Thursday, May 27, 2010

Graduation Day—The Little Boy Grows into a Man


Our world is in such a shabby state that it is a little disconcerting to imagine sending a child out into it right now. But that’s exactly what we are about to do. Our little boy, now almost grown into a fine young man, is walking across the stage today to receive his high school diploma. I know it’s a cliché to say, but it really does not seem like 18 years since I held that wrinkled little body in my hands for the first time. But alas, the years slip by us, filled up with the joys and wages of an exuberant life.

As I’m sure many of you know all too well, successfully guiding a black boy through 18 years of an American childhood is not a simple task. The challenges are so numerous and come from so many directions that sometimes you feel like a guerrilla fighter in the jungles of America’s streets and schools, sprinting for cover with your precious cargo in tow, never knowing from where and when the next round of fire will come your way. The challenges only accumulate with each year:
  • keeping him away from the bad kids…
  • making sure his teachers understand his sometimes excessive exuberance… 
  • trying to lure him into a love of reading…
  • protecting him from the teachers who are afraid of black boys…
  • getting him to understand that his standard of measurement isn’t his sullen homies in the back of the room but the girl in the front row with her hand up to answer every question…
  • applauding his accomplishments on the athletic fields but trying not to let his accomplishments on the athletic fields go to his head… 
  • making sure he continued to understand that accomplishments in the classroom were more important than the ones on the athletic fields…
  • girls…
  • the dangers of the streets…
  • girls…
  • the ugly stereotypes the world harbors of large, scowling black boys…
  • girls…
  • being safe and smart behind the wheel…
  • stepping out each day with a measure of kindness and grace…

I found myself talking to him about the world he will face much more often over the last few months, trying to cram in as much as I can before he is gone. And while I have been neurotic over the last few years about his whereabouts at every moment, particularly when he started driving, I’ve also noticed that I’ve slowly been easing up about that in recent months. After all, in just two months he will be off to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. I had to start letting him have a bit of the freedom that will soon be his, so that he can learn how to make good decisions on his own, decisions about time management, about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, about how to treat other human beings, especially young ladies, about how he carries himself. 

Of course it’s not easy to let go of the neuroses, to stop watching the clock and calling him every hour to see where he is, to stop doing the occasional location checks by driving around and making sure he’s not lying to me, but ultimately I had to do it for his own good—and also for my own good, so that I could be confident that I was sending a child out into the world who would be able to cope with all the hell and bullsh*t that will be thrown his way.

The boy has gotten so big. At 6-1 and 275, he sometimes looks monstrous to me. He informed me last week that he just tied his high school’s record in the bench press for his weight group. His arms look like two big hams attached to enormous shoulders. Since he will be playing defensive lineman at Lafayette, responsible for tossing aside blockers so that he can grab those little running backs and quarterbacks and fling them to the ground, the size makes sense. But I must admit that I DO miss the little boy, the one that I could toss onto the bed like a giggling and squealing stuffed animal, the one who used to lug around his collection of action figures in his own shoulder bag, the one who was so outgoing in our old New Jersey neighborhood that the other adults on the block started calling him “the mayor.”

But I think that little boy isn’t totally gone. All of those little boy fragments are still in there somewhere—just covered over by layers of muscle and facial hair and black boy swagger. Every once in awhile, when he’s running around the house—making the walls shake!—playing with his little sisters, laughing and giggling about something, I still see flashes of the little boy. And it makes me smile to know that he’s still in there. Hopefully he always will be.

Congratulations, my boy. Go out there and slay the world.

About Our MBB Contributor:Nick Chiles, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestselling tome The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life's Storms co-written with gospel legend Kirk Franklin. "The Blueprint" debuted No. 15 on the New York Times Bestseller's Hardcover Advice List this week. Nick is also a featured writer in the June 2010 issue of Essence, where he frequently writes about fatherhood and manhood.  

post signature

Monday, May 24, 2010

Daddy's Dream Come True—And Mine, Too

His mother died when he was just 10 years old and with her went my dad’s dream of a solid education. See, my grandfather needed his older boys to help tend the family wood and farm business—a need he felt was much more urgent than sitting in a classroom all day, figuring and writing words and reading. They could count money, drive the pick-up truck, make deliveries and collect the cash; as far as my grandfather was concerned, that’s all James Jr., 10, Berkley, 12, and Bobby, 14, needed to know.

I suppose this is why my acquiring a sound education was always so very urgent for my father. It was never an option to bring home less than an A—never a proposition for me to slack with my studies or forego college to pursue some kind of trade. Indeed, my Dad super-glued onto my psyche his insistence that I get a quality, continued education, and that I figure out what I wanted to do with m life as soon as I identified my passions. For him, it wasn’t “if” I was going to go college or have  a successful career; it was “when.”

So when I, an architect hopeful with dreams of designing solar-powered mansions, came to the house with my second “C” on a Physics test, Daddy sat me down and insisted I figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, because little girls who couldn’t get a firm grasp of science and math didn’t grow up to be architects. Mediocre wasn’t going to cut it; I had to figure out what I liked in order to pick a career that would make me great.

I was in the ninth grade.

And right there at the kitchen table, I chose to become a journalist (partly because my favorite newscaster was on TV at that very moment, interviewing my favorite R&B group, but mostly because Daddy insisted).

I suppose now that I’m a mom, I can see how maniacal it was for Daddy to insist I decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life at the tender age of 13. But I understand it. And I’m grateful. Because his insistence that I keep my eyes on the prize—the reward being a solid education, a high-paying career and a fulfilled life—made me focus in a way that I never would have if I didn’t have him constantly whispering in my ear, “You can do this, baby. You have to. No other choice but to be great.”

