My parents were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. Their parents were sharecroppers. Their grandparents were slaves. I was blessed to have met my great-grandmother, who survived slavery. My parents were both part of large families. After they moved to Iowa, where I grew up, we took many trips to the Delta and visited anyone who was deemed kin.
I come from a family of storytellers. Those stories capture all of who I am. The oral history of my family is filled with laughter, joy, success, innovation, strength, bravery, and — yes — pain.
When I am in Mississippi, I feel like I am home. It was there that I bore witness to generations of the strength of faith, leadership, kinship, and community. It was there that I absorbed values that inform who I am today, about God, family, education, work, and giving back to community. I didn’t know at the time that I was being prepared to face what it meant to be Black in America.
My first teachers were my parents, aunts and uncles, mothers of my church, and elders in the community. It was from them that I learned I added value everywhere I went. It was from them that I realized I was smart.
I remember my first experience in public school. I can recall the raspy sound of my teacher’s voice, the clothes she wore, the scent she bore, how it felt when she touched my hair, and the pale hue of her white skin.
She also looked at me in a way I had not experienced before in my five years. Sitting in her classroom, I was taught that I brought no value, that I was not smart, that raising my hand had no effect, that my answer to a question was never the correct answer. I learned that someone else could rob me of who I thought I was.
I experienced the consequence and cost of my Blackness. It was a feeling of being invisible, discounted, and unworthy. I came to understand that perhaps I was not a human being of any significance or value.
Today I am witnessing that same de-humanization in this community and across our country, valuing some people more than others. I see children and families separated not only at our border, but through the systems designed to help them. I see Black men being shot in their backs as they flee from police — is it possible they run out of fear for their lives? I hear statements made about female Black leaders as if they were from Planet of the Apes. I don’t sleep at night. My early hours of meditation and prayer guide me as I prepare for my next steps in addressing issues of race.
True to who I am, I don’t sit on the sidelines. I work to address the issues of race. I look at the trauma each person endures because of the color of their skin. I talk to individuals, groups, organizations, and communities about how trauma plays out. I ask questions that cause people to think about equity, diversity, and inclusion. This is not a new thing for me. It is what I have done throughout my life.
When I walk into schools, I see the glow in some children’s faces. I also hear discouragement in some of their voices — a lack of hope — and the frustration of not knowing why.
Yes, what is the why? Do the kids feel as if they are not smart enough? Do they feel as if they are treated differently by teachers? Do they feel unwelcomed? Do they feel as if there is no one that looks like them who has made significant contributions throughout history? Do I fault the schools, the administrators, the teachers, the homes from which these children and adults come from, and the communities in which they live and play?
I believe this is a shared responsibility of us all. It is not a one person or one institution issue. It is the consequence of how environments respond to children differently.
One of my grandchildren was given a homework assignment and asked to write a number at the top of the page instead of a name. I asked the teacher why. I was told that the names of the children were too difficult to pronounce. This teacher decided the solution to discomfort was to take away the identities of all children.
I know the stories of many students, from pre-K to college, who are discounted and undervalued because of the stereotypes associated with the color of their skin, their culture, and their heritage.
I see far too many children of color form a cocoon around themselves in response to how they are received in the systems in which they live and learn. This starts at a young age. They are exposed to racial trauma in health care, food access, education, justice, government. What do they see on television and in the news?
Children know when they are missing out — and when they are genuinely welcomed and loved.
My work is focused on historical, generational, and multi-generational trauma, and the solutions of NEAR science (neuroscience, epigenetics, adverse childhood experiences, and resilience).
It is my belief that all Americans are traumatized because of race.
Can you imagine the trauma a white child felt during slavery — seeing another human being chained, ripped from their mother’s arms, beaten, and hanged? How many white children have wept in recent years, when they thought a friend would be seized and forced to leave their home, school, and community? How many white children saw the news and heard the audio shortly after school cook Philando Castile was killed by police?
Often white people tell me, “I worked hard to get what I have, nothing was given to me.” Or, “I was not around during slavery, yet I continue to be blamed for what happened then.” Or, “I support ‘you people’ and volunteer in many capacities.” Or, “I am married to a person of color and have mixed race children so I know what it is like.”
All of this may be true. My questions to white people are: What do you do when you hear remarks that demean another human being? Have you stood up for a person who is treated differently?
A Guide to Engagement
• Read from the resources suggested here.
• Listen to what people of color say, and genuinely try to understand their viewpoints.
• Hold yourself and others accountable. Speak up when you hear racial slurs. Videotape unjust actions on the street.
• Get in front, stand up, take action, and use the sound of your voice to demand change in the treatment of all people.
• Use your political power: vote. Know who the candidates are and the work they have done — and talk to others about those who support equality and justice for all. Attend school board, city council, and legislative meetings.