Translator: Will Trammell
Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs Since elementary school,
words have always turned me on – the affectionate sound of “move one more again,
and I’m gonna pop you,” while getting my hair braided; the sultry way
that “ladies love cool jams” rolls off the tongue when his music
is introduced on the radio; the inspirational lessons detailing
the literary devices of onomatopoeia and synecdoche in high school. For 29 years, words
have been my very best friend. Since elementary school,
words have always ostracized me – the envious eyes of my non-black friends
as my black friends and I used jeers and culturally insensitive slurs
to express our love for one another; the covert corners I found a home in as I chose poetry writing
over lunch room gossip for most of my educational career; the demanding obligation I felt
to withhold my feelings and questions out of fear that my white colleagues
and white teachers would misinterpret my intention; the inevitable nature
of hearing the “N” word in almost every single space
I’ve ever encountered, regardless of the race of its occupants. For 29 years, words have
been my most archenemy. The problem is clear. As a society, we take
language for granted. The reason why this problem
persists is even more crystal. People are really stupid. (Laughter) We assume, naively, that wealth
is best measured by bills and coins, also assuming that any other form
of currency is inferior, and thus, secondary. Kofi Annan, a great Guinean diplomat, once said that education is the
great equalizer of our time. Now, again, Kofi is brilliant. He’s amazing, so no shade to him. But with this one, Kofi was wrong. Words are more of a lever
than education will ever be. We just don’t give words a chance
to do their thing often enough. Travel with me on a three-anecdote
journey through my adulthood, and you’ll soon agree. I’ve been discovering, rediscovering, and re-rediscovering myself
for as long as I can possibly remember. One of the most powerful moments
on my journey to self discovery dates back to 2016 when I was forced
to reconnect with language. I remember the first half of my 20s being characterized
by a very fast-paced lifestyle. I had just recently moved to Boston
from my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. And I was very proud of the way that I fearlessly and brazenly
navigated the world, until I found out
I was two months pregnant. Life had a very funny way
of telling me to slow down. I was distraught. I remember announcing my pregnancy
to everybody I cared about with a text message
that said, “I have bad news.” And that was that. My ex-boyfriend at the time,
my child’s father, responded very graciously. He was very supportive. So my bad news turned into just news. And then when my grandma
offered some positive words, I was like, OK, now, we have good news. So I was excited. I now had good news. It was a good thing
that I was having a baby. I remember when we found out
the birth of Amir, my son – I’m sorry, the gender of Amir, my son, and we were so excited
that we immediately went shopping. We sifted through so many
sale and clearance racks, as many as the green line
could take us to. At six months, Amir stopped kicking. He didn’t live beyond
his six months in my womb. I cried. For days, I cried. For days that turned into weeks, I cried. For weeks that turned
into months, I cried. For months that have now
turned into three years, I still find myself crying sometimes. Of course, all of the very
loving people in my life use their words to try
to dry my tears and soothe me. So I got a lot of “I’m so sorry, Ashley,” and some well-meaning,
“He’s in a better place now, Ashley.” You know, the kind of words
we use to soothe people because we don’t know what else to say, even though we know that our words
probably aren’t working. It wasn’t until I met my therapist
that recovery actually felt possible. My therapist said, “It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to grieve. It’s even OK to criticize the way that other people give you permission
to do those things.” And so within weeks,
I suddenly stopped crying. I don’t know why. Fast forward to 2017. So as was stated, I’m an educator,
something I’m very proud of. And I started my educational
identity, if you will, with the Charlie Sposato
Graduate School of Education, which is a teacher residency program that’s housed through Match,
a charter network. Specifically, I worked at Match
High School in Brighton for five years. I often give back to the graduate program because I feel like
they did so much for me. And one notable way that I give back
is by speaking on their panels every year. At my most recent talk, I remember
being asked a question about the way that my identity
informs my practice as an educator. Now, anybody who knows me knows that I was very excited
about that question because anything related to race,
identity, affirmation, culture, that’s my jam. That’s my topic. So my excitement came clear in my answers. I started by reflecting on the tension that I often feel as a black woman
educating black kids. Ironic, right? I talked about how I’m often conflicted because even though I share the identity
with a lot of my students, I work in a space – or at that time,
especially, I worked in a space – that was very white-dominated. So I felt like I had to
constrict who I really was. I talked about how my hoop
earrings are a statement. I talked about how my then-much more
intricate nail designs are a statement. And I even talked about the fact
that people’s typical reaction to my tattooed aesthetic
is a statement too, just of a different kind. I talked about a lot. And I culminated my talking
by saying something like, “It’s a black woman thing, though,”
with a sort of dismissive pride. In response, an eager white
resident raised her hand. And she said, “It’s actually
not just a black girl thing. I’ve experienced that too.” And she proceeded to project
