Consumed & Not Consumed: Memories of Holiday Spendings

macysThis year, my mother (who moved in with me after she lost her job in the recession) wanted to experience Black Friday in New York.  In particular, she wanted to take advantage of a foolish sale at JCPenney.  In New York City, this means going down to 34th Street across from Macy’s.  It was an A.W.F.U.L. experience.  I am not being bah-humbug here: there are times when the holiday windows and decorations in NYC simply inspire me. This year’s Macy’s display bored me to tears though.  The tech wizardry of animated, interactive snow falls was underwhelming.  So I did what was only right: I shared my misery with everyone around me, talking VERY loudly about how stupid and boring the Macy’s windows were.  In truth, this is a deliberate tactic because my mother will get so embarrassed, she will want to leave— this is exactly my purpose.  I did even MORE loud-talking at JCPenney.   The worst part of these outings is the inevitable visit you will need to make to a public restroom but I will admit that I had fun irritating my mother here too. I simply yelled out: it staaaank up in here… damn, girl, what you eat for Thanksgiving?  This bathroom is on FIYAH! 

As a high school student, I had a very distinct relationship to “Black Friday.”  I don’t remember ever using the term, “Black Friday,” though.  I just knew it was the day after Thanksgiving and I could make extra money, even if I wasn’t the legal age to work.  There were two jobs I held throughout high school after Thanksgiving: 1) wrapping gifts at the mall; 2) designing chalkboards and glass windows for shops and stores.  That was the money that bought my or my mother’s coat that year or our Christmas dinner.  At 16 and 17, it was the most I could do to help out my mother whose pittance of a salary barely kept the lights on (and many times, didn’t keep the lights on… winters in Ohio with no electricity is NO JOKE!) If I had internet way back when and could have easily accessed photos of Macy’s windows, I would have pimped myself out for every willing store owner/manager to transform their space to replicate Macy’s displays.  Them rich fools woulda let me too.

2Every gift that I was I ever paid to wrap, which came with very nice tips, came from a wealthy white customer. There was a stock set of designs that customers could choose, but if you added some flair, then you had a steady stream of tips and folk willing to pay.  All I had to do was practice on newspaper at home and then roll out some funky color combos at the store.  On weekends, I could count on taking home the $40 the manager gave me along with another $30-$50 in tips, depending on the number of customers. My family would have a fit if I didn’t wrap our gifts as beautifully as I had for them rich white folk.  Needless to say, I got good at it and still have a reflexive habit to look at a gift’s wrapping and figure out the design.  If you ever get a gift from my mother with a nice bow, it is one that she has saved from a gift-wrapping I did for her— she recycles.  I doubt that the people who paid for my wrapping ever saved it the way my family does though.  My family enjoys the wrapping as much as any gift, especially if it matches their favorite colors, outfit, or home decor.

chalkboardThe store owners and managers who hired me to do their windows and chalkboards were also white.  I got good with those chalkboards too.  For small signs, I could do a sketch at home and then knock that out in half an hour.  That gave me $20.  For larger signs, I wrapped the edges of the chalkboard with an intricate design and left a heavy, easy-to-touch-up border; that way, there was plenty of room in the middle of the board to write daily specials and wash the board without having to re-do the design.   That gave me $40. Different customers got different genres: snow scenes were for non-religious settings; bows, gold, silver, and all kindsa razzle/dazzle was for the wanna-be sophisticates; variations of a St. Nick’s toy factory were for the Christmas die-hards. I could even do mangers and angels if you wanted to make people remember church.  Words-only jobs were the best though: super-easy and really fast!

“Black Friday” signaled WORK for me; consumption was for OTHERS— something that I associated with rich, white people.  Consumption was, for me, whiteness and squandered wealth.  And white folk were the only people who I ever saw with that one thing that gave you big purchasing power back then: credit cards.  I am convinced today that credit is the reason we see so much more shopping than when I was a child— and credit debt today is an equal opportunity deployer (I actually put a coat in layaway a week ago, wanting to catch the sale on the item.  I was the only person on line. I was shocked to even see a store with layaway, the way that I remember my family buying things long ago.)

