(Originally heard on Fare of the Free Child podcast)
In Yoruba tradition milestones in life are blessed with the taste of life ceremony. As a Priestess, my mother performed this ceremony countless times in my childhood, each time with slight variation. Ever the artist and storyteller, she spoke the words she sensed needed to be heard, an energetic call and response with the people and spirits present in the room. I watched her with wonder. Her gestures an incantation. Her words a prayer.
It always begins with Water. Wombs, waves, rivers. We begin this way to remind ourselves always that we are a mirror. We make ritual in the washing of hands, hair and bodies. Bathtub filled with rose water and lavender oil. You submerge yourself, becoming mermaid, shark, submarine. Water heals us, a daily dose of peppermint tea, ginger and turmeric tonics for winter flu. Water separates and connects. Drowns and baptizes. This world is so lush and evergreen. Succulent and divine. Resilient, and abundant. And, so are you. May you move like water, able to change shape and move through space, but always keeping the essence of who you are. May you heal and nourish all that you touch.
Now, Salt. Sweat, and wealth. I told you of the times as a child where I collected water from the ocean and tried to harvest salt. Jugs and bowls sat outside of home and after a few days the water was gone, but there was more sand than salt. Ever curious, you wonder why. Why does the salt in our glass jar have only salt and no sand? Why can’t we drink salt water if it comes out of us when we sweat? You lick the sweat off of your arm and smile. May your life be filled with richness and hard work. May you know the taste of sweat on your own brow, and know that from labor can come the greatest beauty of your imagination.
Pepper. We know of peppers. Jalapeño, cayenne, ghost, lemon. You choose the brightest ones at the farmers market and love the way they smell while simmering in coconut oil. I show you the steps to make jollof rice. These days will wear me down as they mold me into the mother I seek to have and become. The work of cultivating myself is the foundation for authentically showing up for anyone, especially while striving towards raising free people. Some days your tongue spits fire. May you know the power of your words. May you use them to tear down walls and build glorious staircases. May you have the strength to fight well, and the wisdom to do it prudently. There will be so many battles, my child.
Gin. May you remember to call your ancestors into battle with you. You will never be alone. Remember their names, and speak them aloud. Walk deep into the woods, dive beneath the tides and listen for them. Place a white candle and glass of water on your windowsill. Still, I want and NEED you to know that you belong only to yourself. You spirit is timeless. Not like a pearl necklace or an unassuming name. No, you are as timeless as heat, and thick lips and cornrow masterpieces. Do not be afraid of your Darkness.
Honey. Above all, love. In loving yourself you honor those who came before you. In loving yourself, you smooth the way for those who will follow. When standing alone in the woods of my mind, or in the midst of mundane chaos, my thoughts frayed like cloth remember: Take long baths, and walks. Speak your truth, and make dangerous art. Linger over delectable poetry and pie. Throw your head back and toss laughter into the air like confetti.
Here is the secret. These words are as much for me as they are for you. Walking alongside you is by far my greatest blessing. I strive to treat it as such. Conscious, peaceful, liberated mothering is an homage to my ancestors and my most sacred spiritual practice. I pray regularly to show you as much respect, patience and love as the Goddesses and my ancestors grant me. If I succeed, you may not need to be reminded of your unthinkable beauty. You will have lived in Freedom every day of your life, and know, without question, you my beautiful darling, are Everything.
In defense of black boy joy
Brown and agile child, the sun which forms the fruit
At five years old he is a walking Boy Archetype, complete with dirt smudges, Lego or stick pistols, roughhousing and more poop jokes than I can count. Since birth I’ve taken care to show him respect and consent by doing everything from describing what’s happening or about to happen during a diaper change to reminding him to ask consent before hugging or wrestling with another child. He is gentle and kind with his baby sister, and checks on friends when they are hurt. His imagination is a firecracker, luminous and taking of in multiple directions at once.
