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Challenge: Stretched Too Thin

The quest for identity as a Black American

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The surprise of catching your own reflection — be it in the bathroom mirror or when using the rear-view mirror while changing lanes — that quick glance reveals if a hair is out of place, or if there’s pepper in your teeth from lunch. One rule my mom always emphasized was the importance of looking presentable whenever you leave the house.

Ten years ago when I decided to embrace my natural hair — which included cutting off most of my hair, leaving only 3 or 4 inches — my mom didn’t exactly approve.

I attributed my mom’s disheartened response to how she grew up. For her, straight hair represented professionalism and seriousness. In her mind, other hairstyles could cause you to be labeled as unkempt, lazy or unqualified.

My mom knew the complexities of the African-American identity in the midst of a majorly white world. An identity that isn’t based simply on lineage but instead relies heavily on underlying social standards and norms.

My sister and I grew up playing classical music on our baby grand piano. Our piano teacher ensured we had extensive exposure to classical repertoire.

My sister’s favorite pieces to play were by Sibelius, Lizst and Rachmaninoff.

Mine were Debussy and Tchaikovsky, but also Gershwin.

We practiced every day for hours, but afterward, we would conclude practice with Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” On Saturdays in particular, morning clean-up’s musical selection usually started with “Hold On Old Soldier” by Mississippi Mass Choir and music blasted until work was done.


(Krystal age 9, Keli age 4)

I think mom wanted to make sure my and my sister’s reflections in the mirror were multifaceted — neither shallow nor one-sided. My mom believed in exposure to the uncommon, going against the grain, and working hard to succeed. She encouraged my sister’s career in engineering, and encouraged me to pursue writing. Both my sister and I wanted to quit taking piano lessons when they were difficult or boring, but our mom didn't give us that option. She never let the discomfort of "being the only Black person" be a reason to allow us to stop. Her enforced perserverance ensured our well-rounded education.

In a not-so-long ago America, Jim Crow laws burdened many Black people in the south, including my mother. Three of her great-grandparents were born as slaves. My mom picked cotton during the day to earn money for her family and had direct experience as to what open racism and extreme poverty felt like. She was one of 15 children, and when mom left for college, she had only three pairs of pants, determination and perseverance. The “I-need-to-work-twice-as-hard-because-of-my-skin-color" was deeply ingrained in her.

0% laziness, 100% excellence
Somewhere during her journey, I believe my mom’s schema of the world began to change. She had a diverse group of friends, white, Black and Hispanic, who supported her work. Her 40+ year-long career in education included being appointed as the first Black superintendent in our city.

Her sharp grit was ingrained into both me and my sister, and we work hard to instill this trait of excellence in our children.

During this Black History Month, I hope you will acknowledge the current issues African-Americans face, even if those issues aren’t part of your daily life.

The truth is, I am a melting pot, and my daughters are too.

Our lives were built on the back of injustice, trauma and inequality — but also resilience. There was a strong determination within my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother, to have more than they ever did, but endure far less.

My identity and my broad gamut of friendships consist of many different races and ethnicities. However, the fact that my African-American husband who has an MBA refuses to drive through Mississippi at night serves as a gentle reminder that inequality and justified fear are lurking.

Similar to my mom, I have friends and neighbors who are loving, kind and engaging. They are friends who look nothing like me, friends whose very being and actions quiet the negative social norms that could keep us divided.

Throughout the month of February, as an African-American, I hope the phrase “love and respect to your neighbor” resounds loudly and rings throughout America, especially if that neighbor looks different than you do.

The quest for Black representation, identity, diversity and inclusion truly begins at home with me and with you.


(Keli, Ms. Ann, Krystal)

Dedicated to my mom, Ms. Ann, and all the other amazing trailblazers fighting against Alzheimer’s. #wewillnotforget

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