Being Ghetto (aka Teaching My Kids About Culture…Again)

ghetto urban alley GhettoBall “Mom, what does it mean when people say, ‘That’s so ghetto’?” my oldest children wanted to know. “Is that the same thing as being black?”

I groaned inwardly. Clearly I am not doing a good job of teaching my children what it means to be black. Maybe it is because I don’t understand it very well, myself. “A ghetto,” I explained, “is just a place. Usually the housing is inexpensive and the crime rates are high. Saying that someone or something is ‘ghetto’ can be taken as an insult to poor people.”

Okay, so that was the cop-out, politically correct answer, and probably the kind of explanation that suburban white families give to their kids. But those of us with ties to the ghetto know better. Being ‘ghetto’ is so much more than just living in low-income housing. Being ‘ghetto’ is:

  • Painting your house a bright, happy color to cheer you up after a long, hard day of backbreaking work (if you’re lucky enough to have a job).
  • Avoiding the death-trap elevator at the Geneva Towers in San Francisco and walking up twelve flights of stairs instead to visit relatives.
  • Little girls on the sidewalk playing hand-clapping games about boys and sex before their baby teeth have even fallen out.
  • Druggies and drunks at the bus stop, at the Bart Station, at school (and everywhere else), because sometimes people give up on their dreams and escape their lives in the wrong way.
  • Spending eight straight hours sitting on the living room floor while your cousin braids your hair into one hundred tiny braids.
  • Hanging out with your friends listening to the rhythms of loud music blaring from the car stereo.
  • Bringing a plate of dinner to that old lady across the street who lives all alone.
  • Head coverings – ball caps, babushkas, patkas, hijab, do-rags, head scarves, etc.
  • Young men at the park talking trash and playing basketball.
  • Blue cream sodas, Now & Laters, and sunflower seeds from the corner liquor store.
  • Paying that stranger $5 to wash your windshield, because you’re lucky enough to have a car, and he hasn’t got two nickels to rub together.
  • Black American kids who learn how to say bad words in Spanish and enjoy enchiladas and arroz con pollo from their Mexican friends, who in turn learn to say bad words in English and eat soul food.
  • Chained-up Pit Bulls and scary little Chihuahuas chasing the kids playing outside.
  • Neighborhood mamas chasing off the bad guys with their brooms so their kids can play outside.
  • Shopping cart races up and down the street because there isn’t enough money to replace your bike that got stolen.
  • Saying hello to the homeless people, and offering them a bologna sandwich, because you know they’re just people like you, down on their luck.
  • Dressing up for church and not saying bad words on Sunday. Singing and dancing in the pews with neighbors.
  • Young lovers kissing out in the open, because even when life is ugly and hard, love is a beautiful thing.
  • Neighbors sharing food, and tools, and whatever else they have, because no one has enough on their own, but together everyone has what they need.

ghetto storeghetto-baby-stroller-500x37480s ghetto

Being ‘ghetto’ is more than just being poor or urban. It is a million tiny things, a million ways of thinking and living that tie together a group of people. It is something that those of us with personal ties to the ghetto use somewhat endearingly. When we see one another doing something familiar that was born from the culture of poverty and urban life, we smile and say teasingly, “That’s so ghetto.”

How I Found the Rainbow (aka: Why I Write Poetry)

How I Found the Rainbow

Under the merciless sun they labored

heads bowed

bodies glistening with sweat

like drooping tulips slick with dew

they swallowed their whispers

and silenced their souls

and became as copper statues

surviving until the sky grew dark

but then

they opened their mouths and out came

the rainbow

and the rainbow danced

and the rainbow sang

and the rainbow could fly

like no one could fly

it gave them strength

and filled the sky

and now I know why

now I know why

I must write


Cómo encontré el arco iris

Bajo el sol implacable ellos trabajaron

cabezas inclinadas

cuerpos reluciente de sudor

como tulipanes marchitos húmedos de rocio

se tragaron sus susurros

y silenciaron sus almas

y se volvieron como estatuas de cobre

sobreviviendo hasta que el sol se oscureció

Pero luego

abrieron sus bocas

y salió el arco iris

y el arco iris bailó

y el arco iris cantó

y el arco iris podía volar

como nadie podía volar

se les dió fuerza

y llenó el cielo

Y ahora yo sé por qué

yo debo escribir


Why Are There So Many Black Athletes in the Olympics?

Sisters Venus and Serena Williams changed the face of tennis when they appeared on the tennis scene around a decade ago, and are still winning Grand Slams and bringing home Olympic medals today.

“Mom, why are there so many black people in the Olympics?” my 12 year-old son asked me last night, when my three kids and I were sitting around the television, watching the opening ceremonies together. It was obvious why he asked that question. As nation after nation marched past on the screen, it was interesting to note how many of them had darker complexions and probable African heritage, like me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the only countries that were not represented by at least one black athlete were North Korea and Iran. Though I could be mistaken.

