Finding My Magic

I’ve always thought “Black Girls Rock” and “Black Girl Magic” were cute phrases and catchy hashtags, but never really took them seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I do think Black women are freaking rock stars and that we have an unexplainable magic when we put our minds to something; however, I didn’t and don’t necessarily expect them to invoke any meaningful change. Rather I see them more as an ode to ourselves – our way of supporting ourselves and the people who look like us because no one else is going to. But something about sitting and watching the entire Black Girls Rock award show the other night actually did remind me of my own spark to do better – to be better.

I’ve been struggling with finding my passion for a few years now.  First, I wanted to learn to play guitar and write music, then I was convinced I should be a milliner and change the world one big-headed hat at a time.  I had a stint in economic empowerment where I brought in financial experts to offer trainings to low- and middle-class black folks in Harlem, I’ve helped promote black owned businesses by creating an Instagram page focused on just that and I’ve dabbled in photography. And now, as you can see, my passion project is blogging to work through my own personal stuff (and hopefully help someone else along the way).  But really, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve been struggling with this my entire life.

The earliest career goal of mine that I can remember was to be a teacher. I was all about it and at the age of about 8 or 9 I even started tutoring younger kids. I prepared lesson plans and made worksheets for them to practice their writing and simple math problems – you couldn’t tell me I wasn’t already “Ms. Coleman, kindergarten teacher.” But that eventually morphed into wanting to be a writer, then a doctor, then a sports agent and eventually I settled on being an attorney.

One thing you’ve probably noticed about my back-story is that none of my supposed “interests” have anything in common!  Hence, my enrollment in a liberal arts college… I think I knew, at least subconsciously, that I needed time to figure it out. I started college as a political science major, but I quickly ruled that out when I realized I have no patience for politics.  I was required to take courses in the sciences, humanities, in the arts and in business. Having no idea what my major should be, I appreciated the diversity of courses.

My advisor/mentor at Spelman, Dean Baxter, had also been my English 101 professor and suggested that I switch my major to English. I had always loved reading and writing (remember, at one point I even wanted to be a writer) so I made the switch, and the rest is history. Not only did we explore Shakespeare, Dickens and Wharton, but I was exposed to Hurston, Baldwin, Toomer and Ellison. I fell in love with reading again and learned so much about myself in the process. But even then, my heart didn’t skip a beat at the thought of pursuing writing creatively on my own. I had made up my mind to be an attorney at that point so that was my passion — or so I thought.

See, I envy people who wake up every morning and chase after dreams of acting or singing or becoming a doctor or teacher. People who know what their calling is and have no choice but to follow it. They remind me of that chant you sing in church when you feel the spirit moving: “I, I’ve got a praise, I’ve got a praise and I’ve gotta get out! I’ve got a praaaaaaaise!!” Like it’s a compulsion and you have no control — all you know is that that thing is what you want to do; is what you have to do.

I don’t have that. I don’t feel like that when it comes to my legal practice. I do like what I do and I think it’s important and impactful in different respects — I just don’t feel like it’s my calling. And what’s worse is that I have no clue what my calling actually is.  But what I do know is that, if nothing else, I’m compelled to keep looking.  I cannot be one of those people who settles into a career she doesn’t love just because it’s what she knows and is good at it.

I watched a TED Talk the other day from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist who studies “originals”, and he argued that one of the reasons why original thinkers are successful is because they don’t get deterred by bad ideas.  He said that “you need a few bad ideas before you can get to the good ones.”  Those who stop trying after a few failures will never see their full potential… So I’ll keep my day job for now. But I can guaranty that my list of interests/hobbies/passion projects will continue to get longer and more diverse in the interim.

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Simple Words; Hard Truths

I don’t know about you, but I rely pretty heavily on my friends to keep me up on the latest happenings in various social circles – let’s face it, there’s way too many for me to keep track of on my own. And, most recently, two of them were telling me about a book of poetry that was the newest craze and that I absolutely had to get. I asked them, “who just sits and reads a book of poems for fun? Do you read just one poem and put the book down, or are there chapters so that you’re reading mad poems back to back?” I was completely confused.  Although I love reading and even majored in English in college, my experience with poetry up to this point has been limited to specific works suggested by professors to spark classroom discussion – I’d never had or wanted a book of poems for leisurely reading (unless you count Dr. Seuss, who obviously was robbed of the Nobel Prize).  But their response was simple: “No chapters; you can read whatever you want – read one and think about it or read a bunch and see how you feel.”