I did it, too.  From the very moment Daddy said “go,” I ran—hard. As a high school student, I got myself a show at our school radio station, learned how to work camera and editing equipment in a media class and earned a full-tuition scholarship to a university with a great communications program. By age 20, I was a full-time reporter for an international news service; by age 23, I was a political reporter for the sixth-largest newspaper in the country, and; by age 28, I was an award-winning, nationally known entertainment reporter and first-time author. I’ve since worked as an editor at two national magazines, a columnist at a national parenting magazine, written 18 books, including a bestseller that’s sold more than 2 million copies and been translated into 30 languages, interviewed and written cover stories about dozens of celebrities, and appeared as a parenting and relationship expert on countless TV shows and news programs.  I think I’ve done pretty okay with my father’s challenge to find a career and be good at it.

And for his encouragement, love, and commitment to being the best journalist I could be, I honor my father by insisting every last one of my bylines feature my maiden name—my daddy’s name. He may not have gotten the education he dreamed of, but through me, he got what he wanted—and then some: A child who is living out loud every last one of her dreams.

And even a few of his own, too.

Editor's Note: This post originally ran on as part of its Real Women | Real Beauty campaign. Please show a sistah some love by making the post a "favorite" on the site. Simply CLICK HERE, scroll to the bottom of the page, and push the "favorite" button. To read more of my columns and great posts by other fine writers dedicated to exploring issues affecting women, girls, and self-esteem, CLICK HERE.

post signature

Friday, May 21, 2010

ENOUGH. [Don't Let Aiyana Jones Die In Vain]


Her name was Aiyana Jones and she was only 7 years old.

The dimples in her chocolate cheeks and that hand on her hip tell a story. Maybe she was a little joker, all giggles and big on fun—inquisitive, energetic, and a bit of a smarty pants, with a tip of nutty thrown in for good measure. I can almost see those fancy twists flying in the wind—hear her colorful barrettes clacking and dancing to the rhythm of her little girl dance. She reminds me of my Lila, who, also age seven, is all of these things and then some.

Aiyana could have easily been my child.

This matters to me because Aiyana is dead.

Earlier this week, she was felled by a police officer's bullet during the execution of a no-knock warrant at her grandmother's home. The police, acting on a tip that a homicide suspect was staying there, ran in to the house, flash grenades and guns ablaze, with all of the bully tactics of a stealth marine troop storming a terrorist hideout in Fallujah. By the time the smoke and gunshots and chaos cleared, Aiyana lay on the couch where she had been peacefully sleeping under her favorite Disney blanket, bleeding to death from a gunshot wound to the neck--yet another senseless casualty of police aggression in urban (read: black) communities. Her daddy, forced to the ground by the cops and denied the request to see about his daughter, lay in his little girl's blood as he watched the light slowly, surely, fade from her eyes.

Aiyana joins a long line of black folk whose lives were cut short by aggressive police tactics that, pumped with adrenaline, heightened fear, and a laundry list of double standards reserved for communities of color, make for the lethal hail of bullets that claimed the lives of black folk across the land—Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, Eleanor Bumpers, Katherine Johnston, the list goes on. When it comes to people of color and their communities, it never, ever seems to matter that this is a country that stakes its claim on the basic judicial tenet that citizens are innocent until proven guilty. It seems always to be shoot to kill now, sort it out later.

This philosophy never seems to apply in communities like Buckhead and Beverly Hills and Scarsdale and Grosse Pointe, where, I assure you, police brass are not authorizing and encouraging their officers to use military tactics to apprehend suspects, thus putting entire communities—including 7-year-old babies—in extreme danger.

When will this madness stop? How many more times must innocent people die before someone decides that it is simply unacceptable to continue to give police departments carte blanche to run roughshod through black and brown communities, patting down and gunning down as many people as they see fit—no matter their involvement, no matter the danger, no matter the cost—in the name of “justice” and “law and order”?

Of course, the police officer who shot Aiyana would have rather his bullet didn’t end that baby’s life (though he and his fellow officers do get a serious side-eye for storming Aiyana’s grandmother’s house with TV cameras in tow, with the hopes that their dramatic apprehension of a murder suspect would make it into the “Cops”-styled TV show, “The First 48.” There have been claims, too, that before the officers stormed the house, they were told by neighbors that children were present, as evidenced by a cadre of toys strewn about the lawn). But the officer’s intentions aren’t the issue here. What does need to be questioned, challenged, and rallied against are the policies that allow police departments across the country—specifically in urban neighborhoods—to use military tactics against their own citizens, as if they are not a part of the fabric of this land—as if they are living in an occupied state where people in uniforms have the ultimate right to violate your home, run roughshod over your most precious possessions, and hurt fellow human beings, then hide behind reckless policies to justify such cruel, inhuman actions.

Stray dogs get rounded up with more humanity.

The bottom line is that kids don’t pick their parents or their communities or their homes or the people who care for them. It is an accident of birth that put Aiyana in that Detroit neighborhood, and not in, say, the White House. And so it is incumbent upon the grown-ups—particularly the caretakers, and especially those who are charged with serving and protecting us—to, in all the things that we do, protect the babies first.

At all costs.

Because the baby on the couch might be the next Sasha Obama.

Or my Lila.

Or a child you know.

Maybe even your own.

Please, Lord, no more of this. Tonight, I say a prayer for Aiyana and her father and her grandmother and their family; pray that they’ll find the strength to carry on after becoming the latest victims of the war being waged in black and brown communities the world over.

