Oh, sweet Maya

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Dr. Maya Angelou’s words decorate the walls of our classrooms, fete the ceremonies of presidents, and illuminate the conscience of a nation. By formal account, she was a poet, playwright, memoirist, dancer, singer, stage actress, streetcar conductor, single mother, college professor, civil rights activist, and cultural humanitarian. But, perhaps most importantly, she was ours.

With the rare clarity that comes from lived experience, Maya Angelou captured the curious reality of the American black girl; the girl who awakens to a home she is told, is not hers. The paradox of being born black and female in America is that although you are as quintessential to the American story as the slave trade that brought your ancestors, by virtue of your existence, you are displaced. Despite birthing the generations whose unpaid labor sustained the American economy for more than a century, it is the black woman who lives as a foreigner in her own home. As the social construction of race animates and personifies blackness, the color of her skin eclipses the content of her character. Thus historically, it is the African-American woman’s blackness that shrouds her femininity and obscures her nativity. It renders both her beauty and her personhood, foreign. She is the acquired taste. And as she awaits her palatability, she remains in the shadows.

But as Maya showed us, the shadow is not just a vacuous darkness left in the background. It is the evidence that you exist, that you were here, and that the sun shone down on you. By embracing the lived experience of our blackness, Maya helped us embrace the light in which black women were cast into existence. We were aching to be seen and see us, she did.

The lens with which Dr. Maya Angelou captured the African American experience was transcendent. She humanized us. As she recounted the lives of her mother, brother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, she gave living testimony to the pain, humor, love, and tension that pulses beneath the surface of American life. She made survival a virtue and cast black girls as repositories of the national wisdom held in the seemingly insignificant happenings that pepper everyday life. She refused to trivialize the lives of children, the poor, or African-Americans, despite the fact that they so often go unnoticed or uncelebrated. Revealing our inner truths like nursery rhymes, exclaiming our bountiful beauty with exacting wit and unwavering reverence, she told us of a woman, who was once a girl, who was once a black girl in the south, who was once invisible (and mute). Rendering us visible with the audacity of her authenticity, she offered us voice and if you are like me, you took it.

Truly good prose looks into the deepest crannies of human experience, and reveals you, to yourself. By bravely telling her story, Maya told our story. Standing in a line of Sojourner Truth’s, Phillis Wheatley’s, Gwendolyn Brook’s, Rita Dove’s, Audre Lorde’s, Nikki Giovanni’s, Alice Walker’s, and scores of other black female poets, playwrights, and authors, she shone a light onto the very soul of us. I know why the caged bird sings. It sings because Maya lifted its very existence, that it might know it was made to soar.

Maya once said that the greatest thing you can say to another person is thank you because thank you is what you say to God. Where words fail to capture the depth of my sorrow for her loss and the extent of my gratitude for the life she lived and the words she left us to live by, I say, Maya, oh sweet Maya, thank you. You will be missed because you were always ours.

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A New Kind of Feminism

Sheryl Sandberg recently published a book entitled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead that some have touted as a rebirth of the American feminist movement. Others, disagree.

As an African-American pediatrician, I find the idea that women need to lean in to institutional positions of leadership to exert influence, problematic. It ignores the impact girls and women of color, who often exist outside the established order, have in our world. If we are going to assume a new feminist decree, it can’t be follow men to power. In the age of globalization and social media, the table of ideas is wide and growing and includes anyone with the courage to speak their mind. The future of feminism must abandon the constraints of traditional hierarchies, validate positions of influence women already assume in their world, and recognize the power of partnerships across cultural and gender lines. We don’t need to lean in to established hegemony, we need to change the game.

Let me explain.

Women already have power. Comprising 51% of the population, women make or influence 85% of all purchasing decisions in the United States – that’s anything from buying cars and computers to purchasing healthcare. In sum, women generate $6 trillion dollars a year in consumer spending (that’s six times the 2012 federal deficit). With the struggling auto industry, surge in online technology, and new changes in healthcare, women are literally at the center of the markets that are defining the ways we live, move, communicate, and stay healthy, and their influence is growing. In the 31% of marriages where women work, women now out-earn their husbands and it is estimated that in the next decade, women will control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the United States.

