Speech and Debate

Halfway through sixth grade, my family moved from Roselle, a diverse working-class neighborhood, to Freehold, New Jersey, an upper-middle class predominantly white living. Thus began the year of silence.

Out of protest, sadness, depression, and puberty I vowed to my parents that I would never ever speak to them again. I later apologized for it, as it was said out of frustration more than anything, but the behavior remained. I wouldn’t speak over a certain volume. I wouldn’t make eye contact when I spoke. I wouldn’t speak unless addressed. My teachers called it selective mutism; my parents called it stubborn; and now they call it ironic. I didn’t have the words to call it anything. I didn’t know that I’d never be more grateful. If Roselle stayed home, I would have never found speech.

Five years later, high school theatre didn’t work out so I followed my best friend to the speech and debate room for the first meeting of the year. According to Mr. Drummond, my first ever coach, there were three fundamental tracks to the art of speech: limited preparation (LP), public address (PA), & interpretation events (IE). Limited preparation events deal with extemporaneous and impromptu speaking. Public address events deal with researching, writing, memorizing and performing informative, communicative, humorous, and persuasive speeches. Interpretation events deal with dramatic and humorous acting events. They showed all three at the Welcome Back Showcase. The president of the team performed a poetry interpretation program, and the power he exuded was enviable. Thirty people in one room stopped and listened in complete silence with full attention for ten minutes to one man. He held the entire room hostage. I had never seen that before. At fourteen years old, I thought, to be a part of a distinguished league of high school speakers, leaders, and influencers (which included Josh Gad, Zac Efron, Oprah, Brad Pitt, Kal Penn, and even more) would have been an honor—one I wasn’t sure I deserved, so ninth grade was a silent year regardless.

I started to compete more regularly in forensics (also known as speech, debate, 4n6, often confused with football or dead bodies) in the tenth grade, doing humorous interpretation and improvisational acting. Improvisational acting was the event that made me. Improv taught me everything about interpretation, everything about acting, everything about self-determination, everything about speaking as a cognitive process and everything about heart. The first time I finaled at a tournament I brought home a tiny fifth-place motorcycle trophy for something I never thought I could do, which was make people laugh with the sound of my voice, and I cried.

Soft voices never really harden, they just get heard.

I got serious about speech after that. I spent hours in the library reading books, suggesting them to all of the novices who had trouble finding literature to perform for competition. The next year, I took on the challenge of teaching the novices the rules and conventions of speech, which meant I had to learn them. Begging my parents to attend the George Mason Institute of Forensics (GMIF), a summer camp for speech kids taught by collegiate performers, definitely turned the tide. I studied and watched the final rounds of the National Tournament every year in someone’s New Jersey basement. Me and my friends who also were serious studied elocution, differing philosophies of acting, the principles of minstrelsy & oratorical education. We held house practices in people’s basements. We practiced monologues over and over for each other, recorded them for ourselves and played them back. We choreographed ourselves. We recorded ourselves. We read each and every ballot after each tournament in a McDonald’s booth. I bought two obnoxiously bright green speech suits and wore them with pride. I read literature, considered the themes I wanted to pick out of the author’s words and what method of interpretation I could take every week. Something that would effectively break walls but not make too many waves. I spent countless nights memorizing and perfecting and trying to get better.

One day, my voice just crystallized in front of me and I realized that the silence was over. No one could ever get me to shut up now. Not even myself. Even if I wanted to. My coach once told me, if you want to be able to change the way you speak, you have to change the way you breathe. Well at point, I’d went from choking to gasping. That’s where the art comes in. The body’s oral system works hard for those ten minutes. The more you are able to control your nose, your mouth, your lungs, your brain…the more you are able to become an extension of yourself.

