For All Black Angels

washington-cherry-treeIt was a fellow second grader who first told me that Santa Claus was not real.  I remember coming home with many questions, not about Santa, but about everything else I could think of.  The tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the talking animals in my children’s books, Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and EVEN Wonder Woman were not real.  That’s a lot for a child to ingest in one day. There was one fiction that I never questioned though.  It was a story that a family friend, who I think of as an uncle, told me.  I had come home excited from school talking non-stop about what I had learned about President George Washington.  My uncle told me to rethink my excitement because the Big G.W. wasn’t all that.  According to him, GW chopped down momma’s cherry tree, lied about it, and so my uncle had no choice but to whup dat ass.  I told everyone about my amazing uncle after that, despite the naysayers and player-haters who insisted that my uncle was not old enough to know GW.  My uncle IS old was my vehement response.  Plus, my uncle had animatedly replayed the whole conversation for me.  You couldn’t make up something like that as far as I was concerned.  I offer this story not to highlight my eventual discovery of my uncle’s age and tall-tale-telling but as a way to counter a problematic Christmas book about African American children.  The fact that my uncle, a man who cannot read and write, replaced white greatness with people who look like me in an everyday children’s conversation is a kind of love and political capacity that escapes far too many.

116637200On Cyber Monday, I searched the corners of google and bing for multicultural Christmas books for children.  I wanted to especially see what African American children in such books did and how the idea of Christmas was depicted in black homes (I decided to save Kwanzaa for later which produces much more interesting books, quite obviously).  I purchased the 1997 text, An Angel Like Me by Mary Hoffman, because the illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu are just stunning. I was drawn to the text because it takes on the issue of why Christmas paraphernalia features white characters and not brown ones.  Everything that I read online seemed to offer a great review.  While I don’t agree with arguments that white writers can’t compose stories for black children, in this case, those arguments gain some validity.  The lack of connection to black families, black storytelling, and race pride distorts this writer’s entire ability to compose a narrative about black children and their families.

The story gets set off when a black family breaks one of its angel ornaments.  Tyler, the young protagonist of the book, immediately asks why angels are always white, blonde, and feminine.  No one can answer his question.   NO. BODY.  He even asks his mother why Jesus is depicted as white.  Again, no one has an answer for him.  Not a single adult can answer and most seem to say: hmmm, I never noticed that.  Really?  No single black adult in the book has ever thought about whiteness?  How on earth have these black folk survived slavery, Post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Reagonomics, post-racism?  Finally, at the end of the book, an art student who babysits for the family, who also couldn’t answer Tyler’s question about the prevalence of white angels, carves Tyler a brown angel that looks just like him and the story ends happily ever after. Now, for some folk, this story is not enough cause for disgust.  Well, they are wrong.  Get off this blog!  It ain’t for you or about you. Only someone who does not know black families and cannot sociologically imagine how they function in this world could write this kind of book.  Could you ever imagine me going up to my uncle, asking him about whiteness, and him NOT having any answer?  Do you really think that any child in my family who asks why Jesus, Santa, or angels are depicted as white finds people who are so stumped that they cannot provide any answer?  You think I ain’t got some answers that I relate in fantastically creative narratives?  Do you think that all we do is sit around and eat sweet potato pie over the holidays and never talk about anything?  What a stoopit book!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend recently suggested that I watch an interview with Marianne Williamson where she talks about love.  Now, some of that New Age spirituality gets a little weird to me, but, hey, to each their own. Some of it just borrows too heavily from Non-Western spiritual traditions and remixes all of that for American, bourgeois individualism.  Nevertheless, there are times when a definition or phrase moves me deeply.  In this interview, Williamson gives a definition of love that describes black folk beautifully.  She is not, of course, talking explicitly about black people, but about a kind of everyday practice that I attribute to them: “a spiritual, mental, emotional, personal strength that I develop in myself to refuse to see you as other people might have chosen to see you today.”  She calls this a kind of sacred, daily practice when you “give birth, rebirth, to [someone’s] own self-confidence, their own belief in themselves, their own strength and glory, because you see what others might not see.”  I get this kind of sacred practice and strength everytime I talk to one of my sistafriends and mentors who refuse to see me from the lens of a violating, white, dominant gaze.  I also get this every time I talk to one of my colleagues of color about something that has happened; they don’t ever act like I am overreacting or sweep everything under the rug like most white colleagues do— they have the ability to see and hear me and offer an alternative paradigm outside of white norms.  I can’t think of a better definition than SACRED to describe the teachers, mentors, parents, family, extended family, scholars, friends who see the beauty of black children and families, and choose to portray that back, despite the world that constantly suggests otherwise. I can tell you that it is ONE HELLUVA thing to step out in a world each day that tries to minimize my expertise, question my awareness/consciousness/ability… but then come home to a partner, sistafriend, auntie, uncle, pops, momma, or neighbor who tells me to keep on keeping on, moves me past the toxic energy of dumb folk, and reminds me of who and what I am.  One Helluva Thing!  Though this book ain’t worth the paper it is printed on, its ignorance did remind me to always remember what Black Love is and does.

