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…

African-American Males not Safe in America

When my son was little, people would stop, white people, I mean, and would say how cute he was.

He was cute. He still is…well, handsome, now, but when they would stop and proclaim how cute he was, I found myself thinking “yeah, as long as he’s little, he’s cute, but when he grows up, he’ll be just another black male.”  I resented what I knew to be true, but I would smile at the well-meaning people, and say “thank you.”

After all, he was cute.

When he went to a private school, he was one of two or three African-American boys in his third grade class. He had ADHD, and was frequently “in trouble” for being fidgety or disruptive. His third grade teacher seemed really not to like him, but I shrugged it off, thinking I was being overly sensitive.

But then one day, I ventured into his room. The students had behavior logs on their desks, and most had stars or stickers on their logs, but not my son. On his son, the teacher had drawn great big black “X’s, with the comment, “You are bad.” I was furious. I complained to the school administrators, who apologized profusely and said they were sure the teacher meant no harm.

Meant no harm? I talked with the mothers of the other two African-American boys and found out that this teacher had said to the three boys that they were a “gang.”  I remembered back when my son had asked what a gang was and I’d told him. He’d asked, “Is a gang bad?” And I said “yes,” never knowing that I was feeding into the message that his third grade teacher had given him, that he and his two African-American classmates were a “gang” and therefore, “bad.”

Then, there was the moment when I decided to put him on Ritalin. I fought it, but I was fighting a battle with school teachers who continually put him down, had low expectations, and labeled him as a behavior problem. I choked back tears when he got into my car after having taken the Ritalin for two days and said, “Mommy, for two years, I was bad. Now I’m good.”

It is important to say that I struggled to make sure I protected his spirit, strong-willed as he is. He is a brilliant young man, as he was a brilliant child. His spirit was his gift from God, and so I fought to protect it from those who sought to snuff it out. I shared with him how incredibly powerful his spirit was, and that he was to always remember that.

He was and is independent; he speaks his mind. I didn’t want him to lose those qualities, but I had to give him “the talk,” telling him how to act and react if he were ever stopped by police officers, telling him how he had to look out and be extra careful when he was out because he would always be more closely scrutinized. I told him not to hang out with kids who got into trouble, because if he was with a kid who got into trouble, he’d be picked up, too. I was working, even as he was a little boy, to save his life from the likes of people, who, when he was little, called him “cute.”

He graduated from high school with honors. He is a brilliant young man, and a talented writer and musician. He is still strong-willed and independent. He lives in New York and is doing “his thing.” And he is still alive and not in jail, thank God.

I thought about him, and have been thinking about him, as I have struggled with my feelings about what happened to Trayvon Martin. It is only by the grace of God that my son is alive and Trayvon is dead. I am getting angrier and angrier at America’s penchant for wielding injustice toward people of color, especially African-American males. I actually scoffed this morning when I heard a man on CNN say to the public to let justice run its course.

I don’t believe in American justice as pertains to African-Americans in general, and for African-American males in particular.

I wrote yesterday that racism is as American as is apple pie. It is especially noticeable when it comes to matters of justice. Our American history is peppered with tales of injustice in the lives of African-Americans, from the reality to slavery to the serious breaches of morality and ethical actions toward African-Americans once slavery no longer existed.

America has been the teacher to the world on how black people should be treated, so much so that not only in America, but everywhere, one would rather be anything but dark-skinned.

Walking hand-in-hand with racism has been white America’s arrogance, which has given a sense of entitlement and justification to treat African-Americans as sub-human and second-class citizens.

I am praying that George Zimmerman is arrested.  A young man is dead for doing nothing, and for being guilty of nothing other than being an African-American wearing a hoodie and therefore looking “suspicious.”  African-Americans, especially males, are not safe in America. Something is very, very wrong.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the 19th century, but isn’t it unfortunate that in the 21st century, African-Americans are still held captive by racism and a justice system which has been anything but just for us? In fact, that justice system has been little more than a tool to put more and more African-Americans in new plantations called prisons …or in their graves.

It’s nice that white people thought my son was cute when he was little; I’ll bet they said the same thing about Trayvon when he was little, too. But cute little black boys are not safe in America, not once they grow up.

A candid observation…