On this day I received the message from a friend that her daughter shared at home that my son hugged and kissed her without permission at school the day before. We meet, talk with the children and their teacher, and in the end everyone separately expresses that in fact any kissing or hugging that happened was part of a game that both children were willingly playing. The teacher had even stopped the game part way through to make sure both were comfortable and kept a close eye throughout the interaction.
Three years later the shadows are still there. Everyday he gets closer to becoming a man and I struggle against my own desire to prepare him for that time. Suddenly, my own words come back to me in a flash. A salve for this aching mama heart. Childhood is not preparation for adulthood, it is its own sacred and special moment. Childhood belongs to itself, not to the intangible future, nor to the broken past. Haven’t I told this to countless educators and new parents? How could I claim to be an advocate for respecting and celebrating authentic childhood and spend so much time restraining the expression of those I love most?
The difficult truth is that we can never truly prepare our children for their futures because we cannot foretell exactly what they will be. With equal parts love, hope and fear, we bind our children with the intention of preparing them for the harsh realities of adulthood. Our behaviors tell them “life is tough, better start getting used to it”, or “shrink, alter, subdue yourself so that they aren’t afraid of you”. History and reality tell us that these tactics do not preserve Black Boyhood. They did not save Emmett, or Trayvon, or the millions of Black and Brown boys whose souls, hearts and minds are fed to the System daily.
We need a different way. Raising feminist sons must include One that is ancient as a drum, yet still can feel unnervingly obscure. We must center joy and freedom as central to boyhood, and view ourselves as the guardians of that joy. We must decolonize childhood. Raising feminist sons means nurturing and hearing them when they whisper so they do not shout to be heard. It means loving ourselves enough to live authentically, and respecting when they do so as well. We must give them the preparations that all of us need above all: time and space for self-knowledge, and the awareness that we are loved unconditionally for being exactly who we are.
I will still teach my son daily about consent and bodily sovereignty. I will still model, remind and counter the harmful messages that he receives in the world around us and shelter him with equal measure from White Supremacy and Toxic Masculinity. But I will no longer prepare my child for manhood. Instead, I will celebrate him as he is now. Impulsive, passionate, empathetic, careless, intricate, curious, giddy, wild. Boy.
Dear “Intersectional” White Feminist,
You have actively participated in the dismantling of my career, my family’s financial stability and the beloved community of so many. My relationship with you is the most vivid example of the white supremacy embedded in white feminism. You benefited from my brilliance, emotional labor, friendship, compassion and then became “intimidated”, spiteful and victimized when I finally stood up for myself and my community. You made space for the hysteria, mania and White Girl Tears of your colleagues, and chose to be “neutral” when I asked for your help and tried to bring my concerns to your attention. Your type of loyalty and solidarity is the most dangerous kind because its expiration date tends to coincide with the breaking of my shackles. Your type of intersectionality is the most vile, because it only exists at your convenience and comes at the cost of my voice, my wellbeing, my self-esteem and my self-determination.
You likely consider yourself an innocent bystander and have conveniently forgotten that in the presence of injustice, there are NO bystanders. There are only perpetrators and those who resist. There is no middle ground, there is no “fault on all sides”. So, no, I am not interested in a superficial and cordial relationship with you. At this point in my life I only have interest in relationships with people who understand that our survival is inextricably linked, and who will not talk themselves into believing that they haven’t stolen the food from my children’s mouths or roof over their heads when they betrayed every commitment to social justice and equity that they purported to believe in.
If you have made it this far in my letter, perhaps you are a bit better off than I believe. Perhaps next time you are faced with the choice, you will actively use your privilege to dismantle oppression, rather than perpetuate delusions of grandeur and moral supremacy while standing on the neck of a woman of color. Or perhaps not. Either way, our freedom is coming. Either way we will continue to fight, love and rage until we are free. Until our work is valued, our bodies are safe and the future of our children is preserved. As always, below are a couple of resources to support your in your journey of personal and professional growth.
A conversation on ableism
While playing dolls with Little Light (4) this weekend, I noticed a few themes in colorism and ableism. We were practicing braiding their hair when she opted for the dark skinned doll in place of her usual favorite, Light Brown Baby, that she’s preferred for a few months. Pleasantly surprised, I asked why she wanted to use Dark Brown Baby and she stated that her usual doll was “yucky.” When I asked why, she pointed at the bite marks on the doll’s hands and feet, which the puppy had made while teething.
