Roberto German 0:00
Welcome to Our Classroom. In this space we talk about education, which is inclusive of but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host, Roberto Germán. And Our Classroom is officially in session.
Start Here, Start Now by Liz Kleinrock is a practical guide to anti-bias and antiracist work in schools. It implements social justice work while building traditional literacy skills at the same time. There is no one and done lesson or book when it comes to social justice and culturally reflective teaching. This book is meant to help educators break habits that are holding them back from this work, as well as build positive, sustainable teaching for the future. Learn more and purchase Start Here, Start Now at Heinemann.com.
Back with us once again for the third and final part of a poetry series, Author Ummi Modeste. Yes, yes, yes. She is the author of Because I Knew and today we are gonna be breaking down her poem Hyphenated. Ummi is a native of Brooklyn, New York, where she attended and graduated, and served the New York City public school system. She recently retired after 30 years. Ummi is also an active member of the Breadloaf Teacher Network. With us today, Ummi Modeste. Let's transition to our third and final piece, Hyphenated.
Ummi Modeste 2:07
My favorite. This is one of my—
Roberto German 2:10
You'll have to share why after you read it.
Ummi Modeste 2:13
Roberto German 2:14
I didn't know this was your favorite?
Ummi Modeste 2:16
Yes, this is my favorite. I guess you're mandating that I wait 'till the end.
Roberto German 2:20
Ummi Modeste 2:22
Okay, it's your podcast.
Roberto German 2:24
Ummi Modeste 2:26
Hyphenated, mkosa mila ni mtumwa. He who has no cultural identity is a slave. I am who I say I am. Am I not? I am called African American. That strange hybrid species of human that has no homeland. Africa, Barbados, Puerto Rico, USA. That's the way my bloodlines flow. Africans tell me distastefully that I am an American. Caribbean Queens call me Yankee gal. In America, where I was born and raised, I am just another Black girl from the ghetto. More privileged than some, certainly blessed but just another Black girl from the ghetto just the same.
On any street in Africa or the Caribbean, I am American so extravagant, so arrogant. On the street in America, where I was born and raised, I'm not seen as teacher, poet, interpreter. I am thief, welfare mom, tramp.
In your mental dictionary next to American, do you see me? In any town USA, I am at best outsider, interloper, novelty, or worse, invisible.
In America, where I was born and raised, I am fenced in, boxed out, redlined, and disenfranchised. I am called African American. I ain't never call myself no kind of American because in the United States of inbred hate, American don't apply to me.
I am who I say I am. Am I not? When George W used to say, "My fellow Americans" he ain't mean me. I am not African enough for my continent born brothers and sisters. And most white folks sure ain't claiming me and their America.
There is a ripple somewhere in the Atlantic that can tell me who I am. Rusty chains rattle to tell my story. Restless spirits whisper to me in my sleep, telling me to return to our mother.
But dear mother, my siblings won't claim me as their own.
African American. I am both. I am neither. I am the lost child of the diaspora. I am the wandering daughter of a distant mother. The hyphen covers the part of me that is missing. I am who I say I am. Am I not?
Roberto German 5:30
Salute, salute, salute. Now, why is this your favorite piece?
Ummi Modeste 5:38
Well, first of all, I must give credit where credit is due. I struggled with this piece. It was growing inside of me, pushing and churning and keeping up at night.
Roberto German 5:56
That sounds like pregnancy. Not that I've ever experienced pregnancy.
Ummi Modeste 5:59
I was pregnant with this poem for a long time. And you and Lorena helped me through the gestational process, through labor, and into delivery with this poem.
Roberto German 6:16
That's wow. Because I really do not remember this at all.
Ummi Modeste 6:21
Yes, yes. It was many years ago, and I called you several times, "I don't know what to say I'm trying to say this." And you gave me suggestions and helped me push this poem out. So this poem is my favorite, or at least in my top five. Because it really speaks to how I feel as someone who can't trace her roots back very far on either side. I recently learned about two more generations on my mother's side that I didn't know about, thanks to Facebook. I posted on Facebook, and a cousin responded and said, This is your great grandmother, and your great, great grandmother.