I pray, too, that Aiyana, the pretty little chocolate girl with the bouncing twists and the dimpled smile, did not die in vain.

NOTE: This piece was written exclusively for The Parenting Post, but I thought it important to post it here on MyBrownBaby, as this is exactly the kind of story that deeply affects us moms parenting children of color. While I'm grateful for your comments here at MyBrownBaby, I would really appreciate it if you also left comments at the Parenting Post (CLICK HERE), where I'm sure ugliness will ensue rather quickly. Let's raise our voices and let our fellow moms of all hues know that our children matter, too. 

post signature

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Check Out MyBrownBaby On Kathie Lee & Hoda!

I'll be kicking it with Kathie Lee and Hoda on the Today Show today, answering the sticky questions parents have on everything from potty training and ear infections to bullying and junky teen rooms (*insert screeching horror music here!*). I know we'll have a blast! I'm on at 10:30 a.m. EST, but for those of you who can't watch live, I'll be posting the clip as soon as I get back to my computer.

See you on The Today Show!

UPDATE: Here's the clip, y'all! 

post signature

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I ♥ Faces “Faces and Flowers” Photo Challenge: Beautiful Mari

Oh, I couldn't help it. 

I know I'm supposed to be chillin' with the blogging, but my favorite photography site, Faces, has an irresistible challenge this week—they want to see faces with flowers.

And I just happen to have the perfect one!

I took this picture during an impromptu photo shoot when the girls were out on the front lawn, wrestling with our absolutely perfect Goldendoodle, Teddy, and pulling flowers off our Spring shrubbery. A lesser mom would have been a little ticked off about how many pretty pink flowers Mari and Lila destroyed that day. But really, isn't that what flowers are for? The picking? Plus, next to the lovely Mari's face, that flower is made all the more spectacular than it ever could be on some ol' shrub. 

Wish me luck!

post signature

Monday, May 17, 2010

I Go To Work...

First, know that I'm not giving up.

It's just that I'm in the middle of a bear of a project, with a June 15 deadline, and mama is stressed out. I've been operating at a pace that simply isn't human—reporting and writing a book, regularly writing blogs for,, and Unilever's "Don't Fret the Sweat" campaign, freelancing for Essence, Heart & Soul and Parenting magazines, and doing most of the heavy lifting here at MyBrownBaby, in addition to trying my best to pull together my duties as a work-at-home mom, wife, volunteer, and friend without looking like a total deadbeat. I simply can not keep up this pace and do anything effectively.

I was complaining about, er... sharing this with my girl Akilah of Execumama a few weeks ago when she, in all of her you can do it/nobody's perfect/let go and live your best life ever wisdom, challenged me to come up with a list of five things I can do right now to make my life easier while I tackle this book project. "And for God's sake, take off that cape," she added.

For the record? I heart Akilah.

And though it took me a minute to develop it, I've finally come up with a list of five things I'm going to do to help me meet this book writing deadline without having to be carted away in a straight jacket. Here's what I came up with:

1. I'm going to fully implement the sole good thing to ever come out of the Reagan administration: Just say no. No more volunteering, no more running all around town participating in events, no more extending myself to help everyone else at the expense of my own projects. I gotta focus and I can't do that if I'm distracted by all that other stuff.

2. I'm handing off my cooking duties. I'm putting in a call t-o-d-a-y to my girl Shelley over at Naturi Beauty to see if we can work out a deal for her to swing some of those personal chef services our way, just until I get this book off my plate. She'll easily save me a good three hours a day in grocery shopping, prep, cooking, and clean-up if she hooks up our meals while I remain tied to this here MacBook.

3. The house is gonna have to be a little messy, dammit. So if you stop by and the laundry is piled high, the floors don't look like they've been swept, and it smells like Parliament Funkadelic just finished a funky, sweaty, three-hour body mashing set in my foyer, don't judge me—I'm writing.

4. Bye-bye FaceBook, Twitter, Yahoo, Gmail and all the other delicious distractions that keep me from knocking out these chapters with the lightening speed I'm capable of. Okay, well maybe I won't drop The Face totally, but, you know, I'll cut back some. (Sheesh--do they have a FaceBook Anonymous I can check into every once in a while? The habit is real.)

5. I'm going to have to fall back on the MyBrownBaby posts. Don't worry—you're still going to get the quality writing and thoughtful prose for which MyBrownBaby is reknowned, but I'm only going to be posting three times a week while I pour my writing energy into the book. This is temporary, I promise. And when I come back full-time, MyBrownBaby will be stronger, prettier, and better than ever. (Yup, I'll have a right nice surprise for you by then!)

Okay, wish me luck good people... 12 chapters in 30 days.




post signature

Friday, May 14, 2010

Deep Sigh.

This mess right here?

I can't.

And I won't.

But somebody's mama clearly should have.

Press play to see what I mean.

post signature

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Nobody Wins A War

I was thoroughly turned out yesterday by neo-soul/hippie/rock star Raheem DeVaughn's new album, The Love and War Masterpeace. I'll tell you this much: that man knows how to make a sexy song and stretch beyond the cliches to make women feel good about listening to his music. He knows, too, how to speak on it when it needs to be spoken—something he did with his piece, "Nobody Wins a War." The title of the song, performed by DeVaughn with neo-soul heavyweights Jill Scott, Bilal, Anthony Hamilton, Chrisette Michele, Ledisi, Dwele and Chico DeBarge, as well as singers Algebra, Shelby Johnson, Citizen Cope and Rudy Currence, makes DeVaughn's intent pretty clear: war is not the answer. Dig what DeVaughn says about his song on Sound-Saavy:

I actually wrote it while Bush was in office. Now with Obama making the announcement that he’s sending in 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan... it’s right on time with the signs of the times, where we are as a people and where we are as a world. I just try to make music that reflects upon the time and get it out to the people and let them make their own observations. It’s a real dope record—a basic common sense record when you get into the lyrical content. At the end of the day, who really wins?

