When we had a problem in our home growing up, my mother would call a family meeting. The four of us — my mother, father, sister, and me — would gather at the kitchen table. My mother held court — her arms folded across her chest, often peering over her bifocals. My father sat silently looking down at the ground or table, fiddling with his enormous cocoa hands. My sister, seven years my junior, would steal glances at me (she and I both trying to figure out which of us was in trouble).
Our family meetings were rarely about goodness. Goodness, we deemed, could be discussed anywhere, at any time. In fact, my mama shouted goodness from the rooftops every chance she got — putting bumper stickers on her car, sending announcements to extended family members, bragging about her babies to coworkers. My dad’s goodness glee came in more muted tones. Dad didn’t need details to substantiate his love and pride in his babies.
The opposite of goodness is not badness, but instead not-rightness, offness, something that misaligned with our values in our family. Our family meetings were as comfortable as splinters in your thumb, a pebble in your shoe, or a picture frame that hangs almost straight above your living room couch. On the other side of a family meeting, there was no relief or happiness. There was clarity, accountability, and a commitment to do better or at least try knowing that we had and loved each other no matter what.
My mother is gone and as her oldest, I imagine her responsibility has fallen to me. In that vein, I am calling a family meeting on this last Sunday of May in the year of our Lord 2021, sometime between the 9AM service and brunch. Meet me at the table.
I want to start first by saying that I love you more than words can describe. This community of BIPOC educators (and our allies) has provided a sounding board, safe space, and strong learning community for me over the past decade. In my hardest moments, you have helped me bury my parents, pay my rent, and feel loved without reservation. It is because of that love I’ve called this meeting.
You did not touch me long enough for my body to remember it well. Almost two years later, I am not sure if that makes it better or worse. You, Black and man and popular, were already drunk when I arrived at the bar. I utter this assumption whenever I recount the story, providing the rebuttal I imagine you would give if I (or someone I love) confronted you. The truth is, I don’t know if you were drunk when I took my seat next to you. We were not friends yet — just online acquaintances — but folks liked you, vouched for your brilliance, passion, and character. Some of the ones admired and trusted most fucked with you (and still do). Above all, you were Black. In a room full of white faces, I deemed you safe.
Our waitress appeared five minutes later to check on our full table. Your drink was half empty and steadily diminishing. I ordered two Jack and Gingers for myself. I don’t usually drink, but being surrounded by white folks at a bar after a long day with white folks in a school is an invitation for Jack Daniels, numbness, and forgetting.
“Oooh, I see the party is starting!” you exclaimed. “Oh yeah!” I said, trying to match your tenacity and liquid enthusiasm.
But then. You ordered another drink and put your hand on my forearm as you leaned close. “There’s ‘bout to be a party up here and another party down under this table, you know what I’m saying?!” You snickered at your comment. I did not.
A white woman across from me asked for advice about equity initiatives at her school. The waitress returned with our drinks. I downed both and excused myself to the bathroom where I texted friends a play-by-play of your comments.
“You good though?”
I returned to my seat and smiled. My arm tingled from the unwanted touch, my heart raced. I knew what you were saying and yet I could not bring myself to shout, yell, or dismiss your uninvited closeness. I answered the white woman’s questions about her equity initiatives until my friend announced they were tired. We drove back to our hotel and back to Boston the next day. I spent most of our drive silently replaying your comment over and over again in my head until it blurred and slurred like your words the night before:
you know what I’m saying you know what I’m saying you know what i’m saying know what I am saying know what I say I know what you are saying you knowwhatsayingknowwhatIamsaying. I know.
The next month on a business trip, I met another Twitter friend for the first time. I recounted the story of the night at the bar. She shook her head and told me other stories about you. I spent the next month listening to other folks’ stories, saying your name, and watching them cringe without telling them my own story. Each time, I asked why they hadn’t warned me about you; if they knew something I didn’t, why didn’t they tell me before I deemed you safe?
“I stay in my lane.”
“It’s not my place.”
“I just keep my mouth shut. It’s not even worth it.”
Last March, the Twitter gods blessed me with the chance to have dinner with Roxane Gay via Zoom. I spent the hours before our dinner brainstorming questions I would ask her, writing notes, and rereading my favorite sections of her work. Afraid of wasting her time, I searched for questions she hadn’t already answered through essays, books, or interviews. When the time came though, I didn’t ask any of the questions I’d brainstormed. Instead, we talked about me while I let my dinner get cold. She didn’t know about your comment. She didn’t know that I was struggling with my community’s failure to protect me as a new Black teacher-scholar in the “Twitter world.”
Before we hung up, I asked her about writing and critique in our work. She said it was hard, that honesty was necessary, that boundaries were important, that she was “pathologically invested in accountability.” I quickly scribbled down those words on the closest Post-it and pinned it above my desk.
I don’t think anyone, including me, would say that Roxane Gay is a radical abolitionist, but she is not afraid to tell the truth (about herself and others) in the name of what is right.
I have spent the last year trying to follow Roxane’s lead, to be “pathologically invested in accountability” in our work. What I’ve discovered, however, is that in order to hold your folks accountable, we must be on the same page about our values, goals, and what is most important. I’ve dreamt about holding this “family meeting” more times than I can count. I imagine me like my mama, arms folded across the chest, peering through my bifocals, telling my story. Each dream ends the same — in an argument about what is most important, most critical for our work as a collective group of educators.
For some of us, representation is our goal. To have more of us who look like us at the front of classrooms, in central offices, boardrooms, and statehouses. In that goal, we celebrate our presence as wins. We enthusiastically cheer and support. We remain silent when we disagree, afraid to rock the boat (or seem divisive). We allow folks to become “untouchables,” above critique or accountability. We watch the anointed thrive and we cringe when their name is mentioned, before we remember to fix our face. We excuse behaviors, ignore inconsistencies, and look away from warning signs because we’re afraid to be alienated, to detract from “the work.”
Representation is important but that is only a step toward liberation. Our ancestors, community, students, and families deserve to have more faces in front of them that look like us — brilliant, fierce, and committed Indigenous, Black, People of Color who are fighting for a more equitable and liberatory world. However, we must start holding each other accountable. We must stop being “kind” and “quiet” in the name of unity. There’s this Audre Lorde quote that white folks love where she wrote, “without community, there is no liberation.” What we forget, however, is that without accountability, there can be no community truly working toward liberation.
If liberation is the goal, we must do better. You know what I’m saying?
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Sawsan Jaber (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).