Marginal (aka: Cultural Nuances and Frustration )

I recently threw a birthday party for one of my kids. It was great fun – a house filled with the noisy, gleeful laughter of little boys, floating balloons made to look like owls, and a punch bowl of frothing, bubbling green “potion” to drink. And candy. Lots and lots of candy.

“Why didn’t you invite me?” one of my older sisters asked in a hurt tone.

I was stunned. “Invite you? But it was a children’s birthday party!”

Apparently, this is a thing in some families; a cultural expectation which eluded me, as cultural expectations often do. And so, I hurt the feelings of my sister by not inviting her to a birthday party full of candy and noisy kids whom she doesn’t even know. Just as I hurt the feelings of my mother by having my child send a lovely, written thank-you card instead of calling her on the telephone.

Black family culture churchYou see, that is what culture is. Many people think that it is about the big things – the language, the foods, and the music shared by a cultural group. But really, culture is a patchwork quilt of hundreds of tiny nuances that can translate into huge misunderstandings.

Sometimes, I am frustrated when people from other ethnic groups expect me to fit into some narrow mold which, in their minds, defines Black American culture. I am equally frustrated when people within my own family hold the same expectation. “But this is how black people think. This is what black people do,” they say.

individualism-vs-collectivismI just grit my teeth. I have never subscribed to the idea that, just because one’s ancestors originated from a particularly geographical location, one is obliged to identify with the subculture of that ethnic group. Of course, voicing such thoughts aloud among those of my family’s ethnic group has the tendency to spark wildfires.

It is not an easy thing when you only identify marginally with your family’s subculture. No matter how hard you try to be kind and accepting of their ideas, lifestyles, and worldview, the differences always separate you. My relatives see me as an outsider. A snob. “Whitewashed.”

I only see me as being who I am.

I wonder sometimes how my own culture diverged so much from my culture of origin.  Perhaps it was due to my constant diet of books from a very young age – the never-ending exposure to new ideas, and new ways of thinking. Through literature, I learned the history behind many of the customs and practices of various American ethnic subculture groups, including that of my family. And in learning the history, I also learned to evaluate the need to continue such a custom.

And maybe that is the problem. I have never been able to simply sit back and accept. There is always that urge to analyze, evaluate, and throw out that which seems unnecessary or unfruitful. Perhaps for most people who fit comfortably within the cultural norms of their family’s demographic group, that urge doesn’t exist. Or the volume is turned down low. In a way, I envy that. I imagine that with simple acceptance comes a certain sense of peace and safety among the herd. And a lot fewer misunderstandings.

But still, there are a few things which perhaps transcend cultural construct, such as consideration, tolerance, and family   . Regardless of how silly and pointless the expectations may appear to me, the fact is that I inadvertently hurt my family members’ feelings. And really, it would not take much to avoid such a thing in the future. Offer an invitation. Make a phone call instead of putting the sentiment in writing. I guess it is no different than in a business environment, where one cultural group creates stronger goodwill by respecting the other group’s foreign cultural practices. Bow instead of shaking hands. Avoid or make direct eye contact. Use formal or informal language.  cross-cultural-communication

Cultural nuances can be a tricky, tricky thing. Especially within a family, where emotions can be heightened and judgments can be sharp and punishing. But when it comes to maintaining relationships, one must practice tolerance and strive for common ground in order to construct those large bridges made up of “little things.”

practice tolerance quote

Beans and Cornbread (aka: Food for the Soul)

Soul Food

Sunday night is a trip to the south

Journey for the soul by way of the mouth

Come round!

Come round!

Have a steaming plate of collard greens

Crispy meat and simmered beans

Bowls of gumbo, fiery spice

Taste it – ain’t that nice?

Grandma’s cornbread, bless her soul

Come round hungry, leave here full.

Every now and then, my kids and I decide to go on a cultural food kick. We pick a type of cuisine – say French food, or Thai, or Chinese, and we research recipes and cook and sample all sorts of dishes. It is great fun, and we often end up adding a few new dishes to our usual repertoire. So this summer, I got a bright idea. “Hey kids…maybe we should try cooking some soul food.”

“Soul food?” asked my kids (who are, I should point out, half black American). “What’s soul food?”

Oops. Guess I accidentally left that out of their upbringing.

I’m not going to lie. I was never a fan of soul food. I mean, some of it is okay. I actually love simple dishes like beans and rice, cornbread, and sweet potato pie. But there are a few soul food dishes that even I haven’t worked up the courage to try; like chitlins (aka: chitterlings), for example. I’m just kind of thinking that there are some parts of the pig that maybe are okay to go to waste, you know?