This little children’s book simply doesn’t pass mustard for representing black children and families.  You need to see us before you can write about us.  There are authors who represent exactly the kind of love I have described and who do achieve a rewriting for black children.  I will turn my attention to them now.

Take Care of Home…

The adinkra symbol for the "Power of Love."

The adinkra symbol for the “Power of Love.”

In a previous post, I decided to look up the Adkinra symbol of love called the “power of love.”  When I found the symbol, I also found the expression/proverb that comes with it— ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN, “love never loses its way home.”   This is one of the reasons I have always valued and learned from Adinkra symbols (including the symbol, Sankofa, which is probably the most popular): there is a moral and lesson that goes with it.  As soon as I saw the corresponding expression for “the power of love,” I remembered an expression I heard in my family and from older African Americans as a child: “take care of home.”  As I have been thinking more about it, that expression is even bigger than what I have realized.  What I am suggesting here is that these “idioms” can be theorized, on their own terms, and located in and as unique philosophies that have sustained and represented black communities.

Women pounding rice on Sapelo Island, Georgia, around 1915

Women pounding rice on Sapelo Island, Georgia, around 1915

I have heard both men and women use this expression: “take care of home.”  It has nothing at all to do with homemaking in the domestic sense.  In fact, when I remember hearing it used in relation to one’s actual physical home, interestingly, it was mostly in the context of gardening and planting.  There was always something esoteric to me about the way people talked about taking care of their collards in the back or planting flowers in the front. There is, of course, the practice and symbolism of letting things take root in the context of what was arguably the second Great Migration when my family moved from Alabama to the midwest in the 1970s to work in Northern factories.  Putting down roots would be no insignificant issue and so this was something you took pride in and this was something you took seriously.

This practice of putting down roots as a cultural system was something that began to intrigue me when I first read Judith Carney’s Black Rice.  Carney’s book blew me away when I first read it in the way she demolishes the legacy of rice in the United Sates as the face of Uncle Ben on a box at the grocery store. Instead, she establishes rice cultivation as a cultural system that traveled the Middle Passage, blossomed from enslaved Africans’ knowledge (and, obviously, labor), and became the first food commodity traded successfully across the Atlantic Ocean on a large scale.  Rice was, thus, a food whose cultivation in the South was invented and maintained solely by black people and especially black women.  Before I read Carney, I had, quite embarrassingly, not fully considered that the very systems of planting and foodways were created and sustained by slaves’ crop experimentation.  What especially impacted me in Carney’s book, what I am saying makes the notion of “taking care of home” an alternative epistemological system, has to do with the provision gardens that slaves maintained. During the Revolutionary War, provision gardens were allotted to slaves to discourage them from fighting on the British side; these provision gardens dwindled after the War but there is still evidence that many slaves negotiated to acquire them afterward too.  Carney’s research shows people who, after working for 12 hours, then went to their own small plots and cultivated their piece of earth also.  Through their crop experimentation and informal, clandestine networks for acquiring seeds and other staples from Africa, these black people in slavery gave the United States its first peanuts, okra, greens, millet, sorghum, pigeon peas, and black-eye peas.  The Royal Society, Columbia Exchange, scientific societies, and plantation owners’ farming techniques had nothing to do with the planting and cultivation that slaves sustained for the United States. Sarney shows that these provision gardens also functioned amongst slaves in Brazil and the French Caribbean.   There is obviously more going on here than mere planting, gardening, and food production; what we see are a people maintaining a cultural identity, way of living/eating, and hands-on networking with other black communities.  That a people would choose to plant their own cultural foods, after working all day in white slaveowners’ fields, astounds me.  It was, it seems to me, a way to go back home AND make a home, despite the world that told them they did not have such “rights,” a practice and process also very profound for my own black family as recent migrants to the North in the 1970s.