Needless to say, I had never gone “shopping” on a “Black Friday” til this week (I didn’t make any actual purchase).  Everyone looked like they drank the kool-aid!  In contrast, everyone that I knew in my youth had to work the day after Thanksgiving. I don’t recall anyone waking up at 3am to go to the mall before their jobs.  While I certainly don’t ever wish to return to the economic poverty that characterized my youth, I find immense value in having never understood myself or Christmas in terms of conspicuous consumption.  We would do well to remember that we have not always been or ever needed to be neoliberal subjects and hyper-consumers.  We seem to have forgotten the wealth in spirit and mind of a people who never hesitated to remind a young girl that her creativity and talent were worth more than dollars, that you and the holidays are always about so much more than the people who can buy you. 

A Black Education Congress (ABEC)

Please Click Here for ABEC website.

Please Click Here for ABEC website.

I originally intended to stop/ write/ reflect for each of my past three days at the Black Education Congress.  Yes, that was certainly the intention.  But this language and this written form of the Word just got in the way.  There were so many moments that touched me.  I wouldn’t be able to define and chronicle those moments linearly even if I wanted to.  This morning, I am left with one resonance that I am carrying with me.  I expect new resonances to fill me in coming days and weeks so I will keep that discussion going here.

I realize today the weight of an experience that I seldom receive, an experience that maybe I have never had… being in a room filled with concentric circles, nested cyphers, filled with people of Afrikan descent who have the education and well-being of Black children first and foremost in their heart, mind, spirit.  Just imagine it!  It might sound simple, but how many times have you actually experienced THAT? I needed to stop today and realize that I am never in such a space and to also realize what that space-powerfulness has given me.  I don’t mean the folk who are trying to usher black children into a middle class pseudo-bourgeoisie (I say pseudo because middle-classness means something completely different in this time, even though most folk don’t realize that.)  I don’t mean THEM folk.  These days I feel lucky if I can find a set of black colleagues, scattered across the country, who have a dynamic, critical vision for Black Education.  And I am lucky if have a sista across campus who I can meet after our classes are over and just talk.  Like I said… L-U-C-K-Y!  I had them sistas-in-the-wings at Rutgers-Newark, for instance (given the history and spirit of Newark), but you had to sustain a whole lotta foolishness in your department first. And while I attend professional conferences and panels where I do meet such soul-sustaining folk, more often than not, most black folk are busy trying to be famous and/or network so that they can become famous.  That’s the culture in which black youth must survive a hostile education and it is the culture in which we most often must fight to help them not merely survive but thrive.

I am thinking back to the opening night with the procession of elders punctuated by the opening words of Dr. Adelaide Sanford.  This is what I mean by these words not allowing the weight and fullness of a Black Experience.  Here is a video of the Queen Mother from a July 2013 talk in Philly:

As powerful as this video is, it does not begin to capture what it was like to be in that room that night at a circle with other black teachers and high school students (who were ENRAPTURED, by the way, of course!)  And as powerful as this video is, it does not capture what it is like to be in Dr. Adelaide Sanford’s presence with black educators at your side. It is THAT feeling that I am carrying with me today and that I now take with me as I educate young people of color.

My Grandmother’s Intentionality: Languaging and Living

Audre Lorde QuoteMy father’s mother is the only woman who I have ever called my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago but I think of her always and talk to her often in my dreams.  As I get older, I see the intentionality that guided her life in renewed ways.

My grandmother wasn’t someone who you could call talkative.  She said what she meant and meant what she said.  I don’t recall any moment in my life when I ever saw her get upset and say something that she regretted later.  If she called you out your name, then that was your deserved name and unless you made a character change, that was the name that stayed with you.  Words were not things you took lightly and they were not things you could take back.  This is how most black folk I am close to think. Language shapes you and everything around you; it must always be intentional and it always was for my grandmother.  It is such an anomaly as an academic where talk-talk-talking-nonstop is what folk do.  There’s lotsa talking in these spaces— the arrogance and psychoses of always dominating the space by runnin your mouf— but not a whole lot of thinking and listening.  At best, I am usually bored and, at worst, I am often offended.  Strangely enough, I have read scholarship for years that indicates that my grandmother’s working class roots and vocabulary are a detriment to my language skills and yet the intentionality of her ways with words is the only one based in any deeply philosophical thought that I can see and hear for miles around me, despite all this middle class social capital folk have.