Roberto German 7:21
Ummi Modeste 7:22
Amazing when used appropriately, yes. So I wrote this after having visited Tanzania for the first time and finding myself feeling very much at home and seeing representations of myself everywhere, in ways in which I did not see representations of myself, in the land of my birth. In government, on television, in various aspects of education, just walking down the street, in entertainment. And so the first part of the poem, before the verses even begin is written in Kiswahili, "Mkosa mila ni mtumwa" He who has no cultural identity is a slave.
Roberto German 8:15
I love the diversity of language that you use throughout this publication.
Ummi Modeste 8:21
Ummi Modeste 8:21
I am a lover...
Roberto German 8:22
Throughout the whole book.
Ummi Modeste 8:24
I'm a lover of languages.
Roberto German 8:26
It's beautiful and simple ways to affirm the different languages, but also to encourage people to try that on. However minute it might be.
Ummi Modeste 8:40
I'm glad you said that. Because it reminds me to say that that is a key component in my classroom to encourage my students to write in whatever language they feel comfortable. Now I'm an older teacher so I bristle a little bit with the profanity. But when we're talking about--
Roberto German 9:01
Yes, you know, you had a couple of words there on my clean show.
Ummi Modeste 9:06
Well, I only had one, I only had one word.
Roberto German 9:09
No, no, because you say it twice in the same stanza.
Ummi Modeste 9:11
Oh, so that makes it twice? Okay. Oh my goodness.
Roberto German 9:14
Ummi Modeste 9:15
But you know, but that's real. That's real. That's my real lived experience. And same thing with my students, I will encourage them to branch out with their vocabulary. But it depends, like sometimes they need to use words that I would prefer they learn how not to use. But I'm not gonna stop them in their writing process and expressing their emotions just because I want them to "clean up their language." So I am a lover of language. And I think that as we learn to treat each other with dignity and respect, we will also embrace our various languages. Language is beautiful. Language is beautiful. And the more we learn about one another's languages, the more we learn about each other, culturally, and learn to just see the humanity in each other.
Roberto German 10:24
Now you were saying that part of the inspiration for this piece came from the affirmation that you felt seeing yourself represented while you we're in Tanzania. And yet, there's a line here that says, Africans tell me distastefully that I am American.
Ummi Modeste 10:51
Roberto German 10:53
That sounded more Dominican than African.
Ummi Modeste 10:55
It's okay. So the visual representation that I saw of myself when in Tanzania was very affirming as long as I didn't open my mouth. Once I open my mouth, and it became clear that I was an American, the whole dynamic would change. The whole dynamic would change. And that's not just what happen to me on the continent. That happens to me in New York City with African immigrants who come to New York City, and are treated differently from American born African Americans, and buy into the idea and also Caribbean immigrants to who buy into the idea that American born blacks are shiftless and lazy. And that's why we have the problems, the social problems that we do because we've essentially created them ourselves.
Roberto German 12:02
So many layers.
Ummi Modeste 12:03
So many layers. I am of Caribbean descent. My grandparents are from Barbados. My grandparents on my mother's side were Bajans. My father's side, we can only go back two generations. So we don't really know where they originated. We know some of the stops along the way, Panama, Puerto Rico, but we don't really know everything. And in my own family, and in my extended family there is that, well, you were born in the States so we know about you. You know, that kind of thing. And even in my friend community, I have Caribbean born friends who have even said like, Oh, you're not like most Americans. What does that mean? What does that mean? Because I'm well-educated, because I have multiple degrees, because I'm articulate that means I'm different from most American-born blacks? No, no. And then this experience when I went to Tanzania, and I traveled with Americans, Canadians, Kenyans, Indians, people from all over. I actually had people say to me, I didn't know Black American women were like you. We thought Black American women were lazy, promiscuous, uneducated, all of these negative stereotypes, from basically media. And who runs media? Not us.
Roberto German 13:52
Not black folk.
Ummi Modeste 13:54
Roberto German 13:55
It's what it is people we just speaking the truth here. So how can this be applied in the classroom?
