When the College Board removed concepts like “intersectionality, mass incarceration, reparations, and the Black Lives Matter movement” from its Advanced Placement African American Studies course, both educators and students were alarmed. These changes are just one of the results of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ 'Stop “Wrongs to our Kids and Employees” Act,’ otherwise known as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, passed in 2022. Guest host Natasha Alford, Senior Correspondent for The Grio, speaks with Dr. Keisha Blain of Brown University and Sommer Brugal, reporter at the Miami Herald to learn how the policy is affecting students right now. Next Amara Abdullah, a student organizer and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard talks about her work for justice for Black students in schools, and author Marisa Renee Lee describes collective grief and how the erasure of Black history prevents necessary healing.
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Natasha Alford - Welcome to Our Body Politic. I'm Natasha Alford, senior correspondent at The Grio, sitting in for Farai Chideya. When the College Board removed or reduced concepts like intersectionality, mass incarceration, reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement from its advanced placement African-American Studies course, both educators and students alike were alarmed by the changes. But for those who are fearful of so-called woke indoctrination, the ban symbolizes strong leadership. The course restriction is just one of the results of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, otherwise known as the Stop Woke Act. The law was passed in 2022 and promotes individual freedom while simultaneously prohibiting all Florida public schools, including elementary through the college level, from requiring any text or lesson that “subjects individuals to certain circumstances constituting discrimination based on race, color, sex, or national origin.” Here's Governor DeSantis defending the course elimination at a press conference in January.
Desantis Clip - When you look to see they have stuff about intersectionality, abolishing prisons, that's a political agenda. And so that's the wrong side of the line for Florida standards. We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don't believe they should have an agenda imposed on them.
Natasha Alford - Some of the rejected content includes the works of notable educators and authors like Kimberly W Crenshaw, bell hooks, Angela Davis,Ta-Nehisi Coates and more. The censorship seems like erasure at best and at worst, fascism. We're kicking off the show with our weekly roundtable, Sippin' the Political Tea to look at how students and teachers in Florida and across the nation are being affected. Joining me is Miami Herald education reporter Sommer Brugal. Welcome Sommer.
Sommer Brugal - Thank you for having me.
Natasha Alford - Great to have you. And we also have with us Dr. Kiesha Blain, an award winning professor of Africana studies and history at Brown University. Hi, Dr. Blain, welcome.
Dr. Keisha Blain - Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Natasha Alford - Thank you so much for joining us. So some people might not know. I'm actually a former educator. I was a middle school English teacher. I worked at Education Policy. So as someone who has stood in the classroom in front of students, I'm feeling a lot of feelings about what's happening in Florida's education system. So let's start with Sommer. What are your thoughts on this AP course ban? What do you think this means for the present and the future of education in Florida?
Sommer Brugal - I think a lot has happened in the last month. We had some updates in regards to the communications between College Board and the Florida Department of Education kind of going back and forth, as you know, he said she said timeline of events. But what it actually means in Florida, we're trying to figure out what this means for students next year as this course becomes available for students to choose from. From my knowledge, the last communication that was sent from the department, you know, requested College Board resubmit more changes to the course, and they're expecting to see those changes happen. So we're still trying to understand will it be in Florida classrooms next year? Will the department reject it? Will the communication between the two continue going back and forth? And what does that mean for students next year? I will say that there was a handful of classes in Florida that were piloting the program this year. So that means that they were engaged in the material that College Board was putting forward for this class. After that class was rejected by the governor back in January, those students were told that they would no longer be able to continue using those supplemental materials that essentially made the AP class, that AP class that it is, and that they would continue the year kind of enrolled in that honors course. So off the bat, we already know that a lot of students are upset about not being able to continue the year. And, of course, that they thought that they'd be able to participate in it.
Natasha Alford - Right. So there's a lot that's unclear. And you talked about actually interacting with students who were taking the course. And now the fact that, you know, they're upset. What were other things that those students said about what they were observing in the course, what they were feeling about the course? I imagine that they're upset because they were excited by some of the things they were learning. What sense did you get from them about what the course meant?
