Thursday, September 18, 2014

Black Achievement

As salaam alaikum,

I was reminded of this while watching a "Key and Peele" episode in which they compared black college movies with white college movies. White college movies were all about the party and college was a given. Black college movies were all about college as the destination, as if once insurmountable.

I have two cousins doing their studies in my hometown. One is in her first three weeks of graduate school, the other has started as an undergraduate. Both of them had small meltdowns on Facebook over the course of this week, threatening (though purely out of frustration) to drop out of their respective programs.

These are two highly motivated, very intelligent young women who earned their acceptance into their respective programs but who I feel did not have a realistic idea of what they were getting into upon matriculation.

Which is fine. I certainly did not know what I was getting into when I started medical school.

But I recognize something that one of my friends pointed out about black students. I recognize that she made sweeping generalizations and that there is no data, but I found her observations interesting. My friend was a tutor at one of the Harvard residence halls and had students of various ethnicities. She was supposed to be a resource, or at least a gateway to resources for the students. She noticed students of other races and ethnicities either had their own external resources for money and mentorship or they sought her out. Black students, who were the least likely to have outside money or mentors, also did not seek help. Another of my friends, also a tutor, acknowledged the same thing. The two of them believed that this was because, for the black students, college was the destination. They did not plan for the during or the after.

For a lot of black students, college is the destination. Education is the goal, not career.

Though few of these students would admit to matriculating into a school for the sake of college, few of them actually have the tools or insight to apply their education to their career aspiration. And few have the first idea of how to get those tools.

Facebook doesn't help. Facebook for both of my cousins became a place to boast their achievements and make sweeping statements about their broad aspirations, the audience being adoring family and friends who really do admire the ambition but have little to offer. Facebook also became the place of the meltdown, where those same people offer platitudes but no solid mentorship.

I'm not saying that this phenomenon is unique to black students. I'm sure a lot of college students of many backgrounds find themselves in the same place. I'm also not saying it's true of all black college students. But there are some things that ring true for me in my own educational and career trajectory, although, alhamdulillah, I've done well.

But college cannot be the destination. Sometimes, our families, as in black families, only know how to laud college. How's school and how's your grades? That's good, baby.

And that is good, but what are you studying? What classes are you taking for that? Have you been able to shadow or get an internship over the summer for that? How are you using your summers? Who are your mentors? If you don't have any, can you get some? Is there anyone whose career path you'd like to emulate? How does your resume look?

College is not the destination. Sometimes, your first career is not the destination. We should continue to congratulate high-achieving young people, but empty praise is not going to help them when school or training ultimately hits bumps or becomes frustrating.

The destination is not the 4.0. While grades and even grade point can be important depending on what career you are in, the goal is sustainable learning and application.

The destination is not the degree. It's not even the doors opened once you have the degree or the job you ultimately get with your qualifications.

The destination is not walking across the stage, loved ones looking on, pictures cross-posted on Facebook and Instagram, the degree on display in your home.

There are no destinations, just steps along a journey.

And as long as our students continue to set premature destinations and form their study habits, aspirations and life paradigms around these premature endpoints, then yes, there will be frustration, and yes, there will be wasted time, and yes, things will feel insurmountable that don't have to.

So I'm going to try to be there for my cousins and let them know that.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Body of Confessions: Long Hair


I'm on nights right now and I just squeezed by with only four hours of sleep. There is a mandatory diversity session at my residency tomorrow that I have to attend from 1-5pm, thus abdicating a full morning of sleep. I should have slept more, but I'm so excited that I have a little bit more time to write because I'm sleeping less.

Earlier this week, I decided to resume taking vitamins for hair and nails. I had taken these vitamins consistently for several months during medical school and saw some real results in terms of not only hair health but hair length unparalleled to my previous efforts. I stopped taking them, actually, only after I had lost some weight and the pills started making me nauseous. At that time, I also started doing some other hair care things that really improved my hair health overall, and I have seen more strength, health and growth than I have seen since I was 12 years old. I have had some breakage at my crown, though, so I decided it would be a good time to bring hair vitamins back into the mix.