Ummi Modeste 14:04
Again, connected to identity if we don't know ourselves, if we don't take pride in who we are, how can we expect to be treated with dignity and respect if we don't have self-respect? So this piece was, for me, an opportunity to really get out all of the angst that I had around my own identity. I am American born of Caribbean descent. I have never felt comfortable calling myself an American. And I have never felt more American than when I've traveled outside of the United States.
Roberto German 14:53
Ummi Modeste 14:54
Because people will let me know, girl, you American.
Roberto German 14:58
Ummi Modeste 14:59
Roberto German 15:00
You like, Oh, wait. I thought I was mad insert ethnicity.
Ummi Modeste 15:05
Roberto German 15:07
Ummi Modeste 15:09
Right. So that was the genesis of this piece was having that experience and then having someone who is Kenyan born of Indian descent, but who identifies as Kenyan tell me that I'm not African American. That I can't claim Africa.
Roberto German 15:36
Ummi Modeste 15:38
Roberto German 15:38
Ummi Modeste 15:39
Yeah. And then--
Roberto German 15:42
Ummi Modeste 15:43
Yes. And then a young lady who is from Puerto Rico, tell me Well, black people in America are worse off than Latin people. That was the term at the time. Because at least Latinos have their own language. I was like, really? So you speak--
Roberto German 16:03
The language of the colonizer?
Ummi Modeste 16:04
Right. So you speak Taino? Spanish is just another language of the colonizer just like English, what are you talking about?
Roberto German 16:12
People are so ignorant.
Ummi Modeste 16:15
Ignorant is the word. So all of that this piece was many years in the writing. Because the wordless discomfort in my soul was just there gestating waiting for me to find the words to express it. And by doing so, and by sharing this with my students, and explaining to them what I went through, it gave them opportunity to say, Yeah, I struggle with that too, or it never occurred to me that people might struggle with that. So all of that.
Roberto German 16:57
Well, thanks for the inspiration, I wanna wrap this up on a positive note.
Ummi Modeste 17:03
Roberto German 17:05
What is a message of encouragement that you have for our audience?
Ummi Modeste 17:11
My message of encouragement is very simple. Love yourself and then love your neighbor. That's it. If you love yourself, if you honor your own humanity, if you learn to respect every aspect of your being, how can you then turn to the next person and mistreat them? But you have to love yourself first. Because if you don't love yourself, there is no way you can see the humanity in the person next to you. So that's my message. Love yourself, and then turn and love your neighbor.
Roberto German 17:52
Thanks for the message. Thanks for sharing these beautiful pieces from the book, Because I knew. For those that are interested in purchasing the book, or following you, can you give us some information of where they can do that?
Ummi Modeste 18:11
Sure. You can follow me on Instagram @becauseiknew. You can purchase the book at The Book Patch. The Book Patch P-A-T-C-H.com. Online bookstore, you go to thebookpatch.com and then go to the bookstore and search Because I Knew. And very soon I will be dropping my website. Within the next 30 days you will see my website. You can email me at [email protected] or at ummi.modeste M-O-D-E-S-T-E.
Roberto German 18:55
And they could email you for bookings.
Ummi Modeste 18:58
Roberto German 18:59
In terms of readings, excerpts from the book, writing workshops, so on and so forth.
Ummi Modeste 19:05
Roberto German 19:06
And also for consulting, because not only are you author, poet, but you are an educational consultant. Is that correct?
Ummi Modeste 19:15
I am indeed.
Roberto German 19:17
So listen people, we have an extremely talented individual with a lot of experience, so much knowledge, so much to give about the community. And we need to get behind this. Purchase, Because I Knew. Follow Ummi @becauseiknew, correct?
Ummi Modeste 19:44
Roberto German 19:45
And again, the website will be available soon, but in the meantime, you can email Ummi. The information will be in the show notes. Thank you for your time. Ummi, thank you for all that you've offered us. You've been absolutely amazing. And I look forward to having you on once again in the future.
Ummi Modeste 20:07
Thank you so much Roberto for this opportunity.
Roberto German 20:11
As always, your engagement in Our Classroom is greatly appreciated. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show, and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias, education, and society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your host Roberto German.