Sunday, June 26, 2011

Plant the Seed and Walk Away

BMNB (My husband, Black Man Not Blogging) doesn't know I'm writing this, but I'll take my chances. He won't be happy that I'm putting his business out on the street, but I think there's something to be learned from his experience.

I watch BMNB alot, and not just when he's coming out of the shower naked, although I do make a point of being awake for that wonderful marital privilege. He works hard -- REALLY hard -- at trying to help younger family members advance in life. Not for the sake of material gain, mind you, but for the same reasons I wrote about in my post about why I want my family to be educated -- so that they will be free. Independent and financially free.

And it's sad that I've had to watch BMNB slowly come to the conclusion I reached a long time ago about family -- they don't always want to advance, or at least they don't want to do the work it takes to do so. Your family -- and I'm not just talking about our family, but any family -- doesn't always want better. And you working harder than a two-dollar hooker to help them advance isn't going to make them want it any more.

BMNB commits Wednesday evenings during the school year to not only taking a child in our family to a church program that teaches young African American boys personal responsibility and morals; he teaches in the program. Bear in mind that BMNB and I don't have any children. But BMNB does this because he thinks it's important for this young child in our family and he knows that if he's responsible for making sure this child attends this program, then it will be done. He's afraid that if he doesn't do it, it won't get done, and it's that important to him that it gets done.

I watched BMNB work hard to get the word out about a recent job fair, going so far as to try to coordinate transportation for family members to get to the job fair and taking fliers about the job fair to family members' homes. Mind you, this was no ordinary job fair -- this job fair had on-site child care, hair stylists and barbers to help job seekers get a more professional look, a clothes closet to give away interview clothes, as well as the usual resume help, mock interviews, and, of course, employers on site. BMNB and I were scheduled to attend a graduation party that day so he could not attend, but a family member told him that if certain transportation requirements weren't met, the family member wouldn't attend.

My response? "So what. Honey, you've got a job, a law license, a law degree, a Master's degree and a Bachelor's. It's the folks who don't have a job that need to worry about getting to the job fair."

What was so hard to watch was the slow realization that came over BMNB that, as much as he wants better for family, they don't want it for themselves. That, try as he might, he can't make them want it. He cannot wave a magic wand and implant within folks he loves so dearly the desire to improve their lot in life.

Black people, times are hard and they're going to get harder. Recent demographics show that, at least in California, the Baby Boom generation of taxpayers is getting older and they don't want to pay taxes for the institutions we traditionally looked to in order to lift people into the middle class -- public schools, job training, and public universities. They're also so over welfare. They've done for their kids and they have no interest in doing for the next generation statewide, especially since those successive generations don't look like them. If you don't have an education or a skill that will make you competitive not only with other Americans but with workers around the world, you are economic road kill.

BMNB is keenly aware of this, as am I. So he hustles to do what he can to help family advance themselves career-wise and educationally. But he's hit a brick wall because he wants better for our family than they want for themselves. And it hurts him to watch our family slide slowly behind. And it hurts me to watch him hurt.

"Why?," he asked, with a plea in his voice. "Why does my family have to hit the reset button with every generation? Why can't we build on the gains of the generations that came before us instead of starting from zero generation after generation?" The look of disillusionment in his eyes hurt me to my core. He's been giving and giving and giving of himself, so much so that it's affecting his health, and he's realized that, to put it bluntly, the folks he's been giving so much of himself to in order to help them don't really want his help. They're content hitting the reset button, so to speak.

BMNB's parents and mine accomplished alot with a little. His parents graduated high school; mine did not. Both our parents were able to create a solidly middle class foundation for their kids through hard work, and they, unlike our younger generations, were homeowners. They worked in menial or clerical jobs that provided solid benefits and pensions. In the case of my parents, they laid the foundation for us to reach the next level, and put up with a lot of crap and discrimination in the workplace along they way, so that we would be able to get a college education and have better lives. My husband and his two brothers have or had between them one A.A. degree, two Bachelor's degrees, two Master's degrees, and one law degree. Between my siblings and myself, we have one A.A. degree, three Bachelor's degrees, one Master's degree, and one law degree.