Sommer Brugal - Yeah, I spoke to three students who were taking the pilot course in Miami-Dade County schools. They all said that they signed up for the course and decided to take the course because they really wanted to learn more about African-American history. They wanted to learn more about their own black identity and wanted to take a step further of understanding the impacts and the contributions that African-Americans had on this country. And all of them were so excited. And it's really fun talking to young people who are really energized around education, and they're looking forward to their class. And they are talking about projects that their teacher gave them, that they were kind of just like, wow, I had no idea that this specific cuisine or this kind of music came from African-Americans. One of the students, one of the things that she said that she really loved was she was learning about a lot of other countries, too. So it wasn't just about, you know, African-Americans in this country. It was learning about African-Americans in the Caribbean, South America and Europe and understanding those cultures as well. And then when that kind of when they learned that this class would no longer be available to them or these materials would no longer be available to them. They were very disappointed. They're upset. One student said that they felt like they were being demoted to an honors class because they had truly thought that they were taking this higher level class and being challenged and learning more than they had ever learned before about African-American history and culture. It was really interesting to talk to them and to hear the disappointment in their voice, but also the kind of excitement that they had to have taken this course and to continue learning and perhaps maybe taking a similar course if they did decide to go on for higher education.
Natasha Alford - Yes. And teachers everywhere will tell you that you cannot take for granted students being excited about a course, excited to learn. That's a really golden opportunity when you have it. And to the point about there being larger aspects of the curriculum that focus on the diaspora. Right? It just goes to show that the challenge to the educational value might not be legitimate. Dr. Blain We were just talking earlier about the College Board and the back and forth over what is the timeline of events. The College Board claimed that changes to the AP curriculum had nothing to do with challenges from Florida, but records tell a more complicated story. They show that Florida officials and the College Board had been in contact long before the AP African-American studies curriculum was revised, and the College Board has since issued a clarification saying that they made some mistakes in the roll out of the course that they say are being exploited for political gain. How do you think this affects the credibility of entities like the College Board, which say that they are about ensuring excellence in education?
Dr. Keisha Blain - I think it truly undermines the credibility of the College Board. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been astonished really, at everything that has taken place, because on the one hand, we were told one particular narrative. Everyone saw the reporting in several outlets, including The New York Times, and as soon as those came out criticizing the College Board, the response from the College Board was, this is essentially a lie, This is false reporting, this is inaccurate. They went as far as to organize a webinar, which I did attend, because I thought to myself, okay, hopefully we can get to the bottom of this. And when I attended the webinar, I thought it was interesting that they did not leave a whole lot of time for questions. That was very curated. It really felt like a PR stunt if indeed the reporting is inaccurate, that we really should have an open conversation. People should be able to ask questions and get answers in real time. The fact that it was so curated and almost rehearsed made it seem as though they were going out of their way to to conceal something. And sure enough, within 48 hours of that webinar, the news comes out that shows that in fact the College Board has been in communication with several officials in Florida, that in fact, they were making changes, they were responding to the critiques. And though they have given this public image of we made these changes naturally because of the feedback from students and from instructors. In reality, what we're seeing is that many of these changes were shaped by internal conversations, but they're also shaped, I think, by the larger political climate. There's no way the College Board could have ignored, for example, the Stop woke act in Florida. There's no way they could have ignored all of the chatter around critical race theory. There's no way they could have ignored the critiques about Black Lives Matter or reparations or many of these sensitive or when I say controversial in some circles, topics. And in the end, I think they made a decision that was in their best interest, which was to adjust the course to make sure that they would still be able to offer the course. It's important for people to remember the College Board may very well be a nonprofit, but it is a business enterprise.
Natasha Alford - That speaks to almost the elephant in the room. Yeah, right. What is the incentive to align with or give in to some of the political pressure that is being placed on an organization like the College Board? It's important to highlight that for every action there is a reaction and people are not sitting silently as these changes are happening. Educators and organizations in Florida are pushing back against the Stop Woke Act. For example, there's this retired professor Marvin Dunn from Florida International University, and he hosts Teach the Truth Tours. You also have the Manatee, Sarasota, Florida, branch of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. And they're seeking donations for Freedom Schools. While this act may apply to public educational institutions, do you think there's any impact on independent efforts like the ones that I just mentioned?
