Of Hair and Origin

In this guest blogpost, Tricia Amiel, a mother, writer, adjunct instructor and former teacher, takes an introspective and candid look into the intersection of race, identity and self-perception.  She divulges some hard truths and hurts that emanate from others asking her questions about her roots.  Then, in turning affliction into learning opportunity, she discusses how she had students turn questions about origin and identity back on themselves, and what both she and her students learned about the power that emanates from knowledge of self. 

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When I tell some people that I am Jamaican, the first thing they want to know about is my hair.  My hair is long, very dark and “smooth.”  It is naturally very wavy, but is easily made straight.  As a little girl in elementary school, I was either a fascination or the object of disdain; they said I was conceited, that I thought myself to be better than other girls because my hair was so different from theirs.  It was “good hair,” of a quality that at the time I didn’t understand was supposed to be better, more beautiful than theirs.  It didn’t help that I was smart and my teachers favored me, but my hair was the sorest point of contention with the other girls in the schoolyard.

It used to annoy me, that request to know about my hair, the misguided guesses about my origins—I was thought at various times to be Cuban, Dominican, “mixed” with Native American, anything but what I am—and my annoyance led me to reply in a sometimes vague, often sarcastic way.  I’m human, I would say, or, my hair came from my head.  Now, a student of Multicultural Literatures, African American and Caribbean philosophy, I understand that there is a lot that people don’t know about the Caribbean.  It seemed to me that many people were purposefully ignorant, that they went out of their way to NOT know, but now I think so much is hidden from us, and that as human beings in a world divided along lines of color, belief, and politics to name a few, we seek to categorize people, place them in spaces that we understand and control rather than assume that there are things we don’t know.

Until recently, I was a ninth grade English and Drama teacher at a South Florida high school in the “green zone,” one of those areas in which teachers were paid a slightly greater salary for their bravery.  It is a low-performing, mostly black, Hispanic, and immigrant school with few resources, set far away from other, newer, “better” schools.  There too, my hair was a fascination, a curiosity, to students and staff alike.  It was the genuine curiosity and lack of knowledge in my students that changed my sarcastic tone to a didactic one; I saw that they wanted to know.  I assigned a project to my English classes, called  “Where I’m From.”  Students were to seek out ancestors–parents, grandparents, any elder family member at all–and interview them about their family’s origins.  They were encouraged to write essays, create posters of family photos of each generation they could, pictures or drawings of flags, national colors, foods, and historical information.

One student presented a recording of his Cuban great-grandmother’s voice telling the story of her emigration to the United States, hidden on a cargo boat, nearly dying of starvation. Another had a very old family album, full of bIack and white photos of great and great-great family members, labeled with names and dates as far back as the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Still, I heard things that saddened me deeply, especially from my minority students; for example, a Haitian student wrote that black people had come to Haiti from France, denying vehemently her African origins and history of slavery and the successful revolution carried out by slaves.  Some Hispanic students did not understand that Spanish was not just the name of the language they spoke, but also the adjective describing people from Spain—not Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or Mexico—that they spoke Spanish because Spain had colonized those places, and that some of their ancestors were native Indians.  Many African American students were unable to see beyond the neighborhood they lived in, posting things like the area code and gang colors on their poster boards.  They took pride in what they did know, but did not know as much as they should in a time when history’s pages are more open and questioning of tradition than ever before.

I did the project along with them, using the colors of the Jamaican flag for my poster, included pictures of my family that were taken at my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party, pictures of Arawak Indians, stories about the Maroons, the arrival of the Chinese and East Indians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and Rastafarian religious practices, a group for whom the “dread” style of hair that so many of them had adopted had significant meaning.  I also included pictures of my high school in the Bronx, where my maternal grandmother, whose own half-Chinese countenance fascinated my students, had emigrated to from Jamaica after living for many years in England.  I told them my paternal grandmother was East Indian, that she had black hair that fell to her waist, and that I’d been told  my coloring and bone structure were like hers; I knew little else.

In those facts, my students finally understood the story of my hair and the truth, as best I could tell it, of my origins.  The thing that had so annoyed me became the medium through which I was able to teach the value of knowing where you’re from, understanding your own personal history within the larger frame of historical knowledge.  Look in the mirror, I told them; see yourself.  In the mirror lies the beginning of your story.  A story that includes the people, the ancestors of your past, and the history of how you came to be.  Look for answers, I told them.  Try to find some truth; try to find out who you were, so that you can know who you are.

Tricia Amiel

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Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

Carla 3

As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/