love

Black women loving and holding each other fiercely

The text was two sentences and in that moment those two sentences were everything.

 “Look, you’re not on this journey alone. I’ll be your person.”

Tears immediately sprang to my eyes. Recent experiences had rocked me to the core and lately it felt like my world was crumbling around me. I desperately needed support. I needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t judge me. And even though I had known her for less than two months, here she was offering me advice, compassion and unconditional friendship.

Though I wanted to be surprised, I was not. And I gratefully accepted and received the help.

This is what Black women do for each other-- especially in times of crisis. Somehow, even though we have a world of burden and hurt that we are carrying for ourselves, we rally and create loving community for each other and those around us.

 It is one of our greatest gifts.

 It can also be one of our biggest downfalls.

 In carrying the weight of the world, we often forget about taking care of ourselves. Self-care appears to be a luxury, not a necessity or a right. And because of it, we suffer. We have high rates of heart disease, obesity, mental, emotional and physical stress that goes unspoken and undiagnosed. Between racism, misogynoir, being superwomen who get shit done and holding space for everyone, we experience a combination of trauma and physical illness that is, quite literally, killing us.

 Of course, what I’m sharing is not a new phenomenon. Black women have been writing and talking about this topic for years, especially in the wake of some of the more recent incidents police and structural violence directed at Black people. However, it’s been on my mind a lot recently as I move through the world, talk with and read the words of other Black women. During a phone call this week, a sister-friend and colleague shared the following with me:

“A brother said to me ‘Black women don’t take care of themselves. White women are always in the gym taking care of themselves.’ My response to him: ‘We are busy taking care of you, your children and the community. We are raising the community. We are saving the community. We don’t have extra time to go to the gym, too.’” – DJ

 I reject this brother’s observation for a whole host of reasons. As someone who prides herself on nuanced, critical thinking and high level analysis, I have no desire to entertain intellectually lazy and simplified arguments.  Clearly, it goes without saying that not all White women take care of themselves and that all Black women don’t. I know plenty of White women who are also stressed out by the pressures of daily life and struggle with self-care. I also know a number of sisters who are making self-care a priority and are always in the gym, at the yoga studio, eating right etc. And I’m definitely not here for ANY kind of shaming of Black women, particularly with comparisons about how White women take care of themselves in a way that results in a more physically attractive appearance than Black women. To me that comment is reflective of nothing more than internalized racism and oppression, patriarchy and ignorance that I don’t have time or interest in refuting or expounding on.

What I do wonder about is why we are characterized so negatively and judged so harshly considering that we literally give our bodies in the service of caring for other people?

Black women’s bodies (just like our hair) have always been and continue to be political. We gave birth to the labor that built this country and also built this country through our own labor. We’ve never fully been in control of our own bodies since literally anyone and everyone has been able to tell us what to do with it since we arrived in this part of the world. We’ve been enslaved and given birth to enslaved peoples. We’ve been the mistresses of enslavers and victims of their sexual assault. We’ve clothed and fed White bodies. We’ve nursed White children from our own breasts. We’ve cared for the elderly and dying relatives of White people. If you add up that labor from 1619 to 2016, we’ve been doing that work for 397 years. 

Yet, outside of the conversations that we have with each other, there is no understanding of the physical, emotional and mental challenges that face Black women in this society and why it might be difficult to prioritize our self-care. It’s assumed that we are overweight and out of shape (and subsequently unhappy) because we are lazy. And if one of us is “in shape” (meaning a physique that is deemed acceptable by Western European standards), she is held up as a model to the rest of us to let us know that we are deficient in some way and need to do better.

 The above idea is demonstrated by Kanye West’s music video for the song “Fade” which premiered this past weekend at the MTV Video Music Awards. To be honest, I’m not a fan of Ye’s (I gave up on him sometime between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his relationship with Kim Kardashian) or the VMA’s. But the resulting conversations about the model in the video, Teyana Taylor, and Black women’s fitness have provoked much to reflect on. While I haven’t seen the whole video, I have been inundated daily with GIFs, memes and photos of Teyana’s physique. Generally, the impressions that I get from these images are that I am super lazy for not looking like Teyana.

