The last thing my father told me before I left for college was, “Don’t forget about the Black man.”
I then stepped off our front porch and walked straight into the intellectual lion’s den.
No amount of scholarships could have prepared me for the type of education I would undergo.
I was thankful to be raised in an environment that taught me how to be politically gangsta.
My mother said, use your words.
My father said, don’t hit first.
Both of them believed in standing your ground.
I took my first college class at fifteen.
The Humanities and International Studies Program I graduated from schooled me on the connections between literature, culture, and politics.
Over the years, I learned how to verbally spar against the gaslighting and microaggressions from classmates and colleagues.
I navigated the hidden curriculum of how to teach your teachers—and bosses, to respect all of who you are. And smile.
I battled against personal acts of student and collegial aggression for accurately assessing lack of capability. Who did I think I was? Telling someone they were culturally illiterate and professionally incompetent. And in such a nice way.
I’ve been called a Black bitch.
Had my food undercooked at Midwestern restaurants.
Been surveilled by police officers in convenient stores.
Had a temporary dean drive by my classroom in a golf cart, just to peer in and make sure I was teaching. On the day after I had won an exemplary teaching award.
My intellectual journey has served me many battle wounds.
But the ones that have taken the longest to heal are those that involve Black men.
The history of my professional life as a Black female professor in higher education is intimately intertwined with the death of Black men at the hands of the police.
The same year I was hired at Southwestern College in 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.
In 2013, I resurrected the Black Student Union.
Just in time to mourn Michael Brown in 2014.
And Freddie Gray.
And Walter Scott.
We offered many libations during those years, as we honored the lost lives of people who looked like us. Student stories began to pour out. A never-ending stream of self-knowledge about Blackness, policing and othering coming together to shed light on cycles of criminalization and systems of violent abuse.
I shared my own story in 2015. Of how I became a loved one to an incarcerated individual. How it lit a fire in my soul that I could not dampen.
In February 2016, I curated an art exhibit dedicated to sparking a dialogue about the Cycle of Criminalization plaguing Black Men in the United States. We made an homage of paper-mache headstones for the 115 Black men and women killed by the police during the previous year. They became the backdrop to many of my performances in the years to come.
During one of my public lectures about the relationship between the pre-school to prison pipeline and our police relations, the San Diego police shot and killed Alfred Olango. Half the room stood up and left to join the growing protests.
By 2018, I was a tenured professor and a single mother of three Black children. We watched the news together when Stephon Clark was killed. And mommy had to explain that this was the same neighborhood that she grew up in.
I left Southwestern that year to join MiraCosta College. In 18 months, I proved that I was an exceptional colleague worthy of early tenure. The week our Governing Board made it official, COVID-19 forced us to close our doors to the public we served.
And then the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. And Blackness bled globally, like a pandemic virus spreading panic into the white imagination.
This Black fury began to grow in me. To be stuck in the house. Forced to endure the savage rhetorical violence spewing from all platforms and mediums. An oversaturation of racial realism shining from the living room television, looming over me like a spotlight. Calling on me to serve in some way other than marching in the streets.
I started to make more paper-mache headstones. I spread warm gooey glue over recycled Amazon boxes and layered them with gray packing paper. It became a form of therapy. A type of mourning that allows me to create and rage. Create and rage. Create and rage.
We paper-mache boxes as a family art project. My 7-year-old daughter is making an armoire for her stuffed elephant, Ella. She’s fancy like that. She asks me if I am making my boxes for “the men.” I smile. Yes, I am.
I start to tell my daughter the stories of these lost lives. I tell her about Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. I tell her about George Floyd, and why people are protesting. We talk about racism and anti-Blackness. We dip our fingers into the glue and paste pieces of paper onto our recycled boxes. I see her thoughtfully digesting everything I tell her. And then she changes the subject to how her armoire is going to have double doors that open and close.
The next day, I am stacking our paper-mache headstones neatly in the garage. My 2-year old keeps coming behind me, knocking them down. Like blocks. I rebuild them. One by one. Only to have him crush them as a whole. This is the cycle I aim to break.
My daughter is on the phone with her “best friend.” My best friend—another tenured Blackademic female in higher ed, happens to be sheltering in with us for the month. She overhears something in the girls’ conversation that triggers her. Something about protesting. Or looting. Or something. She couldn’t quite hear, so she discreetly follows my daughter to eavesdrop like the good village sister she is.
Later, she enters the garage.
“Girrrrrlllll, them babies . . .” and then she tells me of how my daughter navigated her first conversation about race in America. She tells me how my daughter’s friend was talking about the looting and how horrible it was. How my daughter, Anyah, gently corrected her friend on the details of what was happening.
“No, I know what happened,” explained Anyah. “There was a man named George Floyd. And he was a good man. And the police killed him. And that’s why everyone is upset. And protesting. Because the police killed him. . . .”
A brief pause in the conversation. And then, “Oh! Did you know we’re gonna get a new president?! I hope we get a new president.”
I smack my hand against my face. My eyes open wide with surprise. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I’m laughing and crying at the same time, as I listen to my friend tell me how proud she is of the way Anyah handled that situation.
I think about how important it is for my children to be able to address these issues. How my daughter has been her own advocate since the moment she entered preschool.
Asking people not to touch her hair.
Listening to the kids tell her that her afro puffs were crazy.
Being called a monkey.
Listening to her white “friend” tell her not to touch her because her skin is Black.
Being told her skin is different.
More than once.
By a classmate.
Being more than just observant.
But also, judgmental.
My 7-year-old daughter is no novice when it comes to defending her culture. One of her teachers looked me dead in my face and told me that 4-year old’s don’t know how to exhibit racist behaviors.
There’s a reason I homeschool my children. And it isn’t COVID-19.
It’s now mid-June in the year 2020. I decide to leave my house after about 10 days of solid sheltering in. I am taking the kids to get McDonald’s as a special treat. And also trying to make sure the battery in my car doesn’t die on me from lack of being used. I haven’t filled my tank since March.
I turn my head to the left, and I see that my neighbor has added a Trump 2020 flag to the library of patriotic symbols flying proudly from his roof. A Chicago Cubs flag. An American Flag. And now, a Trump 2020 flag. I purse my lips and think about the cemetery of headstones in my garage.
I have not forgotten about the Black men. I have not forgotten about the Black women. About the Black people. Across all of our differences. Who are still fighting.
I am still fighting. Every day. For freedom.