So we went to work researching. We read about the history of soul food, which has its roots in the south, during the period of U.S. slavery. (“So soul food is poor peoples’ food?” asked my teen. “Well, technically it’s southern food,” I explained.). We called up a few relatives to get their input on the correct way to cook gumbo or collard greens, which apparently are supposed to be simmered with meat for several hours. I cheated and steamed ours in the microwave.

For my kids, the results were mixed. Thumbs up: Cornbread, hush puppies, fried fish, biscuits and gravy. Thumbs down: collard greens, red beans and rice, hot links, and grits.

“But the important thing is, did it feed your soul?” I asked, at the end of our culinary journey to the south.

Meh. My kids were indifferent. Apparently, it is pizza that feeds their souls, and not beans and cornbread. Oh well. Maybe our next culinary journey will be to Italy.

A Truly Phenomenal Woman (aka: The Poetry of Maya Angelou)

Maya Angelou African American poetMaya Angelou (1928—2014) was one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Her poems, filled with the universal light and darkness, hope and despair, triumphs and tragedies of the human spirit, are embraced by people around the globe. I first learned of Ms. Angelou, not through her poetry, but through her autobiographical series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I came to “know” her as a young girl who suffered the unimaginable, but rose beyond the pain to become a truly phenomenal woman whose life and words were an inspiration to so many. Her poetry, which is often so honest and raw as to make me gasp aloud, is like a beacon of light to someone like me, and a reminder that one can fall, one can suffer, one can wallow through the worst pits of despair and darkness, but no matter how deep the pain, no matter how low the humiliation, the spirit of a person can overcome. The coldest heart can be restored to love. And we can learn to rise and live again.

Phenomenal Woman

By Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

I say,

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

I walk into a room

Just as cool as you please,

And to a man,

The fellows stand or

Fall down on their knees.

Then they swarm around me,

A hive of honey bees.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing in my waist,

And the joy in my feet.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

 

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Men themselves have wondered

What they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them,

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s in the arch of my back,

The sun of my smile,

The ride of my breasts,

The grace of my style.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud.

When you see me passing,

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The bend of my hair,

the palm of my hand,

The need for my care.

’Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Our Grandmothers

By Maya Angelou (1928–2014)

She lay, skin down in the moist dirt,
the canebrake rustling
with the whispers of leaves, and
loud longing of hounds and
the ransack of hunters crackling the near
branches.
She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward
freedom,

I shall not, I shall not be moved.

She gathered her babies,
their tears slick as oil on black faces,
their young eyes canvassing mornings of madness.
Momma, is Master going to sell you
from us tomorrow?
Yes.
Unless you keep walking more
and talking less.
Yes.
Unless the keeper of our lives
releases me from all commandments.
Yes.
And your lives,
never mine to live,
will be executed upon the killing floor of
innocents.
Unless you match my heart and words,
saying with me,

I shall not be moved.

In Virginia tobacco fields,
leaning into the curve
of Steinway
pianos, along Arkansas roads,
in the red hills of Georgia,
into the palms of her chained hands, she
cried against calamity,
You have tried to destroy me
and though I perish daily,

I shall not be moved.

Her universe, often
summarized into one black body
falling finally from the tree to her feet,
made her cry each time into a new voice.
All my past hastens to defeat,
and strangers claim the glory of my love,
Iniquity has bound me to his bed.

yet, I must not be moved.

She heard the names,
swirling ribbons in the wind of history:
nigger, nigger bitch, heifer,
mammy, property, creature, ape, baboon,
whore, hot tail, thing, it.
She said, But my description cannot
fit your tongue, for
I have a certain way of being in this world,

and I shall not, I shall not be moved.

No angel stretched protecting wings
above the heads of her children,
fluttering and urging the winds of reason
into the confusions of their lives.
The sprouted like young weeds,
but she could not shield their growth
from the grinding blades of ignorance, nor
shape them into symbolic topiaries.
She sent them away,
underground, overland, in coaches and
shoeless.

When you learn, teach.
When you get, give.
As for me,

I shall not be moved.

She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.
She searched God’s face.
Assured,
she placed her fire of service
on the altar, and though
clothed in the finery of faith,
when she appeared at the temple door,
no sign welcomed
Black Grandmother, Enter here.
Into the crashing sound,
into wickedness, she cried,
No one, no, nor no one million
ones dare deny me God, I go forth
along, and stand as ten thousand.

The Divine upon my right
impels me to pull forever
at the latch on Freedom’s gate.

The Holy Spirit upon my left leads my
feet without ceasing into the camp of the
righteous and into the tents of the free.

These momma faces, lemon-yellow, plum-purple,
honey-brown, have grimaced and twisted
down a pyramid for years.
She is Sheba the Sojourner,
Harriet and Zora,
Mary Bethune and Angela,
Annie to Zenobia.