 They scream: “Teyana has a newborn but she’s in great shape!” “Teyana is a Black woman just like you and she can do it all, why can’t you?” “Teyana proves that Black women actually do go to the gym and work out!”

 There is little to dispute. Teyana has a phenomenal body and has likely put a lot of time and effort into shaping it. I commend her, support her and cheer her on as she makes her way in the world as a Black woman who is fly as fuck.

I also know that I am not Teyana. The women I know are not Teyana. She is 25. We are in our late 20s, 30s and 40s. Without getting into a comparison of our lived experiences, I will say that at 25, I most certainly had a different set of experiences and priorities than I do at 38. I was not married, I wasn’t even working full time (I was still in grad school) and I hadn’t fully experienced all those racial and sexist microagressions that let me know that despite my best efforts, the world would often let me know that it does everything it can to make sure that Black women do not thrive.  At 25, I had much more time and energy to go to the gym and obsess over my figure than I do now- although I spent nearly every moment on my studies to make the $50,000 student debt worth it. And I certainly hadn’t made the connection to the fact that every ounce of mental and emotional energy I would put into fighting racism and sexism in my later years would leave me physically drained. But that aside, even if I had 8 hours a day to work out incessantly, my body type is different than hers. I will never look like Teyana. I’m ok with that. That’s actually the beauty of Black women; we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, textures and personalities. We do not have to look like Teyana to be worthy of love, attention and humanity.

While I know these things with absolute certainty, it would be nice for the rest of the world to understand that when we aren’t prioritizing our self-care, its not because we are lazy. In fact, very often its because we are prioritizing your health, happiness and well-being. We are also helping each other on our individual journey toward health, happiness and well-being.

 Stop judging us. Be thankful for all we do.

 While I know that my own self-care is not a luxury, I know need to pay better attention to it. Perhaps in some way my writing this down is my way of putting that intention out into the universe. However, I also know that, for me, self-care doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym or eliminating carbs from my diet.  While those are certainly forms of self-care, I’m certain that the physical is empty without the spiritual and emotional work I need to do to lift myself up. When I reflect on my self-care, what’s really teaching me the most about loving myself is what I learn through with other Black women. Through their words, actions and deeds, Black women show me that, no matter how terrible things get, we can always give much needed attention, support and healing to each other. It encourages me to reach beyond myself and to give back to other women. My interaction with other Black women is my self-care. In community, we make space for each other to be heard. To be seen. To be human. To be each other’s “person.” If that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.

 Recently, I was required to write a response to the question “Which woman inspires you and why?” This is how I responded:

 “How do you name an amalgamation of every Black woman you know? The sister at my favorite lunch spot who always gives me a knowing smile and hooks me up with extras; the professor at university who insisted I had a right to be there like everyone else and wouldn’t accept less from me; the yoga instructor who asserted that, despite thick thighs and back rolls, yoga was for me too; the new friend who barely knew me but sensed trouble and told me she’d be my “person.” Black women are always inspiring me by loving and living with fearlessness that only we possess. We make magic and claim our humanity in a world that doesn’t want us to survive."

We may not always do self-care the way others do. Maybe it’s by going to the gym or running 20 miles. Maybe it’s by nurturing the community. Maybe it’s by eating our favorite cupcake from Crumbs bakery. Maybe it’s by spending time together. Whatever it is, the way we hold and love each other fiercely is nothing less than God like.

 And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

 

 

A letter to my young self on the eve of Hillary Clinton’s nomination for President

                            Me and my cousin, Rebecca, sometime in the early 1980s.

                            Me and my cousin, Rebecca, sometime in the early 1980s.

Dear Kelly,

I recently came across a picture of you. I’m not quite sure how old you are but by the looks of it, you might be five or six. You are at a park-- leaning on a picnic bench with Becky, your favorite childhood cousin, beside you. You and Becky are three years apart and while you will go on to grow up in different parts of the state; because you are both only children, you will consider her more of a sister than a cousin.

