Monday, October 4, 2010

If Life is a Dance, Where's the Music?

Last year I introduced y'all to a student of mine who I hadn't seen since my years teaching life skills to Rikers Island young male inmates. As the universe would have it, he was looking for a colleague of mine when he passed by my office door and noticed my name and office hours. It was an unexpected but welcomed surprise. And in interviewing him, I discovered that during the ten years of each of us moving on with our lives that he had survived the war in Iraq, drug addiction, unemployment, depression, and yet somehow managed to come out of it all as a survivor. There may be hundreds of similar stories; thousands, maybe. But what made this one story stand out for me was how he reinvented himself. Paulo's journey is what initially inspired me to push other student success stories with my on-line readers. This time I'm introducing Shanelle, a military veteran herself whose own journey is one worth sharing--

Shanelle, one of the things I appreciate about you, and that I know my readers will find appealing as well, is that you're forthright in expressing who you are and what you stand for. So I'm gonna let you tell your story without interrupting too much, asking you questions between the various visuals you provide...

I was born and raised in Harlem. My mother had me when she was 19. Maybe not a big deal these days, but it still was back in the 80s. I love my mother and know that she did her best to raise me, but the fact that she had me at such a young age is a scary thought for me. Because my mother's circumstances at the time determined the opportunities I would and would not have. But I did luck out when Harlem Hospital launched a dance program that allowed young girls to see the world beyond da hood. Pictures of me dancing are all throughout Harlem. I performed for many dance schools. This program is still available to our kids, but because of lack of funds it never grew and they hardly travel overseas anymore. As a matter of fact, all they basically do now is teach little Black girls how to shake their bootie like Byonce!

I learned discipline through dance, though. Every weekend I had a place to be and sometimes after school too. This means I was active, so I was not a fat kid and I was learning what it meant to be a part of something and having a responsibility to an obligation. But today these types of programs are disappearing while our kids are home stuck to a tube, becoming lazy and obese. They have no obligations or feel responsible to have any; and their parents or grandparents don't seem to think it's a problem.

What made you choose a business major, as opposed to history or Black Studies?

I wanted to do something about the way things are going in our community, and a Black Studies or history major would only allow me to talk about what has already been done. I feel that Black people need to stop playing around and be about their business first. We have families to feed and we can’t eat civil rights documents! Very few of us own farms or factories because we weren't considered human when the government was handing out land and grants, so we're unable to produce and feed ourselves. Last time I checked, transfer of land and money was considered a business transaction. You have to be about your business, in order to eat and survive.

Is this why you currently work as as property appraiser?

Yes! Every day I appraise homes, apartments and condos. I'm exposed to the segregation displayed throughout our city. It allows me to see where everyone is positioned. Not many Blacks get to see what I see. I appraise the high rise condos being built in Harlem, so I know what they look like and who they're for. But I'm Harlem. You're Harlem; and this is where it begins to hit home for me.

How does one continue being africentered in an environment that seems to be bent against it? Do you feel isolated at all?

A lot of times I do feel isolated and it hurts, but every day I wake up I'm still Black. The way to get through it is by trying different methods. The key word is 'different' because we have been trying the same old methods for centuries. Power is in the population, and I belong to a people that have become the walking dead. Their soul and human instincts have been stolen. We should recognize that Church and the law will not help us escape. Those are the same institutions that were used to harm us.

Now, you know we just lost the religious folks! But how'bout elaborating some? I get your point, but explain to those who might not fully understand what you mean by the Church harming Black people? Especially since it was the old spirituals that catapulted us to emancipation and beyond.

That worked then. But times have changed while the Church hasn't. They're pushing Jesus and not political empowerment. So we think all is well just because we can shop at Macy's or order a meal at a popular diner. But we're still investing in everyone else but ourselves.

Where did you get your passion for Black consciousness? Who educated or inspired you?

I developed this passion over time. I am very curious about everything. I have always questioned everything; and experiences have had a tremendous affect on me. There are two White women who've had a profound effect on the way I view things. I took an African American women studies course taught by a young White woman which initially shocked me, even made me angry yet curious. I wanted to know why a White woman was so passionate about me!

I like that.

I found it very disturbing, however, to watch her struggle to get people who look like me to read the material. She turned out to be quite a knowledgeable instructor, though I still resented that the college couldn't find an African American to teach the couse. But what made me even more upset was the fact that a huge number of Black women didn’t know half the information she did. I found out later that her passion for Black Studies came from a basic human place, a curiosity like my own. The second woman taught American History. She was tough and also had a lot of passion for how everyone came to be. She didn't sugarcoat or leave out information, which I liked. For the first time I was learning and understanding what and who this nation was built on straight from the mouth of an anglo-saxon. Although she was White, she made no attempt to cover the brutality that her ancestors engaged in. She also did not discredited them for their achievements. When I sit in some of my classes today I feel like screaming. Because it's one thing for someone to kill your family, but it's another for them to tell you they'll continue to attack you and there's nothing you can do about it. This is part of the isolation I feel. But I'm learning to accept or at least tolerate.

You have a daughter. How does all this affect the way you raise her?

Having a child can be the most enlightening experience a woman can go through, placing drive behind the passion that was already there and allowing the person to continue receiving and delivering information that is pertaining to their well-being.

Some Blacks equate Black consciousness with the Nation of Islam; and I admit when I first met you I wondered if you were a member of N.O.I.. Are you? And if not, are you a member of any religious demonination? Do you even believe there's a God?

I'm far from being an atheist. I just don’t believe that He engages in the buying and selling of His Word. If we're all His children and He created all of us, then wouldn’t He want us to get the Word even if you couldn't afford it?

Poor people in Haiti and the Deep South get the Word.

Yes, but why would He want it packaged and marketed to make a few rich and the rest of us stay in poverty? In my opinion, religion is one of the biggest invisible chains worn by Black people; and they can’t remove it because they can’t see it.

They might see it now, what with the embarassment over the Rev. Long case.

I doubt it. They're so in denial that they'll somehow find a way to excuse it or say it's a conspiracy to attack their leader.

Do you think it's the same with Islam and other organized religions?

Black Muslim, Black Jews, Black Christians... They're discriminated against because of their skin complexion, not because of their religion. Otherwise, we'd own some of the corner stores that sell our kids vanilla dutches, loosy's, guns and drug paraphernalia. And if White Christians, especially, are so Christ-like then how is it that they tolerated, even supported the brutal enslavement of Black people? I'd like to see Black Muslims question there so-called Arab brothers and sisters about Darfur. I'd like Black Jews to explain Israel's ill-teatment of Ethiopian immigrants.


There's so much wealth displayed in the Vatican. But as a Black Christian, how is it that your fellow Christians have prospered in a Christian nation but you can't even afford to bury yourself? Black people are putting their religions before who they are and that's so disturbing to me. My mother may not have had any idea what religion I would grow up to believe in when I was in her stomach, nor what sex I would be. But the one thing she did know was that she was having a Black baby. We are Black first, then everything else secondary.

What's your take on our public school system and the fact that New York City's Dept. of Education just recently rejected Obama's $700 million for reform?

My family is under attack. The Black family is under attack; and although I'm educated, there's still nothing I can do about it because of how corrupt the system and the players are. When a White child learns, it's an enlightened experience. But when a Black child learns they're introduced to an unavoidable pain that is handled differently, depending on the teacher. The additional disparities come from our communities and the individualistic attitudes that flood our nerighborhoods are killing us as a whole.

Tell me more about that unavoidable pain.

No one wants to just be Black. I know you’ve heard people use terms such as Blackasian and biracial. I got Indian in me. But I consider myself Black. We try so hard to stray from what we obviously have in common in order to escape the judging that comes with being Black. Some feel more comfortable not being classified as Black, period. I guess because they feel they will only have to deal with half the problems an all Black person deals with. That's very disturbing, to me.

I hear you. When I was growing up it wasn't cool to be Haitian or African. My lighter-complexioned friends tagged themselves Dominican or Puerto Rican, while others put baby oil in their hair to make them appear less Black. This was before the du-rag. But I remember the Black girls with naturally long hair having the hardest time. Were you picked on because of your hair length?

Oh, yes! But it's that self-hatred and miseducation again. If them girls and their mothers knew that our hair can be long without putting chemicals in them, they wouldn't be so mean-spirited.

I think it's also men's fault. Because there was a time when I only dated females with long hair. I grew up around a lot of males who thought that way and would notice how it added to females competing with one another for our attention. It wasn't until my adulthood that I began seeing the illness behind that. Not to mention, a few of my own Black Studies courses which helped put things in their proper perspectives.

But let's switch guears a bit. You were in the armed forces. What was that like, especially being a woman? Did you join for the benefits you'd receive later on or for patriotic reasons? And as a Black woman, did you experience any slack from the brothas?

I didn't run into any sexism. Or at least it didn't come to me. I came in commanding respect from the go, so maybe that was part of it. But I do remember being protected by the Black male soldiers because I was small and appeared somewhat innocent until I opened my mouth!

Traveling is one of the benefits of serving. The more you travel, the more your mind expands. And it wasn't so much going to places like Japan or Germany, but meeting other people from other parts of the U.S.. That was really the best part, for me. Plus, I was good with machines and got respect from the males for it. I do recall this one time when I had to wash my hair and a female officer commenting on it, almost in a jealous way.

That hair thing is so deeply ingrained in us.

Yes, it is. Slavery did a number on us and continues to do so.

What's your take on the 'Don't ask, Don't tell'?

Well, I hope I don't sound harsh, but I see homosexuality as yet another attack on us. I mean, I'm for everyone having their civil rights and all. But personally, I can't comprehend the whole gay thing.

I think it's fair to not get it. But to prevent others to have the same legal rights you have is crossing the line.

Now, that's a whole other discussion.

Yes, you're right. And I imagine the Rev. Long thing will put more light on the Black community's hyporcrisy when it comes to sexuality, in general, no matter what our personal beliefs.

Whenever I see you you've got some wisdom to drop on me. For example, Obama boycotting the National Conference on Racism. Educate us on that one, because I don't think too many people heard of this. I certainly haven't.

Blacks see Obama as this saviour. Truth is he's just another politician and has made statements regarding Black people that would anger us if a klansman said it. But somehow we look away. Like the time a Black reporter at one of his press conferences asked him if he had an agenda for Blacks, considering the alarming rate of unemployment, poverty and gang violence. He told the brother--or he looked like a brother-- that he didn't have one, that all his social programs will trickled down to Black folks and then asked for the next question. The next day nobody said a word.

I'm not making excuses for him, but it's clear to me that he's trying not to make Whites too upset. Just like the other day when he was asked to explain why he's a Christian. I don't mind him being a politician so much. Comes with the job. But it's the kind of scrutiny he has to endure that bothers me. It's as if they're trying to make him into this safe Tiger Woods type of negro!

You funny!

I keep asking myself, 'And what would be so bad about having a muslim U.S. President?'

Huh, that's not gonna happen. At least not for a very, very long time. If at all!

This anti-other/us versus them stuff is so blatant, you know; so typical of this country. Anyway, you live in D.R. territory (Washington Heights, NYC) and said they've had to adjust to you and your look. Explain that.

I'm a Black woman with long, natural hair. I don't wear a wig or weave, nor do I need someone's approval to feel beautiful. And I know my history, and theirs. I know they're Black. I know they despise that fact. So they're not sure what to make of me, since Black, to many of them, is a negative. And yet I walk with my head high and don't try to speak Spanish to fit in. I make them speak English because this is America, not Santo Domingo. And my people built this land while Haiti was ruling them, so give me my respect!

You also consider yourself an american and not African American. I know some Blacks who prefer 'American African' because it's the type of African they are; keeps the focus on African. But why simply 'American'?

Because if you and I were to visit Africa right now, we would be considered American and not African anything.

Good point. And how do you think Obama is doing?

I don't see what all the fuss is about. He's just another politician, to me.

But he's our first Black President.

In appearance, maybe. But I don't see how he's so radical. Unemployment for us is still the highest, even more so now. And the on-going problems we face every day in our communities-- crime, gun control, miseducation, police brutality--all these issues are still not being treated as priority. He's just playing it safe at our expense.

Well, I do admit I was very disappointed when Senator Reid called him a safe negro and he didn't check him.

I've read older articles from when he was at Harvard that show he actually doesn't relate to Black folks. But most of us don't follow the more critical readings. We wait for others to tell us what to think. It's all symbolism and decorations. By the end of his term, things will still be status quo and we'll go, Damn. We'been bamboozled!

I'm still hopeful.

Alright, but don't say I didn't warn you.

So what's after graduation?

Not sure right now. First I want to transfer because I'm not satisfied with the professors here. They always get shocked when they find out I know a little more than them. The last one was actually intimidated by me; wouldn't let me talk because the other students began paying more attention to me than him.

I can see you teaching.

Maybe, but I found a business professor at the college I'm transferring to who warned me that I may feel angry at the information she'll share. She gave me a sample article, and she was right. But I like her. She's not afraid of tackling gentrification and how Blacks still haven't received land owed to them; how vital information about home ownership is kept from us. Not the usual mush these egotripping professors hand you. It's hard not to get angry. Like finding out what Christopher Columbus really did to the natives but calling it a discovery and then later on a holiday. But we need to know the truth instead of avoiding it. We want to dress nice and drive flashy cars, but won't pick up a book about why we are suffering inside. I see these Black parents buying designer clothes for their children, but won't invest in their minds. It's just sad and frustrating.

Yes, I agree.

I have a question for you. How do you deal with the isolation, if you feel isolated at all?

Of course, I do. And it's not only because I wear a cufi, but the fact that I don't like pop culture. When you come off serious like that people label you crazy, strange, not with the times. I'm working with a student now who feels like an outcast in his own family and hood. But he hasn't yet learned to stop seeking approval from his haters. I've learned to be proud of the fact that I make a difference, so standing alone, for me, is not a matter of feeling ostracized but an opportunity to represent. In these times where bling is in and everyone seems to be dumbing down, it's very important to stand out of the herd, even if it means not being popular. Because popular just means you're part of the symptoms, not the cure.

Thanks for asking that. And thanks for the interview. I'm curious to see where your degree and life, in general, takes you next. Please keep me posted. I got a feeling you're going to make an impact on the Community, whether appraising homes, teaching or politics.


Yes, why not? Shanelle for President!

I wouldn't be able to make any changes, as a politician. Too many handcuffs.

But you are a Black woman.

That I am!

Thanks again, Shanelle.

Your're welcome.

1 comment:

primamyrna said...

Let your hair down and dance, soften up a little Ms. Shanelle you earn it.
Best regards.