Review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

Sorry I have not published a post in a while, but school is back in session and a few major developments in my professional life have kept me pretty busy but for the good. Yet, no matter how busy I am, I always try to still make time to curl up even for just five minutes at a time with a good book. I was heartbroken when I heard the news of Toni Morrison’s passing . I loved her novels because they always whisked me away to another era in U.S. history and helped me get as close as I can bear to aspects of the Black American experience. The other day I was listening to an old NPR Fresh Air interview with Morrison where she read a passage from her last novel God Help the Child and the few lines she read were so intriguing that I immediately made a detour to the closest bookstore to pick up a copy. The novel begins with Sweetness explaining the shocker, horror, and shame she felt when her daughter Lula Ann was born. Both Sweetness and her husband Louis are exceptionally light skinned and most likely members of the Blue Vein Society. In the maternity ward, she momentarily contemplates smothering the baby rather that have her dark skin body and lips press against her breast to nurse. In the end, she decides to spare her life but not her feelings. She refrains from as much physical contact as she can with her daughter through the most pivotal years in a child’s development. She provides her with the financial necessities in life but fails to provide her any outward displays of affection and emotional intimacy. Her husband, still convinced that she cheated, leaves her in protest to having to raise a dark- skinned child.

Nevertheless, Lula Ann grows up to be gorgeous and successful. Her onyx skin becomes an “exotic” feature that helps her win lovers from all nationalities and opens doors for her in the cosmetic industry. It appears that she has triumphed in the end over the taunts about her skin hue from her peers and her mother’s emotional neglect. She has proven to everyone and herself that she can certainly find the physical intimacy her mother deprived her of from almost anyone she chooses. Yet, as you continue reading, you later realize that she is still the same little insecure , skinny, dark-skinned, knobbly kneed, girl of her past and, Lula Ann begins to panic when a love loss brings this insecurity to the emotional and physical forefront.

Although Lula Ann’s story is the focus of the book, all of the characters she encounters or pursues has their own story and each one is mired in a childhood pain or tragedy that has attached to them like a cancer and metastasized over the years into adulthood. I have to warn you that these tragedies are dark and unsettling but they were for me a constant reminder of the inability for any of us to ever free ourselves of our positive or negative childhood experiences. I was a little disappointed by the fact that with the exception of Sweetness’ story, the setting for the majority of God Help the Child takes place in modern day. Sweetness’ story was very compelling and left me with an insatiable desire to learn more about her, but maybe that was the point Morrison was trying to make. As a society we shine the light and focus on the perpetrators of crimes against children. We are obsessed with wanting to know why anyone could hurt or neglect children. Rarely do the children who are victimized get the opportunity to share their story and heal. We don’t care to know how they will cope into adulthood and the type of person they will become. Reading this novel left me like many of the characters also asking myself, ” Are my childhood experiences carrying me through life or am I carrying them?” If my childhood experiences are carrying me, “Are they tired, weary, and ready to rest?” Rest in peace Queen Morrison. Thank you for blessing us with your courage to tell the stories that no one else bothered to tell.

Gilder Lehrman’s National History Teacher of the Year

Early this fall, I got the news of a lifetime. I was awarded National History Teacher of the Year by the Gilderman Lehrman Institute! Words cannot express my gratitude.

Alysha Butler with CNN Senior Political Analyst John Avlon (standing) and Lewis and Louise Lehrman (seated)
Me with CNN Senior Political Analyst John Avlon(standing) and Lewis and Louise Lehrman (seated)

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History was founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, visionaries and lifelong supporters of American history education. The Institute is the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to K–12 history education while also serving the general public. Its mission is to promote the knowledge and understanding of American history through educational programs and resources.