In fact, a few years from now, you will find yourself and Becky playing in her neighborhood in Montgomery County with a group older kids trying to bully the two of you. Instead of being intimidated by them, you will stand up to them and forcefully insist that they leave you both alone. You tell them that you are from Baltimore (after all, they are suburban DC kids who likely grew up afraid of anyone and anything from Baltimore City) and that you will kick the ass of anyone who bothers your cousin.

This incident says a lot about you- both who you are now and who you will become. 

Though you do not know it now and you will often forget it as an adult, you should know that even at a young age you have always been strong and always stood up for what and whom you believe in.

It is one of your best qualities.

Remember it--even when others try to silence you or when they tell you that your voice is too loud. There will be plenty of people in the future who do not understand your strength and power. They will try to make you feel that something is wrong with you and will tell you that you are too much, too opinionated, too “aggressive.”

Pay no attention to them.

People also said the same thing about Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisolm, Assata Shakur, Leymah Gbowee and all the other brilliant female descendants of Africa in whose image you are created and on whose shoulders you stand.

What people do not understand, they fear. And there is little scarier to systems of oppression than a Black woman who thinks independently and speaks her mind.

I am struck by the twinkle in your eye in this photo. You have big, round brown eyes. Eyes with which you will take in the world and experience all the beauty, sadness, pain and triumph your experiences will offer you.

In your teens, you will wish to go far away from home. You will wish to travel and meet new people, experience new languages and cultures. You will get your wish. You will have the good fortune to study overseas twice. You will end up having a job (one of many jobs you will hold) where you get to work with international development professionals and people trying to make their own countries better in different parts of the world. You will find something special about everyplace that you go. But you will find a special connection to Latin America. More importantly, no matter where you go, Baltimore- the place you wanted to leave so badly, will always feel like home.

You will fall in love.

You will have your heart broken. More than once.

You will give of yourself completely and fully to friends, family, romantic partners and colleagues until you get hurt enough to learn to be more cautious of whom to give your heart to.

You will stay close to your grandmother. She will always be a special part of your childhood. In your adulthood, she will become a close friend and ally.

On November 4th, 2008, she will be the first person you call when Barack Obama is elected the first Black President of the United States. You will both cry together and say that neither of you ever imagined you would live to see this day.

You will feel deliriously hopeful at the prospect of his presidency.

Years later, you will simultaneously hold the feelings of being incredibly proud of him and a sense of disappointment about what he did not do.

You will realize that he, like all people you love and admire, is not bigger than life but is an actual, flawed human being.

This will turn you into a pragmatist who is cautious about what she expects from others.

You will develop a political consciousness that later helps you to understand that politics are lived outside of the voting booth and outside of the Capitol and White House. You will do the work of campaigning for candidates and organizing voters but your heart will always remind you that the real work you need to be doing is in the service of your people.

You will become passionate about and work fiercely for the emotional emancipation of yourself and other Black people.

You will find solidarity in movements that are about the liberation of immigrants, LGBTQ+ persons, reproductive justice and the rights of working people to unionize and make a decent living wage.

After twenty plus years of a hair relaxer, which you did not actually choose for yourself, you will go back to your natural hair. On certain days, you will love it and think it is perfect. On other days, you will contemplate perming it again so that it can finally be tamed and lay straight. Do not worry- this is all part of the journey of accepting and loving yourself as you are.

I write you this letter on the eve of a historic event in this country. It is the first time that a female candidate is nominated by a major party for the position of President of the United States. While others around you will extol this as a victory for all women in the country (and even around the world), you will experience this event with a mix of contrasting emotions. After all, in 1996, you will cast your very first vote in any election for her husband, Bill. And in 2007, when Hillary runs for POTUS for the first time, you will be thrilled. You will believe that you are “Team Hillary” until you realize the kind of deep longing for hope and goodness and change that Barack Obama stirs up inside of you. It will be the first time you really remember having to choose between being Black and being a woman.

Get used to it. It will become a common occurrence later in life.

Because at that time you will have many friendships with white women, you will often find yourself lying about whom you are voting for or risk a barrage of questions and judgment about how you can betray the sisterhood of all women.

