career? Unlikely. Not really her cup of tea. But what other possibilities might have existed in a boundless imagination? More importantly, with the ceiling so visibly shattered, how does she raise that little brown boy, whose laughter rings throughout the house as she writes, so that he hears within his head, “Yes, I can,” and not “No, they won’t let me”?

Silence.

Yesterday, a brown-skinned man was elected president. Today my sister-in-law and her family woke up to find that their home, as well as those of other African Americans in their community, had been paint-balled.

Yesterday a multicultural coalition voted in record numbers to honor the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. Today an African American family in Birmingham tries to clean up the $7,000 in property damage and untold amount in environmental damage done by those who rock-salted their lawn.

The hope abounds. And so do the hate crimes. And downstairs is a little brown boy who must be prepared for both of those realities.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Silence.

Make Room for Daddy

I have been thinking a lot about fathers over the past few months. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking about the denigration of the role of fathers in the African American community. Denigration is a tough word, to be sure. And it’s not one that I use lightly. But increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that denigrating the importance of fathers is exactly what we’re doing.

It’s no secret that the majority of African Americanchildren are being raised in single-parent households – about 65 percent according to the latest estimate. Of course, “single-parent” is not a synonym for “absent father.” Although the media and the so-called “Moral Majority”might like us to believe that the children living in single-parent households have all been abandoned by their fathers, many of these children live with their fathers and a good many more have fathers who are actively and critically involved in their lives.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there are far too many African American children who are being raised without the presence of a father. While there are often grandfathers, uncles, or other male mentors in relationship with those children, I suspect that only a minority of those men really fulfill the role of father figure.

What’s more, there are some neighborhoods where fathers are entirely absent. It’s a running joke on Chris Rock’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, “Everybody Hates Chris,” that his is the only father in the community. There are lots of men in the neighborhood, but only one fulfilling the role of father. It cuts too close as an imitation of life. It reminds me of several years ago when I was working with a dataset from a national survey of thousands of high school students across the U.S. In the beginning, to familiarize myself with the data, I reviewed the manual that described each of the variables in the survey and the range of values possible for each variable. It was some pretty heady material but I was making my way through it okay. At least until I got to the section on community data. There was one variable where the range of values seemed statistically impossible. I couldn’t make sense of it. Finally, I realized what the manual was telling me – there are communities in the U.S. (in this case defined at the census tract level) where there are no fathers present. Not one. Not even Chris’ dad.

We might imagine that the neighborhoods in question were poor. And they probably were. Economic and racial oppression has a lot to do with the absence of fathers. But I am not content to lay sole responsibility for this phenomenon at the feet of The Man. After all, as far as I can tell, The Man doesn’t plan on changing the system anytime soon.

Perhaps it’s the focus on economics that has many college-educated, financially successful sisters deciding to bear children without the benefit of a committed father. I’m not going to speculate on why these women aren’t married or even argue that they should be married (that’s a topic for another day). Rather, I want to question the notion that seems to be underlying this trend – namely that prosperity (and maybe a strong sisterfriend network) is a substitute for a father. The idea seems to be that if a woman makes enough money or has enough support from family and friends, then she can raise a child successfully without the father’s involvement. And there are many examples that prove this to be true. In fact, there are many women who have raised children successfully without the benefit of money, a strong support network, or a father.

But is this the exception rather than the rule? Let’s face it – maybe Bill Cosby could have worded it better (and nuanced it a great deal more) but he wasn’t all wrong – come on people! Yes, racism, classism, and sexism matter – a lot. However, I believe that it is precisely because these interlocking forces of oppression bear down upon black children and create an uphill battle for African American parents that we must do whatever we can to protect our children. And part of that protection has to involve fathers.

In my class on African American families, we read Mary Pattillo-McCoy’s “Black Picket Fences,” an analysis of the strengths and struggles of middle-class African American families. At the heart of Pattillo-McCoy’s argument is that the prosperity and privilege of middle-class African Americans does not insulate their parenting. Even in this tight-knit community, gangs, crime, and teenage pregnancy were highly prevalent. As we read the text, my students and I noticed a consistent factor in the lives of the teenagers and young adults who had succeeded – fathers. Each of them – whether their parents were married or not – had fathers who were actively involved in their lives. In fact, children who lived with their mothers but had daily contact with their fathers fared far better than did those who lived in households with fathers who were tangential.

Fathers matter. And they matter for more reasons than their financial contribution or even the benefit of having another body involved in childrearing. After a long time of ignoring fathers (and blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children), child development experts have begun to realize this. There is a growing body of research that shows that fathers – good fathers – offer something that is unique from what mothers offer. And I believe that most children need the benefit of both to fully thrive.

In other words, African American women have got to stop using that mantra “I’m mama and daddy.” We’re not. And if you need any further evidence of that, just look to the number of young women who are chasing down father figures in the form of unhealthy sexual relationships and the number of young men who are chasing them down by emulating a model of manhood that they’ve seen on the corner or on BET. We have to reclaim the role of fathers in our communities. Otherwise, we may be throwing our children’s lives down the drain.