Hair vitamins also have B complex, which is helpful for me for stress. When I started taking B complex in medical school (before I started hair vitamins), my mood improved tremendously in just a couple of weeks of resuming the vitamins.

Anyway, on the eve of taking the hair vitamins, I decided to also straighten my hair to trim my ends. I sometimes trim my ends with my hair straight so I can retain some type of straight shape, and other times when it's kinky by just clipping the ends of twists in my hair. I wanted to straighten it just to get a sense of its straight length.

After straightening my hair, I saw that my hair is actually longer than it has been probably since 2006 or so. It made me realize that I was not able to retain any length in my hair during medical school, probably mainly secondary to vitamin deficiency and stress. It's still odd to look at myself with my hair straight, not only because my hair lives in a puff atop my head for most of the year (which is actually conducive to breakage at my oft-neglected crown), but the last time my hair was straightened, it wasn't this long.

Because duh, hair grows.

And while I reveled in my new hair health, a baseline that so many take for granted, when I slept the next morning (since I'm on nights, I sleep during the day), I had a dream that I had straightened my hair and I was surprised to find that my hair was significantly longer--12 inches longer. And I reveled in having long hair just to awake and remember that though my hair is longer than it has been in a while, it is not that long.

And then I became instantly disappointed in myself.

Long hair, don't care? I feel like that is not a reality for many, if not most, black women. More like, long hair, absolutely do care.

I have lived a life that I tried to be as little about my hair as possible, in some parts of my life more than others (namely, the years where I wore khimar). After having a mother who fussed over how my hair basically dissolved away after chemical treatment, I did not to have any part of continuing that tradition, so I went natural. I stopped letting chemicals seep into my scalp every 6 weeks in favor of my natural texture, the touted "new growth" that for several years had been the nemesis to my attempts at bone-straight hair. I went natural, and all of the straight hair fell out. That was in 2003.

Years later, when the likes of Curly Nikki and Naptural85 and all of these other naturalistas came out, I had already arrived at a hair regimen of my own that mirrored popular natural hair care culture. Braiding my hair and then undoing it to have a longer puff was stretching, that thing I did to get spiraly hair was called flat twists, among other things.

I have worn my natural hair when it is only a few inches long and have struggled with it, sometimes inadvertently destroying my hair. I have not been about length, I have been about health in my daily hair care practices. The fact that I wear my hair in a puff most of the time is a testament to my favoring low-maintenance hair styles for my life as a busy resident.

But regardless of how I feel during the day and how much I am an advocate for love your body, including your hair, as it is, I have persistently had these dreams as an adult. As a child, I have not, only as an adult have I had these dreams where I wake up and my hair is significantly longer than it actually is in real life.

And I guess that's just it. At a subconscious level, I want to have much longer hair, hair that I can straighten and let blow in the wind, hair that I can let shrink and shake about my head and still have some length to it. It usually happens after I do my hair in a way I find particularly cute--invariably, I'll have a dream where it's even longer, and even cuter.

I think the fact of the matter is, subconsciously, so much of my idea of femininity is connected to long hair, and not just longer than men's hair, but long hair at base. And I've never had the length of hair that is in most cultures considered unquestionably female. And while the styles of my hair are generally more female, I have to count on the contours of my body and the way I dress to express more of my femininity, especially in those days I'm in a rush and can only do a puff.

And I wish it weren't like that. I wish I didn't have that subconscious desire to have longer hair, but it is there. It sometimes haunts me in my sleep after a day that I feel like was otherwise content. I know it's not about anyone else--it's about me. Because in the dream, each time, I'm waking up in the morning, preparing for my day, and looking in the mirror in surprise. No one else compliments me, no one else becomes attracted to me, no one else cares. It's just me in front of the mirror, marveling at my own self.

I'm usually thinner in these dreams, too, but I'll save that one for later.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Nigeria Wasn't Ready


"Nigeria was not ready for the white man to leave."

Continuing my delve into racial politics...

