A Letter to my Young Daughter about Living as a Woman of Color & Radical Faith in America 

Emelda De Coteau
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Emelda De Coteau

Mother, wife, sister, friend, writer / blogger / creative organizer, budding photographer... These are just a few of the many hats I juggle each day. I believe creativity is oxygen for the soul. I created Live In Color blog to celebrate the beauty in every moment, from faith to inspiration and motherhood.And it is soon becoming Pray with Our Feet blog which will focus on the intersection of faith and activism. Follow the inspiration on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/praywithourfeetblog/
Emelda De Coteau
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Photo Credit: Devin Allen

Dear Nai,

One week ago, while you slept, Mommy stood in the kitchen, surrounded by plates and cups and cried. I nearly collapsed, knees aching, my stomach somersaulting with uneasiness and lingering pain.

I cried because when I looked at Philando Castile’s fiancée, her eyes, worn from grief and shock, mirrored my own in ways you will one day, sadly, know as a black woman, unless the conscious of America profoundly shifts. Your Mama is an optimist, and a Christian so I stand on the anchor of hope (Hebrews 6:19), praying we will begin seeing each other not as Americans but people, people whose individual truths are valid and real.

Frankly, I don’t know if this will happen in your lifetime, but I want you to extend the love your Daddy and I give you always. Allow it to take up residence in your heart, and fill it often as you come before God in thoughtful prayer and communion.

Kes, Nai and me Photo Credit: Wayne De Coteau

You will need this love to live in a country and world which insists on rendering you, your perspective and intellect, your unique truth, invisible. Mama wants so desperately to protect you from the pernicious sting of rejection, but I cannot. And when I am forced to acknowledge this grimness, the weight of it nearly crushes me.  But then I think of women of color like Dr. Maya Angelou whose sentence from the poem, “Our Grandmothers” rests within Mama’s spirit, eviscerating this looming mist of defeat which attempts to choke out hope: “I come as one, I stand as ten thousand.”

Say this to yourself, my love, often, especially when you think you cannot overcome an obstacle. “I come as one, I stand as ten thousand.”

You are the descendent of a people rooted in resistance and resilience, dear heart; they refused to allow the ideology of white supremacy to define their destiny. Madam C.J. Walker became the first woman millionaire in America because a divine vision, superseded manmade barriers of skin color and gender.

Your Great Grandmother started working at age 5, and did not stop until her 60s; her retirement from being a domestic worker came because her daughter, your Nana, held a fierce determination within her heart, shutting out the high school counselor’s prediction that she should sweep floors, instead, she graduated with honors from Morgan State University.

Nana became an educator, touching the lives of thousands of children in Baltimore city, opening their minds to a more expansive history of the U.S. And then she came home, every day, and poured these revelations of our past into her children so our futures would not become marred by defeat, but instead, armed with this biblical truth: “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” Psalm 139:14

Each time you hear the lies of “not enough” (smart, beautiful or talented) echoed from American culture refute  these destructive words and live. Live because your life is a testament to triumph over fear and hatred.

Lucille Clifton, renowned poet, proudly declares, “come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” These are your foremamas, Nai! Their struggle shall be your strength.

When you experience discrimination and meet others who do, waste no time bemoaning it, put your energy (all of the sadness, anger and frustration) into action. Allow these verses of scripture to dwell within your soul:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Proverbs 31: 8-9

You matter. Your ancestors built this country, not as slaves, but as survivors whose sheer will birthed an unrivaled ingenuity spanning every field and occupation. Listen. You will hear it couched in the melody of the blues, rising in the triumphant praise of gospel music, and through the eloquent work of writers such as James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and many others.

You are always enough. God created you not to conform to this world, but to transform it.

And so, I leave you, my darling, with the words of Howard Thurman, a great African-American theologian, author and thinker (Jesus and the Disinherited) who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other seekers of justice:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

My Love For You Is Eternal,

Your Mama

We Say We Like Creativity, But We Really Don’t (Guest Blog Series)

Emelda De Coteau
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Emelda De Coteau

Mother, wife, sister, friend, writer / blogger / creative organizer, budding photographer... These are just a few of the many hats I juggle each day. I believe creativity is oxygen for the soul. I created Live In Color blog to celebrate the beauty in every moment, from faith to inspiration and motherhood.And it is soon becoming Pray with Our Feet blog which will focus on the intersection of faith and activism. Follow the inspiration on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/praywithourfeetblog/
Emelda De Coteau
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A few weeks ago, my good friend and fellow blogger Michelle Whitney wrote eloquently about creativity and how, sadly, our culture shuns it at every turn.  Her post was a response to Jessica Olien’s piece on Slate, Inside the Box.

Michelle is all about resistance and rebellion, and not blending into society’s narrow definition of who she should become.  She says without apology: “I choose to live creatively.  It is at the essence of who I am as a person in this world.”

When not writing at Surviving a Creative Life , Michelle creates everything from dazzling tiny ornate hats to yummy applesauce. We are pleased she is our first guest blogger for 2014!

creativity melting
Photo Credit: Michelle Whitney

Is your creativity melting away in this 9 to 5 world?

Jessica Olein has written an interesting article on Slate about how people say they value creativity, but they really want everyone to jump in line and dutifully follow the status quo, even if it is to the detriment to those who talked the talk about valuing creativity in the first place.  I hate to say it, but as someone who lives in the 9 to 5 world, she’s right.  I see it almost every day.

Though her company initially hired her for her problem-solving skills, she is regularly unable to fix actual problems because nobody will listen to her ideas. “I even say, ‘I’ll do the work. Just give me the go ahead and I’ll do it myself,’ ” she says. “But they won’t, and so the system stays less efficient.”