il_570xN.117698057I am still combing my memories for how this expression circulated and will probably remember more as time goes on.  I do strongly recollect that people used this expression, “take care of home,” in relation to fidelity in relationships, particularly men’s (though women obviously step out on their partners too.)  The expression is about more than sexual faithfulness though.  This might be the reason I liked the song by Dave Hollister, actually called “Take Care of Home,” when it came out in 2000.  Beside the fact that Hollister’s Gerald-Levert-esque vibe and that general Midwest-Kuntry aesthetic are just a part of me, given where and how I grew up, I like Hollister’s mobilization of take care of home” because he is not talking about fidelity either but about noticing the partner you are with and experiencing their joy as your own joy.  I think “take care of home” gets at something still deeper: something about sustenance of self in relation to others and one’s own purpose.  I am often perplexed by peers who I see with multiple partners or with one significant partner and many other “friends.”  I just don’t get how you have the time for all that.   It’s real basic to me too, it ain’t a moral or ethical issue at all.  There is no way I could finish all of the final editing I needed to do on my first book, start my new research project, fulfill my work/administrative duties, read and prepare for my new class, teach, be there for my friends and family, support and love a partner… and then have the time, energy, or spirit left to then be going out for coffee, drinks, breakfast, lunch, dinner/be text-messaging, emailing, tweeting, FBing, or calling some other dude who I barely know.  The only way I COULD even approximate all that is if I abandoned either my friends, students, family, work/scholarship, or partner.  Why would I discard one of those entities for someone I just met at the coffee shop or bookstore/library (the biggest dating cliches imaginable)?  I am just not the kind of fool to hurt and jeopardize the things I love that way.  It’s not like I am lonely with a lot of free time (or MONEY!!) so what would account for such immature, poor decision-making?  Perhaps, the sentiments I express represent a woman’s stance, not a man’s given male ego/misogyny, but, still, there have got to be men out there who are not this stupid!  Amongst many of my girlfriends and family, I have proclaimed that I barely have the time and patience for one man– so now what the hell would I do with two or more? Now there are some things that I do like in multiples: shoes, the curls of my natural hair, earrings, bracelets, peanut M&Ms(!!!), purses, books, slices of red velvet cake, songs on my “TooGrown&TooSexy” playlist, doritos… but men?  Hell. Naw.  That does not sound appealing at all.  Now in cases where such a level of commitment has been too much pressure, seriousness, maturity, or responsibility for a man, I simply assume that I need a new man, not a new disposition— something that might come as a surprise given the way the media likes to depict a single black professional woman like me as unaware, desperate, and/or without many choices. Don’t believe the hype. You need healthy boundaries in relationships to live such a life where “you take care of home,” ones that, once established, mean you are not just picking up random people off the street, abandoning the purposes/relationships most important to you, inviting any-ol’-body or any uninformed idea into your space, forging superficial closeness with people you do not know, and offering “mad love” for people and things that lack integrity.  This expression is about living your life on purpose and with purpose, even when it comes to love. And I must dutifully notice that black people, perhaps the most unloved people in the making of the modern world, have forged these highest ideals of love.  


Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra Symbol for “Wisdom Knot”

My family also always told me two things: that a new fool wakes up each morning… and that they didn’t raise no fool when they raised me.  With these two expressions coupled together, you can see that there is an expectation that mainstream culture and values will make you stupid, reckless, undefined, and unthinking so there is a consciousness about raising a child against all that.  There is an embrace of wisdom here and a simultaneous distancing from the foolishness and non-sustainability that a socially unconscious system thrives on. nyansapoI am reminded here of the Akan Wisdom Knot, called Nyansa po, and its proverb which is roughly translated as: “The knot tied by a wise-woman cannot be undone by a fool.”  It seems worth noting that this symbol is so highly revered since it depicts someone who carries the ability to learn from her world and her experiences, a wisdom no one can undo.  I would like to think of myself as my family’s AND my history’s high-achieving student… one who is always learning and ready to apply the lessons.

There is a philosophical disposition that gets captured in an expression like “take care of home” in the two seeming opposite contexts I have described. It captures for me a kind of theoretical framework where I see black people deliberately countering consumerism, narcissistic self-indulgence, immaturity, the discarding of human bodies/labor/value, wealth as commodification, the acquisition of too much stuff (including people)— whether it is food, planting, family, or relationships.  What I see, hear, and feel in this expression is a black cultural view about purpose in one’s life AND an alternative definition for where and what love/sustenance is.

Black Girlhood Stories: Love, Emancipation & Final Proclamations

Illustration from the children's book, Aida, told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Dillons

This is an llustration from the children’s book, Aida, as told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Leo and Diane Dillon.

If I don’t find some magical story about love— a black woman and a black man/ a black woman and a black woman— geared for children and young readers, I will have a coup on my hands in my classroom.   If I am saying all this foolishness in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog or Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters represents exploitation and neglect, not love, and that young women have been bamboozled, my black female students especially will ask me to show them some love then.

I thought I found something positive for my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls with the Nutmeg Princess by Ricardo Keens-Douglas and illustrated by Annouchka Galouchko, but it was just another story where a little girl must prove herself.  The little boy in this narrative is attentive and generous, unlike in Mufaro where men just need to be.  However, the little girl literally saves the boy’s life, the final proof that she is as good as him.  I like that the girl does the saving but why does she have to prove her goodness and worth and save a boy, while he has nothing to prove and saves absolutely no one?  In the end, the nutmeg princess is revealed to both children and they inherit a nutmeg farm (they are not romantic though, but real partners and community members, which I like).  I also looked at Aida— yes, as in the opera— that is also a children’s book with the story of the opera told by Leontyne Price and illustrated by the Dillons.  The artwork here is amazing and I love Price’s telling as well as her personal narrative at the very end.   In Price’s performances of this opera, she is able to take Verdi’s  imaginings and transform the entire experience into a powerful story with herself at center. The children’s book form, however, doesn’t manage to do this.  The plot?  Prob. Le. Ma. Tic.  Neither of these books challenge male domination and female subordination for children. I will certainly keep collecting children’s books for my campaign and discuss them here, but I have some final thoughts now.


African American Slavery Monument in Savannah, GeorgiaThis monument was erected in 2002. It depicts a black family in a tight embrace with broken shackles at their feet. The inscription is by Maya Angelou: "We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy."

African American Slavery Monument in Savannah, Georgia
This monument was erected in 2002. It depicts a black family in a tight embrace with broken shackles at their feet. The inscription is by Maya Angelou: “We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy.”