Dr. Keisha Blain - That's probably the only silver lining here, is that these developments have forced individuals and civil organizations, as you pointed out, to actually respond. It's very easy to see so many things happening around the nation, simply say, well, that's a problem for Florida or a problem for someone else. It's not a problem for me. But I think this particular conversation hits home because people understand that if this could happen in Florida, then clearly it could happen anywhere else in the United States. And more to the point, we have to stand up and do something if, in fact, we believe that this is a democracy. We cannot sit around and allow censorship, especially when we know that the censorship that's taking place is particularly targeting and affecting marginalized groups. How could you, in a democratic society, decide to remove certain writers from a curriculum? What are we hiding? Let students have access to this information. Let them read Kimberlé Crenshaw. Let them learn about intersectionality. If they choose to reject it, that's what critical thinking means. You ultimately get to make a decision. But you can't decide to take away the chance for a student to learn about Kimberlé Crenshaw and intersectionality. It's something that you do in the fascist society, but it's not something that you ought to be doing in a democratic nation. I think the silver lining in all of this is that people are now trying to come together individually and collectively to find ways to resist. And that's a powerful thing.
Natasha Alford - It is very powerful. Sommer, I wonder in your reporting and research on this entire issue. Have you seen efforts from public school teachers? How are they responding? Are there quiet revolutions happening that we just don't know about? What are you hearing and seeing?
Sommer Brugal - In the last couple of weeks, I've talked to a handful of teachers, and I think a lot of them are alarmed and concerned about what's going on. I haven't heard of any organized efforts just yet. You know, I have heard of maybe some ideas, maybe some, you know, personal decisions to keep talking about certain topics, especially if students bring it up. I think a lot of teachers are really confused as to how to move forward. And the chilling effect, I think that's kind of been front of mind for a lot of people. And even as you know, talking to me and putting their name in print for a publication that could connect them to potentially violating these laws. So I think there's a lot of uncertainty for teachers right now. You know, how does this law affect me? What is this AP course mean for me? But in terms of the individual freedom and, quote, Stop Woke Act, you know that that's just one of a couple laws that kind of went into effect this school year. We have the other law that critics have dubbed don't say gay. That kind of limits a teacher, a classroom ability to talk about gender and sex and for for third graders and below. But the chilling effect happens at third grade and above. Can a junior talk about it? Can a teacher in a sophomore class talk about it? And I think that's what we're starting to see. And those are the conversations that I'm having with teachers, is have you started catching yourself in these conversations where you decide, Well, you know, I'm not sure how this lesson relates to the law. I'm not entirely sure if this book is approved. So, you know, I'm just going to put it aside for now. And I think that that was maybe or a lot of people would argue that that's the intent of these laws is that they're written in a way that's so vague that it leaves so much room for, well, “is this okay? I'm not sure.” And in an abundance of caution, I'm going to sit this one out.
Natasha Alford - Your mention of the vagueness in the language of these laws points to a larger issue. Right. How does this affect policymaking overall? How does it affect the approach that's taken from the Santos administration in terms of how they craft other other laws? So, Dr. Blain, I'm wondering, what do you think Governor Desantis's actions will mean for policy making in Florida for education and beyond?
Dr. Keisha Blain - Well, I think it certainly will lead to a downward spiral. We're already there. But it's clear to me that his actions certainly send a broader message. In fact, I was thinking a lot about his statement that critiqued the AP African-American studies course as lacking educational value. Let's be clear. He is an intelligent man. When he says those words, I take him seriously that he meant it. And anyone who's paying attention understands how much that statement upholds white supremacy. To say that a course on black studies lacks educational value. You are saying that there is nothing to be gained to learn about black history, black culture, or black thought in its complexities. Right. And I think this isvscary to hear a public official say this. But the reality is so many people agree with him.
Natasha Alford - Does this create a blueprint for other states, other administrations? Not just on a policy level, but in terms of political winds. Right. This was seen as a political win for Ron DeSantis to to confront the College Board and to even get this conversation going about black history.