She stands
before the abortion clinic,
confounded by the lack of choices.
In the Welfare line,
reduced to the pity of handouts.
Ordained in the pulpit, shielded
by the mysteries.
In the operating room,
husbanding life.
In the choir loft,
holding God in her throat.
On lonely street corners,
hawking her body.
In the classroom, loving the
children to understanding.

Centered on the world’s stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,

for I shall not be moved.

 

Dancing Around the Rink (aka: Black People Roller Skate)

black people skate In my family, like in many other Black families, at least when I was growing up, there were two things that every child was expected to learn without question: how to dance, and how to roller skate. Yes, roller skate. That’s what came from being born in the 1970s, during the height of disco roller-dancing in rinks across the nation. That’s also what came from having two teenaged big sisters who dragged us younger kids to the rink weekend after weekend. The roller rink, with its shiny, polished floor, flashing colored lights, and giant mural painted on the far wall, was almost like a second home. For years, my siblings, friends and I whizzed around to popular songs (including my all-time favorite skate song, Pour Some Sugar on Me). We watched in awe as the jamskaters danced around the circuit, boogying and bouncing and swaying their hips to the rhythm like the skates were just an extension of their bodies. We did wheelbarrow races and the Hokey Pokey and Shoot the Duck contests. Occasionally, the DJ would turn on a slow jam, which meant hand-in-hand skating for couples, and a Slurpee and popcorn break for us wallflowers.skating was part of my childhood

 

My own kids, by contrast, have rarely been to the roller rink. So a few days ago, thanks to some coupons and a surge of parental guilt, I decided to correct that mistake.

“But Mo-ooom!” whined my two youngest kids. “I don’t know how to roller skate!”

“Look,” I said, “You are half Black. And Black people skate. So you’re going.” Like my sisters before me, I dragged my kids to the rink and taught them how to lace up their skates. They hobbled after me to the floor, where I pretty much wished them good luck and whizzed off. My two oldest kids quickly remembered their skills and were soon coasting around the floor with me, having fun. My 9yo, however, turned out to be a wall-hugger, barely budging from his spot. He refused to let me guide him around until at last, I transformed into Meanie Mom and threatened to take away his computer game time for the rest of the day if he didn’t spend the next hour trying to skate. I know, I know – probably not a move that would win me Mommy of the Year Award. But hey – it worked. And by the end of our skate session, he was edging forward without clutching the wall. Reluctant Skater

For the most part, though, we all had a terrific time. And I was so surprised by how little the rink has changed over the years, from the flashing lights to the mural to the music. Of course, now they are playing One Direction instead of Def Leppard, but still. My only complaint was that I had to really work to control my speed with so many little kids on the floor. Once, I actually managed to run over a little boy who cut in front of me. Eek! Luckily, he wasn’t injured. Perhaps one day soon, I will venture out to one of the adult-only skate nights, which are filled with other people like me who remember those early days of disco skate and jamskating, and who still dance their way around the circuit, bouncing and swaying to the music. roller disco

 

What’s in a Name? (aka: African-American Naming Conventions)

A relative of mine recently announced the birth of her daughter. The baby’s name? Kalayshia. That’s Kuh-LAY-zhah. Rhymes with Malaysia. Now I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same things. Why is there an H? Does it mean anything? Can I call her Kallie? Why can’t you give your baby a nice, “normal” name, like Sophia or Emily, so that she can succeed in life? That’s what you’re thinking, because that’s what everyone wants to ask, but of course, out of respect for the new mother, and perhaps out of fear of being labeled culturally insensitive or racist, most people just smile and say, “Oh. That’s a nice name.” You Named Her What

It’s the right thing to say. But still, the questions are there. Many non-black people are perplexed by the naming traditions of many black Americans. To be fair, there are quite a few black Americans who are puzzled by recent trends of unconventional naming, too. For decades after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., black families often gave their children traditional names like Mary, John, Richard, or Katherine; names inspired by the mainstream culture, family heritage, or the Bible. Around the early 1970’s, the civil rights movement and the rise of Afrocentrism and ethnic pride resulted in a shift toward African or African-inspired names for black children, such as Keisha, Aliyah, Khalil, and Malik. As more parents caught on to the trend and embraced the idea of expressing their cultural pride through the naming of their children, more unique names began to emerge. Parents strove to create interesting names that sounded pleasing to the ear, often by taking African, English, or French names and adding their own twists.