I didn’t really know how to answer my son’s question though. Um…because Black people are awesome at sports? No, that’s just a stereotype. Even though I’ve always been pretty good at sports. Even though my kids appear to be graced by some natural athletic talent. Even though my sisters, my brother, both my parents, many cousins, and even my aunts and uncles (including one that used to play for the Minnesota Vikings) have all excelled at one sport or another at some point in their lives. Even though I cannot recall having ever met a single black person, within my family or outside, who was not coordinated, good with a ball, and able to run fast. Ooof! Now I am only perpetuating a stereotype. Or is it?

Yes and no, say anthropologists. Although it is illogical (and, in fact, racist and ridiculous) to say that all people with dark complexions are superior athletes, there is some actual evidence of high concentrations of people in certain regions of Africa with a great deal fast-twitch muscles — the muscle structure that gives one the ability to sprint very quickly, for short distances. There are other genetic reasons, too, for success in particular types of sports, such as shorter torsos/longer legs, increased lung capacity, and higher levels of testosterone than the general population. No, not all black people have these genetic tendencies. Okay, I probably do. And at least two of my kids appear to be built like me. But not all of us! Really, I think that natural talent is only one side of the coin, anyway. It takes interest in sports, too, which often comes from one’s family culture. And some sports are expensive…one reason one comedian used to joke that “Black people only do sports you can do for free in the park.” With the rise in more affluent Black American families, we are starting to see more black athletes playing sports that were traditionally accessible only to wealthier white families, such as tennis, gymnastics, and swimming. (Let’s not forget…the stereotypes also suggest that black people cannot swim, which is now negated by the appearance of more black Olympic swimmers).

Cullen Jones is only the second Black American swimmer to qualify for the Olympics and bring home a gold medal.

So what did I tell my kids last night? “I don’t really know why there are so many black athletes. But isn’t it great to see so many different types of people come together to compete in sports?” Because although it is a neat feeling to see people who look like me do well in sports, that is not the point of the Olympic Games. It is about people with every shade of skin color, from every region of the world, representing their countries in the ultimate competition. And one day, should my own children be among the group of Americans marching around the Olympic stadium during Opening Ceremonies, I hope that people will not see them and say, “Look, there goes a black athlete!” But instead, say, “Look, there goes a great American athlete!”

Olympic gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco are excelling in sports that were traditionally closed to many black athletes, due to the high cost of training and lack of facilities.

She Be Talkin’ Like a White Girl

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a community where nearly everyone spoke a foreign language. Some families spoke Spanish, some spoke Arabic, or Hindi, or Swedish, or Chinese. And then there was my family, who spoke…well, I am still trying to figure that one out.

Now, I mean my family no disrespect. For better or for worse, they are my family, and I love my parents and siblings dearly. But when I was a kid, I often felt as though my family and I spoke completely different languages. A typical childhood conversation went something like this:

Sister #1: Ain’t y’all got nothin’ better to do than sit up here watchin’ TV?

Me: Well, you should not assume that we are all watching television. In fact, I happen to be reading a novel.

Sister #1: (tongue click) Don’t get smart.

Me: Fine. I’ll get stupid instead. And  by the way, there’s no such word as “ain’t.”

But I was wrong. There was a such word as “ain’t.” My family and relatives used it all the time, and to me, it was even more annoying than listening to static on the radio. They also insisted upon dropping their “g’s” at the end of verbs, and adding words where words were unnecessary. “That dog be barkin’ all night long.”

“Barking,” I would correct. But they didn’t care. My family was quite comfortable with their style of communication. As usual, it was I who was the alien.

“Why you gotta be talkin’ like a white girl all the time?” my relatives would ask, convinced that black people were supposed to speak what I considered to be a substandard form of the English language. “Cain’t you speak like regular folks?”

But no, I could not. Even when I tried my best, I was unable to code switch. Whenever I attempted it, my family would laugh at me.

“She be talkin’ like a white girl tryin’ to sound like a black girl,” they would say. I couldn’t win. So I gave up and continued to speak in my proper, alien, almost-perfect-English language. Until high school, that is. Because I finally learned how to code switch. Well, not to the language spoken by my family. But being a typical Northern California teenager, I became a fluent speaker of Valspeak. ‘Cause like, it was sooo rad, y’know?

“You talk like such a white girl,” my family still told me.

But it no longer bothered me. I just shrugged and said, “As if! Omigawd…what-ever!

MOVIES FEATURING MY FAMILY’S LANGUAGE: Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Boyz n the Hood

MOVIES FEATURING VALSPEAK: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Encino Man, Wayne’s World, Clueless (I also highly recommend the song, The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun)

My Mom, My Sisters, & Me, 1997 (I'm the one in red)