In 2016, you will have very different friends. You will also feel differently about the so-called “sisterhood” of all women.  

On this historic occasion, you will realize that when white women make strides, you will also know that it is a hard truth that those advancements do not always yield improved conditions for Black women and other women of color. You will know that white women’s progress often comes at the expense of Black women and other women of color. It comes without them reaching a hand back to help other women who look like you.

You will not see yourself in Hillary. And though you will feel proud of him, you won’t really see yourself in Barack Obama. But such is the life of a Black woman- navigating between the lenses of race and gender; never really being seen by white women or Black men.

It will cause you much pain. But it will also instill a value in you to gravitate toward spaces where you can be seen. If they aren’t there, you will create them. You won’t give others the choice not to see you. You will show up fully and demand to be yourself- all the time. In whatever space you are in.

So, on this night, I am still hopeful. I am hopeful, not for Hillary, but for you.

Since women all over the country are celebrating this night and telling their sons and daughters that girls can do or be anything, I want to pass on the same to you.

You need to hear it and this is a good time to share it with you. You will also need to hear it when you are 8. You will need to hear it again at age 18. You will definitely need to hear it again at 28. You will likely need to hear it off and on for the rest of your life.

There are quite a few times in your life that you will experience heartbreak. It will not only come in the form of romantic relationships but also in the context of your social location as a Black woman. There will be real, tangible consequences for you as you work, live and love in a racist society and world.

You will not be prepared for these things the first few times they happen to you. Your heart will make you want to see them as isolated incidents rather than a larger pattern of supremacy that thrives on lies about who you are and who people of color and Black people are.

Often these incidents will make you feel terribly lonely. They will make you question the meaning of life and humanity. They will make you want to curl up into a little ball in your bed and not come out from under the covers.  

You should know that, despite how others may deny it, racial trauma and stress are real.

You should also know that the pain will not last forever.  

Despite the loneliness you will feel at various points in life, you will also find a loving, quilted fabric of community of your own making and solace in some deep, meaningful relationships. Relationships with people who will see your full humanity and who honor your heart, soul, spirit and all the quirky contradictions that make you who you are.

At this age, you don’t quite know what you want to be when you grow up. You will discover and want to do many things- like writing, anthropology and politics.

You will go on to do all of those things in very non-traditional ways.  Like the person that you are and are meant to be, they will defy expectations. They will be complicated. They will be nuanced.

You will write some words that get published and that make people think. You will one day sit on a tree stump in a forest in Oyacachi, Ecuador with an Indigenous man who makes hats from materials in the forest where he tells you about how decisions are made in his community. In Cuba and in West Africa, you will discover the spirits that your ancestors once worshipped. You will call voters and knock on doors in several elections. You will speak at a political event. You will go to the White House where your husband will talk to the first Black president. You will make a career out of working for social and racial justice. You will pride yourself on that work, work in which you help to create a world where people like you can be their full selves.

You will realize the significance of this moment in time, but you will also realize that you don’t need Hillary’s nomination to prove that you can break barriers. Everyday you will break barriers when you live into your passion and purpose as a Black woman in a world that doesn’t want you to survive.

You will not just survive, you will be determined to thrive.

You will take on the world with grit, determination and total badassness with an authenticity that is reflective of who you are in this moment and who you will grow to become.

You are resilient.

You are loved.

You are, and always will be, magical.

With so much love,

Me

 

Me and Rebecca, still sometime in the 1980s, being our carefree Black girl selves.

Me and Rebecca, still sometime in the 1980s, being our carefree Black girl selves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The overwhelming sound of silence

“Did you see it???? The video?” My husband asked, in a voice that conveyed both shock and disbelief. Without having to ask which video, I instinctively knew that he was referring to the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling.

I nodded slowly. I saw it first thing this morning as I looked at Facebook on my iPhone.

What I didn’t share with him was that, after watching it, I proceeded to cry silently in the bathroom for several minutes. Silent tears of anger and of rage. Silent tears of hopelessness. Silent tears of shame for feeling shocked and numb and scared--all at the same time.