Today, it is not unusual to see black children with less conventional names, such as Shyreese, Jayvon, Ki’ani, or Marquel. At times, the attempts to be unique seem a little overboard, with such inventive spelling and phonetic rules that it is not easy for others to pronounce the child’s name. For example, I once met a child named Dyonjena (Pronounced Dee-ahn-gen-AY). And while I applaud these parents’ efforts to embrace the black subculture and give their children unique names, a part of me cringes. I cringe in part because of the at times outlandish spelling and the stray from phonetic rules — what may seem unique and pleasing to the ear of the parents may be seen as uneducated and laughable to the rest of society. I also cringe in part because of the research indicating that people with more African-American sounding names are less likely to be hired than people with more mainstream names. I cringe, because as if we black Americans did not already have such a strong current to swim against (the standard of beauty, the culture of poverty, mainstream language barriers), we still insist on giving our children something that may give them an additional disadvantage — an additional barrier to future success. Successful Black Woman

Perhaps I cringe for nothing. Perhaps eventually, society will fully embrace the unique naming patterns of African Americans (as well as other ethnic subcultures with non-mainstream names). Perhaps the key is not to shrug our shoulders assimilate, but to boldly push forward and force the mainstream culture to include us — kinky hair, inventive names, and all. It only took a generation of Marys, Johns, Martins, and Rubys to change the culture and end an era of legal discrimination and separation. Perhaps it will take a generation of Shyreeses, Dyonjenas, and Kalayshias to force open the remaining closed doors.

President Barack Obama success

Can Black Americans with unusual names become successful? Maybe we should ask Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Condoleeza Rice.

No Black Brady Bunch (aka: Evolution of Black Family Sitcoms in the 80s)

Diff'rent Strokes sitcom 1978-1986

The only affluent black kids on TV in the early 1980s were the ones rescued from the ghetto by wealthy white people.

Quick! Can you name that black kid from that sitcom around the 70’s and 80’s? No, not the tall skinny ghetto kid who went, “Dy-no-miiiite!” No, not the short, black kid adopted by the rich white family, who always said, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” No, not the other short, black kid adopted by a white family, either. Come on – who was the good-looking black teen boy from the nice, intact family who lived in an affluent neighborhood? Still don’t know?

Silver Spoons mansion

White kids on TV sitcoms in the early 80s were often privileged and affluent.

It is far easier to name white, affluent teens from the same era of television: Mike Seaver, from Growing Pains; Alex Keaton from Family Ties; Ricky Stratton from Silver Spoons; and, of course, all six Brady kids. Like many black kids across the USA, I grew up watching shows such as these, starring these happy, smiling white families with clean, sparkly homes. Their almost-perfect lives were only occasionally marred by white people problems such as teen pimples, first boyfriends, and naughty little sisters who steal your favorite sweater. By the end of each episode, their problems were wrapped up in some simple, cheesy, happily-ever-after way.

In contrast, most of the kids in the predominantly Black television shows lived in run-down homes in the ghetto. Well, with the exception of Webster, and Willis and Arnold, who were rescued from ghetto life by kind, wealthy white folks (Whatcu talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?). Black kids from these shows didn’t care about pimples – they were often too busy trying to help their parents find a way to make the rent that month. The themes were heavy by comparison, as black characters dealt with topics such as venereal diseases, sexual abuse, and wrongful accusations of shoplifting. By the end of each episode, these problems were both solved and unsolved, often leaving deep questions hanging in the air for the viewer to ponder.

And I don’t know – maybe I even learned something about social justice and black culture by watching those predominantly black shows. But mostly, I remember feeling a sense of shame, even at a very young age, that the people on the screen who looked the most like me came from such dreadful circumstances. Where was the Black Brady Bunch, with happy smiling kids and nice, educated parents who helped them solve their problems?

The Huxtables

The Cosby Show was like a breath of fresh air for black and white families alike.

Well thank goodness, when I was nine years old, Bill Cosby changed America’s perception of the Black TV sitcom family. At last, we had a family to represent us on-screen who neither lived in the ghetto, nor was “movin’ on up” out of a ghetto. The Huxtables were a respectable and affluent black family with five children. The mother, Clair, was a hard-working and successful lawyer, while the father, Cliff, was an obstetrician with his own private practice.  The Cosby Show dealt with both the lighthearted and the more serious issues of family life with intelligence, sensitivity, and humor. Not only Black families crowded around their televisions to tune in, as it quickly became the most successful television sitcom of the 1980’s.

Rosanne Family

After the Cosby Show’s wild success, new sitcom families, such as the Conners from Roseanne, began to represent a wider variety of American families

The Cosby Show signified a change in American family sitcoms. Not only was there a wider variety of shows featuring black families, but there was also an increase in the number of blue-collar, not-so-sparkly white family shows, such as Roseanne, which became the number one sitcom in the country from 1989 to 1990, and dealt with heavier topics than most white family sitcoms had tackled in the past. Just as many Black families cheered with the arrival of the The Cosby Show, many white families also cheered at the arrival of a family who perhaps better represented them, too. At last, American television  was veering away from the archetypes that had ruled the airwaves for so many years, and opening the door to diverse families and new ideas. And to that, I just have say, “Dy-no-miiite!”

(How’s that for a cheesy ending?)