My first dramatic interpretation (DI) in speech was of the book Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals my senior year of high school. Performing the words of that piece allowed me to fall in love with prose again. Warriors Don’t Cry is a compilation of Beals’ high school diary, a sixteen-year-old girl who was part of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas surrounding the civil rights fight for desegregation. It told the story of a girl trying to make it to seventeen. Approaching my senior year as one of the few Haitian-Americans in a predominantly white school and neighborhood, I was just trying to get to seventeen too. Beals spends pages and pages going through her tumultuous year in Little Rock, holding no parts of herself and the experiences of her classmates back. The themes of hopelessness and the titular advice got me through my senior year of high school. I only semifinaled at our district tournament, meaning I never qualified for high school nationals. But according to Melba, warriors didn’t cry. In the face of injustice, the warrior spirit is flexible. The strength to leave home, go to George Mason, and pursue collegiate forensics competitive success would have been lost on me without Melba. She allowed me to exist outside self.

It was the first time I had ever heard it from my own tongue and the love of prose overwhelms me still. And this love now consumes a community. I’ve met some of my closest friends in speech. People meet their soulmates in this activity. Watching someone bleed for you will always leave tiny scars. We, as a community, heal with constant love.

In 2017, me and my duo partner won the American Forensics Association National Individual Events Tournament in Duo Interpretation, performing a programmatic ten-minute piece about modern day lynching in America. We dedicated our performance to lynching victims around the country and the Memorial of Peace and Justice newly erected in Alabama dedicated to these victims as well. We worked hard to include all sorts of groups and accentuate the details of this performance out of respect for ourselves, the literature, and the activity. Using my voice to speak for groups I can adequately represent allows survivors of injustice to tell their stories and live on. Using my body as their vessel has been one of my greatest honors. Here is where I developed the ideology that we are all walking this Earth considering each other, and that the inside matters more than we will ever know but the outside matters because it protects what’s inside. We would not survive without shelter, and the body we inhabit is shelter. Identity is always grabbing at our bones. So we stand up when we can. I do believe that those who are truly and inherently neutral comply to the system and therefore aid systems of oppression. Along this vein, those who do speech are the ones consistently disrupting the status quo.

I’m currently a rising senior at George Mason University, majoring in Public Administration. There are a lot of reasons I love GMU but I can definitely say that I picked and attended my college for speech. Graduating high school, I knew hell was a place without speech. Hell was a world where that could get taken away in an instant. After I graduated high school, our coach and our program stepped down. After my sophomore year in college, our Assistant Director of Forensics stepped down too. This year, after the Director of Forensics for our team left, I don’t think our team knew how to breathe. We were already walking around with open wounds. I have been doing speech and debate for seven years. Seven years ago, I didn’t have something that I knew would never give up on me, ever, as long as I never gave up on it. Speech has been the greatest love of my life. I have never practiced unconditional love before. But after the year our team has had, speech was the world’s most beautiful rose, with dried blood on the thorns, accepting the community’s flaws as necessary evils. Out of love for my art, I have lost sleep, lost job opportunities, lost focus in school, lost money, lost people, and almost lost my mind.

The biggest nightmare about speech is that it is such a diverse and beautiful community full of gorgeous and talented people who spend their weekends laying at the feet of a panel of men. They bare their soul and ask for a fair rank and are given back sexism, racism, classism, and problematic rhetoric time and time again. Microaggressions within the community began to creep on me. Judges and coaches in our community have always held all the power. They are the ones who decide who advances and keeps speaking. They’re usually older, straight, white males. To appease speech traditionalists, droves of us have been made to wear pantyhose, heels, full makeup, forbidden to wear pantsuits, and made to alter our bodies in sometimes unhealthy ways. Coaches have told me to smile wider to appear likeable even at my breaking points. It has made me stretch parts of myself for the amusement of those in power. Some have belittled the stories of survivors, pitted traumas against each other, criticized appearance on ballots more times than I can count, said things that they would never say to anyone’s face about things they would never be able to understand. Being judged on how beautiful I can make struggle, how appealing I can make my suffering, how pretty I can make myself cry for the benefit of an audience whose integrity has shifted has made me question the art of competitive public speaking recently. Highlighting the voices of people who didn’t have this platform was the most rewarding thing, not the trophy. Speech has made me who I am today but I have to recognize the hurt it has caused me as a young black woman. As the next generation of competitors rolls onto a field of so much potential, we have no choice but to leave it better than when we found it.