My parents recently visited a cousin of ours, from my Nigerian side, no less, who was actually integral in my parents' first meeting. Dr. Nwachukwu, or Doc as they knew him, was the head of the Department of Afro-, Afro-American and Chicano Studies (or something like that) at the University of Michigan, Flint in the 1970s when my mother, a recent graduate from the University, was his receptionist for a time. My father, a young, 20-something chemical engineering student, used to visit his cousin Doc and nod to his young secretary before entering the room.

The young secretary would not pay this man much attention until they were set up on a blind date in a party in Flint years later. And the rest is history.

Anyway, after over 30 years, my family reunited with Doc, who now lives with his second wife and children on the east coast. My parents drove their with my Nigerian Uncle and Aunt.

Besides my grandfather's death, it has been a summer of reunions--reunions of brothers after 30 years (my father hadn't been back to Nigeria since 1984, so quite literally), reunion of much of my mother's family to celebrate the life of my grandfather, and now, reunion of family for the first time after my parents marriage made him family to her.

My parents had a great time at Doc's home. One of the things that he did was share his perspective of Nigeria years after independence to the state that the country is in now. And his thoughts were as above. That Nigeria was not ready for the white man to have left.

To hear that from a Nigerian, though second hand, was astounding.

After living in the United States and being not only a full professor, but a head of a department for some time, Doc decided on two occasions to move back to Nigeria. Once in 1980, but then he returned to the United States, and another time in 1989. Between those two visits, he saw what was of Nigeria's infrastructure continue to crumble and democratic governance cease (as Nigeria was well into dictatorship by the second visit).

Of all of the descriptions of decrepit infrastructure, weakening culture and fractured politics that he must have told, my mother clung to the following example:

Doc was in a Nigerian university, a full professor there, trained in the United States, everything, walking into the building. Ahead of him was a graduate-level instructor who also happened to be white. As the white instructor entered the building, the students hailed him, cheering for him, enthusiastic for his arrival. As Doc walked into the building, the students turned their backs on him.

My mother's reaction is perhaps the topic for another post. But the long version of her reaction was that...maybe he is right. If these students' reaction says anything about the sentiments of the larger society as a whole, maybe they were not ready for the white man to leave! Maybe whatever tribal divisions that lead to genocide and war in the 1960s, that continue to this day under the guise of religion, keep Nigeria from the good governance that would ultimately lead to their further development. Whatever petty issue kept the students from revering their black professor over the white TA are perhaps borne out in larger society, and if it's going to be like that, maybe things would run better if the President of Nigeria were a white man, unconnected to tribal politics and not any other type of brown person.

And coming to that conclusion is really, really sad.

However, this is the opinion of one man, one Nigerian-born professor who ultimately decided to make his permanent home in the United States.

But what is it? Was Nigeria not ready for their independence? A whole lot points to yes. And does that inherently mean that they were not ready for the British to leave?

Then there comes the key question--would it have been better for the British to have never come to Nigeria, or the Europeans never having come to Africa, colonized, anything? And if so, what would the continent look like now? What would the world look like now? Would there even be a United States of America without African slaves' backs on which to build it on?

These questions and assumptions are all fraught with problems, the main problem being that we are in the present now. Independence has been declared. The arbitrary lines have been drawn on maps and groups of people who previously had nothing to do with each other have been called Nigerians  for 54 years this October 1. Not ready to be independent or not, not ready to be ruled by themselves, with all of the tribal baggage that survived 60 years of colonization, this is the present reality. And brain drain is a mug.

They weren't ready, okay, but now what? What kind of leadership is needed, what kind of reform is needed, how to you combat corruption that is near institutionalized?

Since my father left, I will always be an outsider, looking in. And while my cousins seem to be more concerned about what the existence of ISIS means about the second coming of Christ and upholding homosexuality bans for the sake of Nigeria, I'm not sure they have any concrete aspirations for elevating the political situation of Nigeria, of improving infrastructure, actually.

These are just my family members, though.

I would love to read contemporary Nigerian political thinkers and their take on the state of Nigeria and the best direction of the future. If any of my readers have some resources for me, I'd like to read them. I recognize that the disappointed musings of an ex-pat must pale in comparison to people who are living Nigeria as a reality.

Or is it really that the only way that Nigeria will work as a country is if it is run by white people?