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how we revere our elders reflects how we revere ourselves

March 19, 2019
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Mister, Miss, or Missus were the only options for addressing adults, when I was growing up. I never saw it as sign of submission — or being put in a child’s position — I saw it as a acknowledgment. There is something to be said about getting old, maturing and defying certain violent possibilities. Being older, Black, and not dead was enough to earn this title. Even as I gained more confidence in my own intellectual prowess — or just wanted to test the boundaries of childhood and young adulthood, with what I could and couldn’t say — I would never leave off the title because it was acknowledging not only that I respect and understand there is a experiential gap between myself and the elder I was speaking to, but that even what I was saying considered this gap of experiences. It felt like showing my work. There were countless arguments I would participate in at barbershops with father figures, or at salons with my mom, where the urge to express my opinion came — yet I’d always start with “Mister,” “Miss,” or “Missus,” and then I’d proceed to dissent.

Last week social media surfaced a video of Dr. Maya Angelou appearing on a 1980s talk-show where she concluded by taking questions from an audience. In one clip, a 14 year-old Black girl, gorgeous and casual, said, “Hey, Maya” as an introduction before going into her question. She was quickly corrected. “And first, I’m Ms. Angelou,” Dr. Maya Angelou asserted. “I’m not Maya, I’m 62 years old. I’ve lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, has no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first. Also, because at the same time, I’m your mother, I’m your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. See?”

Ms. Angelou spoke with a fiery poetry that was recognizable for me. It was the correction and discipline forged in love, respect, and the acknowledgment that if in this moment, right now, you fail to understand the lesson, it might not be as easily corrected in the world. And from experience, this is where Black correction often comes from: to protect one from being corrected in the world, because in the world is where white supremacy and violent expressions of patriarchy are; and in the world, correction is interchangeable with your erasure, or even your death. There are very few second chances, so fire and directness are, comparably, minor inconveniences to what it means to live a life not understanding history. Not just knowing that it has happened, but moving and forming conversation with that knowledge, holding that knowledge of history in your tongue, and — even in question and in dissent — being able to acknowledge somebody else’s humanity, what they must’ve been through in order to be able to have that conversation. Even if the conversation is unpleasant, respecting your elders has nothing to do with submitting to them, so much as honoring their history before engaging in the present.

On social media, there were disagreements about Dr. Maya Angelou’s response, insistence that she was rude and overdramatic when responding to the young girl. Even Ms. Angelou herself re-contextualized her public correction with an apology for “being short.” I’ve no proof, but I experienced that apology as expression of regret for publicly correcting a young Black girl as one would do in private. Not because what Ms. Angelou said was incorrect, but because there were too many ways to interpret the moment based on the gaze, especially in a world where white folks will use such televised moments, as their own license to manipulate and demand things of Black girls and women.

And, to me, other than direct and absolute, Ms. Angelou was faithful in that moment of correction. In order to have that moment she had to be faithful in a belief in a Black future and one that involved the young Black girl. Because we all grow old, unless we do not. Often the reasons we do not are over-determined by white supremacist violence and there’s no need to not acknowledge that even in a space of conflict or dissent. In that moment of Ms. Angelou’s correction, she was protecting her own name and history, but also that of the young girl because too often Black people — especially Black women — are stripped of their history and accomplishments, becoming, simply, “girl,” “boy,” “bitch,” “nigger,” “it,” or simply, “Maya.” Regardless if you are one of the greatest poets the English language has ever known.