Ideas for how to manage projects, streamline workflow, and integrate technological advancements are nearly always met with metaphorical brick walls in the workplace.  If the ideas are presented from the bottom to the management then they are almost certain to fail or to be dismissed outright without even a friendly ear.  After awhile, people become apathetic and stop suggesting creative solutions to problems.  The resistance to creative change, even in the positive, is astounding!

Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

To survive a creative life we can’t let that apathy consume us.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard, “We’ve been doing it like this for XYZ, which is why we should keep doing it like this going forward.”  This is not a reason for doing something if there is a way to improve upon it–especially in our technological world of lightning-fast changes.

“Everybody hates it when something’s really great,” says essayist and art critic Dave Hickey.

I ran into this myself in a creative writing class back in 1990.  I had written a first-person short story from the point of view of a character who dies (not that my story was really great or anything, but who am I kidding, it was pretty awesome for a high-school kid).  The character continued to narrate the story from beyond the veil of death.  My creative writing teacher insisted that I couldn’t do this.

“You can’t have a narrator that’s dead.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“You just can’t.”

In 1999 the movie American Beauty was released, and guess what–that’s right, the narrator of the story was dead.  That movie won 5 Oscars and according to IMDB had 74 total award nominations and 94 wins.

Why again couldn’t I write a short story in which the narrator is dead?  It’s exactly what Olein is talking about in this article.  The story was something new at the time–it was definitely out-of-the-box. My creative writing teacher had quite a bit of jealousy rattling around inside her when it came to my burgeoning writing talent (there were many other issues that made this abundantly clear, but that’s a post for another day…).  And just because she had never seen someone write a story with a narrator who dies, she rejected it as an impossibility.

Unfortunately, the place where our first creative ideas go to die is the place that should be most open to them—school. Studies show that teachers overwhelmingly discriminate against creative students, favoring their satisfier classmates who more readily follow directions and do what they’re told.

And even if our teachers do support us in our creative pursuits and encourage new ideas and innovation in our thinking, what is our current obsession with testing doing to the creative among us?

Even if children are lucky enough to have a teacher receptive to their ideas, standardized testing and other programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (a program whose very designation is opposed to nonlinear creative thinking) make sure children’s minds are not on the “wrong” path, even though adults’ accomplishments are linked far more strongly to their creativity than their IQ.

I’ve had long conversations with a teacher-of-the-year friend of mine about No Child Left Behind and how it leaves no room for creativity in its curriculum demands. We also talked about direct instruction (mostly experimented with on low-income children, of course) being the same way.  We’re teaching our kids only to follow directions and stay within the lines.  Teaching a test is not teaching problem-solving, which is something that life requires of all of us.  Problem-solving often involves finding creative solutions to complex issues.  You can’t learn this by picking A, B, or C on a multiple-choice test.

To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.

I choose to live creatively.  It is at the essence of who I am as a person in this world.  I’ve never really fit–I’m the proverbial square peg and I refuse to carve corners to try to wrongly wriggle into a round hole.  I choose to be myself and, accepted or not, here I am.  Now if I could just let go of satisfying myself…

As writer Anais Nin once said, “Perfection is static, and I am in full progress…”

Michelle Whitney creating art. Photo courtesy of the author.
Michelle Whitney creating art. Photo courtesy of the author.

Michelle was born a creative genius (really, I swear!). Okay, maybe not a genius, but definitely creative. She works a stressful 9-5 that is creative-adjacent, but lacks in actual creativity. In order to survive this situation while still being able to pay her bills, she seeks to find the creative in situations all around her.  It’s a survival tactic, because surviving a creative life is not always easy and often it makes you question yourself down to the very fibers of your being.

Michelle is a trained writer and photographer and an autodidact in just about anything else she can get her hands on.

 

 

Standing Up for Justice

Emelda De Coteau
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Emelda De Coteau

Mother, wife, sister, friend, writer / blogger / creative organizer, budding photographer... These are just a few of the many hats I juggle each day. I believe creativity is oxygen for the soul. I created Live In Color blog to celebrate the beauty in every moment, from faith to inspiration and motherhood.And it is soon becoming Pray with Our Feet blog which will focus on the intersection of faith and activism. Follow the inspiration on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/praywithourfeetblog/
Emelda De Coteau
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picket lineDr. King called for a radical transformation of values, a movement from “a thing-oriented society to a people-oriented society.” We are still not there. Yet every moment each of us are presented with choices to shift from love over visceral hatred, truth instead of mendacity.

I stood up with a handful of folks on Black Friday to protest the world’s largest retailer’s poor treatment of its workers – some drivers honked their horns, others ignored us, while many looked puzzled. Who were these people with signs, and why didn’t they shop like everyone else?

According to Making Change at Walmart, an advocacy organization, “An employee who works Walmart’s definition of full-time (34 hours per week) makes just $15,500 per year. That means hundreds of thousands of people who work full-time at Walmart still live below the poverty line.”

Americans like to think of ourselves as non-conformists, but most of us are deeply afraid to question “normalcy.” Some who buck against convention increasingly do so from the comfort of smart phones or social media (not that this is not activism), but it does not replace the physicality of being on the ground, having a presence.

I have attended other rallies, but something shifted in me that day as I raised my voice, moved my body to the drum beat, and held up my handmade sign. Another kind of courage, a raw determination to stand up for justice beyond my laptop keyboard, a willingness to ask myself increasingly tough questions like what my choices mean for others who live in the developing world. How do the bargains we receive bamboozle us, tie us to a myopic way of seeing that worships materialism?

Standing up for justice is never convenient or comfortable, but it is necessary. The world we tolerate is the one our children will inherit. Justice and truth cannot wait, so keep moving and pushing, another way is possible.