The speech community allows one to be able to participate in the facilitation of emerging action in this era. Entering a defining period of this world, the importance of voice has never been more compromised. Being part of something that bolsters an era of change, the words behind a revolutionary thing, has been integral to our heart. These messages deserve a home and an eternal story. Leaders, icons, competitors, coaches, and speakers like the ones I have gotten the privilege to compete against do the real dirty work under the grassroots in my head. Speech has provided a place for us as artists, creators, makers, and influences of great societal innovation. Language has always been a gift worth regifting. Every summer, working GMIF turns me into witness as young people grasp the power of voice and advocacy through words, their own and others, as a tool for social innovation and cultural change. The kids there keep something beyond themselves going and they haven’t even opened their mouths yet.

Time to start listening.

top photo courtesy Mernine Ameris

The Unforgettable Nerdiness of Felicia Abelard

The Unforgettable Nerdiness of Felicia Abelard

From the moment I started reading young adult literature, I enjoyed many things about the genre.

I liked how there were subgenres like fantasy, contemporary, and verse novels (i.e., books written in poems that tell a story). I liked reading about teenagers who save the world. I liked seeing teenagers experiencing real-life issues that no one wants to talk about, like mental illness and feeling out of place. Yet I eventually noticed that some of the stories involving black characters only revolved around personal and socioeconomic issues.

As I mentioned in my discussion of Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything, it was rare for me to find stories of black teenagers in romantic bliss. Although I felt somewhat validated reading young adult books as a teen, they also gave me the impression I had nothing happy to look forward to. I felt like my entire teenage experience would be defined by suffering because I never read about a black teen who was in a happy relationship or confident in themselves. I wanted black characters who were actual characters that felt a wide range of emotions and lived different experiences. Most importantly, I wanted black girl nerds.

When you think of nerdy girls in young adult literature, there is a certain type of girl that comes to mind. They are usually white and gorgeous or white and awkward. Not to mention, they might be so troubled that they need a guy to save them by instantly falling in love with them. After reading so many young adult books with nerdy white female protagonists, I was starting to think that there would never be one with a black female lead. Then I read The Unforgettables by G. L. Thomas and felt validated in more ways than one.

The major reason The Unforgettables appealed to me so much was because of Felicia Abelard, one of the main characters of the book. She is a Haitian American teenager who lives in a culturally rich home and loves comics, Japanese anime, and cosplaying. She is confident in herself to the point where she wears her kinky hair big despite her mother’s wanting her to straighten it. Yet she is also afraid to stand out too much due to strict parents and being bullied. Felicia Abelard is one of the most complex black female characters I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and also the most relatable.

Not only was Felicia Abelard’s nerdiness appealing, but it also broke the mold for what a nerdy female character was supposed to be. In many young adult books and coming-of-age films, the nerdy girl is relegated to what is known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. According to the website TV Tropes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, childlike girl whose purpose is to give a male lead character a better outlook on life. In young adult literature, characters who fit this trope include Sam from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dulcie from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and Alaska in John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Although some books deconstruct the trope, its pervasiveness in young adult literature and film suggest an unhealthy appeal.

In The Unforgettables, the other main character is Paul Hiroshima, a biracial Japanese teenage boy. Prior to reading the book, I was concerned that Felicia Abelard would become Paul’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. However, the moment I read their very first encounter, I knew I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. When the two first meet, a yard sale is going on at one of their neighbors’ houses. When the two spy a collection of rare comics called Hit Boy and Slash Girl, they quiz each other on the comics to see who will get to have them. Felicia’s passion for the comics makes Paul realize that she would enjoy the comics more than him, so he lets her take the comics home.

Felicia Abelard is one of the most complex black female characters I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and also the most relatable.