I am forever indebted to his institute. They are the main reason I currently reside in the DMV area. I first enrolled in one of their seminars 11 years ago when the late great historian Ira Berlin was giving a week long seminar on the history of the plantation society at the University of Maryland. They fully funded my room and board with stipend. The class was centered around the analysis and incorporation of primary sources and the use of historical sites when teaching history. We visited the original house where Frederick Douglass was born and the town up the street established by many of the emancipated slaves after the Civil War. We also visited Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s plantation and surveyed the slave quarters and burial site. I had visited the DMV area before, but I never saw it through the same lens as it was presented to me by the institute. I always realized that I was surrounded by history but to be able to walk among historical sites and landmarks stemming back hundreds of years particularly to the antebellum era made me want to relocate so that I could be immersed in it. I had also come to realize that I could and was obligated to incorporate trips to historical sites in my everyday lessons so that my students could experience the same reverence and appreciation. It made such an imprint on me that the following summer, I packed my bags and moved to the DMV. I have been here ever since.

A short documentary aired also at the ceremony and on the History Channel.

In early October, I was presented the award by CNN correspondent John Avlon at a private ceremony at the Yale Club in New York City. I was charged with giving a speech which sent me into a panic. Surprisingly the speech went really well and in the end earned me a standing ovation with a few requests for its publication. Everyone at the Institute was so warm and sincere that I am unsure if there will ever be a future professional accomplishment that will be able to top this.

This entire experience has been both humbling and surreal. I am so grateful to the Gilder Lehrman Institute and I hope that I have made my ancestors proud 🙂

Adjusting my Posture with Elaine Welteroth’s “More than Enough.”

After I graduated from college, confidence exuded from ever pore of my body, and I believed that there was absolutely nothing I could not conquer. I thrived on competition and sought new challenges. Then at 30, I moved away from my small suburban pond into an urban ocean where for the first time I encountered more competition from people as qualified as myself. Although I was a little rattled, I simply readjusted and kept pushing with a continued since of invincibility. Then I got married and had my son at 35. My confidence wasn’t shaken this time, it collapsed. Being responsible for the well-being of another person completely dependent upon you in a city without any family is terrifying. Being a first time mother without a bank of parenting experiences to draw from for encouragement left me stumped and without direction. I constantly doubted all of my decisions. Writing a 30 page paper didn’t really help me when it came to sleep and potty training, or childhood asthma attacks. The responsibilities of teaching full time were added problems that left me periodically crying in a corner during my planning period. Although I maintained a convincing exterior in my power suites, heels and exemplary work reviews, underneath I had lost my luster and above all my confidence. I felt that at any moment everything would come tumbling down.

My confidence somewhat rebounded within the last two years; however, I continued to lament at the fact that the self-assured women I was in my 20’s and early 30’s had disappeared forever. For a time, I unsuccessfully and superficially searched for her until I read Welteroth’s More than Enough. I was slightly reluctant at first because I am almost a decade older than Welteroth and I thought that her advice or experiences would be out of reach for a proud member of Generation X.

I could not have been more wrong. I could relate to so many of her life lessons.She had aspirations of attending Stanford but settled for a state school to be close to her “First Love” who held little to no ambition and eventually flunked out. She was a chronic over achiever who worked hard to reach the level of success and notoriety she always wanted but along the way had to learn how to carve out her own space in places where she was the only African American woman in the room. When working alongside big names in the fashion and journalism industry, she had to learn to hold her head up and constantly remind herself that she was just as deserving of an opportunity to make a name for herself as her prep school, Ivy league, vacationing in the Hamptons counterparts. I was also inspired by her continued hustle and honesty in detailing events in her life that did not always go as planned.

There was one sentence that resonated with me the most. “Walk like you have the strength of your ancestors and community at your back.” It helped remind me of the blood that runs through my veins. Their struggle and sacrifice is my birthright to my spot in “the room.” Their DNA makes up every muscle fiber in my body and gives me strength to not just preserver but tear down mountains.

I realized that the person I was when I graduated college and before I became a mother never disappeared. She simply stopped dreaming. All of her dreams where centered on her son and her son only. I stopped believing in her. I believed in everything else except her. I believed in the abilities of others but not my own. I believed that others deserved more but not myself. I believed others deserved a seat at the table while I had to stand.

Welteroth’s courage to pursue new experiences and challenges reignited that spark I haven’t felt in years and had me looking in the mirror to remind myself to stand straight, keep my chin up, and walk like I have a right to a space in the room.

