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Being called the n* word during a ZOOM bomb

I remember the first time I was called a “nigger.”

It was a summer night, and I was downtown with two friends, Reggie and Devon. We were all college students, and we were taking a break from the study life to enjoy the city life of Nashville. 

We were talking and laughing as we typically did. Enjoying each other’s company when a school bus that been converted into a party bus drove down the street. 

We could see young White people having what appeared to be a good time. And out of the window, one of them yelled: “Niggers!”

We stopped in our tracks. Ready to fight. Ready to scream. Ready to weep. 

Although I have long forgotten their faces, their words linger in my ears. I grew up in rural Alabama where Confederate flags were as common as dandelions, but no one ever had ever called me a “nigger,” at least not to my face. 

Fast forward nearly a decade later, and I am leading a public lecture on African American poetry via ZOOM. I have shared my screen with participants, and I am about to play a video of Phylicia Rashad reading “Lift Every Voice” by James Weldon Johnson. 

I noticed a black swastika has been written her on forehead, and I almost don’t register it as real life. 

I hear the voice of my friend, Paul, commanding the behavior to stop. 

In a split second, I have lost control, and the white board feature of ZOOM is now displaying racial slurs. The one I remember clearly is: “nigger.”

Participants in the room began verbally condemning the behavior. Telling whomever it was that their behavior was not okay and they needed to stop. 

Then we heard voices – and it sounded like young voices, teenaged voices – who began to provoke, pester and mock the group. I use ZOOM for work. so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the platform. I calmly, but desperately tried, to find out how to take back control and kick out the participants who spewing racist and anti-Semantic speech.  

Unfortunately, the intruders had hacked into the space and taken over hosting control. They gave themselves fake names. One even used my name. I am not sure how long the ordeal lasted, but we eventually had to end the meeting and try again. 

The event’s organizer was able to create a new ZOOM link and send it to those who had registered. But nearly 25% of the program time had been lost due to the disruption. Thankfully, the legitimate participants returned, and we were able to continue with the program. 

As the events unfolded, I was not completely shocked and surprised about the racial slurs. But, I was shocked at how I was unable to stop or mitigate the situation. 

As a Black American, I know the reality of racism and prejudice. It is not something that is confined to history books and black and white films. It’s my lived, everyday experience, even today.

I want to take this space not to address cyber security of online programs. I don’t cast blame on the event organizers, and I have intentionally not mentioned their name. I’m writing this because I want to address two points. 

First, the power of the bystander. 

While I was trying to figure out how to stop the hackers from sharing their annotation board and making rude verbal comments, I could hear many of the participants vocally say that the behavior was not ok. They addressed the hackers and told them they needed to leave. 

To the participants, I want to say “thank you.” Thank you for using your voice to say hate speech is not tolerated. Thank you for not being silent and for not excusing racist behavior. Thank you for requesting that the organizer report the incident to the police and seek to find the perpetuators. 

It is encouraging to see people – of all shades – stand up and speak out against injustices. If we are going to be a better nation, it will take all of us participating. 

Yesterday, I witnessed a group of individuals who refused to be passive or silent bystanders. They used their voice to stop hate and foolishness.

To the event organizers, I want to say “thank you.” You, as well, condemned the behavior and took the steps within your means to report and address it. You also apologized profusely.

Yes, we all should speak up when injustice occurs in front us, but the truth we – as a society – don’t always do that, especially when we are not the target. When people use their voice for good, I think it’s important to acknowledge that. It’s also a reminder to me, as a Black woman, that there are people of all hues striving to end racial oppression in this country. 

The second point that I want to address relates to the hackers. From their voices and one even turned on her camera, it was clear that these were a group of teenagers and that this was a coordinated effort.

We – as a society – have often believed that false narrative that all racists are old people who lived in a different time. However, yesterday’s hackers clearly revealed that not all racists are AARP card carriers. Some of them have pimples and are planning for prom.

It’s time to deconstruct this false narrative that only old people are racists. The fact is no one wakes up a racist. You are groomed, trained and taught to be one. Unfortunately, these young people are being trained by their families and/or the company they keep to be racists. Although we don’t always like to use that term, I don’t know what else you call it, when people write racial slurs.

