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Wednesday
Apr162014

Tuxedo Men: An Update

Recently I came across a passing comment that referenced both the marginalization of communities, either by gender or race, and the fact that so many people find ways to carve out paths for themselves. There is something to be said about making a lane for yourself when you don't fit in the one in which you're currently driving. 

 

Or maybe you're walking down a path that you dislike and have to cut yourself a new one like Maya Angelou describes from her book Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now. I used to have my students read her chapter titled "New Directions" from that book. It's a short read about how, in 1903, her grandmother, Mrs. Annie Johnson, found herself in need of a new life. 

She had indeed stepped from the road which seemed to have been chosen for her and cut herself a brand-new path. In years that stall became a store where customers could buy cheese, meal, syrup, cookies, candy, writing tablets, pickles, canned goods, fresh fruit, soft drinks, coal, oil, and leather soles for worn-out shoes. 

Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.

On Saturday I was a guest at the home of one of the Tuxedo Men. A guest in terms of you are allowed to be a fly on the wall here and I was heartily welcomed. My friend, a photographer from St. Louis, Raquita Henderson, joined me. She volunteered to photograph anything they would allow and I can't tell you how grateful I am for her presence. Not only did she take pictures of their April meeting, she jumped in to help the lady of the house serve dinner. Who does that? Raquita, I tell you. She does that. And she does it with a willing spirit.

But, back to the men and new paths.

My reason for being there was to talk to them about telling their stories. The fact that these friends get together monthly, wearing tuxedos, is enough of a story that makes me even more curious. I have questions about how this started and what they've learned from it and what kind of legacy they want to leave. Do they even want to tell their stories? What could possibly come of telling them to perfect strangers? 

What I asked them is whether they would trust me enough to listen to them and commit them to a narrative that is so desperately missing in America. As I sat and observed them I felt like I was sitting in on an American history course where the players were present. More than once I caught my own heart in my throat, thought of my own father, and saw these men from a place of reverence. These professional men who are part of a legacy of Black Americans who began meeting in one anothers' homes at first. It's understandable, too, considering American history. Why go out and put yourself in a position to demand to be served, equitably, when race relations were were so tense in the early part of the 20th Century?

I told them as such and even apologized for all the crying I would undoubtedly do, but those tears didn't flow as much as I thought. What's wrong with crying anyway? If on my worst day the thing I show strangers is my humanity then it's still showing them the best part of me, right?

Legacy and paths. That's all I can see lately. I cannot put myself in their shoes or imagine the road which they've walked down, but I want to know it. I want to listen to their stories. That's what I told them and it's what I wrote about in my proposal that I shared with them. It's not a story I've ever read before.

All I truly wanted to get across to them, these private men who have met for decades, is that their narrative is necessary in the world and that I wanted to record it.

"Your legacy is safe," I wanted to tell them. But I didn't. I just said that I was a storyteller who had a blog and that a lot of my friends wanted to know more about them.  

So for now, we wait on whatever road we're sitting and consider the possible paths. 

 

Marce Mendez Campos via photopin cc

Saturday
Mar082014

International Women's Day: Vivian Onano

Today is International Women's Day and the only thing that's stopping me from writing about all the women I love and admire is the issue of time. There is not enough of it. In the past few years I have changed from a mom who happens to blog to an educator who uses her platform to a change agent in the space I'm allowed. There was a time when I kept trying to fit in but it was in the form of a round peg into a square hole. What I thought I knew about being a woman and what I was discovering about women that I look up to were far apart and that paradigm shift for me was monumental.

Women have saved me, they have surrounded me, and they have been the most powerful forces to help me see myself and where I want to be. I wish I could recall, at this moment, the true quote I am about to butcher in an attempt to explain myself, but I can't. It had something to do with knowing what people would say about you after you died and to then begin living like you want to be remembered. Something in me tells me it was probably something I read by Erma Bombeck, but since I can't source it that's the best I can do.

