The Power of Language

Future rulers of Florida, from Robert N. Denni...
Future rulers of Florida, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This morning, a woman showed me a picture of her two grandchildren, two little girls. They were adorable, and I said as much, and immediately, she said, smiling, “they’re bad.”


I cringed. In the African-American community, I frequently hear parents and relatives refer to their little ones as “bad,” and when I’ve known the person saying it, I’ve asked them not to do it. Language is so important, and the word “bad” is not a feel-good word or a word that encourages empowerment and healthy self-esteem. If children are told they are bad, they will believe it and eventually, it act it out.


Saying kids are “bad” when they are, in fact, just kids being kids, is troubling.  I almost never hear white parents say that about their kids, not even when they’re in stores and throwing a tantrum. Too often, I suspect that African-American parents label normal developmental behavior as “bad,” those times of discovery which help a child connect to his or her world, and to him or herself.


I interviewed, once, a man who was a brilliant artist.  When he was little, he told me, he used to take markers or crayons, or something, and draw on the white tiles that were in his mother’s kitchen. (the kitchen had black and white tiles). He said his mother never scolded him, but allowed him to draw. Every night she would clean the tiles off, and the next day, he’d be at it again. His art work was phenomenal, and he said that he was so grateful that his mother had not yelled and screamed at him and called him “bad.”


I have never forgotten that story, and I firmly believe that we don’t pay enough attention to the language we use in general, but especially the language we use in addressing our children. I have noticed it in the African-American community, but I am sure it is not limited to our community. Whenever an adult, in the midst of a bad or tired moment, says something mean and disparaging to a child, it erodes that child’s sense of self and self-worth.


The language that has been used to describe African-Americans has been damaging. African-Americans have been described as “lazy,” and yet, so many African-Americans I know, and knew when I was growing up, worked two and three jobs to support their families. African-American students are called “low functioning,” and “slow,” and if they hear that, especially from teachers they love and respect, it damages their psyches.


When my children were in school, I was very careful to monitor how teachers talked to them. When my daughter was in an honor’s math class, the only African-American in her class, and was not doing so well at the beginning, her teacher called me in and expressed concern. From her remarks, I remember this one statement, “She is like a deer in the headlights.”


I fumed, and I told her that she might not want to ever say that to my daughter, that in my house, we practiced positive language and through that language, my children were encouraged to believe that they could do anything they put their minds to. I told the teacher that my daughter would be OK, because she had a mind to be OK, and she had the capability to be OK. I would talk with her as she cried through her math homework, and would tell her that she had the advantage over the little numbers on her paper; “after all,” I would say, “you have a brain. Those little numbers do not.” She got it. I mean, she got it that she should always believe in herself and not let anything convince her that she was less than who God had made her. She finished that math class with a B+. The teacher was astounded. I was not.


Parents have to understand the power of language. Our children love us; they want to be like us. If we call them stupid, they will believe it, and they will hate themselves. No person who does anything great does it by hating him or herself. African-Americans have grown up under a barrage of negative and damaging language. Our children have not liked their hair, their lips, the color of their skin …So much of what we are as African-Americans has been described as “bad,” and too many of us drank the kool-aid!  We need to understand how toxic language affected us as individuals and as a people… we have got to understand that and do better.


We will find that if we use positive and empowering language with our children, we will begin to use it with ourselves as well. Many of us grew up with “old school” parents who called us names and put us down …but we don’t have to continue that cycle. We have a choice. We may not have the level of self-esteem we want, or have even needed thus far in order to squeeze all of life out of the lives we have …but we can certainly improve our lives and what we do while we are alive if we talk to ourselves and affirm ourselves, no matter what we have been told in the past.

We are, all of us, full of capabilities and possibilities. We are all rather like Watty Piper‘s The Little Engine that Could. We really are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, and so are our children. It is our job as adults to convince to the children that, “yes, they can!”


I hope those two little girls, so cute, don’t hear at home that they’re “bad.” I hope they are inquisitive and curious and lively and excited about life, and that they are encouraged to be so. That’s one of the most important things we can do to end cycles of low self-esteem and feelings of quiet desperation.


A candid observation…


African-Americans and PTSD

Sign for "colored" waiting room at a...
Sign for “colored” waiting room at a Greyhound bus terminal in Rome, Georgia, 1943. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In  book that I am writing, I offer the opinion that African-Americans have suffered or do suffer from post traumatic stress disorder due to racism.

Somebody will groan, but the possibility of this being very true is real. Racism, or acts of violence due to racism, have done nothing short of creating terror in the hearts of individuals and the African-American community as a whole.

I can remember my mother telling us to be careful and to be wary of police officers, because they were not “always on the side of African-Americans.” I can remember doing stories as a reporter where individuals had been terrorized, brutalized by police, but were afraid to talk about it.

In earlier times, African-Americans were terrorized by the ever-present possibility of being lynched, with no legal protection against the same. In fact, it very often turned out that those who participated in lynchings or those in the Ku Klux Klan were members of the judicial system, charged to protect all citizens. That “all” did not include African-Americans.