Dr. Keisha Blain - It's very clear that it really does not take much effort to influence in this particular instance, the College Board. Many people probably assumed that the College Board would have functioned independently. They would have assumed that because they consulted so many scholars of black studies to put together this course that they could, in fact, stand by the course, defend the course, and implement the course in a smooth manner. Yet that's not what happened here. All it took was one individual, or at least members associated with this individual, to poke holes, to say, well, I think you should change this, revise this, tweak this. And very quickly, those changes were made a sending a message that it's not so hard to to censor these courses. The AP African-American studies course is an elective. It's not required, but it provides a blueprint. You might as well go through any professor's syllabus and pinpoint the subjects you don't like and critique the readings you don't like. Bring it to the principal and try to get them to change it. In the end, what this has done is send a message across the board that if you don't like the teaching of African-American history or you don't like the teaching of queer studies or you have a problem with any topic for that matter, all you need to do is complain about it and ask essentially the powers that be to make the changes. And without much of a fight, they might in fact make those changes. If it seems like it will be in their best interest, whether financially, politically or otherwise.
Natasha Alford - Dr. Blain, we know that this isn't the first rodeo. Many black Americans know what it's like to deal with discrimination in public school systems. We know that roughly 60 years ago, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: SNCC created a Freedom School curriculum, and that curriculum had literacy and voter education classes in Mississippi. And this was at a time when voter suppression was rampant. These freedom schools essentially provided an opportunity for black students of all ages to learn what wasn't being taught in traditional schools. So with everything that's happening right now, is it time for Freedom Schools again? What do you think? If we do implement them, what do you think they should look like?
Dr. Keisha Blain - It is time. Absolutely. They've already been in conversation with several educators across the country who are planning some sort of iteration of a freedom school, whether this summer or later in the fall in response to these developments. I am also encouraged by the fact that we live in a time where everything is very accessible for the most part. If you have a computer and you know how to use Google, you can find Kimberlé Crenshaw's article on intersectionality from 1989. You don't have to wait for someone to introduce the text to you. You can read the works of Calendar Yamada Taylor You can access all of this information quite easily. That's one of the reasons why I think it's a great time to bring back Freedom Schools, because we also have access to information that's a lot easier, I think, when you compare what our predecessors went through. It's sad and frustrating to see all that's taking place, but it's wonderful to remind ourselves that we don't have to have to sit down and watch it happen. We do have choices and we have options on the table. And one option is to come up with our own schools, our own community spaces. So even if you don't have a freedom school, then, you know, put together a reading group in your community, invite people who may go to your religious community to come together and read, read some of these books, read some of these authors who have been removed from the curriculum, introduce these texts to your to your children, to your colleagues, your friends. I think we absolutely have an opportunity to push back, and now is the moment to do it.
Natasha Alford - Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Blain.
Dr. Keisha Blain - Thank you for having me.
Natasha Alford - And thank you so much for joining us today, Sommer.
Sommer Brugal - Thank you so much for having me.
Natasha Alford - That was Sommer Brugal, our education reporter for The Miami Herald. With Dr. Keesha Blaine, award winning historian and professor of Africana studies in history at Brown University.
While policies like Florida's Stop Woke Act are relatively new, black people's access to education has always been threatened in the United States during enslavement. Being able to read could get black people killed. And during Jim Crow, when they were denied equal education, black citizens couldn't vote without reading tests. Policies explicitly designed to keep them from casting a ballot. And the battle for educational justice continues. Students across the nation are taking on the fight to protect their rights to quality public education. Amara Abdullah is a 16 year old organizer from Crenshaw, Los Angeles. Amara is a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard, a subcommittee of BLM L.A., which was formed by young people to organize justice for black students in schools. Welcome, Amara.
Amara Abdullah - Hi. Thank you for having me.
Natasha Alford - It's such a pleasure to have you on the show. So you hail from a legacy of organizers, your mom, Dr. Melina Abdullah. She's a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University Los Angeles, and co-founder of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter. But you've got your own thing going on. So tell us how and when you began organizing.