The gains of our parents are remarkable in light of what their parents had to offer. My husband's grandmother was illiterate, but she was a homeowner. My grandfather, who was born in the 1870's during Reconstruction, appears in the U.S. census as a black man who could not only read and write, but had two skills listed in the census -- he was a carpenter and a shoe cobbler. My dad used to tell me that he was also a mason, constructed many of the buildings where they lived, and had a few small businesses he was in the process of selling in their rural Arkansas town before his death. He had planned to move his family to Chicago so they would have a better life and a better shot at opportunity. He died unexpectedly and, according to my father, the businesses were taken from my then 27 year-old grandmother by white men, plunging my dad's family into poverty. That my grandfather had the foresight and desire to move his young brood to Chicago for a better opportunity speaks volumes.

But the generation that has followed us? Pretty much zilch. None of the nieces or nephews on my side of the family have college degrees, and I'm not certain they all have high school diplomas. Only two of the nieces and nephews on my husband's side of the family have college degrees. Few are homeowners. And BMNB and I see this younger generation struggle --struggle to raise kids they weren't prepared to have, struggle to keep jobs because they don't have either a high school diploma or a college degree to have much choice in what they do for a living, just struggle, period. And we know that it doesn't have to be that way. It's only going to get harder for them because the government assistance to help people get an education (Pell grants, Cal grants) that was plentiful when we were young is going to evaporate because of state and federal deficits. The window of educational opportunity for poor and uneducated folks is closing and closing fast.

It's like watching a train wreck, except it's your family on the train and they don't want to get off. Hell, they can't even imagine getting off.

I've watched disillusionment with our family wash over BMNB like a death pallor and I've had to tell him that as much as it hurts him to watch our family hit the reset button, so to speak, you can't want something for someone more than they want it for themselves. All you can do is plant the seed of an idea and walk away. If they want what the seed offers, they will nourish it, cultivate it, and enjoy the fruits of it. If not, they'll let it languish. You cannot create the desire to want better within others; you can only nurture it if it's already there. Only they can want more.
It's been so hard watching an already cynical BMNB come to this realization and to impart upon him the words that have helped bring him to this point. But I want him to enjoy his life, too -- because he DID do all the things he was supposed to do to move to the next level. He's been too busy trying to bring others up behind him to enjoy where he is, stressing himself out along the way. Well, that's so over. From now own, we're planting seeds and walking away. Hard as it may sound, we've got ours, and if you're smart, you better get yours. We're more than willing to help you if you want it, but not at the expense of our health and well-being, especially BMNB's.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Use What You've Got, and If You're Not Going to Use It . . .

"If you're not going to use something, give it to someone who will. No sense sitting on it when it could do someone else some good."

~ My mother

"If you continually give, you will continually have."

~ A friend of mine

"Give. That's where your blessings come from."

~ My mother-in-law

Summer's finally here! Yay! I've got tomatoes ripening on the vine in my little garden, roses blooming out of control, some barbecued chicken and burgers and cilantro-lime grilled corn in the fridge that BMNB grilled yesterday, as well as a pitcher of sweet tea with lemon. Life is good!

Because there are a few trips I'd like to take this summer that I hadn't really planned on, I'm watching my budget closely. My personal theme for the summer is, "Use what you've got." When you think about it, how often do we buy stuff that we really wouldn't need if we poked around our garages and pantries a little more or used what already works? I had this experience a few months ago when I saw a George Foreman grill on my local Freecycle listserv and decided I wanted it to grill fish and veggies. I got it as well as a grilling cookbook. Sometime later while going through unopened wedding presents in my garage -- yes, I'm ashamed to say I still had some unopened wedding presents 7 years later -- I found a -- you guessed it -- brand new George Foreman deluxe grill.

What makes matters worse is that it was a wedding gift from my own sister, The Writing Diva. I sent her a nice note thanking her, if I had not done so already, for the wonderful grill. I then gave my Freecycled grill to someone in my own family. I got to thinking, "What else do I have in my own garage that I've been buying or acquiring from Freecycle?'

I am annoyingly good at stocking up on things I think we'll need when they're on sale (Solar lawn lights @ $1.oo apiece from the Dollar Tree -- SCORE!), and I store them for when I'll use them. The problem is that I often forget that I even have them. So before I step foot into a store to buy something, I'm checking my pantry and my garage first.