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

I don’t have any memory of my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, because he died when I was very young. My grandmother was in her early 50s and never dated again.  I never even sensed from her, the way I do with many of the women around me as a child and now, that she wished she had a man or was ever interested in a man’s help or nurture.  Male attention was never the center of her life nor did she think it should be central to any other woman’s life.  At 50, after birthing 15 children, she was still very fly, always looking at least 10-15 years younger, tall, slender but very curved, with skin so smooth it looked like she woke up wearing foundation.  Even when she wore the family picnic T-shirt at 70+ years old, she adorned herself with pearls and shoes to match. She was, quite simply, content with who and where she was.  It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe but one that I just don’t sense from many folks.  Most people I see are always trying to climb higher, become famous/known/seen, get to a more prestigious university (or pretend that the place where they work is Hahvahd), buy more things, have more clout.  There was never a time when I felt my grandmother was looking for something, for someone, for some place else, as if something was missing inside of her.  My father and his 14 siblings have often talked about how she would get mad at them for just staring too long at the Sears catalog which she called a Wish Book, something that she considered very dangerous.  You didn’t worship things outside of yourself that way, especially if it was connected to whiteness.

My grandmother would never have called herself a black feminist or womanist, those are academic labels that wouldn’t have done much for her life.  But when I heard Audre Lorde say things like “Who I am is what fulfills me and what fulfills the vision I have of a world,” I could gather those words into my being because of my grandmother.  Why would I ever be desperate for an alternative role model when I can clearly see and value the blackness from which I already emanate?  For me, my grandmother is one of the most radical black women/black people/intellectuals I know.  She lived her life never wanting to be somewhere else, never wanting to be something else, never wanting to be with someone else, never aspiring to be a social climber and insomuch that those projects/desires are always dictated by whiteness, she lived a life few of us today seem able to even imagine, much less achieve.

August Beginnings & Back-to-School Bling

afroAs a little girl, I cut my mother’s hair once…when she was sleeping.  Not much, just a little trim, but not really having a conception of time, I imagine that I thought it would grow back right away.  Needless to say, that experiment was not appreciated so I turned my attention to my next, unsuspecting victim: my father.  At the time, my father had a very large afro.  If I said I would grease his scalp, he would pretty much let me do what I wanted with his hair.  While he was watching the game or something on television, I would grease his scalp and then braid his whole head of hair in tiny braids, put colorful barrettes on each end, then dress up my dolls and do their hair to match.  That could take the better half of an afternoon or evening (it was a slow graduation from two-strand twisting to three-strand braiding).  My father is also a pretty chill person (and pretty funny) so if he needed to go outside for something, he would go out, just like that, with a head full of barrettes— take out the trash, help the elderly couple down the street, go to the co’ner sto’, you name it.  I would often be by his side, excited for everyone to see my creation.  And I was always very encouraged by my audience who told me to keep doing that to my father’s hair because he was lookin realllll good; it never once occurred to me that them folks was teasing.  My father once took his license photo like that after I agreed to tone down some of the barrettes; it was just too time-consuming to undo all of the braids and pick out his afro.  Let me tell you, that license picture got a whole lot of views, it was like the 1970s version of going viral.  Again, I assumed it was my hairdressing talent that was so intriguing.  I smile when I think about it: all of these people who made sure to never squash who I was. I remember it as a community that always found humor and celebration in the everyday.  Though my father was haunted by the many demons that squashed the fullness of working-class/working-poor black men who had just come home from the army in the 70s, I always remember my father as a comrade in my aesthetic creations and I took full advantage of it.

Imagine this Jacket... with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over!

Imagine this Jacket… with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over! And pants to match!  Wowzers!

A close replica of my roller skates... just add more handmade pom poms!

A close replica of my roller skates… just add more homemade pom poms!