African-Americans have seen loved ones cut down by law enforcement officers and get away with it. Neither the courts nor the jury system have been particularly “safe” these members of American society.

An article I read in The New England Journal of Medicine said that symptoms of PTSD include high anxiety,depression, bouts of anger…maladies which are all too often found in the African-American community in large numbers.

African-Americans have learned to cope and to push through the barriers put in place by institutional and structural racism, but the end-result of having to fight harder than the majority population for a “place” in this society, for decent and right treatment, for civil rights…has been a group of people who have developed a specialized set of coping mechanisms. We are here not because of the U.S. Constitution, and have made gains not because of the Constitution or of democracy, but in spite of those two supposed guarantees.

My musings on this made me think about what America would be like if such a large segment of its population were not working with and through PTSD. Even our children, caught too often in poor public schools in horrible condition that legislators seem to care nothing about, suffer. From the time they come out of the  womb, people who are “pro-life” turn their backs on them and begin to count them as part of the banes of our society, participants in entitlement programs that are considered a waste of American dollars.

I am not sure of the treatment for PTSD, but I do know that when people are traumatized, it causes a change in behavior. What the mind has seen and internalized cannot be extinguished or erased. There are people who have been traumatized in a number of different ways, years ago, who are still suffering as though the trauma happened only yesterday.

If it is (and I think it is) the case that African-Americans suffer from PTSD due to racism, how can it be fixed?  It seems pretty clear to me that if such a large segment of our nation is suffering from a disorder due to the way racism has flourished in this country, that something ought to be done about it so that we do not keep on repeating acts of domestic terrorism, albeit more subtle than before, that adversely affect citizens of our nation.

It seems to be that no nation can be as great as it has been intended to be if any segment of its population is so systematically and consciously terrorized and basically ignored.

Just a candid observation…

What to Do with African-Americans?

While the country girds up for this 2012 presidential election, I found myself last night thinking of how far America has to go when it comes to her African-American citizens.

I was in a roomful of people, primarily African-American. At issue was a discussion of changes that will take place in their neighborhood. A housing development is slated to be demolished, and residents are being relocated. There was some anger, some cynicism, and some resentment. For me, though, there was sadness.

America is always trying to figure out what to do with “them,” African-Americans. That “them” includes me.

I said to the person sitting next to me, “Why is it that it’s always African-Americans who are displaced?”  Interstate highways have traditionally been run through African-American neighborhoods. When gentrification becomes a standard in a city, again, African-Americans, primarily, but also anyone who is unlucky to live in the path of urban renewal districts, get relocated.

It doesn’t feel right.

There was a huge effort by the people handling the community forum to comfort and encourage the residents, but I could tell it wasn’t really “taking.” “What is the plan you have for our neighborhood?” asked one woman. “Where are you locating us? Where are the people who have already been relocated?” asked another.

I found myself getting sadder and sadder, and also wondering what I’d feel like if I were about to be relocated, God only knows where. What would I feel like if the only home I’d ever known was going to be demolished? There is a connection people have between their homes and their neighborhoods, and their very selves. When that is disturbed, people lose an important anchor, and all of us need anchors that we can depend on, no matter what.

One woman stood up and invited all of the people in that room – about 200 or so – to visit her neighborhood, to see that it was and is a good neighborhood, and so are its residents, those who remain. There was pain in her voice. As she talked, she held her little girl,who looked at her with the widest eyes, as if waiting to see the sign that her mommy needed to be comforted.

It seems that “we,” African-Americans, are always the negotiable portion of any deal. It’s OK to go to our neighborhoods, it’s OK to uproot us…and as the wheels of progress turn, it seems that, far too often, America is wondering what to do with “us.”

This apparent inability to appreciate African-Americans and to wonder what to do with “them” (us)  unless they (we) are helping to build this economy has a history to it; our beloved President Abraham Lincoln wondered if, after the Civil War, we might be willing to be shipped back to Africa.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there was “the question” again: what do we do with “them,” the poor African-Americans who have lost everything?

It feels like we’re still regarded as chattel,and it doesn’t feel good.

At the end of the day, the people in this neighborhood in my city will be “moved,” and the planned development will go on as planned. The planners promise to include those in the neighborhood as they actually do make the plan and put it into place. That’s nice. That’s good and right…but last night I didn’t feel any spirit of gratitude in that room.

The little girl whose mother spoke clung to her mother’s hand as they left the meeting, and as I watched them, I found myself whispering to myself, “Hold on, little girl, and grow up to know your worth and your power.” I wondered why I whispered that, and I guess it’s because I feel that still, way too many of “them” (us) don’t know our worth and power. And so we continue to be moved, shuffled, escorted out of the way of the American dream.

It’s as though our dreams don’t matter, and it feels like we as a people have bought into that ethos. If we don’t dream, the let-down won’t hurt so bad.

The heck with that. We need to dream more, and dream with audacity and tenacity, so that in the future, the planners-that-be won’t be able to move us as easily as they have in the past.

Enough is enough.

A candid observation …