Million Dollar Applause for Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys

If you bump into me on the street and you notice the matching luggage weighing down both of my eyes and ask me what happened, I will simply reply “It was all Colson’s fault.” On July 16th, Whitehead released his much anticipated novel The Nickel Boys. I first need to confess that I am already partial to this story because it is based upon the Dozier Academy, an actual reform school for boys that operated in the state of Florida from the early 1900’s until 2011. About two years ago, a number of unmarked graves were discovered on the academy’s campus. Upon careful examination of the bodies, it had been discovered that the remains belonged at the time to unidentified young men who suffered from life threatening forms of physical trauma. Upon careful research, Whitehead learned that the school had been clothed in rumors of allegations of sexual and physical abuse and in some cases murder by the school’s administration and faculty. Students sent to the school were often orphans or kids as young as five accused of petty crimes. Many of these allegations were overlooked for the school provided a nice source of free labor for the state of Florida.

My heart bled for Curtis Elwood, the main character of the story. He was born in raised in Tallahassee, Florida and reared by his grandmother. He comes of age in the 1960’s and grows intoxicated with the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King and his nonviolent ideology after his grandmother gifts him a record of King’s famous speeches. He almost makes his grandmother regret giving him the record, for he plays it continuously and memorizes every line of every speech. His admiration and energy is harnessed by a young teacher who proudly wears the scars he earned from his time in SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee). I was so inspired by Whitehead’s portrait of this young teacher. As soon as he enters the class, he instructs all of his students to use a black marker to strike a line through all of the offensive messages left in their hand me down books from the white schools before they begin their lesson. He is Curtis’ first direct line to the movement. I was also excited by the fact that in the book Elwood attends Lincoln High School in 1964 which was the same high school and year my father- in law attended the school and like Curtis provided a pipeline to SNCC which was operating nearby on FAMU’s campus. Like my father -in law, Curtis participates in the 1964 sit in at the local Tallahassee movie theater. His teacher along with everyone else in the community sees Curtis’ potential and eventually offers him the deal of a life time: an opportunity to take college courses as a high school junior at a new nearby university.

Curtis is ecstatic . Unfortunately, he never arrives at the school. On the way he hitchhikes and is picked up unknowingly by a young man driving a stolen car. When they are pulled over, he is quickly sentenced to a period at the Nickel Academy. When he arrives, he is comforted by the exterior which is almost an identical mirror image to the university he would have instead attended. However, the inside and the horrors that await quickly introduces him to a new battle ground to test his commitment to the nonviolence movement. Among the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse he witnesses and in some cases experiences first hand, he has to determine to what extent can he still “love his enemy.” More importantly, he has to fight to resist slipping into the terrifying submissive, apathetic, and helpless role assumed by so many of the men in his community as their only coping mechanism under white supremacy. I am not sure but I believe the latter scares him the most.

I loved loved loved loved this book! We live in an age where King’s image has become safe and almost Mr. “Rogerish.” King was a radical. King was non-compromising. Whitehead’s repeated use of excerpts from King’s speeches throughout the book reminds us of just how radical the nonviolent movement was. I can not wait to use this book as a teaching tool this year.

Also , please read it to the very end because it has one hell of a twist. My only issue, is that the book had to end.

Review of Lalita Tamedy’s Red River and a History Lesson on the Difference between a Riot and a Massacre

Reconstruction has always been an era in U.S. History that has intrigued me the most. For a period to have held the most promise for the United States to work towards living up to the principles and ideologies espoused by its early designers, it is also the darkest period in U.S. history which is given the least amount of time for analysis in most U.S. schools. I speak from experience, for it was the smallest chapter in my 11th grade U.S. History textbook and was conveniently skipped by my much esteemed U.S. History teacher who confidently told me that I wouldn’t amount to much 😉

Since I learned about it in college, I continue to devour any additional information I can obtain on the subject whether it’s held in a textbook, historical novel, film, or piece of art.

I was first introduced to Lalita Tamedy through Cane River, her first breakthrough novel published almost twenty years ago. She held a pretty successful career in corporate America but left it to pursue a literary career writing historical fiction. Cane River primarily was based upon a story of the different generations of the women in her family in antebellum Louisiana. This breakthrough novel had many of us, including myself, rummaging through my family’s old photographs and documents to reconstruct my own history. I started this blog decades after I first read it and I have to eventually write a review because it still remains my all time favorite book.