And silence is what strikes me most as I reflect on this latest news from Baton Rouge.

Alton Sterling is the 558th person to be killed by police this year. He is the 135th black person to be killed. There are so many names and faces that I often have trouble keeping track of all of them. It’s easy to tune out if I want to. Another day passes and another black person is killed. Every 28 hours. It is an ongoing, seemingly endless cycle.

Police shooting of unarmed, black person. Outrage and cries for justice. Justice never comes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes the deaths hit me like a ton of bricks and I find myself not sleeping well. My mind races for days and I’m afraid that I cannot walk down the street without fearing for my safety from those who are supposed to protect it. Other days, I feel numb and they just strike me as yet another headline in a barrage of information I receive as I scroll through my social media feeds. It is the latter that feels the most unsettling to me. The inner silence I experience when everything in my brain screams that I should be outraged but my soul is too weary to feel anything other than a lack of surprise and indifference. 

Silence.

Just like my tears went unheard this morning, it is clear that so too do Black people’s collective cries for justice. Society is so comfortable, so very content with black bodies being abused, beaten and killed in the public eye that it seems like yelling “Black Lives Matter” until we are hoarse does absolutely no good. We rant. We rage. We roar. Even though we remain unheard and change does not come, we continue to shout. But the response is only silence.

Silence.

Like my tears and our collective cries, there is silence on the part of most of the white people that I know. And while that in itself is also not surprising, sometimes I experience that silence, in particular, as deafening.

Silent white people are on my Facebook feed--some of whom I’ve known for several decades. The same people white people who use Facebook to comment on literally everything and everything from their dog’s latest grooming appointment to what they’ve purchased at Walmart to what they are eating for dinner. Somehow they seem unable or unwilling to use their platform to let me know that they even remotely care about my life or the lives of the people who look like me. Silent white people--some of whom are my family members. Silent white people-- many of whom I know are in interracial relationships and raising black and brown children.  They remain silent about Trump, silent about race and racism, silent about what is clearly an epidemic in this country.

Silence.

My office is silent today, too. Silent because there are many people who are out of the office but also because the few people of color with whom I work and with whom I would normally find community and comfort during a time like this are all traveling. This kind of silence is especially painful. My professional career for the last 14 years has consisted of navigating my black womanhood in predominately white settings. That has lead to years of stress and anxiety. And in the midst of global anti-blackness and a war on black people in this country, connection with other black people and other people of color, today of all days, feels not like a luxury but a necessity. In the silence, I am reminded how often much I crave interactions with those who look like me and that our joy is a radical form of self-care and an integral part of our emotional emancipation. Since we can’t seem to be free physically, we can at least be free in our minds. But since I’m the “only” in the office at this moment, I don’t get to feel connected or feel black joy or feel emotionally free today. I just feel silent, only accompanied by the thoughts racing in my mind.

Silence.

Silence fills my ears, my heart, my mind and soul.

Until today, I’d never really thought of silence as having a sound. But as it turns out, it does. According to science, silence is actually noisy. In silence, our brains create noise to fill it and that activity can manifest in sounds like ringing, humming, buzzing, even resulting in hallucinations and psychosis—imagining things that aren’t there.

So since my mind is creating much noise to fill in the silence today, I’m going to voluntarily imagine some things that aren’t real but that I wish to will into existence.

I’m imagining that Alton Sterling is at home with his children and his family. The same goes for the other 135 black people killed this year by police and for all the victims of police violence.

I’m imagining that instead of being bombarded with stories and images of unarmed, black people being killed by police I’m bombarded with stories and images unabashed, unapologetic black joy.  

I’m envisioning all the amazing, innovative and revolutionary contributions that we black people make to the world and that we are thriving in our homes, communities, families, schools, churches, workplaces--any place else we are and wish to be.

 I’m imagining that the silent white people I know will find it no longer acceptable to be silent about the fact that black lives matter. That they will find their voices to boldly proclaim that racism is a shameful part of our country that needs to be eradicated at personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels and that they will work toward it.