They had sufficiently piqued my curiosity so I went on Amazon later that night, found Salt by Nayyirah Waheed and hit the checkout button.

I can’t lie to you, though, for the first few days after it arrived the book sat on my dresser untouched. Something about it was just daunting to me. I once read that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful” (Rita Dove)– and as beautiful as that concept seems, poems have historically had a way of either going completely over my head or being so literal that I didn’t see them as interesting.

When I finally sat down to read I found myself flipping pages extremely quickly – for me it was a page turner of a different sort. Each poem barely filled a page, and some were only one line!  Like, bruh, really?  They were interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but honestly I just felt silly.  Then, around 10 pages in, right as I was about to give up and put the book down, I read this:

would

you still want to travel to

that

country

if

you could not take a camera with you.

 — a question of appropriation

And then I did have to put the book down. Not because I was over it or because I thought reading a book of poetry for fun was pointless.  Rather, I had to put it down because that messed with my spirit.

I have been the proud holder of a U.S. Passport for only a few years and as a result have accumulated only a few stamps so far, but in that short time and from only few experiences I have literally fallen in love with travelling – even if where I’m headed doesn’t require a passport. I went to Cape Town and Durban, South Africa for Thanksgiving one year and got to experience both a larger African city where there were tourists galore and a population of locals more diverse than I had expected, as well as a more rural town where I ate game-meat such as zebra and wildebeest and where electricity was completely shut off every day in the middle of the day to conserve energy (you read that right: during the hottest part of the day – in AFRICA of all places – there was no electricity for a few hours anywhere in town).  I also spent a spring break in Barbados with a group of classmates and we explored caves, rode jet skis and often danced the night away with the locals.  And when my sister and I went to Puerto Rico last fall we literally spent all day every day at the beach and did little to nothing else – and it was glorious.

Travel has afforded me a variety of experiences in a short amount of time and I am fortunate to have made memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve made it my personal mission to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year, to drag my sister and my friends to as many places as I can, and to not-so-subtly nudge my extended family members into planning family trips as well (I haven’t yet been successful at the last one, but I’ll break them one day!).

I often post my adventures to Instagram and Facebook, share them in photo albums and group chats, and talk about them to whoever is willing to listen. But I never once thought that my actions could potentially be assisting in the further appropriation or commodification of local cultures and people. I am obviously familiar with these phenomena on a conceptual level, but the thought that I might be personally contributing to their occurrence truly escaped me — there was no feigned ignorance here, just a young woman with a genuine excitement for travel birthed from having the time and the means.

So that very simple question posed by Waheed hit me hard; it slapped me right across the face, and the intentions and implications behind my newfound love were immediately questioned. Had I been blind to my own actions?  Do I want to go to these places just to say that I was there? Is it about bragging? Is it about curiosity? Am I embracing a sense of freedom that my parents didn’t have or am I only chasing after one? Do I care to learn more about the people and cultures I visit?  Or is my focus instead on how many likes my pictures get on Instagram?

Simply put: would I go if I couldn’t take my camera? And as I was sitting there reading, I honestly could not answer that question… and it freaked me out.

After days of having it on my mind, I still cannot answer the question fully. However, what I can say is that studies show that Millennials (which I learned is defined by most scholars as today’s 18 to 34 year olds, although I think it’s more accurate to describe us as those aged 25 to 34, but what do I know?) are more likely than any other demographic to travel for leisure.  Some might say we are less likely to have children and other major responsibilities at this age so we are in a better position to be able to travel, but at least one article that I read suggested that Millennials with families are even more likely to travel than those of us who do not have those responsibilities.  So I think that at the end of the day we simply have different priorities for our lives than older generations, and travel is one area that we see value in – it factors heavily into the “work-life balance” concept that reigns supreme in our eyes and governs everything that we do.  The question that I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself is what exactly that value is.

I’m planning a trip to Greece this summer, though, so now that my eyes have been opened hopefully I’ll be more cognizant of how I experience my travels and what I ultimately aspire take away from each trip – as well as what it is that I would hope to leave behind. So this conversation is to be continued…

Needless to say, I’m hesitant to pick up that book again – but for different reasons this time. Simple words. Hard truths.