Secondly, these same young people sit or will sit in college classrooms.

I am a college professor. And, from the first class I taught until the current ones I teach now, race has always been a thorn in my side. It seeks to stifle and silence me. It rears its head when I return essays with grades less than an A. It appears in glances that question my age and my credentials. It’s reflected in low markings on student evaluations. It’s backed by decades of research. 

Yet, in higher education, we are unable to address the baby – yet huge – elephant in the room. We have racists sitting in our classrooms. We have students with prejudices. We enroll students with bias. And not all of these students are hiding behind white sheets and black screens. 

I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about young racists.

Although, I have seen it clearly when I have taught at private universities, even Christian ones, and I see it teaching at a community college. Not everyone can see it. 

And because it’s mostly invisible, it remains addressed. 

We know how to address outright racism, but we don’t know how to address covert racism masked in innuendos and grinning faces. We have no real accountability measures for students and certainly not safety measures for Black professors. 

I think it’s time to have a conversation about racists in the classroom seats. I think it’s time for us to take action to make classrooms a safe place for Black professors. 

Yesterday’s events showed me what I already knew: racism is alive and well. And it’s bold. Although it hides behind fake names and black screens, it’s still there. It has traded its neighborhood improvement associations and secret societies for political office and college applications. 

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Revision: The Writers’ Lost Art

Writers must possess the ability to see. Revision is the window for seeing possibilities in your work.

A quick browse on the Internet, and you’ll find countless writing prompts. Bookstores display books with offering you 101 Things to Write about. But little attention is given to revising. And, I would argue that it’s the most important part of the writing process, yet possibly the most neglected and least understood.

Revise derives from the Latin word, revisere, which means to look back. When I think about looking back, I picture stepping out of a moment and turning my body to face that moment head on. The distance grants me the ability to see completely and objectively.

As writers, we must finish a draft of our work and then step away. There’s not a golden time frame. Twenty four hours is a good starting place. When you look again, see it as an observer rather than as the author. Ponder how form would change the piece? The point of view? The tone? The verb tense?

Then, create a variation of the original with one of those changes and see what works better for the piece. Too often, writers are too connected to their original creation. We must have the humility and patience to see our work again. 

One of the definitions of revision is to look again “for the purpose of … improving.” Revision leads to better writing. I would argue that it’s wiser to spend more time revising than creating. 

If you want to learn more about the revision process, hang out with me this month to learn more. 

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It’s more than race

It was a June Sunday morning in Flint, Michigan. I had stopped by a major bookseller to look for two specific kinds of books, one of which was about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

I recently was inspired and compelled to create a curriculum for middle and high schoolers on the topic. And like any good researcher, I wanted to gather some books to assist me in my efforts. 

I walked down the carpeted floors and approached a tall, female employee. She wore a black and white polka blouse, and her face mask donned images of Disney World and bore the words: “It’s Magic!”

As I drew closer to her, she made an awkward turn like the ones I used to make when I turned a corner when I was in the marching band. Perhaps, I was nearing less than six feet in front her. 

Nevertheless, I made my inquiry and ask her where I could find a non-fiction book on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had searched the history section and found nothing. 

As she grabbed the tablet stretched across her chest, she gestured to her right: “Most of the books about race are over there.”

I pulled my neck back just a bit, unsure of how to take her comment. Thankful that my face mask covered one of my infamous Chasity Gunn faces. By now, she was searching her tablet and her personal cell phone to assist me. Unfortunately, she could only find one title, of which she would have had to order because the store was out of stock. 

I stopped myself from making a snotty comment about ordering from Amazon. Instead, I thanked her for efforts and walked over to the ‘race table.’ Covered with books, mostly by black authors and mostly many about race, the employee’s description was not entirely inaccurate. 

I was infuriated to see how scantily stocked the table was. The words of my retail days echoed in my mind: ‘stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.’ Seeing stacks of books only two or three deep did not constitute a fully stocked display. And, this table was toward the front of the store. Prime real estate for shoppers. 

I calmed my emotions by thinking to myself that perhaps this was a table that had been created in the past couple of days, it was not a scheduled display in which the company would have ensured ample copies to stock the table. Or perhaps, the table was such was a hit that the retailer couldn’t keep the books on the shelves. Or maybe, the bookseller carried low quantities of books by black authors. 