In this first meeting, the stage is set for a friendship as well as romantic attraction between the characters. Yet Felicia Abelard never becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because her life doesn’t revolve around Paul and vice versa. Instead, Felicia Abelard is just a girl who learns not to be afraid of living her best life while being friends with a guy she has feelings for. Although Felicia considers Paul an awesome guy, she also wants to play forward on her soccer team, survive her junior year of high school, and get a little more freedom from her parents. Meanwhile, Paul wants to adjust to moving to a new town and school, apply to art school, and survive his senior year. Although their feelings for each other start to change their friendship, Felicia and Paul still manage to be there for each other while living their own lives.

Through her grounded life, her unabashed love of nerdy things, and her complicated friendship with Paul, Felicia Abelard’s character arc becomes a poignant story to watch unfold. Felicia calls herself “Sidekick Supreme” to Paul’s “The 8th Wonder,” and together they call themselves “The Unforgettables.” Despite her heroic moniker, she is not a sidekick in Paul’s life, but she is one in her own life due to her fears. Initially, her fear of being bullied by her peers keeps her from playing forward on the soccer team. Furthermore, her fear of her parents’ disapproval keeps her from admitting her feelings for Paul. Finally, her fear of losing Paul as a friend keeps her from sustaining their friendship when things get muddled

Meanwhile, Paul is afraid of not being able to adjust to his new home and not being able to go to art school. Although he and Felicia have different fears, they hide from them behind masks both metaphorical and literal. For Felicia’s sixteen birthday, Paul makes her a superhero mask to go with her identity as “Sidekick Supreme” as well as one for his identity as “The 8th Wonder.” Since superhero masks are usually used by superheroes to hide their civilian identity from others, it makes sense that Felicia and Paul’s masks symbolize their need to hide from themselves and others.

In a sea of suffering black protagonists and white Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is Felicia Fantastic, and she is unforgettable

Eventually, Felicia ends up shedding her mask to express her feelings for Paul. In turn, this inspires Paul to come clean to his parents about applying to art school. Although the two aren’t able to become a couple, Felicia and Paul rekindle their friendship and move on with their lives. After being asked out by a senior classmate, Felicia goes to the senior prom. Meanwhile, Paul goes to the prom with a friend and ends up attending a summer session at an art school.

By shedding their masks, Felicia and Paul allow themselves to get more out of life and appreciate each other more. This makes Felicia her own hero as well as hero to Paul. In fact, Paul comes to appreciate Felicia so much that he gives her a painting of herself as well as a hand-made comic book that features them as The Unforgettables. The comic book contains a bonus comic that has The 8th Wonder becoming a solo hero called Felicia Fantastic. At the end of the comic, there is a note from Paul says, “You were never my sidekick. You were always my hero.”

Although she fights personal fears instead of bad guys, Felicia Abelard is still a hero in her own right. She is a hero for Paul and herself by learning to face her fears. Most of all, she is a hero to me for being her nerdy, beautiful brown self. In a sea of suffering black protagonists and white Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is Felicia Fantastic, and she is unforgettable.

top photo by Lena Orwig on Unsplash

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Nicola Yoon’s “Everything, Everything” Is Everything

Nicola Yoon's "Everything, Everything" Is Everything

As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares.

I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”

Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.

I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”

In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.

Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.

If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.

In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.

Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this.

Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.

By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.

In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.

Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.

Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.


The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

top photo by Jenn Evelyn-Ann on Unsplash


Why Afro YA Matters

Why Afro YA Matters

When I was a teen, the most relatable young adult book I ever read was The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.

The Outsiders validated my experiences with being out of place among my peers and made me feel that my own story could be valuable someday. However, it also made me conscious of my ethnicity, especially since all of the characters were white.

Inspired by the real-life clashes of two high school gangs known as The Greasers and The Socs, the book is told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old Greaser named Ponyboy Curtis. Published in 1967, the book is such a popular classic that it is required reading for many middle school and high school students.

The Outsiders validated my experiences with being out of place among my peers and made me feel that my own story could be valuable someday. However, it also made me conscious of my ethnicity, especially since all of the characters were white.