I do know she said this:

“Written on her tombstone: "I told you I was sick.” 

This sums up some powerful feelings I have about being a mother and a woman and mostly because we don't always allow ourselves things. At least, I don't. 

A few short weeks ago I spent time in Washington, DC with the ONE Summit and I flew in on Sunday. Naturally, Bono made a surprise visit on Saturday so I missed him. As I scrolled through the #ONESummit hashtag on Twitter I found a woman with a photo that had her sitting on stage next to Bono. 

 

Photo credit to Carthage College from their Twitter account, Ralph Alswang

Who is that? I wondered. Not for long, though, because following the clues I found out that her name is Vivian Onano and that she's a college student in Wisconsin. As luck would have it, I found her Twitter handle and immediately followed. She seemed delightful from the photo and she was an ardent supporter of ONE so it was a no-brainer. 

 

As I left the auditorium a few minutes later I spotted Vivian herself sitting in the back row with her laptop open to Twitter. I tapped her on the shoulder and said, "You know those moments when people follow you on Twitter and you wonder who in the world they are? Well, I just followed you and since I'm here in the flesh I thought I would say hi. Hi."

Vivian squealed with delight (honestly, she's an adorable squealer) and declared, "Yes! I know! This is you. I just saw you. THIS IS YOU." and she scrolled through her screen to show me my picture. 

After that, any time our paths crossed at the Summit we smiled and said we should talk. Just before going to a ONE Moms board meeting she ran after me and grabbed me to see if I had time to talk. I didn't. But, of course, I did it anyway. Surely, they would understand. 

I knew, immediately, that we were kindred spirits, that I found another member of my Karass. Vivian and I held hands as we exchanged life stories and the work we each do with ONE and how she was lucky enough to be plucked from all the students to interview Bono. She is from Kenya and has lived with a host family since coming to the United States and she is the first in her family to receive a formal education. She will graduate with a bachelor's degree soon and wants to work to ensure that girls get equal opportunities for skills and education and also that they engage in effective leadership. Her hope, through her own writing, is that she is brave enough to take risks for other girls, including her own family members

Why wouldn't I want to honor her on a day like this? She is a woman after my own heart. She is the very epitome of international in her visible work for ONE, a foundation she sought after learning about their work for the extremely impoverished and their desire to eradicate preventable diseases. 

She is a light and she burns brightly. Just holding her hand and looking into her eyes as she spoke about her life made me see that. Everyone who is lucky enough to meet her will see it, too. While interviewing Bono, Vivian learned one of his own mantras that “it takes social movements to change things". I can think of nothing better for my own tombstone or eulogy someday than to be known for that. Vivian helped remind me of it.

Tuesday
Mar042014

15 and Pregnant: A Cautionary Tale with Hope

Last month I read a piece in the New York Times that put the spotlight on the MTV show 16 and Pregnant which was not so much an article about the sensationalistic view of having children while still in your teens so much as it was a way to view mothers and their (very similar) problems to older mothers. I've been vocal about my distaste for the show because of how exploited I feel some of those stories are. What I haven't spoken out on enough is how little hope there is for these girls. 

Let's not forget that the focus is on the girls. If we see the fathers it is usually with regard to how these young mothers still forge relationships with them. Sometimes, we see the dads get custody because of the behavior these young women display. Those are the sensational ones that seem to garner more air time. 

The article, titled MTV's '16 and Pregnant', Derided by Some, May Resonate as a Cautionary Tale, talks a lot about the decline in teen pregnancy in areas where that show was watched. Hence, the title of this post (with a correction in my age, of course). Along with the clucking, finger-wagging, shame-blaming that comes with being a pregnant teenager, there are few who truly want to know what it was like. In the years since I started writing about it I have managed to show a different side of the story that isn't often highlighted: one of hope.