We continued playing, but I noted the comment to reflect on later. Twenty minutes later, we were discussing potential names for the dolls and Light referenced a favorite book of ours, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. When I suggested Light Brown Baby might be named after Nyasha, the protagonist, Light countered she should be named “after the mean one.” Again, I asked why and she pointed to the chewed-up hands and feet.
Noticing the pattern of bias, I asked Light, “Do you think now that Light Brown Baby has a hurt hand and feet she’s mean?” Light nodded and said, “the mean sister has chewed-up hands, too.” I replied that I didn’t think that was true, and Light suggested we should read the book to find out. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find it, and our conversation got derailed by snacktime and baby sister needing a new diaper.
Later in the afternoon, we were playing with the dolls again, braiding their hair, and talking about all the things we love about curly hair. I used the opportunity to share my thoughts about the bias pattern I noticed.
“Light, can we please pause the game? I want to talk with you about something. I think I noticed some prejudice in the way you were talking about Light Brown Baby earlier. Prejudice is when you make an idea about someone before you get to know them based on how they look, instead of how they act. Light Brown Baby used to be your favorite doll, but today you didn’t want to play with her and you took off all of her clothes and gave them to Dark Brown Baby. Later, you said that you thought she was mean now, since she has chewed up hands and feet. That sounds like prejudice to me because I know that people with all kinds of bodies and abilities can make kind choices and can also make hurtful choices,” I gently explained. At this point, she was starting to look bored, so I wrapped it up. “Thanks for listening to my words. I’d like us to think and talk about this more sometime,” I said.
By early evening Light resumed her usual adoration for Light Brown Baby, dressing her and carrying her around the house and garden. It was interesting to notice how ability and color were ranked in Light’s eyes. She has preferred Light Brown Baby as “prettier” for months, but valued the able-bodied appearance of Dark Brown Baby over the previous skin-color ranking.
We have been reading, retelling and watching various versions of Beauty and the Beast as a lens through which to talk about beauty and behavior. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe is a wonderful book that explores physical beauty and character, and is also just a lovely read and has been a favorite of mine since childhood. As always, the conversation will continue. I’d love to hear how you discuss these themes in your family. Have you noticed ableist ideas or patterns with your children or in your family? What resources are you using to support the conversation? Where do you feel stuck?
Note: I refer to my daughter as Light as a reference to the meaning of her name, and not the color of her skin. Out of respect for my children I try to keep their names out of public platforms whenever possible.
EMERGENT SOCIAL JUSTICE EDUCATION
When exploring emergent themes early educators and families are often eager to follow the lead of the children. We sit on the floor with them creating sand towers, join them on bug hunts and spend hours playing dress up. We eagerly sign them up for classes and purchase books to support their interests and desires. Yet with social justice issues it is difficult for us to see the themes that are children are exploring. Many adults believe that young children are too young to form ideas about gender norms and that by directly discussing these issues adults will create and reinforce gender bias.
I encourage teachers and families alike to take a curious, research-based approach talking with children about social identities. Ask questions, challenge ideas and work collaboratively to support children in building socially just ways of thinking about and being in the world. The following steps can be used with verbal children of any stage of development. Be sure to use language that feels authentic to you and reflects your values.
In the points below I will specifically be referencing exploring ideas about gender identity with children, but these steps can be applied to conversations about any identity group.
1. Listen. Spend a day listening for words and ideas related to gender. Does your child gender toys, clothing, sticks, colors? Do they share ideas about what “mamas” or “papas” do? Spend the day taking notes. Do not redirect their play or change the direction of it. Just listen and write your observations.
2. Take inventory. Look through the books, toys, art, people, etc. that your child interacts with on a daily basis. What ideas about gender roles and norms are they exposed to? What identities and representations are missing?