Sometimes I shave my legs…

I was 12 years old when India Arie’s song “Video” first debuted. Given the time period, I’m sure I caught its premier on 106 & Park and I am equally sure that I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the lyrics or message of the song at the time. But it randomly popped up on a playlist I was listening to today and it just validated my soul in a way that I wasn’t anticipating.

I’ve never really been a “girly girl” – unless you count the 5-year-old me who would only wear skirts and refused to go anywhere without a purse. But at some point in middle school I discovered baggy pants and comfy sweatshirts and the rest was history. (But, then again let’s be real, it was the age of TLC and Aaliyah by that time so it’s probably safe to say that every little Black girl in the world was a tomboy.) And to make matters worse, my mother had no patience for doing my and my sister’s hair so we usually had some combination of braids and beads that let us run, swim and play uninhibited.  We were kids and didn’t care if we got dirty or plain and simply looked a straight-up mess. It wasn’t until junior high school that I started getting my hair done and learned what wonders makeup could do to the average face – but, still, by that point I had started playing basketball pretty regularly so my hair was often pulled into some kind of pony tail, and sweatpants with Adidas flip-flops and socks became my outfit of choice.

Even when I graduated from high school and went on to my illustrious alma mater, Spelman College, the first two years you could still catch me in class and walking around campus in hoodies, basketball shorts and, you guessed it, flip flops and socks. But then, almost overnight, at some point during my sophomore year I went from being flip-flop-wearing-Marissa to tight-dress-whipped-hair-Marissa.  Some might attribute it to pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (skee wee!) that year, or perhaps it was because I turned 20 years old and finally grew out of my childish ways. Whatever the reason, the new me had arrived.  I was fresh out of a relationship, had a new social circle and was one year closer to being drinking age. All the necessary fixings for a make-over.

I started to care about wearing designer labels, having a bathroom sink full of makeup and beauty products, ensuring my hair was laid before I stepped foot outside my dorm and always being caught up on the latest issue of Cosmo. But along with that new sense of style and beauty came a yearning for color contacts and hair extensions, an unhealthy jealousy of women who I thought were more attractive than me, and a hatred for all things nappy. It was truly perplexing. Somehow, on a campus full of women of all shapes and sizes and representing the full spectrum of hair texture and skin-tones, one definition of “beauty” remained pervasive in my eyes. And although I often received affirmation of my attractiveness from men and even other women, rather than boosting my self-esteem hindsight suggests that it actually had the opposite effect – it created a dependence on external validation of my beauty.

It wasn’t until I came to what has become my personal mecca, New York City, that I started to recognize and believe that beauty cannot be defined by, or confined to, mainstream standards. I know Atlanta is the self-proclaimed mecca for Black folks, but there’s something that happens when you come to New York. The Black people (and really all people) here are so varied and interesting, representing the eclectic mix of the African diaspora around the world and, most importantly, exuding a freedom and confidence to be their true selves.  Once you’re here you can’t help but embark on your own path of self-discovery. And at every turn, no matter what road you opt to take on that journey, you are greeted by people who understand you; people who truly see you.

A year after moving here I walked into a hair salon in Brooklyn and told them to cut it all off. I was nervous, scared, worried and plain and simply freaked out – but there was also a sense of calm that came over me as I saw my tresses start to hit the floor.  I think in the back of my mind I knew that there were more than a few women who I would see in class the next day who were going to fawn over my natural curl pattern and tell me all the products and techniques that were going to work so well on my hair type.  I knew I had people.  I no longer cared whether others thought I was cute or stylish or if I was measuring up to mainstream ideals of beauty and style.  I was wearing the clothes I wanted to wear, and loving the deep brown of my eyes and chocolate hues of my skin — and, most of all, I was loving my natural kinks and coils.  As I walked out of that hair salon, that need I had had for external validation quickly converted to an internal confidence as I realized that I was finally going to be seen. If my life was a movie, it would be at that point that “Video” would have been cued so that as the camera spans out above me walking down the street the audience would hear India singing beautifully: “every freckle on my face is where it’s supposed to be, and I know my Creator didn’t make no mistakes on me.”

Well said India, well said.

A Different World

By the time they were my age my dad had taken a job with the city of Buffalo and my mom with a local bank, they were married with two children, had two cars and had already bought their first home.  By comparison, right now I am renting an apartment that’s too expensive to be so small and require me to walk up four flights of stairs (but is in a really great Harlem location and has a washer and dryer in the unit, amen), and I’ve been single with little to no prospects for longer than I’m willing to admit in public, and I either walk or rely on the subway, buses and Uber to get me wherever I need to go – but I also brunch frequently, have way too many clothes, and I make it a point to leave the continental U.S. at least once a year.