 

Of all the questions I get asked about it, lo these 29 years later, the number one question is always this: How did you do it? It comes with a sincere request for me to talk about that. Even when I got a call from a producer at the Oprah show for her Life Class on single mothers, that was the question. I had to back out of the show for a few reasons including the fact that I'm not a current single, struggling mother with no partner help and, as I understand it, the focus would be on how to help those who are navigating those waters right now. Seeing as I'm on the other side of the struggle, I gave up my spot and decided to go to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the ONE Campaign.

I'm trying not to have regret about it since I feel like I do have a lot of advice to offer. Especially since reading this quote from the NYTimes story:

“I did get two awesome blessings,” said Ms. Lowry, now 21 and married with a second child. “But I still haven’t gotten my bachelor’s degree, because, one, day care is so expensive and, two, how do you balance studying and having little ones at home?”

 These were the same problems I faced at 18 years old but by this time my daughter was a toddler who had just turned 3. So, while toddlers still demand quite a bit of time from you, I found it easier than trying to wrap a baby up with a diaper bag and trying to get to classes.

It still begs the question: how does one do this?

While I do not have all the answers I do have my own experience from which people can draw, especially currently pregnant teens. There is no 'easy' in any of it, much like there is no 'easy' in simply being a parent.

First of all, I lived very modestly in an apartment the size of my current office. It didn't even have a full kitchen but rather a kitchenette with a tiny fridge and mini stove. Much of what I see on scandalous television, however, shows many of these mothers who still want so many things for themselves. It must be difficult to give up a cell phone or purchase a cheaper plan when you're used to having those things and I don't judge them for that, but it is a choice. Of course, I didn't have to grapple with that. But I did have to let things go that were, after getting pregnant, a luxury. I believe that there is grounded into the pathology of our society that we can't wait for things anymore and that is a horrible by-product of living in poverty and not wanting anyone to know that you're poor.

Day care is, indeed expensive, and was for me at the time, too. So, when I met other single mothers we formed a sort of tribe where we traded days of classes for watching one another's children. If I took a MWF class then my friend, Demaris, would watch Mallory. She took TR classes and I watched her twins. Yes, she came to college the same time I did but she did it with twins. 

We also did plenty of potluck meals to spread our grocery dollars and agreed to sharing food weekly. We ate dinner together with our three children quite often and that meant we were able to feed them better with healthy choices of vegetables and fruit. Meat was, however, a luxury item that ate sparingly. Knowing that my daughter was getting nutritious choices helped me feel better as a mother because we all know, from having children, that there is a giant G scarlet letter pinned to us for guilty since we feel so inadequate most of the time. As an older woman, I know this to be true now but I didn't feel much solidarity with other moms because of my status: teen mother. It was as if people thought I didn't have the same complex feelings of motherhood or even post-partum depression. This is simply an unfair assessment of those mothers and I offer my struggling stories to young mothers to this day to show them that they are worthy in their roles and not discounted simply because of their age.

I taught my daughter the alphabet and sang her songs and kept her involved in activities that would benefit her just like mothers, not of the teen persuasion, did. My dreams for her were no different that any mother would have for her child. 

But it was a feeling of support and tribe and solidarity that got me through. It was other mothers, some teens and some older, who pushed me and helped me get through college with not one but two degrees. If I could urge any teen or single mother in her struggle it would be with that advice:

Find your tribe

No, it wasn't easy, but I wasn't doomed to failure, either. There was much hope and hard times and tears of frustration that I was DOING IT ALL WRONG, but my tribe of mothers gave me better than what we offer girls with reality television and seeking to sensationalize the difficulty. I am not minimizing how hard it will be, but I sincerely hope that someone out there is giving those young ladies a boost and helping them realize their potential and dreams. A shorter reply to the question How did you do it? would be, With a lot of help. 

I leave you with a bit of advice I got from my assistant principal at the time when she found out I was pregnant:

You can either view this as a stumbling block or a stepping stone. The good news is that you get to decide.

photo credit: Jack Fussell via photopin cc

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