As I read more YA books as a teen, I noticed that there weren’t a lot of books with black characters that had the same impact as The Outsiders. Although there were black YA authors like Sharon M. Draper and Walter Dean Myers, I couldn’t connect to their stories. Most of the books by black YA authors that I read discussed socioeconomic issues like teen pregnancy, racism, and rape. While I knew that there were black teens who did experience these things, I wasn’t one of them. I was a nerdy black misfit who felt like no one could see the real me.

Most of the books by black YA authors that I read discussed socioeconomic issues like teen pregnancy, racism, and rape. While I knew that there were black teens who did experience these things, I wasn’t one of them. I was a nerdy black misfit who felt like no one could see the real me.

Besides The Outsiders, the only book that I connected to was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. Not only was Bronx Masquerade written by a black author, but it also featured many characters of color. Written in verse, the book uses the style of a poetry slam to tell the thoughts and emotions of eighteen teens as they navigate their identity. The book spoke to me as a budding poet who was unsure whether or not my point of view was valuable. As the first novel I read in verse, the book showed me a unique way to tell my story. However, as influential as this book was, I would soon forget about it.

Since I couldn’t find any other books I could relate to, I ended up reading more YA by white authors than black. Between high school and college, I read many contemporary and YA fantasy authors, including Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Richelle Mead, and Suzanne Collins. The only black YA author I read was Jacqueline Woodson. She stood out to me because her work included coming-of-age stories with black characters that didn’t feel generic at all. Although I couldn’t relate to any of it, I still appreciated it. Some of her work is influenced by poetry, especially titles such as If You Come Softly and Brown Girl Dreaming.

As a result of reading mostly white YA authors, I started to feel like I could never truly belong in YA literature. I wanted a black character in a John Green romance and a black character who was magical like Harry Potter, but they seemed hard to find. Black teens had experiences that were just as varied and complex as those of white teens, but I kept seeing the same stories getting told and being published. I eventually forgot about Bronx Masquerade because it reminded me of how rarely I could find stories that related to me.

In 2015, I bought Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper after seeing that it was an YA urban fantasy book with an Afro-Latina protagonist. I also discovered the grassroots book campaign We Need Diverse Books and the contemporary YA book Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. All of them would plant the seed for a new relationship with YA books.

Shadowshaper was the most incredible book I’d read in a long time. It combined art and the supernatural for a creative, awesome magic system. It was set in a culturally rich environment that was palpable and interesting. It dealt with real-life issues including colorism, gentrification, and cultural appropriation. To top it off, there was a diverse, inclusive cast of characters that entertained and related to me. Shadowshaper began to reshape my opinion of YA literature by massaging my senses with words and color.

While Shadowshaper changed my opinion of YA fantasy and sci-fi, Juliet Takes a Breath changed my opinion of contemporary YA. I ended up reading the book twice within two months and writing a feature article to help promote it. This book became my best friend, one that I wanted to keep turning to for guidance and empathy. Victor Hugo once wrote that books were cold but safe friends, but this book is one of the warmest things I have read. After reading Shadowshaper and Juliet Takes a Breath, I became determined to find the books I wanted to read as a teen and spread the word about them.

After reading Shadowshaper and Juliet Takes a Breath, I became determined to find the books I wanted to read as a teen and spread the word about them.

Afro YA books matter because black teens need to see themselves in words. They matter because I am feeding myself books I should have devoured as teen. They matter because The Outsiders showed me my worth as a writer, while Brown Girl Dreaming showed me my worth as a black writer.

We Need Diverse Books has been saying what I felt throughout my teens and early twenties: We need diverse books, and we demand them. We demand them, we uplift the authors who write and represent them, and we tell the world about them. We have always been here, and we aren’t going anywhere.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

top photo by iam Se7en on Unsplash


The day after my wife, our daughter, and I returned from Scandinavia, we squeezed through the entrance gate to the Denver Pride Festival.

Repeat: the day after my family and I returned from taking a trip only a small percentage of Americans are privileged enough to afford, we sat on a hillside and waved a rainbow flag because my wife and I are still not privileged enough to trust our marriage will always be legal.