And it’s not just women – girls are also out-performing their male counterparts in age appropriate activities like high school completion and college enrollment; a statistic that holds true despite the girl’s race/ethnicity. If education is the path to increasing earning potential, as the data suggests it is, girls are already on track to follow their predecessors as the primary wage earners and financial decision makers for their families and communities. And if the Girl Scouts are any example, the first cookie was sold in 1917 at a high school bake-sale and is now a $700 million empire, girls already wield power too.

When 1 in 11 women now own their own business and young women of color are progressing to new heights in higher education, it is time to use the power women already possess to create equity across society. And not just gender equity.

I think we need a new kind of feminism, the kind that is not just about women (gasp) and their individual success.

This kind of feminism recognizes that the plight of women to overcome the psychological and institutional barriers to self-actualization, is shared.

This kind of feminism embraces the issues of other marginalized populations, issues like institutional racism, immigration, gay marriage, and growing economic inequality and poverty in the US.

At its core, this kind of feminism is about authenticity and choice – the ability to be oneself (whatever that means) and choose and control one’s destiny, whether that be for control of one’s body, one’s career, or one’s position in society.

It is not about having “women [run] half of our countries and companies and men [run] half of our homes.” It is about building and sustaining institutional constructs where every individual, regardless of race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or gender, can choose, and work hard to obtain, the life they want, for themselves and their families.

Ultimately, it is not about leaning in, it is about reaching out. In the age of open access technology and social networks, empowered consumers are increasingly defining national conversations that can inform and change the political and cultural agenda – building spheres of influence that are no longer beholden to traditional hierarchies of leadership. Today, collective action matters; and closing the gender gap requires more than a singular vision of what individual women “should” be doing. It is time to harness the power that girls and women already possess to create a new feminist decree: Equality, for all!

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Black History 2.0

If looking back to move forward is “Progress 1.0,” what is the relevance of Black History in a multicultural world?

It is estimated that by year 2050, White Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic group in the United States. And, if you live in California, as I do, that is already true for individuals who are less than 18, among whom Latinos now comprised greater than 50% of the population.

Clearly, the cultural landscape of our country is changing and it is becoming more, and not less, culturally diverse. Increasing diversity will present both opportunity and challenge. Meeting this future with humility and understanding will require more than the superficial litany of facts and firsts that has become modern Black History Month. So how do we collectively engage the American story in a way that responds to the burgeoning questions of our time?

To start, let’s ask the difficult questions that Black History may help us answer. Like:

What does it mean to assimilate when the majority culture is comprised of minority populations? Will the concept of “passing” or assuming the cultural identity of the dominant (historically White) culture divide Latinos into white and non-white groups (a distinction our census already supports)? If so, will socioeconomic divisions, political allegiance, or race be the greatest determinant of cultural affiliation?

Is Rosa Park’s influence limited to her seat on the bus? If so, do we ignore the early influence of women of color in cultural movements? How does a woman’s position in society impact her ability to affect cultural change?

What are the commonalities between the US Civil War and the War on Terror? When the language of war is entangled with the language of cultural affiliation, how does that impact our modern understanding of prejudice and patriotism? And, how does that impact a population’s opportunity for upward mobility?

What can understanding the Middle Passage lend to current immigration debates? Does how you arrive matter and ultimately shape your destiny? What suffering is endured for the illusive American dream? And, is it worth it?

How does the color of one’s skin affect one’s health? When medically under-served populations enter the majority, how will that shape our national health policy agenda and our priorities for federal funding of health science research?

As a young pediatrician I certainly do not know the answers to all of these questions. But as a former student of African American Studies, I do know how Black History folds into American History in ways that impact our collective future. In my mind, as many fields, including medicine, seek to re-define their relevance in an evolving world, a world increasingly influenced by the growing presence of brown voices and cultures, Black History Month remains one of the few opportunities to publicly engage issues of race, ethnicity, and culture, and the ways those constructs gain meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, to remain relevant in our future, Black History Month must be rooted in the present. The time to broaden our national lexicon of cultural understanding and make sense of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, is always now.