Amara Abdullah - Well, I don't know that there's necessarily a when. It's kind of always been a portion of my life. I would say that, like there has been a period where, you know, I was kind of uninterested in the work that my mom did because I felt like it was her thing and not really mine. But I think over the past few years, I've kind of started to see this is not just a thing that affects some people. It affects me as well as my peers and everyone around me, basically. So I've kind of been pouring myself into the work more so recently now that I understand the importance of it and I understand my role within the fight for black life and black liberation.
Natasha Alford - Yes. And there is no more perfect example than what we are seeing across the country right now with conservative politicians and parent groups who've taken steps to minimize and in some cases advocate for eliminating conversations about race and various forms of inequality. So, Amara, when you started to see that this was happening, how did you react?
Amara Abdullah - I can't say that I'm surprised. I think so many of us believe that we're in a progressive era. And, you know, we've been kind of conditioned to believe that we're past the point of return when it comes to policies surrounding race and gender and sexuality and all of those things, when in reality, you know, most of the older generations are still fighting against conversation about these things.
Natasha Alford - Although you weren't surprised. Did it hurt in any way the thought that someone could say black history? You know, it has no educational value. Was there any sort of visceral, emotional reaction to that?
Amara Abdullah - There's definitely going to be emotional reaction when my personal rights and my peers rights are being threatened, especially because we're underage. So the country basically believes that we should have no say in these policies. So it kind of feels like the youth are powerless in a way because we have to have adults advocate for us, and the adults are the ones advocating for our rights being taken away. So a lot of my emotional reaction when it comes to things like this is more so transferred into affirmative action. I see that this is happening and I see that this is affecting people. But what can I do to change that?
Natasha Alford - You know, I wonder. Growing up in a household where obviously organizing was valued. You come from this strong lineage of women who are learning and who believe in learning. Why do you think it's important for students to learn about these issues?
Amara Abdullah - I think all young people, not just black people, should be educated on black politics, black history, because so much of it is misconstrued. We see examples of this with the protests in 2020 being labeled as riots. That versus, you know, the Capitol storming. And, you know, so many of us are taught to think that the only good figure in black history is Martin Luther King and that these uprisings caused by like the emotional pain that black people have been put through are always going to be labeled as violence. And I just think that that specifically is one of the main issues why I want my peers and, you know, especially my peers down in Florida, to be able to learn about the real history from us.
Natasha Alford - And Amara, as you're talking about the way that black history is portrayed. Right. This emphasis on so-called violence or, you know, saying that protests are riots, You have state officials like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis saying that they're putting these laws in place to protect students. This is really about making everybody feel safe in class. What do you think about that tactic of representing it that way? Because I'm pretty sure we can both agree that this might not really be about safety. What do you think about the fact that they have framed the argument as a safety argument?
Amara Abdullah - There's always going to be people who believe that teaching black history is going to cause black students to rise up and push against these policies that are in place to keep black people at the bottom. And I feel like that's the actual reason why that could even be possibly thought of as violent, because white officials are afraid of black people knowing where we come from and and us kind of using that as a way to say, well, I realize that this policy is wrong now and I want to change that. So many black students who know their history and speak up about their history in classrooms, even here in California, are thought of as disruptive and uneducated. When really when we speak about our own history, it's coming from a place of facts. We're really talking about things that actually affect all of U.S. history. Black history is U.S. history because this country was founded on slavery. So I think it's important for us to learn about ourselves regardless of whether people think that's dangerous.
Natasha Alford - Amara, before we go, I have to ask you, this whole conversation is about knowing black history. Was there something that you learned about your own history that changed you forever, changed your point of view, made you better tell us if there is something that you still remember to this day that was a game changer for you that came from learning your own history.
Amara Abdullah - I think the Harlem Renaissance. I just think it was really powerful for me as, you know, somebody who focuses on music so much, to see black people using their artistic expression to advocate for things that they really want and show the rest of the world that we are relevant and that we're not just yelling and screaming about things that they think don't matter. And we also have emotion. There was so much emotion in the Harlem Renaissance, and that's what I really appreciate about it. So I think that point in time was just really special to me.