So what’s the difference? My parents were toddlers as the Jim Crow era came to an end and teenagers when MLK prophesied of his trip to the mountaintop.  They are from a generation where the sting of segregation and institutionalized racism still permeated every aspect of their lives.  I, on the other hand, came into this world in the late ‘80s when all the hard work of prior generations was beginning to show some impact.  Also, by that time my parents were established in their careers and, although not wealthy in any sense of the word, were comfortable in the life they had built.  I had the privilege and pleasure of growing up in the house my father built with his own hands in a middle class neighborhood, went to a magnet high school that was ranked #4 in the nation at the time, and at the age of 20 I saw a Black family move into the White House.  And although I was (and continue to be) very aware of the struggles of being Black and a woman in this country, I was never made to feel inhibited by those labels.  As my favorite author once said, “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all” (Zora Neale Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me).

Don’t misunderstand, my parents had strong role models as they grew up and they truly believed that they could do anything that they set their mind to, but they were also taught that they’d have to work twice as hard just to get half as much.  They put themselves through college, and because they had big responsibilities at relatively young ages they weren’t able to take advantage of what they would call the more lavish lifestyle choices I’ve made for myself.  My father was 1 of only 3 Black students in his class at Cornell and my mother ultimately had to switch to night school so she could balance her time working and raising young children. Further, they were raised in a time where the Black “family unit” was an important symbol – it represented stability, civility and, in some ways, protection.  As a result, their focus at my age was doing whatever they had to do in order to build a strong foundation for their family and to give their children the best opportunities for survival.  My primary focus at this point in my life, however, is simply building a strong me

My generation seems, more than any before us, to have moved away from our parents and our hometowns without looking back, and we are instead taking up residence in some of the busiest metropolitan centers of the world. We stand ready to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself to us as we figure out what exactly we want our lives to ultimately look like – even taking destiny into our own hands at times to create the opportunities we want without concern for how we might be perceived by others.  There are many of us who are indeed buying homes, getting married and settling into the stereotypical “adult life”, but it seems like most late-twenty-somethings these days are still weighing their options, thinking 3 moves ahead before deciding when and where to put down roots.  Even those who maybe never left their hometowns remain hesitant to simply accept the lives their parents had because they can’t seem to shake an internal yearning for more.  We are still exploring ourselves emotionally, creatively, financially, religiously, and professionally.  We are unapologetically selfish and resolved to immerse ourselves in any and every single thing that we so desire without any feeling of shame, remorse or inadequacy.

We, Black and Brown Millennials, have the audacity to throw on blinders as we consider that job promotion, career move or new business idea such that the issues of whether we want to be in a serious relationship, get married or have kids become secondary (and sometimes tertiary) concerns.  We are too busy dropping a few thousand on that trip to Phuket or Dubai to think about if it’s the right time to own rather than rent our homes. We aren’t spending time researching which are the best school districts to live in because we are researching best brunch spots instead.  Some may call it naïveté or recklessness, but I choose to see it as the freedom to find my happiness. And not my happiness as a “Black woman,” but rather my happiness as Marissa Coleman.

And while my maternal clock does often cause me to compare my life to what my parents had at this same age, what I’ve realized is that I have something my parents didn’t: the luxury of time and the autonomy it fosters.  Today, people are living longer and having kids later in life so I can take this time to leisurely weigh career goals, travel prospects and ideal proximity to family and friends.  I don’t have any major responsibilities or external pressures influencing what I do with my life or when I should do it, and that’s a freedom that I am now learning to appreciate.

So although I envy what my parents had and continue to have (they’ve been married for 42 years, talk about pressure!), I really wouldn’t change a single aspect of my life so far.  I’ve been blessed with opportunities that my parents and grandparents prayed I’d one day have, and I am going to do everything in my power not to let their sacrifices be in vain. Besides, they love being able to come visit me in “the big city”, and they view it as their opportunity to try restaurants they’ve seen on TV, visit the Schomburg and shop for vintage furniture in Brooklyn.  Between NYC and visiting my brothers in Atlanta, they now have places to go and things to do.  And my brothers have already given them grandchildren so they seem content to let me be for now…