her privilege and her story onto my narrative. Now, although I didn’t appreciate that, I responded in a way
that I don’t think was rude. And I said, “So sure, yes. Womanhood in patriarchal
America is one thing, indeed. However, black womanhood
in white patriarchal America is an entirely different thing.” And it’s something that, namely,
she had no right to speak on. In response to the words
that I offered to the white woman’s words, I got a lot of praise from people. My most favorite praise
was from one of my students who accompanied me on the panel. Let’s call her Maya. And Maya said, “Yes, Davis,”
and she hugged me, very tightly. Maya hugged me tighter
than anybody had ever hugged me before. I still don’t fully understand why. Fast forward to October 2018. So I am a principle fellow this year, which is fancy verbiage for saying that I’m an underpaid assistant principal
studying to be a principal. I work at a beautifully
intimate elementary school. It’s a kindergarten through third grade
school, the Shaw, in Mattapan. And we serve a school
full of beautiful students of color. 30% of our student body,
about, identifies as Latinx. Notice that I chose to use the word
Latinx as opposed to Hispanic. One of the things that
I’m most proud of about my school and about Boston alike, and one of the things that is actually convincing me
to continue to endure the cold, is the fact that Boston
is so linguistically diverse. Many of my students
speak English, of course, but they don’t speak English
as their primary language. And they’re multilingual
in ways that I wish that I were. So that’s something
that I am incredibly proud of. However, on the day
that this story revolves around, I was very unproud. So one of my students,
who identifies as Latinx, a girl – let’s call her Taj – is a second grader. And she’s amazing. Now, all of my students are amazing;
I don’t have any favorites. But the thing that makes Taj most amazing is that no matter
who’s around, she’s the same. And she’s in second grade. So I wanted to share that with her mother. And I sort of practiced
in my head what I was going to say because as you guys know,
I really like words. So I would say something like,
in class, Taj answers questions like this. And then when we’re in cheerleading,
Taj shows leadership like this. And when she thinks
nobody’s watching and she’s by herself, Taj does this – because I really wanted to capture
for Ms. Garcia, Taj’s mother, the full beauty of Taj’s personality. So when my rehearsing
in my head sort of ended, I went on to playground dismissal duty. Of course, I was
paying attention to everybody and making sure that everybody
went home with the right person. But I was really just looking
for Ms. Garcia, Taj’s mom. When I saw her approaching,
I waved very frantically, like a kid in a candy store almost. And I sort of rushed over to her. I just started talking. We didn’t even greet each other,
I just started talking. And then in the middle of my talking, she interrupted me,
and said, “Hola, Ms. Davis.” And I froze. It wasn’t until then that I realized that my “perfectly rehearsed”
English speech wouldn’t resonate with Taj’s mom. I was embarrassed. Taj, in her brilliant innocence,
jumped in and began translating. She would turn to me
and ask me a question in English, and then she’d resort back to her mother
and answer that question in Spanish with grace and immediacy. Ms. Garcia, Taj’s mom, said,
“Gracias, Miss Davis,” and began crying. And all I could do was smile. In reflection, I realized
that another thing that makes Taj special is not the fact that she speaks English. It’s also not the fact
that she speaks Spanish. But it’s that, in that moment,
she knew very astutely which language she needed
to unite us all – the language of love. I now understand why. I chose these three stories because each of them highlights
the theme that semantics matter. The way you say things,
the why behind your saying of things, and the impact of those
said things carry weight. You are your you-est you
because of the words you choose and because of the words you don’t. Your words are your power
and your words make you resilient. The question, then, is not about
whether or not you have access to the resiliency of words. The question instead should be
about your relationship with words. Are you like the members of team Amir, simply repeating words
and phrases over and over, because you don’t know what else to say
regardless of how they make people feel, just because somebody
repeated them to you? Or are you like the naive resident, negating the words in other people’s words out of a selfish desire
to project your own words onto them? Or perhaps, maybe you’re like Taj, affirming the word currency in others regardless of race,
status, bias, or creed? Since birth, our words
have defined and fed us: the shady way we say “Good morning!” with more cheer to our boss
in promotion meetings than we do to the people who serve us coffee
at Dunkin’ Donuts every morning; the flirtatious way we lead
a new friend into our lives by detailing certain traits
about ourself and omitting others because it’s only the first date; the fact that, as a child,
I read a dictionary religiously – I studied it; and the fact that now, as an adult, I have a protected list of words that I’m collecting
in the back of my planner; the fact that most people of color
have to rehearse and rewrite what they want to say
in their head at least three times before raising their hand
to offer those words aloud in a setting that white America
would consider “professional.” Our entire lives, words have equalized us
and made us resilient. Words matter. Let them. If you take nothing else
away from this talk, I urge you to reflect – word work is deeply personal. It’s very private. So find a way to ask yourself:
What is my relationship like with words? Use that answer to coach
yourself into improvement and ultimately into resilience. You got this. And if you don’t,
you’ll always have words. Thank you. (Applause)