The Scandinavian countries we visited — Finland, Sweden, and Norway — approved same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s and legalized gay marriage in 2009, six years before the U.S.; that knowledge faded the colors in the rainbow flags all around us at Denver’s Pride Festival. But in Scandinavia, Meredith and I never knew where it was safe to hold hands or kiss in public; at the Denver Pride Festival, we kissed long in the midst of hundreds of people, our arms wrapped around each other, our daughter exclaiming, “EWWW!”

A black man working at a gas station in Sweden in 1927 was such an anomaly of difference in that country at that time that people drove for miles just to glimpse him. In 2017, we walked through a more diverse Scandinavia, but most of the people of color we saw were in service positions, and everyone of every color turned their heads, curious, to see Mitike between me and Meredith. It was a relief to walk unremarked through the Denver Pride Festival.

In Americanah, which I started reading on IcelandAir on our flight home, Chimamanda Adichie asks me again and again to hold my privilege up to the light and examine it carefully like an Icelandic sunstone. Her sharp voice is tinged with humor, but it cuts. Who are you, American white woman, to travel so freely through this world? No one looks askance at you. In the Copenhagen airport, a man conducting a survey on an iPad speaks to you in Danish because your height, your skin color, your hair and eye color (every gene that you inherited from ancestors who farmed only two hundred miles southwest of there in Schleswig-Holstein) tell him you are Danish. Do you imagine it will ever be this easy for your Ethiopian daughter? You make her a world traveler, teaching her how to easily flash her blue U.S. passport; you teach her to try cold-smoked salmon, to whisper inside the medieval stave church, to revel in the sea spray in the Norwegian fjords, but you cannot teach her to glide through the world the way you do, because her skin color, hair, and eye color (the genes she inherited from her ancestors seven thousand miles southeast of Copenhagen) will be barriers. Customs officials will often ask how long she has been a U.S. citizen; they will speak slowly in clearly enunciated English, though English has been her primary language since she was eighteen months old. They will carefully scrutinize her visa. And you will be staying in our country for how long? And you plan to do what? Back home, at the Denver Pride Festival, people grin at our family of three because we are diverse; we are the dream so many LGBTQ people dream. Their eyes linger on Mitike’s face. She is the daughter they want. She is so beautiful, so exotic. They say to us, You must be very proud of her. She has such lovely features, not African at all.

In Stockholm and Oslo, but also in the Norwegian port city of Bergen, we walked past immigrants who have resettled in Scandinavia. I guessed at their stories, based on what I have heard from my refugee students. I imagined the Somali woman and her children who strode past us in Oslo had first spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda. I imagined the Syrian men who stood talking at a bus stop in Stockholm had paid a boatman to take them on the risky crossing of the Mediterranean. I imagined the Afghani man and woman talking in the Bergen fish market had escaped their village and the Taliban, as one of my students did, on horseback. The world knows that the Scandinavian countries are welcoming to immigrants, and that my country — historically the most welcoming of all — is abruptly not, as Trump works to halve the number of refugees we accept. And how odd, that Trump’s supporters are mostly descendants of immigrants who came from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy. How quickly we forget. At the Denver Pride Fest, I waved my flag in gratitude, as usual, that my country’s highest court has insisted that my marriage to my wife is legal, but I also thought of the times in these past few months that I have stood in this same spot in front of the Colorado Capitol Building, holding up signs that plead for openness to immigrants. What kind of nation do we want to be in the world, anyway?

We went to Scandinavia because I wanted to travel somewhere where we would be safe, and all the guidebooks promised that nowhere is more open and more tolerant. In city after city, we stayed in hotels that cheerfully gave me and Meredith a double bed, glanced at our common last name, welcomed us with a bright nod and (always) breakfast the next morning. I imagined living in one of those cities, never returning to the U.S., happily enrolling Mitike in one of those reputable Finnish schools or dropping her at camp in the Norwegian mountains as Meredith and I prepared for a holiday in some quaint village. To be born American and to be liberal is to be always embarrassed abroad, ashamed of the president (in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq just as I rode a bus into Nicaragua — now, in 2017, there is Trump), ashamed of fellow Americans who are too loud and too certain they deserve preferential treatment, ashamed of a history that has included slavery and Native American massacres and now continues into modern times with acquitting Philando Castille’s killer and withdrawing from the Paris deal on the climate and refusing to provide health care to all its citizens. Traveling, Meredith and I taught Mitike to speak quietly, attempt words in other languages, show extra gratitude. Maybe they’ll assume we’re Canadian. It jolted us to walk into the cheerful fray of the Pride Fest in Denver, where scantily clad people shouted and waved rainbow fans, flags, underwear, boas, posters, pinwheels. We were quiet, too European. We sat on a grassy hill and observed, and fit in nowhere.