Red River picks up after Cane River in Louisiana during Reconstruction. Unlike Cane River, the men of her family are the primary subject of this story. The book begins when some of the men of Colfax decide to defend the local courthouse. Members of the Lost Cause have refused to acknowledge recent election results in which Freedmen were able to cast their ballot for the first time. The men of the town have decided to force open the doors of the courthouse and defend their newly elected sheriff who just so happens to be a carpetbagger with little to no roots in Louisiana. It is clear throughout the entire novel, that their willingness to risk their life is not on behalf of the new sheriff but for the defense of their rights as American citizens and as men, and their children’s dreams.

Harper’s Ferry 1867 publication. “The First Vote.”

They wait in vain for reinforcements from the federal government and although they put up a valiant effort, are soon defeated after white supremacists from outside towns and parishes with weaponry used in the Civil War force the men to surrender. The author’s great great grandfather participated in defending the courthouse and was able to get out alive. However, that was not the case for most. Those who surrendered were systematically tortured and murdered. According to Tamedy, over 150 African American men were killed for simply asserting their rights as American citizens. Prominent historian Eric Foner labeled this day “one of the most bloodiest acts of carnage” in Reconstruction.

The first half of the book details the massacre and Tamdey’s ability to wisk you away to that night amid the same emotions that permeated the air in 1873 is noteworthy. I literally couldn’t put the book down and I loved that as I read I could feel the fear, resolve, helplessness, and hopefulness the men experienced at the court house. I also enjoyed her window into the emotions the women felt, for it reminds her readers that the defense of this courthouse was based on the courage of both the men and women of the town. Unfortunately, it took me a while to finish the second half where she detailed the life of her great grandfather’s children. Their fight to build a school and assume their positions as leaders in the community among stories of who married whom was hard to maintain my interests after the massacre and it felt at one point like the story was dragging.

However, I will say that this book is worth a read. It taught me the difference between a massacre and a riot. Although these men valiantly fought back, the level of unjust and unwarranted cruelty exemplified by the white supremacists of Louisiana can not be defined but as a massacre. It has led me to start reevaluating how I will refer to late 19th and 20th century race riots this coming school year. The sign below is the only marker that exists today where the newly freedmen of Colfax chose to sacrifice everything for their constitutional rights. Their story incenses me today when I hear Trump supporters attempt to define what patriotism looks like and who can only be labeled as true patriots. The “150 Negroes” who died in Colfax on Easter Sunday 1873 are the prototype of true patriots.

This marker is a disgrace. There is no mention of the bravery of the 150 “Negroes” referenced in the sign or their cause.

Eating Healthy on a Dime with Little Money or Time

As a full time working mother who exercises five times a week, tries to read at least two books a month, and spend quality time with my family trying to find the time to provide my family with a healthy, nutritious, and tasty meal that won’t chain me to a stove for hours could appear on surface to be a struggle. However, in reality it never has been because I follow some simple tips and strategies. Today’s dinner was an ideal example.

I became a pescetarian for health reasons when I turned seventeen so chicken and fish comprise a heavy part of my diet. Normally I always cook the night before when I am working so that I can go to the gym immediately after work and then pick up my son afterwards and eat our precooked dinner as soon as we get home. I strongly recommend this for every working mother or father who does most of the cooking for it really frees up your time. Because I am out on summer vacation, I now just wait and cook the same day. At any rate, today I seasoned and stuffed a whole chicken with raw onions and green peppers. I covered it with aluminum foil so it could cook in its own juices on 400 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours. While it cooked, I was free to wash clothes, clean, and take a quick nap.

For sides, I purchased and washed a bag of Morningstar precut and washed collard greens. Collards are extremely rich in vitamins A and C and are loaded with calcium. Normally, this dish is cooked with pork; however, I boiled smoked turkey in a pot of water for an hour and then dumped the washed collards to cook along side the smoked turkey for another hour and a half on low. I added salt for added seasoning. Once again, I was free to perform other jobs while this was cooking .