Even more incredible is the poem Jill Scott lends at the end of the song, which straight whips the government (all governments—not just America's) for choosing war instead of trying to, like, work it out:

We, the people speak, speak!

We want to be free of this sick bureaucracy
No more death tolls with our morning coffee

Oh, government, you have lost your feeling for LIFE!
It is war that you reap, but the loss is too great and the pain is too deep
The scars do not heal
Your system is thoughtless and your vision is weak
Your actions are hurtful
You never find what you seek

You make the sky a storm
You destroy the earth
Make possibilities bleak
Your lies are your destruction
Your justice stinks
Your pride is maniacal
You are the bearer of grief
Your win is shallow
Your truth is oblique

Your patriotism is garbage; It rots and it reeks
Of death in the wind
The foul stench of men
Basking in their cruelty
Rejoicing in their sin

You give up and give over so easily to the darker side
Because of your pride

You risk all of humanity
You send my children to murder human beings
Families they do not yet know
People they have never seen

You send my children to war
Without exasperating dialogue to get to the meat!
An equal understanding, as if there isn't even a possibility for peace

But there is ALWAYS a possibility for peace!

As unperfect as we are
we should in all ways reach
Deep, deep down in our beings
Oh, this wicked, wicked system of things
As our grandmothers say, 'Will soon be no more Will soon be no more.'
Because nobody NO ONE EVER WINS A WAR.

Yup... what Jill said.

Press play up top to hear "Nobody Wins the War"—it's well worth the listen.

post signature

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The I ♥ Faces "Celebrating Mom" Challenge: My Amazing Mother-in-Law, Helen

This week's photo challenge over at my favorite photography site, "I ♥ Faces," encourages us to show off our favorite pictures of our moms—and though I haven't participated in any challenges of late, I just had to have in on this one. How could I not with this picture of my beautiful mother-in-law, Helen, all up in my iPhoto crates?

I caught this photo of Helen when we traveled together as a family—11 strong—to St. Simon's Island here in Georgia (I wrote about our trip HERE). We had an awesome time, made all-the-more amazing by the presence of Nick's parents, who got to vacation with two of their children and a bunch of their grands. You can tell from the look on mom's face that this was, indeed, a blessing for her. But I hope she knows just how blessed we all are to have her—not just on fancy vacations, but every single day. She's brilliant, witty, no-nonsense, super-loving, and incredibly fun—a class act, for sure.

I'm so proud to count myself in her family.

Love you, Mom!

post signature

The Beautiful Revolutionary: Remembering Lena Horne

Lena Horne taught me how to write.

It was back in 1997, when she was about to celebrate her 80th birthday, and the lovely Ms. Horne granted me, then a young political-turned-entertainment journalist, an interview for a cover story in the New York Daily News’ features section.

Thing is, she would only do it via the phone, and she would talk to me for 10 minutes only. Ten minutes. For a 4,000-word story that was due to my tough-as-nails/take-no-shorts editor the very next day.

And so there I sat, staggered: How on earth was I going to get a trailblazer, a legend, an icon, to say something meaningful and fresh about her almost 70-year long career—over the telephone in 10 minutes? And more importantly, how would I get any kind of meaningful story out of it—much less a 4,000-word composition meant to honor and commemorate this woman, whose elegance and grace in the face of extreme adversity brought great dignity to African Americans on the big screen? I mean, I’d spent an afternoon at Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis’s house, pouring through old newspaper clippings and playbills and listening to them trade stories about the industry; I’d talked to George Clooney for more than an hour about his aunt, Rosemary Clooney and that thing he does when he’s nervous or being coy; I’d traveled to the bowels of Shaolin (that’s Staten Island to you New York hip hop novices) to interview the Wu-Tang Clan (and caught a contact high in the process). How would I do the divine Ms. Horne justice?

In a moment of journalistic clarity (and out of sheer desperation), I decided to ask her a bunch of dumb stuff. Questions nobody probably ever dared ask her, but would adore knowing, like what was her favorite cartoon and if she listened to rap music and who her favorite modern-day film director was.

The result? The most amazing celebrity profile I’ve ever written—I won a feature-writing award for the piece—and certainly, of hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted during my almost 20-year journalism career, one of the most rewarding conversations I’ve ever had with a star. I’m grateful to Ms. Horne for making me stretch and reach and rise as a writer. But more, I’m grateful to her for standing upright—shoulders squared, chin up—and demanding respect—not just for herself, but for all of us black folk.

Lena Horne was, simply, divine.

When I got word that she passed yesterday at age 92, I went digging into my clip files for the story I wrote on her all those years ago. Here, an excerpt. It’s long—but worth the read… promise.

By Denene Millner
for the Daily News
June 22, 1997

So it’s settled, then.

Even the legendary singer Lena Horne, the American beauty for whom Max Factor once created a special shade of foundation, doesn’t understand the need for all those crazy products crowding the makeup counters and the bottoms of purses of baffled women across the land. Waterproof. Smudge-proof. Allergy-proof. Anti-age. Anti-wrinkle. Daytime shadows. Nighttime colors. Which to use? How do you use them?