Natasha Alford - It's a wonderful visual to end. Our conversation on the Harlem Renaissance was actually quite inspirational for me as well. I don't know if you remember that photo of all the black creatives, the writers. They're sitting on these stairs in front of a brownstone in Harlem. It it made me want to be alive during that time, you know, I was like, Wow, I'm jealous. I missed out on this. Like, did you feel that?
Amara Abdullah - Yeah, just so much black community.
Natasha Alford - Yes. Black excellence through and through. Well, Amara, it's been such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining.
Amara Abdullah - Thank you for having me.
Natasha Alford - That was Amara Abdullah, student organizer and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard.
Natasha Alford - We've been speaking with people who are reporting on or fighting against educational discrimination. Discrimination and hate denies our humanity. But at the center of any movement, leading protests and change are people, people who seemingly get up again and again when the odds are against them. But what toll does that take? Our next guest is author Marisa Rene Lee. And she intentionally shares her very personal grief journey and her expertise to help us better understand. Her book, Grief is Love: Living With Loss shares the winding road of grief and healing from losing her mother in 2008 to breast cancer to publicly sharing her miscarriage in 2019 and all of the rocky moments in between. Welcome to the show, Marisa.
Marisa Rene Lee - Thank you so much for having me today, Natasha.
Natasha Alford - I want to ground our discussion today with a few definitions because I think it's important to define grief. You know, we hear this word a lot these days, and grief has been described as a deep sorrow or suffering. But you say that grief is love. And I just want to know why have you defined it that way and what does it mean to you?
Marisa Rene Lee - Thank you so much. So in my book, Grief Is Love, I define grief technically as the repeated experience of learning to live in the midst of a significant loss. And I called the book Grief Is Love, because fundamentally, the reason why I continue to hold so much pain connected to the loss of my mother is because of how much love we share, all of the experiences that we share together. It's a lot to figure out what to do with all of that when the person is no longer here. And I decided there's no such thing as getting over it. And thankfully my theories on grief and loss are actually supported by the leading research on bereavement, which states that the healthiest way for those of us who've experienced the loss of a loved one to heal is to find our own unique ways to continue our relationship with that person. You know, my mom's birthday was actually just a few days ago, so I baked a cake. She loved birthdays. She loved sweets. So that's one of my traditions. That's what I encourage other people to do. Find your own unique way of living with the losses that you've experienced.
Natasha Alford - I think it's such a powerful visual. You in the kitchen, you know, baking the cake, baking it with love. Right? Do. I bet you it is. There's another visual I have. You wrote this powerful piece in Vogue about Juneteenth and the meaning of it in a time like this. And you describe combing your son's hair, his beautiful little curls. And as the mother of a toddler, it's full of love, but it's also full of some grief as well. Right. The reality that for us, raising black sons in this world, it means something different. There's a risk in loving our sons in this way. You know, we just had a roundtable where we talked about the erasure of black voices and history from parts of Florida's public school curriculum. The love that we have for our history, our culture, our people to see that be erased right now. I think a lot of black people and people who love us are grieving. I wonder what type of grief does erasure bring to a community?
Marisa Rene Lee - It brings a very special kind of grief because fundamentally, the erasure of black history, it's about ignoring not only the things that we've contributed to this country in positive ways, but it also means erasing our pain because at the end of the day, the history of black people in America is one that is rooted in pain and suffering and grief and loss. And so I always say that, you know, you cannot heal from that, which is not acknowledged If we continue to erase our history in this way, if we continue to act as though racism in America is this thing of the past, we will never fully move forward, like we're not going to see any sort of racial reconciliation or true awakening in America without the full acknowledgment of the grief and pain of racism.
Natasha Alford - Tell us more about grief in relationship to the policy and politics around education. We face a lot of trauma and death in our daily news cycles. I know this being a journalist, and I remember when Tyree Nichols was killed, people gathering online to grieve the loss of his life, but also those who watched the video grieving what they. Saul. Is there such a thing as collective grieving that takes place? Talk about what that might look like.