I'm not good at finding a way to use the food I already have in my pantry to make a dish. I usually decide what I want to cook, look in the pantry to see if I have what I need, and buy what I don't have. I'm going to try to be better at making what I cook fit what I already have in my pantry. Why throw out food? I did this recently when I was cooking a dish that called for red wine. Although I didn't have the specific type of wine called for by the recipe, I did have a bottle of red wine that someone had given me. SCORE! I used what I had and the dish was not any worse for the use of a Cabernet instead of a Zin.

I'm also using what I already have that works, even if it isn't the most up-to-date version. Sure, I could join a gym or buy a bunch of exercise DVDs. I already have a bunch of weights, yoga mats, yoga pillows, and exercise DVDs, though, and, even more, I still have an entire series of Yoga, Pilates, Tae-Bo and other exercise videos on VHS. Since my DVD player also plays VHS tapes, I'm using what I've got. Time to reconnect with Billy Blanks, Susan Powter, Rodney Yee and the like.

And as much as I want an iPhone and despise my Blackberry for its lack of apps, I've told my husband not to purchase an iPhone for me as he had planned. For the moment, it works, and I want to use the money for our travels.

I've also started going into the depths of my closet, pulling out old summer clothes, and dressing accordingly. Sure, I've picked up a few new summer things to supplement what I've got since much of what I have doesn't fit me, but I'm also dragging out what still fits -- skirts, sandals, t-shirts and the like -- and wearing those, too.

I'm also invoking my late mom's credo: If you're not going to use something, give it to someone who will. As I finally start cleaning out closets and clean out my garage to make room for a home gym (I have a never-used weight bench in a box in my garage and I can't get to it because I've got boxes up to the rafters -- and we have a three-car tandem garage!), I'm going to let go of stuff that neither I nor BMNB use. Mind you, this is much harder for BMNB than for me. He believes that if you paid for it, you hold on to it because you might need it someday and you might not be able to afford to buy it again. I recently got him to budge on this a bit by getting him to let go of a Black & Decker electric edger that he never uses because he uses a weed eater to edge our lawn. At first, he wasn't sure. "Honey," I said, "You know you don't use this. What's the point of hanging on to it? Give it to someone who will make use of it. Besides, we need to free up space in the garage." Luckily, the person we gave it to is someone my husband likes alot -- our handyman.

As I watched our handyman drive away with the edger riding shotgun in his car, I saw that wistful look in my husband's eyes, like that of a child made to do a good deed by his mother that he's not quite on board with. I then reminded him of something one of my friends has in her signature block in her email: "If you continually give, you will continually have."

I have to admit that BMNB also successfully let go of some of his Bill Cosby-esque sweaters from the '80's that he had not been wearing. At first I offered them to my nephew who has a son about BMNB's size, but he declined, saying he didn't want his son to get laughed at at school. My niece and her husband, however, snapped them up happily. "We love old school stuff! We'll take them." Knowing that something he wasn't even using made one of his beloved nieces that happy made it easier for BMNB to let go.

I've been on the receiving end of this giving, too. My brother moved this spring and gave me back a gift I'd given him long ago -- a poster commemorating the Henry Ossawa Tanner exhibit at the DeYoung Museum, which he had later professionally matted and framed and was going to throw out because he didn't want to take it to his new digs. It now hangs proudly over my fireplace mantle. That day, my brother also gave me a framed Toni Morrison poster, a framed poster of the Apple computer ad with a black and white picture of Jackie Robinson and the caption, "Think Different," as well as a chain saw, a power saw, and a printer. My brother also gave away camping equipment -- a tent, a stove, lamps, cookware, tarps, inflatable mattresses, and the like -- to my niece, who loves to go camping. Clearly he was living my mother's example of giving stuff you aren't going to use to someone who will.

I would imagine that I'm not the only one who will be cleaning out my closets and my garage this summer. If you have something you're not using, give it to someone who will, whether it's to a family member, to your local Freecycle group , to the Goodwill, the Salvation Army, your church, or some other organization that will make use of it or sell it in their thrift shops. You're keeping stuff out of landfills and bringing joy to someone. No sense in sitting on it when it could do someone else some good, as my mom would say.

