Skin Game

My reflection on diversity and parenting for

By Ambata Kazi-Nance, Guest Blogger

My son and I were having dinner a few nights ago when he started talking about his school day.

“Eloise gave me her skin, Mama,” he said with a laugh.

“I’m sorry, she did what?”

“Her skin, her pink skin.”

Now, being the mother of a brown boy, alarm bells started ringing loudly in my head. Part of me has been preparing since the day he was born—for the day when he came home emotionally bruised from his first confrontation with racism. Thoughts and images of a white child making my son feel inferior because of his brown skin immediately flooded my brain.

“We were sharing skin,” he said with glee. “She gave me her pink skin for my cheeks, and I gave her my brown skin for her cheeks.”

I looked at his little smiling face. Two four-year-old children: one black American, one white…

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Shop in a Box

I went to the new Costco with a friend the other day, my first time. The big box store sits at the cusp of Uptown New Orleans on a long-abandoned (since Katrina) patch of land that used to be a strip mall right off the interstate. Construction was a long, ghastly process that involved rerouting streets and adding stoplights. Maybe it’s just me but seems like you have to have a hefty dose of arrogance to do that much work for a business that could potentially fail. Anyway, that’s not the point of why I’m writing this.

As we walked around the seemingly endless aisles of neatly packaged, processed foods in what looked like lifetime supplies, stopping at the sampling stations to eat tiny cups of lentil soup and pieces of almond biscotti, I tried to put a word on what I was feeling, or rather the feeling of the store. Isolated. Antiseptic. Those were two words that came to me later. And now—Dead. Ok more like comatose. It had a pulse, but weak. I imagined this is what all shopping will be like in the future. A “Wall-E” kind of life. All of us pushing our enormous shopping carts, filling them with chemical-saturated “food” items—that is if we can still walk right?

A few days after that shopping experience I had to go buy some shoes for my son. My first thought was another big box store, where all the shoes are stuffed on shelves that you have to dig through to hopefully find the pair you like, in the size you need, with both shoes in the box. Oh, and no one helps you. You have to wander around just to find someone who works there, only to have them tell you if it isn’t on the shelf, they don’t have it.

I was about to head there when I remembered there’s a kids’ shoe store, Haase’s, on historic Oak St. I almost nixed it because I assumed the prices would be too high but I figured why not. It was a beautiful day and if nothing else I could enjoy the walk. As soon as I walked in I was greeted by a sales clerk. I named my price and the size I needed and she brought me a half dozen shoes. She sat down with me and told me what to look for in kids’ shoes, what constituted a good fit, what brands were most popular and got the most positive reviews, the whole time telling jokes. I felt like I was having tea with an old, good friend, not a saleslady I had just met. I left the store with a new pair of shoes for my son, practically in tears over the excellent service I received. I wanted to kick up my heels or do a Fred Astaire spin around a lamppost.

I chided myself for being silly. It was just an errand, a trip to a shoe store. But it was a reminder to me of why shopping local, and shopping small stores, matters. That big Costco stands like an impenetrable fort. It has the financial power to move streets. That little shoe store, established in 1921, doesn’t have that power. It’s not a fort. It’s more like a cozy little cave. And I hope it never leaves.

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Infinite Design

It’s happened to me several times in my adult life that I’ve come into contact with people who are obviously not familiar with the likes of me. I was born and raised in the South; one of the greatest offenses you can commit is not speaking to people, and worse, not returning a greeting—at least that’s what I was taught. But it seems like the golden rule of Southern hospitality has either died out or doesn’t apply to people like me.

On more occasions than I’d care to count, I’ve spoken to people in passing and gotten icy stares and even hostile looks in return. Why? Because I’m different. I’m a Muslim. I wear a headscarf and long sleeves in the summer. Now, the hostile looks I can actually accept more than the stunned faces, the looks of fear and discomfort, the un-sureness of how to handle this situation. Walking up to a friend’s apartment once a few years ago, I came upon a group of kids playing on the sidewalk. I did what was natural to me: smiled and said hello. The children stopped their play and stared at me with not exactly fear but unease.

Now I know a headscarf is different but is it that different? Such reactions are foreign to me and the way I grew up. My neighborhood was mostly African American but my elementary school was not. My friends were Asian, Latino, black, white, African, and bi and multiracial. I don’t remember ever having a conversation about race. We understood our differences and accepted them as just that. It didn’t affect our ability to play together.

I was raised to appreciate diversity, but in an abstract way. We went to cultural events, we listened to music from around the world, and we tried different foods. In our home we had a large map of the world pinned to a wall in the kitchen. I grew up with that map. We didn’t talk explicitly about diversity; we just lived it in the sense of being open. We participated in activities and events that forced us to interact with children and adults from backgrounds and lifestyles that were very different from our own. I was raised to understand that the way the world looked outside my window was only a tiny fragment of the greater dynamic picture.