Marisa Rene Lee - Collective grief is real and I struggle when people refuse to acknowledge it In these sort of recent contexts around Tyree Nichols, for instance, or also around the rise that we've seen in anti-Asian sentiment and crimes of hate when we know we are all capable of grieving collectively based on the pandemic. It didn't hit us all in the exact same way. Lots of communities and individuals suffered far greater than others. But that point in March 2020, when the world shut down for all of us, everyone seemed capable for the first time in a lot of instances of acknowledging this collective experience of grief and trauma. And so I struggle when people don't create the same space for black people. Every time we see another person who looks like us murdered in cold blood for no reason at all. Often by state sanctioned authorities like the police. It is really that experience of trauma that I know I have, not just for myself as Marisa, but also for myself as Marisa, Bennett's mom. You know, I can't help but look at my, I think, pretty adorable toddler.
Natasha Alford - I can confirm he's pretty adorable. I've seen photos.
Marisa Rene Lee - And start to question, you know, at what point does he go from being cute and cuddly and, you know, the baby that everybody stops at the grocery store to a threat? There is this grief that comes with being a black woman and the mother of a black child in this country. And I am determined to create space for that. You know, as we're constantly reminded, what happens to one of us happens to all of us and we all suffer. And if we can create space for black people to grieve and heal and to see their pain acknowledged when these things happen, it means we can also create more space for the AAPI community or for the Jewish community around the rise of anti-semitism or for the trans community as we continue to see LGBTQ rights rolled back in this country. Like there should be no limit to the amount of compassion that we can hold for one another when these horrible things happen. And I want to be an advocate for that compassion and empathy because I know that it matters.
Natasha Alford - Very important. And it's funny, as you talking, this visual came to mind of being in a church and hearing the pastor say, you know, the front of the church is open. If you've ever been to a black church, you know that experience. And people people come down to the front and you will hear people wailing, You will hear people crying. And we don't know, you know, if you're in the audience, you don't know what that person is dealing with. But in that community, you see that space is made to grieve, no matter how ugly it looks, no matter how strange it sounds. There's so many people who yearn for that space, whether you are religious or not. Everyone needs a space where they can just truly, authentically share their sorrow and their pain and work through it.
Marisa Rene Lee - One-hundred percent. I'm always reminded of the fact that, you know, whether you're religious or not, just taking the Bible as a historical document. There is an entire book dedicated to grief lamentations. This idea that we need space to grieve in, space to mourn. It's been with us forever. You know, it is even something that occurs within the animal kingdom. And yet we act like it's this foreign thing that, you know, no one wants to talk about that. No one wants to touch that. If you're lucky, you'll be given a couple of days off from work to deal with, and that's that.
Natasha Alford - Marisa, I wonder about your book and your own healing process. When you read the book, there is a pain that comes through in some of the details because you go there, you talk about being there when your mother passed. One moment you're sharing a laugh and a joke, and through that you say this really powerful phrase, Her joy is my inheritance. Can you just tell our listeners how you took away that her joy is your inheritance?
Marisa Rene Lee - So my mom, she first got to get 37 with multiple sclerosis and then was diagnosed with breast cancer at 46 and I'm now 40. And when I think about the life that I had, you know, as a child, as an adolescent, it didn't matter that my mom was sick and on disability. It didn't matter that they didn't have money. I still had so much joy as a kid and even as a teen, after my mom got sick and like helping to take care of her, there were always big birthday celebrations that were thoughtfully planned. Christmas was over the top. All of my friends were always around. And, you know, our house was the house that everybody came to. Honestly, this is one of the things that I continue to struggle with. I don't feel like I have a good sense for how hard it was for her and how much processing she must have had to do and how depressing or anxiety inducing I'm sure it was at times, because that's not what she showed me. Instead, she showed me joy and fun and love and generosity and kindness. And I know the fact that the last thing we shared was a laugh. Like, if that's not what she wanted to be doing here, I don't know what she wanted me to inherit. And so, you know, I decided a long time ago that even in the midst of grief, like I was going to lay claim to that inheritance and experience. Destroy as much as possible.
Natasha Alford - As we're talking, I'm thinking about a common phrase these days, which is I'm breaking generational curses. I don't know if you've heard this one, breaking generational trauma. And there's actually growing research that we inherit hardship right. From our ancestors in their lifetime. Like our ancestors, trauma didn't just evaporate into the air. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Where do you think their grief and trauma went? And how do we actually break generational trauma?