As for finding a radical fairy tale, black love story for children?  That white supremacy requires such a stunning erasure of such a thing seems telling.  So… I have decided that I will use history.  Since I am planning a group activity for the class on the day when we engage what I have been calling my anti-princess campaign for young black women and girls, I will ask the visual artists, spoken word poets, and creative writers in the class to take on a specific task: create a real love story, adding all the magic they want, as long as the historical context stays the same.  I plan to use a letter written by a slave that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has archived, a letter that Heather Andrea Williams features in her book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.  The letter is dated one month after the Emancipation Proclamation (February 4, 1863), almost 150 years ago today.   The man, living in Georgia, and his wife, living in Alabama, are still enslaved.  It was always highly unlikely that black spouses would ever see each other again since no slaveowner was required, encouraged or expected to accept slaves’ marriage as legally binding.  On top of that, the husband, James Tate, could not read and write so he had to rely on whites to write and read his letters to and from his wife, Olivia Tate, when they were separated and owned by different “masters.”  In what is apparently his last letter to her, Mr. Tate tells Mrs. Tate that his master does not like him writing to her and wants him to marry someone else.  Mr. Tate professes an undying love for his wife and closes his letter by telling her he will only contact her again if he gets married.  While many read this as representative of slaves understanding that their relationships/marriages were short-lived, it seems Mr. Tate may be also telling his wife something else here, a message she would have understood. I’m going to ask students to read between the lines, to see what the husband and wife are communicating and planning, 250 miles away from one another, with whites reading and writing every word. I want them to construct a narrative from this real-life love story.  As of 1870, according to Williams’s retrieval of their census records, the Tates were together again, with children, all living together in Fulton County, Georgia, a happy ending if there ever was one and a very rare one for newly emancipated African Americans too.  Too many— parents, children, spouse— simply never found each other again after being sold off to different corners of the world.

Just because the dominant storytelling machines won’t give us the black, love stories so many of my students want does not mean we do not have the stories.  So here will be some of the guidelines for students in this group to write their own fairy tale in class with Mr. and Mrs. Tate as very real characters:

  • Students will read my summary and excerpts of the husband’s letter (they can go to the Schomburg to see the actual letter and/or to Census records on their own).  So here you have a context where black people are not legally allowed to marry and are not legally allowed to read and write and, yet and still, you have two black people who are married, writing letters to one another.  Who/what will we personify as evil here?  How will we describe such seemingly insurmountable odds and such unyielding determination?
  • yemayaThe Emancipation Proclamation had just been signed at the time of this letter. Both Mr. and and Mrs. Tate would have known this so they would have had hope that slavery would be ending soon, especially seeing how many black men were enlisted in the Union Army.  This couple is clearly planning something.  What is their secret plan and how are they transmitting these secret messages to one another?
  • Mr. and Mrs. Tate would have needed a strong bond and ability to really “read” one another since their every word in every letter is being monitored.  Can we take magic all the way here?  Here are some examples: the couple could have a family ancestor/GodMother deliver messages between them; the couple could be protected by Yemaya who is watching over them until thy reunite (In Yoruba, Yemaya was known as the river goddess but she became the Goddess of the Ocean during the Middle Passage when she nurtured the millions who traveled/died in the Atlantic Ocean.)  How can we add a magical dimension to this love story that honors the history and legacy?  Remember: it must be a story for children.
  • The Tate family is finally re-united but this re-unionification does NOT come with the riches of a kingdom/empire.  The only wealth here is being able to be with one another and finally get married under God and U.S. law.  I want this point stressed given how in fairy tales, the girls are really my college student’s age and they all get over like a fat rat in the end  (Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog, is an immediately wealthy entrepreneur at 19.  Really?)   Can we use The Tates to define wealth and love OUTSIDE of commodification and materialism, since this is what The Tates would have had to do anyway since they KNEW what it meant to literally BE the commodity and the raw material.  What is the happy ending here? Or, rather, what is the  beginning?  What this will really mean is creating a male character who can forego patriarchy: i.e., NOT surrounding himself with women until he gets to be with his wife, ignoring his wife’s needs while focusing only on massaging his own self-esteem, or expecting a wife’s support and silence while he leads his own independent life/rules the kingdom.  Can we imagine Mr. Tate as someone who can take what he knows about being treated as a thing and make sure he doesn’t turn around and treat Mrs. Tate as a thing?
  • As newly emancipated, the Tates would not have had an inheritance from their parents to live on or a lifetime of money saved up from their work since their labor was clearly never remunerated.  Students will have to be creative, as creative as the Tates, in even figuring out how they physically reconnected (given the constraints of travel and their financial situation) that could very well have involved routes similar to traveling the Underground Railroad. How are the Tates imagining a future and how are they sustaining the image?  How can we push ourselves to imagine the success of their relationship as not resting on material accumulation?
  • The adinkra symbol for the "Power of Love."