What got me thinking about diversity was a book I read as part of the “American Stories, Muslim Journeys” program I signed up for at my local library. In Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, writer and activist Eboo Patel, tells his story of growing up an Indian American Muslim and how he became involved in interfaith social work and eventually started his own interfaith youth movement, the Interfaith Youth Core. One of the strongest points Patel makes is that diversity is a “spiritual principle,” that human beings are supposed to be diverse. Indeed the Quran says:

O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you     into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (49:13).

It’s in our nature to appreciate diversity: in visual art, music, and, of course, food. (I’ve heard people say awful things about “Mexicans”—a term used indiscriminately for anyone from any country in South America—but I bet they eat burritos). But when it comes to diversity of people, we get caught up in the differences instead of the similarities.

As Patel argues in Acts of Faith, the consequences of rejecting diversity can be dire. Most people see others who are different from them and view them as strange and therefor inferior. That level is disturbing enough. But some who grow up in isolated communities take it a step further and grow hostile and then angry over encountering people who are different from them. That anger can lead to hate, and that hate can and does lead to violence. Given all the violent crimes against “others,” I’m grateful that all I’ve ever received is a few mean looks.

One of the criticisms I often hear of efforts to encourage appreciation of diversity, like interfaith work or other programs and organizations that try to bring people from different backgrounds together, is that it’s “shallow.” That’s valid. These efforts usually offer short term “feel good” moments that dissolve once people return to their respective communities. But I believe that even shallow diversity is a step in the right direction. If we can sit in the same room together we’ve already made more progress than many others. Of course the biggest drawback to this type of diversity work is that it “preaches to the choir.” Bigots and extremists don’t usually attend those types of events.

So how do we foster an appreciation for true diversity? Live it. Make the connections between the foods you eat and the music and art you consume with the places and people where those things came from. Buy a world map and study it. Talk to people. Ask questions. Have respect for the person speaking a language foreign to them in a land foreign to them. Look at the differences in people’s skin colors like you look at the different colors in a painting. And teach it to your kids or any children you have a relationship with.

The mistake often made by well-meaning people is to say that we’re all the same. We are all the same, in the sense that we’re human beings, but we’re all also different. The objective isn’t to erase the differences nor always highlight them, just to acknowledge they exist and not pass judgment based on them. We are as God created us to be. As my four-year-old son lovingly proclaimed one day while we were out walking, “God made us all from clay, and then He painted us different colors!” Or like a friend who said, observing a newborn baby, “God never runs out of designs.”

As for me, I just keep smiling and saying hello, because that’s what comes naturally to me. I take a deep breath and brush it off when people are rude to me. Because I feel like that smile or hello from the weird lady with the scarf still makes an impact. For the rest of their lives they’ll have a memory of a Muslim woman who smiled at them.

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The Frenetic Reading Life, or Reading in My Thirties


Confession: I am a book adulterer. In my teens and 20’s, school reading aside, I was strictly monogamous. I picked up a book and stuck with it till the end, even if I wasn’t really feeling it. I didn’t even look at another book until I was done with the current one. I held a moment of silence at the close of each book before seeking my next one.

Then came my thirties. I had a baby. I was in graduate school. The word “projects” (as in, So what projects are you working on?) has become a regular part of my vocabulary. Everything’s sped up. Now life just seems too short to take it one book at a time.

So right now I’m sampling six books. It’s like a book buffet; I just want to taste them all.

I’ll start with a chapter of Tariq Ramadan’s In The Footsteps of the Prophet to feed my soul first. Then switch up with Camille Helminski’s Women of Sufism because it’s filled with a past and present tradition I knew little about and lots of spiritual gems to savor.

Then I’m working three desserts: Zorro by Isabel Allende (second read, I love her writing), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (because there’s always room for magical realism), and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, a heavy hitter of race and class in an immigrant coming-of-age story. Depending on which one tugs at me the most, I’ll likely finish these one by one.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is the side dish, the lagniappe, the ehh, why not? It’s exactly the type of book I would normally skip over so of course I had to check it out. I may just take a few bites or poke around till I feel like I’m done. Because that’s the plus side of the frenetic reading life: I’m ok with not finishing a book. Life goes on.

The 30’s reading life is what it is. So many books, so little time. I imagine when I hit my 50’s maybe I’ll revert back to the monogamy of my 20’s, when life slows down. It’s hard to imagine now. But hey, even now, all I need is a book, one book, and I’ve got a full meal.