“It must be terribly confusing,” she muses. “I don’t know why women haven’t gone crazy. I think you just have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Look, this morning I got a few more wrinkles, and there ain’t too much I can do about that.’”

A week and a day from age 80—her birthday is June 30—Ms. Horne doesn’t concern herself with such matters.

Maybe back in, oh, 1940 she gave a hoot. But it’s 1997, and she’s a tad too preoccupied with life and great-grands and the terrible twos and bad knees and Masterpiece Theatre to argue the merits of Maybelline Great Lash and Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair.

Let’s say she’s enjoying the simpler things in life.

Lena Horne likes Bugs Bunny cartoons, day-old collard greens and cold asparagus tips out of the can, mystery novelist Ruth Rendell and Oprah—“especially her book thing.” She doesn’t drive, refuses to chase her 2-year-old great-grandson through the house, thinks “we need” Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and long ago forsook shopping for shoes because she’d rather somebody go “pick them up for me.”

She hasn’t a clue who the Wu-Tang Clan is, but knows about Snoop Doggy Dogg and actually likes the creator of gangsta rap, Ice T. She also digs Spike Lee, especially his “School Daze” and “Mo’ Better Blues”—“I love Denzel”—but doesn’t seem to be so moved by Woody Allen.

“I don’t dislike him,” she clips.

All that’s to say that the woman who for so long carried the burden of trying to change the (black)face of Hollywood is comfortable now—content. There are no more cold stages filled with bright lights and prying eyes, no more lonely days, lost battles and hopes deferred—no more grand songs or square-box images for this beautiful actress and singer to squeeze into.

Ms. Horne is a living legend, but every bit as ordinary today as any of you have ever been or could ever be.

For her, there is family.

There is a close-knit circle of friends.

There is freedom.

There is peace.

At (almost) 80, it is finally so.

“I tease her all the time,” her daughter, Gail Buckley, jokes. “She is the most housebound person. She’s a Cancer. Astrologically, she’s true to her sign… Ask Joyce Jillson; it’s a very family-oriented sign, and she’s very family oriented.

“One of the things I appreciate now and didn’t really appreciate before was that family always came first,” Buckley adds. “That is so today.”

Which is probably why the self-analysis Ms. Horne offers these days of her six-decade show-business career is so, well, simple—if it’s a simple word you’re looking for.

“I would have liked to have been one of those entertainers like, let’s see, maybe like… well, Bessie Smith was loved by a certain era. Aretha Franklin was loved by another,” Ms. Horne reflects. “Each era creates a new kind of thing that people are drawn to, and I don’t know if I fit into any of those things.

“I’ve been the weird one,” she adds quietly. “I’ve been more concerned about my relatives and family—always. I’ve been that way in an attempt to get into a circle of my own.”

That’s how she’d like to be remembered—for her closeness to family?

“Yes. The weird family girl.”

Odd. Lena Horne doesn’t think she fits into any kind of “era.”

Doesn’t she know?

When she appeared in the 1943 film “Thousands Cheer” draped around that white pillar—so elegantly gowned, with that beautiful, toothy smile outshining a thousand stars—she sang her way right into America’s consciousness and single-handedly made a most significant change in the face of Hollywood.

There was no handkerchief on this Negro woman’s head, no apron tied around this beautiful black woman’s waist—no yass’ms” falling off her ruby-painted lips, no babies being birthed by her delicate hands. She was a new kind of colored gal—one who, as her father, Teddy Horne, so poignantly pointed out to MGM head Louis B. Mayer, would rather hire a maid than play one (and could afford it, too).

No, she had the beauty, the class—hell, the dignity that had so long been denied to the more established actresses like Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel, who made their marks playing mammies. Here was this copper-toned siren with that long, pretty, “good” hair, looking just as sexy as any of Hollywood’s sexiest white women—Hedy Lamarr, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth included.

With one three-minute number—“Honeysuckle Rose,” in “Thousands Cheer,”—Lena laid herself down and became the bridge over which hundreds of successful black actors and actresses walked to get to the dignified roles on the big screen. At the same time, blacks in general used Lena as a means of showing they were much more than the mammies and Toms America wanted them to be.

How could she not know that she too personified an era?

“She was a crossover diva,” says movie historian Donald Bogle, who, in his new book, “Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography,” tells of the role Horne’s career played in her rival’s success. “The movies put her on the map, and her appearance indicated a shirt in images for African-American women. She really did become the first black woman in Hollywood to be fully glamorized by a major film studio.”

But it’s not just black America that Lena Horne affected. No, it was much more than that. White people adored her. In the 40s. When liking black people wasn’t exactly at the top of everyone’s list. Lena was all right, though—for as black in spirit as she was, she appeared to be one of those “safe” Negroes, an amorphous woman who was so light-skinned, it was that much easier for whites to get past the fact that she wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t threatening. She was beautiful.

It is no wonder, then, that the first black female Hollywood star would look as close to a white person as possible; she was black enough for black folks to be proud of and light enough for whites to forget her race.

Through all the manifestations of American culture, Lena navigated an extremely rocky road paved with harsh racist and sexist attitudes—arriving at her 80-year-old self a woman who crosses racial boundaries and generational ones, too. One is hard-pressed to find a seeing, hearing, sane and rational person over age 20 who doesn’t at least know a few tidbits about this lady.