We walked into Oslo’s Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Museum, and gazed in awe at the grandly renovated Oseberg, a Viking ship from 834 CE that was discovered and dug up on a farm in 1903. Two women had been buried in the ship, in state, along with horses and dogs and cows, armor, kitchenware, clothes, tents, a wagon and a sled. The Vikings honored their chiefs in this way, since they believed that they would be able to use all of these objects in the afterlife, in Valhalla. I loved the mystery of who these honored women had been. Days later, at the Denver Pride Fest, I wondered what might remain of us one thousand years from now. Mitike’s plastic beads, maybe, some of our metal tooth fillings, the matching rings Meredith and I wear — the hard diamonds still sparkling. In this era that overdocuments everything, will any document remain? Something will have replaced the Internet, rendering it as inaccessible as floppy disks and VHS tapes are now, or all of humanity will have been catapulted backward by climate change trauma to survival — campfires, carved wooden tools, pictures painted on stone walls again. And someone will find some fragment of evidence from 2017, one thousand years before, and wonder about our lives, how we lived them, who we were.

An older acquaintance hears we traveled to Scandinavia and exclaims, “You took Mitike there? To the most racist countries in the world?” I was speechless for a moment. Racist? The 2017 UN report includes all of the Scandinavian countries through which we passed in the top ten happiest countries in the world. Norway is first. Maybe Sweden is only tenth because it has struggled with race relations as Sweden invites more and more immigrants across its borders, but our family’s experience in all of Scandinavia was positive, or at least no different from our experience in the U.S. Women of color did a double-take to see Mitike with us; they often studied her hair (perfectly done in neat microbraids and beads, scalp oiled, thank you). Small children stared. But the mostly blonde and blue-eyed residents of Scandinavia were unfailingly friendly to all three of us. What I wish I’d said to my acquaintance: Being white doesn’t mean you’re racist. What I did say: Have you been to Oslo? It’s quite diverse. A true but weak answer. The Denver Pride Fest was whiter than Karl Johans Street in Oslo. The summer camp in Keystone where I just dropped off Mitike is the whitest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s all more complex than what we see.

My wife and I stood in a green mossy forest of tall spruce trees (are they called Norway Spruce in Norway?) and watched our daughter search in half-serious earnest for fairies in the shadows of the clover leaves. And then, one day later, we stood in Denver’s blue-sky sunshine with our arms around each other’s waists, our daughter close. Oh, yes. I know to be grateful for this life.

For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. On the way home, on IcelandAir, Mitike leaned her head against my shoulder and murmured, “We’re lucky to be able to travel to places like Scandinavia, aren’t we?” I nodded. Unbelievably lucky. Guilt nagged at me. Look at us with our blue passports and our resources, hopping on planes and trains and boats, wandering cobblestone streets, posing for pictures in front of medieval towers. Look at us and our comfort, our ability to leave our secure little house in south Denver and peer into others’ windows. Even at Pride back in Denver, I continued to feel this mix of luck and guilt. Yes, we are a minority, and yes, maybe my wife is right to be cautious in certain neighborhoods and certain situations about how out we are, but after this parade ends, we’ll walk back to our car and drive home to our dog, who will greet us with his curly wagging tail, and we’ll make dinner in our kitchen together and hold hands before we eat, the little circle we make a protective shield for our family. We’re lucky to be together in this complicated world, right now, no matter where we are wandering.

top photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash