Sista’ Please, Speak Life
This week, I had a troubling encounter with someone I would consider an elder in my professional circle of women that impacted me to seize this moment for a dialogue with my sistas’. As if I was writing four years ago for this moment, it left me feeling that now is as good a time as any to share a piece that I penned back then about our responsibility as women to teach our girls the importance of speaking life.
I recently took the subway home from work in downtown Philadelphia at a time when many people dread to ride the end of the school day. With just the hum of the train in my consciousness, it wasn’t long before I realized why I had heard that the early afternoon was the worst time to travel. As I watched for my stop, I was jarred from my daydream by a voice that seemed in complete anarchy against the concept of respect. It took me all the way back to sixth grade. The female voice could have been from someone I knew. I didn’t know this girl, but I knew her type. She was loud-talking her friends about everyone who had gotten on her last nerves” that day at school. As soon as I heard her first expletive-laced comment I shifted in my seat to try and see her face. I wasn’t the only one looking in her direction, though I’m sure my interest was different. She was on a roll about a girl that she seemed to hate. By coincidence, a friend and I had just had a conversation about empowering young black women, so this teenage girl’s disposition and expression had my full attention. I was convinced that this was meant to be a teachable moment for me.
While other passengers around me cringed at how freely she cursed through the conversation with her three girl-friends, I reminisced about the girls I knew who reminded me of her when I was younger. She is the girl who wouldn’t be noted in the junior high school year book as “most popular,” “best dressed” or “most likely to succeed.” She actually would probably not be noted for anything, but everyone would know her. She is the one who “does not take mess” from anyone and is likely befriended by other girls to keep her from talking about them. She was the girl who had told everyone that I “thought I was all that,” by lunchtime on my first day at a new middle school. I knew her well. But, I resisted allowing my personal reflections to affect my opinion of this girl. I was sure a life lesson could be won here, and I was correct. The message, I concluded, was that this young woman needed someone to speak life to her. African-American women are resilient – strong and determined. It’s important to tell and show our girls this. However, what is more important is that we break the cycle of our internalized oppression. Otherwise, we will continue to raise daughters who believe that their sisters are their enemies. This is not rocket science nor is it a major discovery for which I can be credited. It was, however, enough to make me start checking myself for the “enemy tendencies.”
We consistently manifest the negative ideals that Western culture has embedded in us through our incessant quest for mainstream “beauty” as well as our interactions with each other. No, not all of us are guilty of this. But, enough of us engage in this behavior to negatively influence the development of our girls. I imagine that the young woman I saw that day on the train has a fashioned a bogus self-concept that shakes under the weight of her insecurities. However, she is not solely to blame. All of us can share in the responsibility for her need to tear another one of her sisters down to build herself up. I had to ask myself how many times I have used the phrase, “she thinks she’s all that.” I am embarrassed to admit that I am guilty of it. That has become our banner statement for verbally attacking one another. We say it in the grocery store; we say it at work and at church, and even about celebrities that we have never met. I also reflected on the many times that I had been walking in the store and came face to face with another African-American woman who either quickly averted her eyes or starred back at me as if I had no right to speak to her. I was suddenly intensely mindful about the way I talk about myself in front of the girls that I mentor. Much of my self-concept developed in the shadow of my mother’s expressed perception of herself. Although I don’t ever remember her talking about or putting down another woman, I do remember the vigilant way that she went about taking care of her mind and body. I have inherited the latter inclination. Now in my 30′s, I understand why the former was just as important.
Along with our mothers, many women influence us; and as women, we influence girls by the way we conduct ourselves. Speaking life simply means that we don’t participate in the system of oppression that has caused us to feel intimidated by each other. It means that we make the effort to speak positively and share encouraging words with our sisters. We reach out to one another by affirming our sisters and celebrating all of our diversity, our accomplishments and our happiness. And most importantly, we teach our daughters to do the same.
~Today, my sentiments are the same — only more intense. My successes are a testament to the strength of my elders, and an entry way for those who will follow me. Elders, we are not your competition we are your testimonies. Girls, let us be your examples. My success is every woman’s success. A healthy outlook and self-concept affords me the strength to lift up my neighbor. So, I will not accept it as any sense of normalcy that we tear each other down especially in those instances when we believe it is necessary to do so in process of building each other up. And I challenge my sisters to resist doing so. Beauty, love, security, esteem, success, happiness, contentment are not in short supply. There is absolutely enough for each one of us to have an overflowing portion.
Imagine what would happen if we just simply spoke life.
Katrice L. Mines is the editor of Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine where she has directed the editorial direction and function of the magazine for nearly six years. Mines loves to inspire others to pursue their best lives. As a journalist and woman of the world, her interest in Black women’s wellness has been the compelling force behind many of my personal and professional pursuits over the years — including her blog My Vicarious Life. In 2004, she founded Inspiring Excellence, an enrichment program for African-American adolescent girls in Ohio that ran for two years which led to her inclusion as one of Ebony magazine’s 2005 “30 Leaders Under 30.” She has been featured in several forums including Urban Teen Scene, Clamor and The Ave. magazines, and on NPR’s “News and Notes” to discuss perceptions of beauty among Black women and girls. She currently participates as a special correspondent to “‘Tude for Thought” on Blogtalk Radio.