Every August, my father scraped together his money, took me back-to-school shopping, and pretty much let me run through Montgomery Ward and get whatever I wanted.  It was a dream come true.  Sometimes I could spend $50; in a really good fiscal year, it was $75.  My parents were divorced and not communicating with one another which, to my delight, meant that my mother could not interfere with my choices.  When you shop with my mother, it’s all about practicality (since this could very well be the only time in the year when we bought new clothes.)  For my mother, it’s all about: how long will it last, can it be let out when you grow more, what else does it match, is it comfortable, how do you wash it, can you wear it on a gym day, can you wear it when it gets cold out…. all that ol’ mundane stuff.  My father did not talk that way; he did not think he really knew what kind of clothes little girls wore so I took the opportunity to educate him myself.  On one occasion, that meant a very shiny, blue jacket with pants to match, covered in sequin-and-sparkle-speckled roller skates with tassels for buttons.  It was F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S and ON SALE!  Score!  My mother, on the other hand, was furious.  You can’t wear that to school… and… blah, blah, blah.  If I had been allowed, I would have worn that joint EVERYday.  To top it all off, this outfit matched my roller skates AND the pom poms on the toe!!!!  I mean, really, what more could you ask for?

Every August, like my teacher-colleagues everywhere, I turn my attention to back-to-school, no longer as a student but as a teacher. It’s all about syllabi, projects, and classroom assignments now.  When you walk into Staples these days, you just know who the teachers are and if you look at the supplies in their hands, baskets, or carts, you can tell which grades they teach too.  This August, I am remembering rituals at this time of new beginnings.  I am excited for the new classes I will teach, my new train/subway/commute route, my new colleagues, and all the new students who will walk through my classroom doors.  My collection of children’s books, many of which are oversized, fit on the floor-to-ceiling shelves in my new office. I have 6 feet of leftover space for new books or other collectibles (or transfers from home shelves teeming over) and a big comfortable chair.  I even found out that the modular shelving system comes with extra shelves when I need them (space like this a real rarity in New York City).  For me, this is all just F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S!  Another score!

In the past years, August would hit and it would just feel like doomsday: “the cotton is ready to be picked” is what I would OFTEN say….and I meant it too!  But this year, I get to savor the rituals, the excitement, and the newness in the air.  As a little girl, I marked all of that with a little bling.  Inspired by the adults from my childhood, I am re-realizing that new beginnings and the everyday should, indeed, be celebrated.

“You No Got Sense Wiseness”

Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra “Wisdom Knot”

I often talk about the importance of common sense but that term doesn’t work for the kind of fierce Black Common Sense I have in mind.  I like the term I learned from Fela Kuti better: sense wiseness.  Just like Fela Kuti conveys in the song, black academics and professionals, especially graduate students, have very little sense wiseness after all of the studies and travels within the empire.  Wisdom is not the purview of books and Western schools.  Far too many of us see the world outside of academia as incompatible with the work we do inside of academia.  For sure, black masses are not welcomed into academia and that is no coincidence but, also, for sure, you better hold on to the sense wiseness of the black masses or you won’t survive academia.

When I think of sense wiseness, I think of my family members (who do not have college degrees… like Fela Kuti says, education and sense wiseness are often an inverse relationship).  Between sense wiseness and quick wit, couldn’t NObody get over.  My uncle, Uncle Bay, who passed away a few years ago now, was fierce, even when cancer was ravaging his body.  My cousin, his son, tells a story of coming home from school one day really upset because a friend told the whole school my cousin’s secret.  My uncle quickly told my cousin to stop complaining and take full responsibility for his foolishness.  As my uncle told it: if you can’t keep your own secret, why you ’round here expecting somebody else to?  That makes a whole lotta sense to me, sense wiseness, actually.  I still don’t know what this secret was, some 25 years ago now, so apparently my cousin learned this lesson well.  Like in the case of my cousin, sense wiseness also means you listen to people who are telling you the right thing and who know what they are talking about: choose your teachers wisely and ignore fools.  I am often baffled as a teacher in this regard: stunned by how many of my students and colleagues listen to the dumbest people offer the dumbest advice about the discipline, who’s who, what’s what, and end up gettin NOwhere.  And since sense wiseness is not something you can read in a book, some folk will be like them old 7Up commercials: never had it, never will.  Like my Uncle Bay taught my cousin in high school (that my cousin, in turn, taught us): when you trust the wrong folk, something is wrong with YOU, not them, so get yourself right.  Friendship, trust, and the intimacies of your selfhood are not things to be given so freely.