I topped the meal off with some brown rice. Prep time for all of the dishes took no more than 15 minutes at the most.

Not only was this meal yummy enough for my four year old to ask for seconds, but it was low calorie and low cost. The store brand chicken was only $8.47, the collards were at the most $3.00, and the rice was $4.00 for a large bag that will last at least two to three weeks. In total I spent around $15-16.00 for a nutritious meal that served as dinner today and will be lunch tomorrow for three people and took only 15 minutes to prepare. If you can’t wait the two hours, consider popping it in the oven the night before so all you will have to do is reheat the day you plan to serve it for dinner. According to my Fitness Pal, this meal was only 319 calories 🙂

Good luck!

“Good Hair”

Tips for loving and caring for natural hair

I grew up in a family where my parents constantly reminded me that the hue of my skin was not a curse but an honor that held stories of men and women who came before me and triumphed over unquantifiable obstacles. As a result, I largely escaped the thorns of colorism that still pierce so many people of the African diaspora today, and I will forever be grateful to my parents for that. However, growing up, there was one insecurity that I did fall victim: the issue of hair. Ever since I was a child, I had what so many people in the Black community would label as “bad hair.” My hair was ridiculously thick, dry, and tightly coiled. Not knowing what to do with my hair, my mother permed it when I was seven years old. I grew up being allergic to sweat and water and a slave to what many of us jokingly deem “the creamy crack.” Even with countless hours in a salon chair trying not to cry from the burning sensation on my scalp caused by the chemicals on Saturdays while I watched my non-black friends go to the beach , I was just grateful that I could get a comb through my hair .

And then the 90’s hit. I immersed myself in the neo-hippie movement. I would have traded my left kidney for Lisa Bonet’s locs. I also started seeing women with short afro’s and I fell in love. I fell in love with the beauty of their natural hair, but more importantly I fell in love with the freedom they enjoyed. They were free from chemicals, salon visits, and a fear of their hair reverting back to their natural state.

Queen Lisa Bonet

It was a long rode until I gathered the courage to chop of all of the chemicals. But when I did, I felt the most beautiful I had ever felt in my life. I have been natural for over 16 years and I have never once looked back. I have rocked short and long, black, brown, and auburn tresses.

7 day old twist out
Rocking my little afro in London and Beijing. I absolutely loved my short afro and wore it like that for over 10 years.
Trim day… Just call me Cousin It
My shrinkage is real!!! I love going to an unsuspecting beautician who thinks that straightening my hair will only take 30 minutes. It takes me at least 1 hr to 1.5 hrs to get through all of this .

A day does not go by where I am either stopped by strangers, my coworkers, or students and asked about the products I use or my regiment. I am still a tomboy and keep my regiment and products pretty simple. If there is any advice I would give to someone considering going or is currently natural it would be to deep condition on a weekly basis and find your hair type. I have low porosity which means my hair does not maintain moisture easily. I need the assistance of heat to penetrate my hair shaft. Deep conditioning under the dryer does wonders for my hair and assists with moisture retention. I also realized that my hair abhors proteins. As a result, the first thing I do when I consider trying any new product is to look at its ingredients. I run if I see any protein variant. I rarely straighten my hair, get regular trims, and eat a nutritious diet. Twists outs are my friends and I always sleep with a satin bonnet. My go to products are listed below.

My go to deep conditioner. I comb it through my hair after a wash with a paddle brush, cover with a plastic cap , and sit under the dryer for 30- 45 minutes every Saturday night.
I always mix my conditioner with olive oil for an added boost of moisture .
After I rinse the conditioner out of my hair, I comb argan oil through my hair before I apply my leave in conditioner below.
This leave- in is the truth for people with thick tresses like myself.
Learning to love your hair
Nothing holds my hair like pure African Shea Butter . I use this to twist my hair. I have tried countless other twisting agents but my hair only responds to pure shea butter. After I twist my freshly washed and deep conditioned hair, I let it air dry over night, leave it in twists the next day, and take them out on Monday and fluff for work 🙂

Feel free to email me if you have any additional questions. A review of Lalita Tamedy’s Red River is coming soon.