Black Excellence: Maya Angelou – April 4, 1928-May 20, 2014

I am a woman phenomenally, phenomenal woman that is your grandmother, that is your mother, that is your sister, that is you and that is me.”

Mlack Excellence Maya Angelou

Poet, author, singer, dancer, activist, playwright and director Maya Angelou nee Marguerite Ann Johnson was born April 4, 1928. Over the span of her life and career, she accomplished many things, but the list of her extraordinary accomplishments may have started in San Francisco where, as a girl of 15, she became the first female African American streetcar conductor! Close to the end of her life, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

One of her most notable works was her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” which begins with the story of her life in Stamps, Arkansas where she was raised with her brother Bailey by their grandmother for part of their childhood. Angelou overcame almost insurmountable hurdles in childhood throughout her life to become one of the most important voices of American history. She is thought by many to be a “symbol of strength and leadership for the plight of women and the underprivileged.”


Black Excellence: Martin Luther King, Jr formerly known as Michael Luther King, Jr

This month’s Black Excellence piece concerns famous African Americans who either changed their names or had their names changed by someone else.

With your child, choose someone from this list and try to do a little independent research on that individual and the names they’ve had. Have a conversation with your family about these name changes and why they happened. After that, have a conversation about your own names, their meanings and the reasons why any of your names may have changed. You’ll discover that people change their names for many different reasons.

Did you know Martin Luther King, Jr’s name was changed when he was five years old? His father, for whom he was named, made a visit to a Baptist World Alliance convention in Berlin, Germany in 1934. While there, he learned about the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. King Sr was so impressed by Martin Luther that he changed his name from Michael to Martin. Even though Martin Jr’s name was changed when he was five, his birth certificate wasn’t amended until he was 28!

Note: If you have the TRJ Conversations cards, they can guide you in these discussions about names. Stay tuned for a new and improved edition of June in April conversation cards coming soon!

See April's Conversation Cards


Black Excellence: Spotlight on blackhistorymonth.gov

This month, we shine our spotlight on blackhistorymonth.gov, a website created with contributions from:

  • The Library of Congress
  • The National Archives and Records Administration
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities
  • The National Gallery of Art
  • The National Park Service
  • The Smithsonian Institution
  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

On this website, you’ll find curated compilations of the contributions and lived experiences, both historic and contemporary, of Black people in the United States. Collections of images, audio and video along with links to beautiful exhibits created by the aforementioned institutions populate this online tribute to Black History Month. Please take the time to visit the site and share some of its content with your children as well as with their teachers. Take some time to acknowledge and celebrate Black History Month this February with your family.


Black Excellence – Kiese Laymon

Considered to have written one of the best 50 memoirs of the past 50 years by the New York Times, Kiese Laymon is an American author who is currently on the faculty at Rice University His memoir, “Heavy”, has received multiple accolades and awards including the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Award for Excellence. The autobiography is about growing up Black, bookish and overweight in an abusive home in Jackson, Mississippi.

Why write about Laymon for January’s Black Excellence? Well, last year, “Heavy” was chosen as one of the “15 Books to Read During Black History Month and Beyond” by the Innocence Project. To commemorate Black History Month this year, consider reading Laymon’s book.

Currently teaching at Rice University as the Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of Creative Writing and English, Professor Laymon also works with and founded the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts and Justice Initiative which promotes reading and writing with children in Mississippi.


Black Excellence – Chris Kennedy, the Black Santa

Two years ago, Chris Kennedy put up an inflatable, seven foot tall, Black Santa in his front yard. An angry community member responded with a racist note stating:

“Please remove your negro Santa Claus yard decoration,” the letter, signed by an anonymous “Santa Claus,” read. “You should try not to deceive children into believing that I am negro. I am a caucasian (white man, to you) and have been for the past 600 years.”

In response to the note, Mr. Kennedy did not remove his Santa and added a second Black Santa. He posted about the incident on Facebook and his neighbors and community responded by decorating their front lawns with Black Santas too.

Chris Kennedy's front lawn in Little Rock. After he received a racist note demanding he remove the Black Santa outside his home, he added a second one. (Courtesy of Chris Kennedy)

In response to the note, Mr. Kennedy did not remove his Santa and added a second Black Santa. He posted about the incident on Facebook and his neighbors and community responded by decorating their front lawns with Black Santas too.

Inspired to further action, he stated,

“I couldn’t let hatred win,”...“You don’t like me having a Black Santa in my front yard? I will go and be the Santa Claus for the entire city.”

So he rented a Santa suit, began taking photos with his daughter and then traveled across the country from his home in North Little Rock, Arkansas to attend a Santa Camp run by the New England Santa Society in New Hampshire. At camp, he was the only Black Santa. His experience at camp is portrayed in a new HBO documentary “Santa Camp” along with the stories of a disabled man and a transgender man. Get your hankies on hand before you watch!