I was disappointed to see a bookstore that covered so many square feet, have so few books related to race, that they could fit onto a single table. 

“Most of the books about race are over there.”

Her words replayed in my mind, and I was angry and disappointed. Not so much at her words as an individual, but I believe her words capture a common mindset in America. When I said: “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she thought race. When we, as a society, hear “slavery,” we think race. When we hear “Black”, we think race. And there’s where our thinking stops.

Like so many other issues and historical events, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is more than a story about race. It’s a story about a group of Americans who were tired of being harassed and pushed to the back. They using their constitutional rights to fight unjust mistreatment.  It’s a story about a community of people of various ages and backgrounds collaborating for a common goal. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about courage. It’s about long suffering. It’s about justice. 

Dec. 20, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott Prevails - Zinn Education ...

Yes, race is also a theme woven throughout this story. And it’s an important one. 

However, if we continue to diminish such events and stories as purely and solely racial, we are going to miss powerful moments that can help us heal as a nation. 

I’m currently taking Yale University’s free course on African American history. Jonathan Holloway describes the course as being about citizenship and asking the question: “What does it mean to be an American?” African American history is about dualisms like God and man, freedom and slavery. 

In other words, it’s more than race. 

Many of us are learning more about race and its historical context in our nation. In our studies, I hope that we see beyond race. I hope we can identify universal themes embedded in these encounters. I hope we will stop reducing all Black people and our stories to just blackness. We are more than the social construction of race. 

We are thinkers, healers, parents, students and human beings like the rest of the world. The Black Experience in America is the American experience. I think we can see the experience of Black folks as a human experience, the barrier that dehumanization creates can be torn down. And we need it to be gone if we are going to move forward and build together as a nation. 

So, the next time you are reading and talking about race, ask yourself: what else is there?

I think you’ll be surprised by what you find. 

(To be clear, this post is not meant to berate the employee I encountered. I believe she was doing the best she could with the limitations she had to assist me. There were factors outside of her control. I am using my personal encounter with her to illustrate a larger principle.) 

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A Poet in Quarantine

Surviving COVID-19

Like many of you, I am adjusting to a life in quarantine. I consider myself an introvert’s introvert meaning, I can spend extended time in silence and solitude. Being in groups and talking can be emotionally and mentally draining. However, I do feed off of human interaction and touch (just not as much as others).

I have seen numerous posts on social media admonishing us on how we should spend this time. Personally, I think most of it is ill advised. What each individual is experiencing during this pandemic varies from person to person, state to state, situation to situation. Like many cases in life, a one-size fits all approach does not work.

Rather than grinding or hustling, I been spending my time watering my creative well. This is a principle I learned while listening to a live interview with Elizabeth Acevedo. Some of what I had considered writer’s block was my creativity crying out: “I’m in a drought. Pour water on me please.”

Watering my creative well has meant reading more poetry. If I am reading poetry, I typically am writing poetry. I also try to take walks or ride my bike. As a Southerner used to lots of sunshine year round, it’s challenging for me to spend most of my day indoors. However, I work at my kitchen table, which is positioned in front of two windows, so I can feel the sun.

Rather than ignoring what is happening in our world, I using it to water my well. I’m writing a chapbook, Wash Your Hands. I given myself a constraint: start every poem with the words: wash your hands. Write 30-40 poems around this line. So far, the poems are exploring colorism, relationships, identity, and home. Stay tuned for some recordings of those poems.

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Planning Poetry Projects

In an earlier post, I shared with you my method of organizing projects by using binders. Another tool that has helped me start organized is a collection of Project Planner worksheets. I did some searching online and found Printable Pineapple. The owner, Shannon, has been featured on BuzzFeed. What I love about these worksheets is:

  1. They are affordable. It costs under $5.
  2. Since they are printable worksheets, I don’t have to have a separate planner for projects. The worksheets were automatically downloaded after my purchase. I print the appropriate worksheets and put them in my binder. This was a major win for me.
  3. I can break my projects down by week, by month etc. I highly recommend them. You can find other useful planning tools on her website.