    The adinkra symbol for the “Power of Love.”

    James Tate is not saving Olivia Tate; they are saving one another.  What would a mutually respectful relationship look like after all they have been through?

The Tates represent something different from Western tales where love is professed all over the place, all the time, right away, but never lived out as a practice.  As naive and silly as it might seem on my part, I just can’t imagine either one of The Tates even having the time or energy for anyone or anything other than, mostly, each other and their work.  To outsmart the forced separation of slavery and find one another again would have required them to be very mindful. It can’t be stressed enough that the very ability to focus on being together— given a context that had denied black folk legalized or self-sponsored relationships (for more than a century!)— would have been, in and of itself, radical.   Neither one can be so self-absorbed in their own individualized worlds that they do not truly notice or support the other— they simply wouldn’t have achieved their outcome.  I see Olivia and James Tate as people with a fierce, undistracted focus who get to exactly where they are trying to go, despite odds many of us can barely even imagine now.

That’s all I got right now as a fairy tale, black love story for my students— something we will need to write ourselves.  What I am hoping is that students will actually experience how they will have to drop the dominant, Disney fairy tale/princess narrative in order to write this kind of black love story with this very real history in our focus, now 150 years later.  After being at the bottom of everything, I want my students to see that black women do not come home and allow themselves to be at the bottom (or be objects) there too.  The kinds of men and the kinds of situations that require this bottom-dwelling are just not worthy of us.  The Tates actually remind me of an expression that I have always heard my grandparents’ generation say to younger people as a warning to wrongdoers (like a neighbor who had the time to be casually befriending a woman because he was emotionally neglecting his partner— well, former partner) or as a kernel of advice (for how you actually hold on to a valued partner, friend, or entity of value): you always take care of home.  I was well into my adulthood before I understood that “home” here was not a place, a house, a possession, or a nuclear family system even; taking care of home is about being fully present, bearing full witness to the lives of the people you love, and, thus, livin/lovin right.  Taking care of home isn’t always about romance either; it means fiercely recognizing and reciprocating all of the friends and supporters that have sustained you rather than neglecting them, runnin behind folks who do nothing for you. odonI don’t think it is a coincidence that the adinkra symbol, called the “power of love” (pictured above and right), defines home in a similar way: ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN, which, roughly translated from the Akan, means “love never loses its way home.”  I want to see the kinds of children’s stories/ fairy tales where black women are undoing men’s ongoing domination, indifference, neglect, and promotion of white/passive femininity and, instead, show black people takin care of home.


*I plan to also muck up the heteronormative and cisnormative center of fairy tales with another activity: a story of two, young black women’s romantic love for one another. I have given up all hope of finding a children’s book like that, especially because  I also want this story to move away from the white, male homonormative gaze that looks out on black women (read Edward Ndopu’s insightful analysis here).

I will look for another history here too and I will also look at some of the personal narratives and autobiographies my own students have written in my classes in the past.  It strikes me that the young black women in love with other young black women have told/written loves stories that go so far past the white princess chokehold.  For the young black women I have in mind here, in order for their love stories to survive, they have had to write a different script for their lives. That is where I am taking my reading and course planning now.

Like I said, if we do not have such fairy tales, we simply need to write them ourselves and in so doing, invent a whole new genre.


At the end of the day, I want students to confront these tricky narratives and ongoing emblems of white femininity that so many of them have bought into.  I always tend to really overplay the first few days and early weeks of a semester because that is where the foundation is laid.  By the middle of the semester, students have had their ideas shaken up and you can just flow and they will flow with you.  I can let the words and lives of women like Ella Baker, Elaine Brown, Maria Stewart, and Shirley Chisholm do all the work.  I don’t have to plan such counter-attacks on the dominant narratives that are holding their imaginations and ideological horizons hostage.  In the beginning of the semester, though, before they have fully met the women on the syllabus, things are rough.  Students often tell me that they don’t know what to make of the black women they are reading who simply are not very lady-like and are so political and, therefore, aggressive.  I intend to start the class by questioning these definitions of womanhood and keeping new hopes high for this new semester.