africaStories of Uncle Bay’s sense wiseness abound in my family. Uncle Bay was a manager at the factory where my father worked when I was a small child (until the factory closed and moved overseas).  On one occasion, my father was apparently SHOWIN OUT (and let me attest to the fact that Pops can be good at THAT!) because his paycheck wasn’t accurate and significantly slighted.  When my father’s anger didn’t seem as if it could be “contained,” my uncle was called for assistance.  Uncle Bay, however, did not oblige and did not intervene: “if you want him to stop actin out, just pay the man.  Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I know very few black folk like Uncle Bay.   Catering to white comfort, fearing white power, or being mesmerized by/chasing whiteness were never part of the game for him.  Uncle Bay did not try to placate my father or ask him to forego his righteous indignation and he did not try and explain/domesticate my father’s behavior to his white bosses who knew they were in the wrong.  “Just pay the man. Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I think of Uncle Bay’s example in the context of my profession often. Time and time and time again (click here for an example), I have witnessed white men want/tell my black graduate students to tone down their anger and verbal forthrightness against the racism they have experienced as students and young faculty.  And yet NO single one of these white men has ever taken a stand against or spoken out against the racism these students encounter; they only want to make sure they can squash black students’ voices and keep the status quo exactly as it is.  Sense wiseness can keep you from being fooled into maintaining this kind of white dominance that works by silencing black folk and ignoring the wrong done to them.  Uncle Bay will always be my model in these instances.

There is a similar story about my Uncle Mac.  Apparently, one of the workers got caught doing something, no one really remembers, but everyone does remember that he accused Uncle Mac of ratting him out and being an Uncle Tom.  Now you have to understand that Uncle Mac is probably the quietest in my family but that quietness doesn’t mean he is going to tolerate disrespect… so Uncle Mac held the man at knifepoint and let him know what would happen the next time he came at him like that.   The man ran straight to Uncle Bay who, by that time, was a manager at this new factory where Uncle Mac worked.  Uncle Bay just told the man: Well, he didn’t cut you, did you?  You look alright.   Now some of the more bougsie types might cringe at the knife in this story, but I don’t have that issue.  The man got what he had coming: don’t dish out something you can’t take in return.  You don’t get sympathy and coddling when you choose to be stupid. Uncle Bay taught me that and he taught me that you don’t take the side of someone who is WRONG and disrespects your people, that’s not where you put your allegiance and you let them always know it too.  This goes for black folk who want to do wrong and then come at you sideways disrespectfully too— this is that real equal opportunity right here.  Sense wiseness doesn’t let you forsake real allies and loyalties.

nyansapo-wisdom-knot_design

Yes, I am using sense wiseness as a racial concept here.  If you have been told by every form of media that the darkness of your smooth skin, the thickness of your kinky curls, the fullness of your perfect lips, and the soul-stirring curves of your hips/thighs/backside are ALL WRONG, you need some hardcore sense wiseness to know these are lies and to see the beauty that everyone denies.  You need sense wiseness to know the truth behind a jury and judge of white women who say an unarmed black boy is a danger and should be killed.  You need sense wiseness to know that no, there’s nothing wrong with you when you see the white graduate students and faculty around you get support, nurture, and get-out-of-jail free-passes that you don’t. You need sense wiseness to know that your people are not unhuman, unlovable, unpretty even when the world suggests otherwise.   Every group does not have to cultivate sense wiseness like this; sense wiseness is what you need to counter dominance and power so those who represent that are not part of this counter-system.   Sense wiseness is what lets you question the dogma of a world that denigrates you and tries to control your thinking and action.  Certainly not all black people have it… and surviving this world won’t be easy for them.

My family taught me who to trust and who not to trust, who is real and who is domesticated. I know a white supremacist when I see one and I know someone who is acting in the service of white supremacy. I know what it means to be loyal and I know who my allegiances are reserved for.  I call all that sense wiseness and I am grateful for it.