3. Reflect. Think about the values that you hold regarding gender. What ideas about themselves and the world do you want your child to hold? How are these values reflected in their environment? In an ideal world, what might you do differently?
4. Play! Join your child in creating a more socially just world through play. Ask them questions when they make broad statements about gender. Use dolls to perform gender non-conforming roles. Change the pronouns of children and adults in well-loved stories.
5. Resist. With children as young as three, you can note when you observe gender stereotypes. Say, “I noticed this book shows mamas caring for all of the babies. I know that there are many papas and bapas that care for babies as well.” Encourage your child to ask questions and challenge unfairness when they see it. In our home we frequently say, “Anyone can wear anything they like, as long as its appropriate for the weather.” Repeat phrases that confirm your family’s belief systems and watch the seeds of change grow!
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Dr. Matin Luther King Jr.
Every day children thrill me with their brilliance. Every day I am astounded by their kindness, resilience, and curiosity. Every day I am absolutely certain that the little ones we are raising are fully equipped to shift the tides of oppression, repression and disrepair that pervade this world.
And then there are days where I am also reminded of the presence of that invisible person who has been filling children’s headset with divisive language and exclusionary behavior. Dominant culture has an astounding way of making itself a part of anything that doesn’t actively resist it. I find often in conversations with “progressive and open-minded” educators there is a major resistance to talking about race, gender, class, or any other harmful divisions that exist in our culture. Many of us are too attached to our visions of children as innocent and loving beings to see that by ignoring their curiosity about power, status and society, we are giving them the lesson that the status quo is to be upheld. We are afraid that by talking about skin color, we are teaching children to discriminate, rather than recognizing the importance of actively sharing our values of equality.
Over the last few weeks I have been reminded of my “difference” three times by the fair-skinned little ones in my class. Their world is so homogenous that my brown skin and curly hair is often their only deep experience with someone who looks different from them and their loved ones. In each of these instances the children have communicated their impression that whiteness is the default for normal and kind people. I do not believe that this is because of biases overtly expressed by their families. Rather, in the invisibility of dialogue about economic disenfranchisement and its connection to skin color, power and privilege, we have told these children that most people worth knowing are white, middle class, English-speaking, able-bodied Americans.
Luckily, I get to collaborate with a team of compassionate, and thoughtful teachers. At our team meeting last week we decided to begin unpacking some of the questions and comments we were hearing from the children. Our dialogue led us to discover that while children are curious, and developing some misperceptions about race, they are incredibly entrenched in harmful narratives about gender and power. Both boys and girls in our class have internalized commercial ideals of femininity and masculinity. In order to unpack these concepts some more we will be using a two month unit of “Princesses and Superheroes”, in which we will make space for the children to express their thoughts on gender and power as well as challenge them to create me narratives, and retell traditional ones in ways that are meaningful and respectful to the autonomy and those around them.
I am looking forward to using art and playful inquiry to add texture, weight and color to the stories that dominant culture tries to make invisible.
There is a frightful joy in wildness. The children in my class remind me daily of the beauty that lies in vulnerable independence. They scream, run, sing, dance, cry and desire so deeply that sometimes I am startled by the stifling rationality of adulthood. Sometimes I feel they have converted me, and I want so badly to follow each impulse, to throw my shoes away, and lie in the sunshine, drinking lemonade and reading dazzlingly, heart aching poetry.
Today they reminded me that one of the greatest gifts we can give each other is trust. Trust in the creative process, in compassion, failure and the inner resilience of little ones. Today my son reminded me of the importance of pride and love, in moments of fear and regret. He reminded me of the importance of saying, “I am so proud of you, because you tried even though you felt afraid.”
Tonight, I would like very much to express to you all of the hard work, enthusiasm and playfulness that filled our day. I would also like to talk about the inspiring work of my co-teacher and the rejuvenating words I’ve been reading from Chris Mercogliano. In the mean time I’ll just write that I am grateful for work that allows me to sing, dance, empathize and search myself deeply each day.
© Nuola Akinde and nuolaakinde.weebly.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nuola Akinde and nuolaakinde.weebly.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.