 I’m envisioning that everyday I will have connection and community with other black people and that together we embrace all of our resilience in the face of pain and laugh till our faces hurt, share stories and cry tears of joy.

 I’m imagining a world in which all black people can be free.

Finally, I’m not imagining, but instead speaking into existence that the sounds of silence around black lives will no longer be heard as silence. That instead they become the roaring, deafening sounds of action, justice and love.

Confessions on Baltimore

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

I confess that I can’t quite remember what day the uprising began.

I feel like I should be able to remember. After all, it happened in the city I was born and raised in. But all that I can seem to remember from that time is that one day I looked up from my laptop and Baltimore was burning.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had left home off and on over the years for different reasons. Undergraduate studies in New York. Graduate studies in Washington, DC. Doctoral studies in Florida. But I’d always chosen to come back.

Over time, like any native child, I developed a love-hate relationship with the city of my birth. I loved it for random reasons like the peach cake I used to eat from the Woodlea Bakery and steamed crabs in the summer. I loved it for the strange way that, no matter where in the world I was, I could always tell people from Baltimore by their accent and by the way they pronounced the word water as “wudder” and sink as “zinc.”

I loved it for its simplicity- that its people were overwhelmingly humble and low key. Having moved to Washington, DC for grad school and struggling with the intense networking and industry town culture that exists there, I came to appreciate that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. I loved that I always knew that when someone in Baltimore asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. With your one answer, they were likely to be able to sum up your whole life story-who you are, what neighborhood you are from and what tribe you belong to.

I loved it for giving me hot, August nights during which I cheered on the Orioles with my grandfather. One of my favorite childhood memories remains listening to baseball on the radio with him- sitting outside on the porch of my grandparents’ house and hearing the roar of the crowd at Memorial Stadium just a few blocks away.

Baltimore is etched in my DNA. It is a part of my cellular memory. My mind and body vividly remember every street I grew up on and where my family members lived. Green Meadow Parkway, Ashland Avenue, Westview Road. I loved Baltimore and it would always be home.

 

I must confess, too, that while I loved it immensely, I also hated it for its simplicity.

I hated how segregated the city was. While it could give you a sense of community, being from Baltimore also meant that often you lived among people who were exactly like you- never really venturing outside of your racial, ethnic, class or religious bubble.

I went to Catholic high school in Baltimore with other girls who had gone to Catholic school their whole lives and whose families all worshipped at the same churches for decades. They went to school with other Catholic girls whom they’d known since they were toddlers. Many of them didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. If they did, they certainly weren’t the norm. Coming from public school and starting a new school in 9th grade, trying to make friends with girls who’d been friends with each other forever and who all lived in the same neighborhood was not easy. I hated the feeling of being different, of coming from a non-traditional and non-Catholic family. A huge no-no in the Catholic Church (and one that I probably shouldn’t ever admit publicly), sometimes I used to take communion (never having actually received the sacrament in a First Holy Communion ceremony with a priest) with all the other girls just so I could fit in. Baltimore could be a lonely place if you didn’t have a community or a network to call your own. I spent many years as both a teenager and adult trying to find my community and the right “fit.”

Long after high school, when I’d come back to the city for the last time and had gotten married, I hated how everyone thought it was so strange that my husband and I were an intercultural couple- Black American and Colombian. I hated that every detail of our relationship was subject to scrutiny by those who’d never ventured outside of the bubble. That anywhere we went, people almost always asked what language we spoke at home and couldn’t believe that a Black woman could speak fluent Spanish or that a native Colombian could speak fluent English. I hated that we could go to New York on weekends and be anonymous but, in my own hometown, curiosity, ignorance and exoticism marked how others saw our relationship.

 

Most of all, I confess that I hated how dramatically I saw the city deteriorate before my eyes.

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I came back to Baltimore as a teacher through Teach for America. I confess that it was not a voluntary decision. I had marked Baltimore as number 10 out of a total of 13 choices for site placements. When the placement letter arrived, I cried and refused to go back home. I wanted to move to New York or LA. I wanted a new start in another city. A place with which I didn’t have such a tenuous relationship. I did not want to go back home. It was my mother who convinced me that it would be good for me to come home, to be closer to my family and to really learn about the inequality that existed in my own hometown.

