February 22, 2019 4 min read

This year my husband‘s great-grandmother turned 114 years old.

As we celebrated her many years on this earth, we reflected on the things that she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime. She was born into an African-American family during a segregated America, and in her lifetime voted for the first African-American president twice. A recent article about her life experiences detailed how she and her family relocated from the South to the North when she was a child, and due to the climate of our society at the time, she and her family had to do so under the cloak of night to avoid persecution. She is the mother of eight children, and the daughter of parents who raised 12 children. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to raise children to be confident and proud of who they are in a world that hated them for the color of their skin. But this is exactly what she did. 

This is the girls, Joe, and “Mother” Lessie Brown (Our Great Grandma) at her 110th or 111th birthday.

One of my biggest challenges as a mother of daughters is raising them to be confident women, especially since we women tend to be extra hard on ourselves. I find this task particularly challenging because, whether we want to admit it or not, we live in a world where our skin color makes us unaccepted in many circles. My own confidence waivers on a daily basis--not because I don’t think I’m capable, not because I don’t think I’m good enough, but because I worry others won’t accept me because of the color of my skin. It’s hard to raise girls (or any children for that matter) to be proud of themselves when you feel this way in your own skin. It is a daily occurrence: I walk into a situation where I’m the only one like me, and I ask myself do I belong here? Then I look around, and I wonder if they think I belong here. 

Now, I know a lot of this is PTSD from my childhood and personal life experiences. Though many believe that racism is dead, or not a thing, they couldn’t be more wrong. Not only is explicit racism not dead, but unconscious bias happens every day, all around us. I have distinct memories of being singled-out and ridiculed as a child. I have distinct memories of being singled-out and ridiculed as a teenager. And I have distinct memories of being singled-out and ridiculed as an adult. So, yes, a lot of my confidence issues are rooted in post-traumatic stress from previous experiences. I struggle with how to separate my fears and my lack of self-confidence from my ability to parent and instill a great level of confidence, as well as a great level of dignified tolerance for the ugly things the world has to offer. 

Our girls

There is a light for me, however. Society is creating a culture, forging a path, that allows people like me to speak out about the disadvantages and blatant ignorance among us. Black women, ourselves, have decided that we will no longer be silenced; we will no longer be ridiculed; we will no longer be told that we are not pretty because of the color of our skin; we will no longer be people who are to be merely tolerated. Because of this, my girls have dolls that look like them, princesses that look like them, characters in movies and books that look like them, singers, movie stars, and the list goes on, of people who are beautiful and gorgeous... who look just like them. There are women who are smart, strong, and powerful, who are celebrated for their accomplishments and contributions, who look just like them. 

So many people don’t understand why it’s so important to have representation--why it’s so important to be included and to fit in. It wasn’t that long ago that people of color in our society were not allowed to share spaces with those that weren’t of color. It wasn’t that long ago that people of color in our society were enslaved, imprisoned, or killed just for being themselves. Now we can turn on the television or open a book and envision a world of possibility for ourselves. So representation isn’t just for those of us who were in the throes of segregation and racism to right some perpetual wrong. It’s to remind those of us who struggle with how, or where, we fit in, that we belong right where we are. It allows us to have the confidence to hold our heads high in all circumstances. It teaches young children that they are no different, that they do belong, and they are accepted, not simply tolerated. Representation helps to extinguish mere tolerance, to widen closed minds, and to reflect unto the world the brilliant colors that make up its very essence. As the mother of three beautiful Black girls, whose confidence can waiver on a daily basis, it is so empowering to live in a society and be a part of movements that value and work to enact change. 

Johnetta and her girls

I attended a conference recently, and the speaker made a statement that really hit home for me. “Representation is being asked to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

We have a long way to go, but I am so thankful to be invited to the party. 

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