Go ahead, mention her name: Guaranteed you’ll hear one of two things within the first few words—“God, she’s beautiful,” or “Stormy Weather.” This country knows who she is and cares about her deeply. Her music became a great unifier over the years, while her stories of struggles against racism and sexism, in both Hollywood and the United States, have been a salve for all souls. After all these years, she is still the symbol of beauty and dignity and class that was wrapped around that pillar 54 years ago.

That is, perhaps, why Americans, after all these years, are still infatuated with Ms. Lena Horne. She’s bigger than an “era.”

Surely, she must know.

post signature

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Joy of the Parenting Do-Over


One of the unequivocal joys of parenthood is re-living some of the most exciting events from our past through the eyes of our children. Essentially we get to have do-overs. Kids give us an opportunity to perfect something we might have screwed up when we were kids. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing—in the wrong hands, that chance to re-do your high school football years through your son or your stint with the high school drama club through your daughter can quickly morph into the worst stereotype of the controlling, monstrous helicopter parent, pushing your kid into situations and activities where their main motivation is keeping you happy, rather than enjoying and expanding themselves. In the right hands, the do-over can make you and your kid two very happy (and proud) campers.

I thought about this recently when we were trying to decide where we would go for our family vacation this summer. Traveling is the area where the do-over is probably most sensibly applied. After visiting some fabulous corner of the earth, we get to go back and experience those first-time joys all over again through the eyes of our kids. While I was leaning toward my favorite city in the whole world, Paris, as a vacation destination so that I could show my kids why I love it so much, my wife wanted to go somewhere she had never been before. In front of us was a fundamental existential parenting dilemma: When we have kids, do we put our own lives and desires on hold for their sake, or do we continue to plunge with abandon into that crazy stew called life?

Of course, most parents will answer that we do both, that having kids shouldn’t mean our lives end, that we need to be fulfilled as adults in order to be good parents…yada, yada, yada. That is certainly the ideal, but we all know it’s not always that simple. Even in the area of family vacations, if we are always striving to explore new frontiers, our kids won’t get to see some of our favorite places until they’re adults and go on their own. So repeats are going to happen; going back to places we’ve already been, doing things we’ve already done, is always going to be part of the parenting contract. What we all seek is some sort of balance—adding enough new grown-up adventure into the mix that we don’t lose our edge and become parenting robots with no conversation at the dinner party that doesn’t involve little Johnny.

In our case, we put the issue up for a family vote. Three options on the table: Paris, London and Puerto Rico. Everybody got one vote, like a true democracy, with no special consideration given to the people with the biggest bank accounts (clearly not the kind of democracy we been practicing lately in the U.S.!). And we didn’t allow any lobbying before the vote. Not even whispered conversation. Interestingly, the children all picked Paris, while Denene and I both voted for a place we had never been (London in my case, Puerto Rico in hers). So we tried for some new adventures—and they dragged us into a repeat. Oh well, Paris here we come. Maybe next time we’ll try American-style democracy—lobbying, scare tactics and influence-peddling will be fully encouraged.

About our MyBrownBaby contributor: Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Nick Chiles is the co-author of seven books, including his latest, "The Blueprint," written with gospel superstar Kirk Franklin.

post signature

Friday, May 7, 2010

She's My Favorite Girl (And Happy Mother's Day)

Sunday is Mother's Day.

And my mom is gone from here.

I struggle to find the words to express the profound longing I feel this time of year. So I won't—not this time.

Instead, I'll look at her pictures, open her jewelry box (miraculously, it still smells like her), and say a prayer thanking God for the time I did have her in my life.

I love you, Mommy.

And miss you tremendously.

I encourage you to head over to, where a tribute I wrote in honor of my mom, Bettye Millner, after she passed away, is being posted (CLICK HERE to read it).

And for my MyBrownBaby crew, Happy Mother's Day...

post signature

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Love In the Time Of Play Dates

I promise you, I didn’t see it coming—the explosion of hormones, giggling fits and blushed cheeks that would come when I innocently invited a few of my daughter, Mari’s (female) classmates to play with her and her (male) cousins. Up until that very day, the girls and the boys were equal-opportunity masters of fun; toss a couple of soccer balls, some sidewalk chalk, hula hoops, walkie-talkies and scooters into the mix, and nothing could get in the way of a good time—not even the “ew” factor of playing with the opposite gender.

But on this particular day, things were, well, different. A classmate who’d never before been over, bounced into our house, got a gander of Mari’s super-cute cousin (my nephew), Miles, and, within minutes, changed the whole tenor of the play date. If she wasn’t in his face asking him all kinds of questions—“How old are you?” “When did you get braces?” “Do you have an e-mail account?”—she was off in a corner somewhere, whispering and conspiring about her next move.

And, get this: my daughter was goading her on, acting as a broker between her cousin and her new friend. “Well if you want to talk to him, then talk to him—what’s the big deal?” she said. “I’ll go get him if you want.”

Um, yeah. They’re 10.

The next 15 minutes were a blur; I remember lots of hushed talks with Mari about “inappropriate” conversations and “acceptable dating ages.” I also remember my daughter calmly telling her friend it was time to go home, escorting her to the door and returning to help me finish dinner in the kitchen. She was extremely apologetic about the turn of events, yet surprisingly unruffled. Girls, she explained, like boys and boys like girls and some even call each other girlfriend and boyfriend, though it’s just a name, not a call to action. “I find a few boys attractive,” she added. “But I’m not really interested in any of them.”

“That’s interesting,” I mustered as Mari’s cool-as-you-please attitude extinguished the fire in my gut. “But you’re all 10, and that is much too young for any girl to date a boy. So you know your friend won’t be able to come back anytime soon, right?”