As my mother-in-law wisely says, "Give. That's where your blessings come from." And when you're giving from your closet or your garage, it doesn't really cost you anything. What could be better?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stick a Fork in Him -- That Weiner's Done

Congressman Anthony Weiner finally resigned. Finally.

He went from lying about his Twitter account being hacked (He had to know the folks at Twitter were going to try to prove him wrong, since they have a professional reputation to uphold), to defiantly stating he would not resign, to seeking treatment (Don't they all "seek treatment" when they screw up and they're in the public eye?), to wanting to consult with his pregnant wife to finally giving up the ghost.

An honorable man would have admitted his wrongdoing early on, resigned, and tried desperately to save his marriage, not his career.

That's what gets me about these unfaithful politicians -- they still think they can have it all, just like they had been having it all before they got caught. And they desperately try to hang on to having it all, even invoking consulting their wives as an excuse to avoid the inevitable death spiral from grace.

Even BMNB got annoyed at Weiner's refusal to step down, saying, "If Weiner had any balls, he'd just resign and stop hiding behind his pregnant wife. He didn't consult his pregnant wife when he was sending all those Tweets, now did he?"

Word.

Stick a fork in him -- that Weiner's done. Finally.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I'm In, But Are You, Mr. President?

Yesterday on the Today Show, President Obama said that there are days when he thinks one term is enough but that he is committed to seeking re-election because he believes in the work that remains to be done.

Today, on Facebook, I was asked whether "I'm In" for President Obama's second term. I clicked on the icon and signed up. But I didn't donate the requested minimum $25.00. Not yet.

My question is, are you in, Mr. President? No, really. I mean it.

I'm one voter who has actually run a political campaign. And one thing I know is that if the candidate isn't all in -- hasn't fully committed, hasn't doubled down on him or herself -- the campaign is pretty much dead in the water. I was lucky to have a candidate who was indeed all in, so much so that he backed up his commitment to his candidacy with his own money.

With all due respect, Mr. President, you can't win this until you've made up your mind that it is indeed won. It all starts with your intentions. Oh, and a little reminder: Your candidacy isn't about you. It's about the nation. It's about us.

So let me know when you're really all in, Mr. President. Maybe then I'll back up my commitment to your candidacy with some money.

Monday, June 13, 2011

We Are Who We Came From

Oprah Winfrey didn't find out that she had another sister until she was well into her fifties. Why? Probably because her mother didn't want to tell her because she felt shame, guilt, or both. Think of how much time they missed out on. Oprah's mother and some of my older relatives are of the same generation, and I'd like to share a little something with them:

Get over yourselves, for your children's sake.

I have a relative who is tight-lipped about family history because of some deeply held need to protect and preserve the memory of a relative long departed, a relative that the members of my generation would be presumed to pass judgment on if our true family history were laid bare. That unwillingness to talk about family history makes it difficult, if not almost impossible, to do genealogical research to find out about an entire branch of my family. That entire branch is lost to me because older family members think that by holding back family history, they are preserving family secrets.

Let it go, for goodness' sake.

For starters, much of our current family history can be laid bare by a simple resort to second-grade math. It doesn't take a Stanford engineer to do the math and figure out that most of our parents weren't walking leisurely down the marriage aisle, but running down the aisle racing a fetus' entry into the world. (All those Reno weddings in the '50's kinda gave it away, folks.) But guess what? We don't care.

Because my parents' generation was rather, well, prolific, I have had at any point over 50 first cousins. And guess what, elders? We talk. We talk about all we heard as children from your family discussions in hushed tones when you thought we weren't listening, or the stuff you blurted out when you were drunk. We remember. And we talk. But guess what? We don't care.

Why? One, because we're in no position to judge, and two, because we just want to know who we came from.

I'm on the tail end of the Baby Boom. My generation embraced casual sex, hip-hop, rampant consumerism (designer jeans, anyone?) and drugs. We are the parents of the first generation of crack babies. The only war we fought was the War on Drugs, and we lost that one. Willingly.