(Rated TV-MA for mature audiences. The content is intended for adults, and isn't really suitable for children under the age of 17.)

Chris Kennedy became a professional Santa Claus after receiving a racist note two years ago, demanding him to remove the inflatable Black Santa from his front lawn in Little Rock. (HBO Max/John Tully)


Black Excellence: Serena Williams

Uppermost in the news today regarding tennis star, Serena Williams, is her very recent retirement from the sport. Over the course of her career, she has won 21 Grand Slams but now, she’s leaving her tennis career with plans to grow her family. “If I have to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I choose the latter.”

 

In a recent interview with Selena Gomes on her new website for mental health awareness, acceptance and support, Wondermind, Serena stated that you have to “put yourself first mentally”.

She detailed that for her, "mental fitness" is learning how to "shut down," and she said: "I have serious boundaries, and I don't let anyone cross those boundaries."

Related Posts:

Venus and Serena Williams – Black Excellence

Reveal: The Masks We See and Those We Don’t

Book Corner – Mental Health Month


Black Excellence: Todd Kennedy

Todd Kennedy is our camp counselor and athletic director extraordinaire.  Our children have come to love taking tumbling classes with Mr. Todd over the past several years, and he’s looking forward to seeing his kids and welcoming new families to camp this summer.

Mr. Todd has a special ministry with youth and has taught tumbling to over 9,000 kids in Cleveland, East Cleveland and Cleveland Heights.  He started tumbling at the age of eleven and grew up learning on grass, streets and old mattresses.  He went on to become an acro-gymnast and a power tumbler.  He has dedicated his life and his career to forming loving and inclusive communities via his tumbling program.

Of camp, Mr. Todd has said,

“I did not know I had other family members outside my family until I joined Transracial Journeys.”

We love you, Mr. T!

 

Mr. Todd

Mr. Todd being “spotted” by camp counselors Maggie and Mary at Bellwether Farm.


Venus and Serena Williams – Black Excellence

During Women’s History Month we shine a light on Serena and Venus Willams.  These two strong sisters are the epitome of strength, grace, and excellence. Whether on or off the tennis court both women have continued to show and prove how dedication and commitment can turn gifts and talent into winning records, successful businesses and fulfilling personal lives.

“I love me. I’ve learned to love me. I’ve been like this my whole life and I embrace me. I love how I look. I am a full woman and I’m strong, and I’m powerful, and I’m beautiful at the same time.”
– Serena Williams taking on body shamers in a 2013 interview with ESPN.

"You have to let fear go. Another lesson is you just have to believe in yourself; you just have to. There's no way around it. No matter how things are stacked against you, you just have to every time."
- Venus Williams

Even under the harshest conditions when folks are coming at them, they stand tall, are not afraid to show their vulnerability, and to fight for what is right.  We salute Serena and Venus.  We also can’t wait to watch “King Richard” to have deeper look inside the lives of this amazing Black family.

 


Simone Biles – Black Excellence

On the Transracial Journeys Facebook Page, we recently asked for Black Excellence nominations. You did not disappoint! With nominees such as Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, Resmaa Menakem and Simone Biles, it was tough to choose. However, there’s one candidate who strongly represents this month’s themes of love and history (in the making) and she is Simone Biles! Thank you for your nomination Nicole Zistler, and please keep your nominees coming.

Simone’s strength and grace is not simply about her gymnastics but it’s also present as she has had to navigate inappropriate discreditation of her family structure. Born in 1997, Simone and her three siblings spent their early childhood in foster care until her maternal grandparents adopted Simone and her younger sister, Adria. Her two older siblings were adopted by her grandfather Ron Biles’s sister, Harriet.

Inspired by Gabby Douglas at a young age, Simone has said, “Growing up, I didn’t see very many Black gymnasts…So whenever I did, I felt really inspired to go out there and want to be as good as them. I remember watching Gabby Douglas win the 2012 Olympics, and I was like, if she can do it, I can do it.”.

Simone Biles is not only the most decorated gymnast of all time with 7 Olympic medals and 25 World Medals, but she’s also known for mental health advocacy on behalf of herself and others. Under incredible pressure and under the world’s spotlight, she stepped out of the Tokyo Olympics to take care of her own mental health. She stated,

I have to put my pride aside. I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That’s why I decided to step back.”

At past Transracial Journeys  Family Camps and Zoom meetings, several of our kids have excitedly voiced their love for Simone. There are many books about her available at your local library, but only one of them is written by her “Courage to soar: a body in motion, a life in balance”. Check it out!