Marisa Rene Lee - So I think a lot of the grief and trauma lives in our bodies when we have these things that happen to us that are traumatic, that cause grief, that are like deeply destabilizing and very emotional when we don't express those things or because we don't feel comfortable expressing them like they manifest in other forms, it is either in lesser mental health outcomes, in mental illness or in physical illness. And in my personal case, I didn't deal with the grief of having a sick parent, you know, losing my mother very well. And what I ultimately learned years later is that at some point during that traumatic experience, my ovaries literally shut down. I have a health condition. It affects less than 1% of women. There is no known cause for the condition. But every doctor, every specialist I've seen over the years believes that it's a result of Trump. So while my mom was dying, I lost my ability to naturally conceive because of that. I am deeply intentional around care, and I think so many of the poor health outcomes that we see in our community, you know, high blood pressure, higher rates of certain types of cancer, heart disease, etc., I think that it's from the grief and trauma of racism. That's what most of the research points to. And now what I am trying to shift my work to is looking at, you know, given what we know about health inequities. Given what we know about racism, you know, the fact that if you are a black child, you are three times as likely as a white child to lose a parent by the time you're 30, you're three times as likely as a white person to have experienced the loss of two close family members. I want to understand what does that repeated exposure to death and grief and loss do to us in our health? Because I know that it takes a toll, but I know it has to. And so that's where I am now. Taking the work that I started with Grief Is Love into the research space?
Natasha Alford - Are there some outdated beliefs that you'd like to shine a light on? Are there some ways that we should be doing grief different? Tell us what we should do to better handle and talk about grief?
Marisa Rene Lee - Oh, you know, I have thoughts. So the biggest one and I think this is so important. So I try and say it in every single interview. The stages of grief. Everyone gets very caught up in these stages as things that occur in a linear process. So when people think about their experience, like, oh, you know, I didn't go through denial or I haven't hit bargaining yet, I must be doing this wrong. Those types of things, I need people to let go of all of that. Because fundamentally, the stages of grief were not developed for you or me when we lose someone that we love. The stages were developed for people who were dying themselves. We have been misapplying a framework for decades, and in doing that, we're causing people harm because they're feeling like they're doing it wrong. And with grief, there is no specific perfect right or wrong way. Like even if you read Grief is Love, which obviously I hope you will. I wrote it as a compass, not as a roadmap. I want people to know that there are certain things that are supported by research that do help make grief easier and make it more comfortable for you to work through and learn how to live with. Like talking about it, you know, naming your feelings. When we name our feelings, we give them less power over us. That is proven. That is all about the research, you know, accessing help in the form of either counseling with a mental health professional, maybe counseling with a trusted clergy person, taking breaks from your grief to experience laughter, to experience joy. Like, it doesn't mean you've gotten over it or moved on, but your brain and your body do need those brakes asking for help from your community, whether it's family and friends or people you pay to watch your kid or clean your house. Asking for help is really useful because the way that grief attacks our bodies and our brains makes it harder for us to function and to complete basic tasks. Forget about more complex tasks at your job or within your family. And so asking for help is something that's useful. So there are these things that can help as you're moving through it, but there is no one right or wrong way to do it. There are no timelines, there are no stages. There's really just your experience and your commitment to healing and to moving through your grief and learning to live with your loss in the way that works best for you. Period.
Natasha Alford - Your example is one that is inspirational. You are showing us how to move through it. So you are talking the talk and walking the walk. Thank you. Marisa, thank you for sharing your story and thank you for sharing your joy through the grief. That was author, speaker and entrepreneur Marisa Renee Lee, who wrote the book Grief is Love: Living with Loss. Marisa is also a former appointee in the Obama White House as deputy director of private sector engagement, CEO of Beacon Advisors and managing director of My Brother's Keeper Alliance.
Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts.
Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I'm today's host Natasha Alford. Farai Chideya and Nina Spensley are executive producers. Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Anoa Changa is our producers. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Kelsey Kudak is our fact checker.
This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.