Think about it -- are we really in any position to judge our parents and their parents, who came through Jim Crow, two World Wars, and the Civil Rights Movement, albeit somewhat scarred? I don't think so. When we think of what my parents' generation and their forebears survived, we're sitting in awe, not in judgment. That African Americans were able to preserve even some semblance of family after slavery is a testament to our resilience. Unlike my parents' generation, which is the "Don't air your dirty laundry" generation, my generation is the "I don't judge" generation. And we don't.

So when you hold back on family history because you think we'll judge you or our ancestors, you're wrong. We just want to know who we come from. We are who we came from, and if we don't know who we came from, we don't really know ourselves. If you've ever done genealogical research on African American families, you know how hard it is -- names were blithely misspelled in census records, many African Americans didn't know when they were born, families were torn asunder and stitched back together in ways not always recognizable to census takers, many of whom I assume to have been white during the 1800's. In order to know who we came from, we need clues, anything -- locations, dates, military service. Anything.

Furthermore, we have a right to know who we came from. And if you brought us into the world, you have an obligation to tell us. When you withhold family history, you withhold identity, our identity. That is no one's right, not even yours.

So, to Oprah's mom and older members of my family, you do your progeny a disservice when you don't discuss family history, no matter how tawdry or shameful you think it might be. Clearly none of you have spent much time on Facebook lately.

Please. Start talking. Before it's too late.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sometimes the System Works. Sometimes.

Sometimes the system works. Sometimes justice is served.

Yesterday there were first degree murder convictions in the slaying of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey. My sister The Writing Diva has written about this better than I could, so I'm turning this blog entry over to her. Read her blog entry here.

Kudos to the Chauncey Bailey Project and Reporters Without Borders for ensuring that justice was indeed served.

Rest in peace, Chauncey. This time, the system worked.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rise, Dark Girls, Rise: The "Dark Girls" Documentary

I did it myself. Inadvertently. And I wasn't even aware that I was doing it.

During my book club's discussion of Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," one of the book club members asked whether Dr. Foster, one of the people profiled in the book who migrated from Louisiana to California, was not held in high esteem by his father-in-law, who was the president of Atlanta University, because Dr. Foster might have been dark. Dr. Foster's photo is featured on the website for the book, I responded. "Yes, he was dark," I said, "but he was good looking."

It took my viewing the trailer for the documentary "Dark Girls," to realize that I didn't mean that in the way it most often is meant -- that someone, in spite of his or her dark skin, is handsome or beautiful. I meant that Dr. Foster should have been equally privileged among the elites he married into because he was good-looking. But that's not how it came out and that's not how it sounded.

But we, as black people, say this all the time and mean it that way -- that someone with dark skin is attractive in spite of their skin color, not because of their skin color.

The nine minute preview of this documentary is riveting -- dark-skinned women telling their stories about how they've been treated because of the darkness of their skin. A little dark girl saying that a drawn picture of a little white girl was a picture of a smart girl, while the same picture drawn darker was the picture of a dumb girl. Women noting that the attraction exhibited towards dark women tends to be less romantic and more sexual. This documentary highlights a sad part of our culture -- prizing light skin and long hair among our girls and women.

In the last portion of the preview, a woman looks into the camera and exhorts dark girls to "Rise, dark girls, rise."

See it for yourself by clicking here and support this documentary when it comes to your town. We as a people still have much work to do on our words and our attitudes. Including me.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why I Want You To Be Educated

I had the pleasure of attending my book club meeting's discussion of Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns," a fabulous read that chronicles the Great Migration -- the exodus of black folks from the South to the North and West starting from the turn of the 20th century to 1970. Our discussion veered into the differences between the black migrants from the South and their descendants, in particular, how the migrants hungered for opportunities that their children and grandchildren take for granted. Like education.

I remarked that I was the aunt in my family -- I don't have children -- who constantly pushes education, telling my nieces and nephews about the quality of the schools their kids are attending, what they need to do to get their children reading at grade level, what kinds of educational materials they should buy to supplement what their children's schools aren't providing. When it comes to education in my family, I'll admit -- I'm downright meddlesome. And I can see it in their eyes when I start, in my admittedly undiplomatic manner, to tell them what I think they need to know about educating their children, things no one told my parents and which they had to figure out by themselves. It's that "Here she goes again" look. But when it comes to the education of black children I'm related to, I can be somewhat of a honey badger -- I'm a badass who doesn't give a shit if you don't want to hear what I'm telling you about educating your children because you need to hear it for your children's sake.