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The Book I Was Born To Write

Have you ever read a book and thought: this is it, this is the book I was born to write? Not in the sense of, ‘oh let me put my pen away, it’s already been written’ but in the sense of, ‘yes! That’s it, I do need to write, I do have a story to tell.’ Not the story itself but the book, the style of writing, the unique, real voice like nothing you’ve ever heard before that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, a story so well told, so vividly detailed that it fills you with nostalgia for a life—the people, the places, the language, the smells, the tastes—that isn’t yours and could never be yours, but you almost wish it could. Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros, is that book for me.

Why this book? Well because it’s a literary gumbo, and I’m a New Orleans girl, so I love gumbo: it’s a multigenerational family history, a road trip novel, a coming-of-age story, a bilingual, multicultural, transnational stew of stories centered around a Mexican American family as told by Celaya Reyes, the youngest child and only girl in the family who believes telling “healthy lies” is part of being a good storyteller. I read it for the first time in 2006 and just finished it again and am reminded of all the reasons why I love this book.

One of the blurbs on the back cover describes it as “joyful” and “fizzy” and that is exactly what it is. It’s the equivalent of taking your first sip of Coke. I mean your first sip ever. What gives the book that buzz is the voice of the narrator. I love the way she tosses in Spanish words and Mexican Spanglish slang as she tells us her stories and the way that she captures the speech and mannerisms of her family members so precisely I swear I can hear them talking. It’s like when you’re watching a really good foreign language movie and you’re so into the story that you no longer realize they’re speaking a language you don’t understand.

I love all the details of the story, the way Cisneros puts the Reyes family life under the microscope for us to see all the little bits that make them a whole. And I love the magical realism of the novel, how the deceased grandmother resurrects herself to help Celaya tell the story, whether Celaya wants her help or not. While the book is very funny it is also a very tender portrait of a flawed father trying to correct the shame of his past by being a constant presence in his children’s lives. Overall the book leaves me with a reminder that human beings are complex and in that complexity, beautiful. By the time I finished the novel I felt like I was a part of the Reyes family, like Celaya and I were close friends or sisters, like I was Celaya. That’s a good book.

So this is the story I want to write. A book that shines the spotlight on the type of life I have lived: a black Creole Muslim girl from the South, growing up around Afrocentrism, black nationalism, Islam, and Creole culture, because out in the world outside of myself, it seems sometimes as if I don’t exist. There’s no such thing as a black Creole Muslim from the South. Because the thing is, if no one ever gives voice to a certain community, no one will ever know it exists. No one will ever know its vibrancy or its dynamism. So I want to do what Cisneros does for Mexican American culture, peeling back the surface and showing us the many layers of Mexican life, all the way down to its beating heart. I want to do that.

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Write On, Write Over, Write Through

Wouldn't this be great to have in your home office? When is the right time to write? "Write now."..... ... ..................The black book of ideas #work #career #office #dream #love #passion #business #meeting


“I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written.” Dorothy Parker

                My main reason for starting this blog is because I think it is a great step towards becoming a writer. I am a writer in the sense that I have written: short stories, poems, magazine articles, tons of research papers, editorials, I’ve even written a thesis; but I often feel unqualified to call myself a writer because I don’t write consistently. I sit down in front of my computer like I’ve been put in time out. In elementary school the common punishment for failing to follow the class rules was to stand in the corner and face the wall. My computer has become the equivalent of that wall.

I find every excuse possible to avoid writing. I need to do the dishes. There’s a load of laundry that isn’t going to wash itself. I want to read another chapter of my book before my son comes home from school. It’s so pretty outside; I’ll just stare out the window for a while. I think I just heard my phone ding with a new text message. I find myself avoiding writing like us Muslims avoid pork and alcohol. (“There’s no writing in this, is there?”)

Like Ms. Parker, I love having written. I love seeing my name and words in print. I love the feeling of accomplishment. I love the artistry of writing, how plain old English words can come together to make beautiful sentences. But getting to the writing desk is like getting into the dentist’s chair and what’s worse is the knowledge that— I really don’t have to do this. I don’t have to write. No one is forcing me to do this—except me. I feel compelled to write. I compose stories and sentences in my head. I even dream that I’m writing. My head practically bursts with ideas and words and I feel so alive and full of energy and then I sit in front the computer and…nothing. All the pent up emotion and energy deflates like a balloon with too much air. Pppffffttt. Empty.

But eventually I get beyond that point. The air comes back in, slowly now. It’s like the rush of foam that rises when you pour a fresh Coke into a glass, then the settling. The spark is still there, it’s bubbling, but the initial buzz has faded. Oddly enough, that’s when the real writing begins. Not the foam but the bubbles. That’s where the writing is. Because the real writing doesn’t move as fast as the ideas. Our fingers can’t keep up with the rush of ideas that flow to the surface. We have to let them settle first, because writing is a process. You have to sip it slowly, not gulp it down. Sip it slowly so the bubbles can last.

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