After a year, I ended up teaching Spanish at Gilmor Elementary School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The same neighborhood, where 15 years later, Freddie Gray would be killed. The same neighborhood that made worldwide news during the uprising for its disproportionately high level of boarded up homes. It was described in various ways by the media. Food desert. Crime ridden. Impoverished. This was the location where the HBO show The Wire was filmed. I worked day and night with other tireless educators to try to do everything we could to try to improve the life chances for students in that neighborhood. We endured neighborhood shootings, school lockdowns and played de facto therapists to kids with drug addicted parents. We taught Saturday school, bought books and supplies paid from our own paltry salaries, meals for children whose parents couldn’t raise them, kept deodorant and toothbrushes in our classrooms and taught kids how to use them. We did anything we could to try to save them from the streets and a system that was sure to abandon them. It did not work. But like the memories of the streets in Baltimore I was raised on, the names of those kids are etched in my heart and soul. Deja, Shakeisha, Albert, Demon, Anthony. I could never forget those kids and their faces as long as I live.

After three years in the classroom in Baltimore City Public Schools, I was tired. It was time to go. I loved the kids but the ridiculously hard work, the bumbling administrators that ran the school and the systemic inefficiencies pushed me to my breaking point. Upon coming home from school after a 12-hour day, I often slept on the living room couch; too tired to make my way to my bed. I had been given Xanax to calm my anxiety after my first year of teaching and I believed that I would have been headed for a nervous breakdown if I made a career out of teaching. I left Gilmor and moved to DC for graduate school and didn’t look back. While I would later come home to work in Baltimore in other jobs related to advocacy and social services for marginalized populations, I couldn’t give my heart and soul to them the way I did in those years at Gilmor. I was hardened and forever changed. My heart was irreparably broken. My city no longer looked the same to me.

 

I confess, prior to the uprising, I had often thought about the city burning down.

I wondered if burning it down to the ground was the only way to fix it. To raze it, tear up all of its pain and suffering from the root and rebuild anew on top of the cement and ashes. 

I moved away from Baltimore for the last time in 2013. My life and career had taken me in a different direction, to a new location and, I will confess, that I was glad for it. I didn’t think I could ever live there again.

In 2015, while living in my new city, I looked up from my laptop at the TV and I realized that Baltimore was burning.

I watched with tears as CNN showed my hometown erupt into flames, tears and pain with Freddie Gray serving as the spark. I watched people demand justice for the mysterious death of a young Black man in police custody. But I also knew that this uprising, this rebellion, was the result of decades of blight, corrupt government, the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the poor and gentrification come back to haunt us all. It turned Baltimore upside down. I worried myself sick about my grandparents, my mother-in-law and friends who were still living there and caught in the crosshairs.

I confess, that while I yearned to go home, I didn’t. I was paralyzed. It was too painful. I had a dissertation draft deadline to finish if I wanted to graduate on time. It served as a convenient reason not to go. Baltimore was stomping on my heart, yet again, and I just couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to endure this kind of heartbreak for a second time.

Instead, I posted about it on social media. I ranted. I raved. I talked about it in very intellectual terms with colleagues who were interested. I felt numb and ached all at once. I thought about my time in Sandtown-Winchester a lot and about the kids I’d taught all those many years ago. I wondered if any of them had been impacted by the violence.

I’ve been back to Baltimore a few times since then. Thanksgiving with my grandparents, dinner with my mother-in-law, a random trip passing through here and there. But it still feels near impossible for me to fully go home. It will never be the same. Remembering what the city once was and seeing what it now is reminds me of the crazy and painful push-pull relationship that I have always had with the city of my birth.

 

I confess that like so many of the complicated relationships we have as adults, I still simultaneously love Baltimore and hate it for the heartbreak it’s bestowed upon me.  No matter how hard I try, it is still inextricably linked to my DNA. And somehow, even though it aches to love it, because of all the pleasure (and the pain) it’s given me over the course of my lifetime, I just can’t seem to shake it loose.