What came to me in our book club discussion is that, in pushing education, I've never made clear my intention. I tend to talk about education in the context of securing one's financial future because I've seen how my nieces and nephews have struggled in the job market because many don't have more than a high school diploma, if that. But somehow, I spoke my intention during the book club meeting, which I've never clearly spoken to my nieces and nephews and which I am telling them now:

I don't want you to be educated just so you can make money; I want you to be educated so you can be free.

Because my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles were not highly educated, they had few choices about how they would support themselves and their families. When you don't have more than a high school diploma, you don't have many choices in the job market -- you take what you're given because there's not much to distinguish you in terms of skills or abilities from most adults your age. An education gives you at least some degree of choice in what you will do for a living that you would not otherwise have. And choice means freedom.

An education allows you to understand the world around you better so that you can survive in it, or at least not get run over by it. Studying subjects like economics, history, and psychology, for example, help you to recognize and understand what is happening around you, whether it's a stock market boom which will be followed by an inevitable bust, discrimination against Muslims during our War on Terror(ism) that somewhat mirrors discrimination against Japanese-Americans during World War II, or a narcissistic boss who makes your work life a living hell. You know these things when you see them because you've already been educated about them. And you can plan accordingly, speak up in an informed manner, and make meaningful change about them if you so choose.

And yes, a college education, over the course of your lifetime, will probably make you richer than if you'd never gone to college. Statistics bear this out. But my intention isn't that you get an education just so you can get rich and buy a lot of useless stuff; my intention is that your education will provide you financial security on your own terms -- earning your money in the manner in which you choose to -- so that you can have the ability to walk away from bad situations, whether they be a bad marriage, a bad job, or even a bad state, and still be able to take care of yourself and your family. I don't want you to pursue an education just to pursue money; I want you to pursue an education so you can choose how you will pursue your money and have enough money to be free and beholden to no one, financially or otherwise.

What my generation failed to impress upon the generation following us is this: Being uneducated, and being poor because you are uneducated, is a form of socio-economic and self-imposed Jim Crow -- what you can do, where you can live, and how you live are all limited because you lack the financial resources to make these choices and the education to get those financial resources on your terms. Sure, the law isn't holding you back like it held back our parents and grandparents who lived in the South during Jim Crow; but your lack of education is. Without an education, you are essentially a higher order slave because others will dictate the terms of your life and livelihood.

THAT is why I want you to be educated -- so you will be free.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Conserving Energy -- My Own

Summer's almost here, although you wouldn't know it from the weird weather we're having here in Northern California (Tornadoes? WTF?). And this summer, I'm engaging in some serious energy conservation -- my own.

I've come to see that a lot of things I'm spending energy on aren't paying off much in terms of results or personal satisfaction. So I'm going to starting conserving energy and redirecting it towards things that will give me greater personal satisfaction.

I'm not going to waste time trying to give someone a message they aren't willing or prepared to receive. I'll speak my peace once ("Uh, you might want to go back to school") and then leave it. What they do with my message is up to them. Heck, I might not speak it at all -- sometimes people aren't prepared to receive a message they desperately need to hear. Saying it over and over again doesn't make them any more prepared to hear it. No one controls that but them.

In true Gemini fashion, I'm putting down obligations that suck energy with little to show for my efforts in terms of results or personal satisfaction. If I'm going to waste time, I'd rather waste it attempting to write, garden, or play the piano. At least I'd be wasting time on myself and getting personal satisfaction from the effort.

No, this summer, I want to read the books I want to read -- sorry, fellow book club members -- spend time with the people I want to spend time with, organize my home and my finances, write, exercise, play the piano, travel and cook. No political campaigns, no de facto life coaching for troubled family and friends, no agreeing to go to events or do things just to make others happy. I'm taking things down a few notches and conserving my energy instead of running myself into the ground. Energy is like money -- you only get so much to spend in a lifetime. Choose wisely.

Happy Summer (assuming it ever comes to Northern California).