And at that moment, in our silence, both my Mari and I came to an understanding about an impending truth: we are at the beginning stages of that dance—the delicate tug-of-war between age-appropriate attraction to the opposite gender and all-out boy craziness. This is also when it becomes especially crucial for her dad and me to help her pick friends who are dancing to the same tempo—kids who know that 10-year-olds have many more years ahead of them before the boy-crazies set in.

And while I am happy to help, the beauty of Mari is that she already seems to have a sense of this and has confidence in herself and her decisions. In fact, she’d already decided that her classmate probably wouldn’t make the best friend. After all, some of Mari’s favorite people are boys—her big brother, her big brother’s friends, her daddy and especially Miles, her best friend from birth – but this classmate didn’t have the confidence to muster enough words to have a full conversation with one. To Mari, boys are just people—people who can be every bit as fun and interesting as girl friends, so why would she want to be friends with someone who didn’t understand this?

After Mari’s friends-no-more friend left and she finished helping me in the kitchen, she challenged Miles to a raucous game of Secret Agent Guys. Lots of running, giggling, plotting and more giggling was involved, and the intensity that the friends-no-more friend ushered into the room was instantly, miraculously lifted. Mari’s world where boys-are-just-boys and girls-are-just-girls and “boys and girls can do innocent kid things without having to worry about all that other complicated boy/girl stuff” returned.

There will, after all, be plenty of time for the more complicated stuff, and when that time comes, I think Mari will handle it with the same grace and confidence she showed this time.

For tips, confidence-building tools and stories about how moms are helping their tweens navigate those sweat-inducing “moments,” check out

post signature

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

{Digging In the MBB Crates} Faith In Our Fathers

Editor's Note: I noticed yesterday that I'm just a few posts away from having written or edited 400 stories for MyBrownBaby, and that got me reminiscing about some of my favorite posts. I decided to share one of them today. Enjoy!


On the mornings when my husband, Nick, walks the girls to the bus stop, my commute involves me leaning over the side of my bed and picking up my laptop and the remote. I’m lucky like that (for both the husband that shares bus duty, and my ability to make money from home). And while I’m busy writing, I usually have the TV on, with the volume turned down low—loud enough for me to tune out irrelevant drivel and hear stuff that I want and need to hear. Recently, I caught site of this video on the The Today Show, and immediately pumped up the volume. A black guy? Wagging his finger and twisting his hips and cheering? About boys?!

Turns out that the video, produced by the Ad Council with the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, is a PSA that encourages fathers to be better dads and get more involved in their children’s lives. The inspiration for the piece came, according to the Ad Council, after a survey revealed that more than 79% of Americans feel “the most significant family or social problem facing America is the physical absence of the father from the home.”

I can dig that that. Lord knows enough of us have survived without/missed/wished for a stable father figure in our homes—and suffered because our daddies didn’t live up to their promise. But seeing that I’m a glass-is-half-full kinda girl, I took this PSA not as a plea to fathers to step up to the plate, but a heart-warming “thank you” for the ones doing right by their kids—fathers like my Dad, who, without the benefit of a caring, nurturing father to show him how to love a child, turned out to be the most loving, nurturing father this girl could ever have.

And like my husband Nick, who, consistently reminds me I picked well when he makes my girls giggle, and helps them sort out tough math problems, and teaches them Taekwondo moves “so that they can fight off any boy who steps to them wrong,” and throws blue "footie" pajamas in the cart at Target so his girls will be “cuddly” warm in their beds.

And the fathers who bring their paychecks home…

And kick in toward the mortgage/rent, or pay it outright…

And rub the swollen feet and sore backs of the pregnant women they love…

And change diapers and warm bottles and bounce babies on their arms, even when they haven’t a clue, really, what they’re doing, or we stand over their shoulders, ordering them to do it our way…

And play horsey and helicopter over and over and over again, their exhausted bodies energized only by the glee in their giggly children’s “please, Daddy—one more time?” pleas...

And dole out discipline in healthy doses—with great love and the profound knowledge that setting their kids straight will go a long way in helping them become better human beings.

And make their families feel protected, even when deep inside, they’re scared crapless…

And kiss their wives passionately because they think after all these years, she’s still hot…

And do it in front of their kids, so that they can know that they’ve seen true love…

And love the Lord…

And their children with abandon…

We see you.

In the words of the esteemed poet Tupac Shakur, “You are appreciated.”

And loved.

post signature

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How to Braid Black Girl Hair the RIGHT Way

So the state of Illinois is backtracking on a law that requires hair braiders to get a cosmetology degree and be licensed before they sit clients in their chairs, and it's got me feeling some kinda ways. Some background from THIS Associated Press story:

Illinois requires hair braiders to get a cosmetology degree — which can take 1,500 hours and cost $15,000 — and then apply for a license, just like people who give haircuts, manicures and facials. Proponents say the rules are needed to protect consumers if they develop problems such as hair loss or have service complaints.

But the law seems ridiculous to many braiders, the majority of whom are African and African-American women who learned as children and have refined their talent in kitchens and on stoops for generations.

"Hair braiding is not cosmetology," said Alie Kabba, executive director of the Chicago-based United African Organization. "You cannot ask an engineer to get a degree in history."

The story goes on to say that hair braiders are ignoring the law and either working under threat of being shut down by state regulators or taking their shops underground so they won't get caught braiding without a license. New legislation passed by the state legislator and awaiting the governor's signature would allow licenses to be given to hair braiders who can prove they've practiced their craft for at least two years and pay a fee; new braiders would get a license after undergoing 300 hours of training in hair braiding and sanitation.

Now, I get the argument the stylists are making: Hair braiding is something we African-American and African women learn from little ol'; I taught myself how to braid hair at age five, just from watching my mom, and Mari and Lila, ages 10 and 7 respectively, are learning on their American Girl dolls. Learning how to get nice with hair braiding is almost a rite of passage for black girls—and, if you have a little girl with a thick head of hair, it's a necessity, too.

But hair braiding is not innate. And I can't tell you how many times I sat in a "professional" hair braiding salon that was a little too unsanitary for my tastes, where stylists snatched my hair so tight I could barely see straight—a practice that could and, on a few occasions, did, pull my hair out—and nobody could offer up tips for how to protect my hair from damage. Understand, once someone jacked up my hair, I never went back, but each time I wanted to wear my hair in box braids or cornrows, I had to take my chances with a new braid stylist until I could find one who knew what she was doing and cared enough about her clientele and business that she bothered to sweep the floor, sanitize her combs, wash the towels she used while she did her job, and knew and cared enough about black hair care to not only create a style, but do it without damaging our hair.

Trust me when I tell you, those stylists/shops were rare.

I get that making someone get a cosmetology license, i.e. take hundreds of hours worth of classes on how to cut white folks' hair and apply relaxers—is kind of a waste. But why not create a licensing curriculum that teaches braiders how to braid hair without damaging it? Or how to tend to natural hair so that you help it, rather than harm it? Or to show stylists how to do something as simple as dip their combs into barbicide so I don't catch cooties from the last 100 women who had their hair done with the same dirty rat tooth comb?

More importantly, why not have hair braiders get real licenses so they can be held accountable when their styling goes wrong or they don't follow the simplest hygiene rules in their shops? I'll tell you this much: I'd be much more comfortable sitting in the chair of a trained, licensed stylist—and entrusting my daughters to said stylist—if I knew I could hold her accountable for her work and the care of her shop.

It makes me salty that Illinois and 10 other states in the union have been punked into excusing hair braiders from getting licensed under the claim that "black women learn to braid hair in the kitchens and on front stoops so they're experts" and that forcing them to be licensed is unfair at best, borderline racist at worst.

I readily raise my hand and say that though I can braid some hair and have for more than 35 years, I'm not a professional.

Know that the same thing can be said of plenty other women who hang an "open for business" sign in the window, tape on the wall a couple styles ripped from Black Beauty magazine, and charge upward of $300 per head for hairstyles that do way more to harm our hair than help.

post signature

Monday, May 3, 2010

On the Parenting Post: The Little Millionaire Next Door

Mommy would slip into the dressing room at Macy’s or Bloomingdales or Saks or Penny’s with an armful of fancy dresses and pants suits and blouses and two tags in her fists—one that allowed her to bring in six items, and a second that made it so I could vouch for a half dozen more. And then she’d prop me up in the corner and, for what seemed like hours, she’d climb in and out of one outfit and then into the next, twirling and striking glorious poses that would make supermodel Tyra Banks take pause.

She was stunning, my mother—tall and slender and lithe. Those pretty church dresses and pastel suits and Jordache skinny jeans always fit her just so, which meant that she always ended up at the register with a majority of her haul and a fistful of plastic magic.

And what did I get out of these glorious shopping jaunts? A ice cold double-scoop of strawberry Baskin Robbins, and an ice cold warning not to tell my Dad about all the pretty clothes she routinely stowed away in the trunk until the coast was clear (read: she could sneak her myriad of purchases into the house when my Dad was sleep/working/otherwise too preoccupied to notice that her wardrobe and wicked shoe collection grew by at least 15 percent every payday.)

Yup, Mommy was totally all, “Hello, my name is Bettye, and I’m a shopaholic.” And I was her faithful enabler.

I’d love to pretend like her wanton spending sprees didn’t affect me, but, um—yeah. Let’s just say that when I see pretty things, I want said pretty things. And if I have the money to buy those pretty things? I’m buying those pretty things.

Except that thanks to technology, my husband Nick, who checks our bank account statements online practically more than he googles, can pin down my purchases before I even make it to the parking lot. What do you know about the post purchase phone call—“Um, what did you just buy at Anthropologie?”

But what’s worse is that in some screwed up twist of fate, the karmic Gods sent me an IRS agent for a daughter—Mari. I mean, this kid keeps tabs on my spending like she’s got a job and I’m using her cash. Or like her Daddy put her up to it. Witness:

Me: *strolling through Francesca, fingering the leather purses and drooling over the rack of summer blouses so fresh and so new they hadn’t even been matriculated into the rest of the clothing racks. *

Mari: You’re supposed to be buying a present for my teacher.

Me: *Tossing a mean side-eye * Ooo-kaaay. But this purse is so cute and that shirt would go perfect with my blue capris and I’ve been looking for a cute dress for a minute so I’m going to try these on right quick.

Mari: *Silent. Slow blinks. * Okay, but that’s it, or I’m going to have to tell Daddy… *

Uh huh. That’s my Mari. Always looking out for her damn Daddy.

I’ve tried to ignore these little snide comments -- to let my light shine bright and the sparkles fill the air regardless of her threats. I’ve even offered sugary treats and a clothing item of her choosing -- to no avail. Alas, her allegiance is to frugality and her father...

To read more about Mari busting me out on my shopping sprees and the top reasons why Lila is all Team Mommy, all the time, CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece, exclusively on the Parenting Post.

post signature

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin

wibiya widget