Confessions of an Empowerment Fraud…

Of all the questions that I’ve been asked in my 4.5 years as a professor, the one asked of me by a former student coping with what I perceived as signs of depression still floats around in my head. We spoke briefly about her dissertation progress, and I noticed that she seemed anxious and in need of a discussion that was not limited to revisions of Chapters Four and Five. She accepted my critique of her dissertation with a smile, but tears filled the corners of her eyes. Because my feedback focused more on celebrating her commitment to her work, I assumed the tears were expressions of joy. However, I prayed, “Dear Lord, please don’t let those tears fall. I’m not much of a hugger and I wouldn’t know what else to do.” Using the tips of her pinky finder, she pressed hard against those corners as if to tell the tears: You will not fall in this office today. Then she looked at me and asked, “How do you do it? How do you stay empowered?” Initially, I was silenced by her question, but she reminded me that I signed one of my emails to her with that response – Stay empowered! Her curiosity about my alleged empowerment process forced me to consider exactly what I meant by the statement. I mean, really, how do I stay empowered? After a few minutes of dumbfounded reflection, I gave her a response that was (to me) minimally satisfactory.

Oh…I always engage in self-care.

I dance a lot.

I exercise.

I love myself.

I get plenty of rest.

I write.

I love myself.

I live life to the fullest.

I don’t let anyone make me feel less than…

because I love myself.

The more I spoke, the more I was convinced that my generic responses to maintaining my empowerment were just that – generic, bound so tightly in saving face and preventing those tears from being defiant and falling all over my office floor. I kept speaking, trying to gauge her facial expressions and body language to determine whether I was putting her at ease. Yet, as I listened to my words, I questioned my authenticity. I questioned my empowerment.

A few days later, I observed an assessment class in the Counseling Department. I participated in a class activity where all students completed the Beck Depression Inventory®–II (BDI®–II). As I read each statement, I kept thinking, What in the world? Of course I don’t feel like this. We scored the final assessment and the professor informed the class that clients with extremely low scores (below 10) could be faking good. In other words, those clients could have responded positively to the items on the BDI®–II in an effort to be viewed in a positive light. Instead of being authentic in their experiences, those clients were faking good. My score was a 3.

The professor’s words remained with me to the extent that I had to discuss this with my partner. I asked her if she thought I was ever faking good. Her response: “Well, Qiana, you do act like nothing ever bothers you.” And then it hit me. Was I being dismissive of my experiences? Was my Keep It Moving mantra really a demonstration of being empowered or was I just faking good in order to be viewed in a positive light? Oh. Shxt. The student’s question and the professor’s proclamation had me all [insert explicative here] up. I had to figure out why these statements were sitting on my mind like protestors, refusing to move until I gave in to their exploration. So I did what I always do when I’m bamboozled about a topic – research it, read about it, and wrote about it.

First, I sought to define empowerment and found it seemed more difficult to contextualize empowerment because of the diverse ways in which the term is used. Instead, I chose to define resilience since it seems to be used synonymously, at times, with empowerment. Luthar, Cicchett, and Becker (2000) defined resilience in the following way: “Resilience refers to a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity” (p. 543, emphasis in the original). With this definition in mind, I reviewed the works of authors that encouraged me to be empowered or resilient.

Several authors (bell hooks, Jill Scott, Nikki Giovanni, Patricia Hill Collins, Baba Asa, Audre Lorde, Anna Julia Cooper [A Voice from the South by a Black Woman from the South is on my “to-read ASAP” list], etc.) came to mind as I continued this exploration. I pulled lines and sections of text from their work as I reflected. However, the works of one author spoke to me to the extent that I could no longer write because my tears were more aggressive than my students. They fell and would not stop falling. Dr. D (the name she has so graciously allowed me to use to refer to her) or Dr. Cynthia B. Dillard has written extensively on wisdom, spirituality and an endarkened feminist epistemology. Her words spoke to me. No, ya’ll don’t get it…her words SPOKE to me. They reminded me that my empowerment, my resilience was only as strong as my healing. For example, she noted (2011):

Speak words in ways that have love at the center, especially love of yourself. And speak them because (and Maya Angelou comes to mind here) we have the responsibility, once we have learned something or have healed something, to go and teach, to heal someone else. We “fight the fight” by showing up healthy, strong, whole, with a great sense of what OUR part of the work is, our purpose for being here at this moment on this Earth in these bodies. (p. 69, emphasis in the original)

That was it! Dr. D reminded me that in order to be empowered, in order to be resilient…I had to be healed. In order to teach and heal someone else, I had to first be healed. I did not have the words of authenticity my student deserved because I have not yet healed. I merely was faking good. My empowerment, my resilience is, indeed, a fraud. Admission is the first step.

The next step, for me, was and is to continue to explore empowerment and resilience. In doing so, I immediately thought back to my dissertation research and the resulting product. Writing my dissertation was an emotional, empowering experience. When I was at a place of “[insert explicative here] that dissertation!” I stumbled across an article by Dalia Rodriguez (2006) that reminded me that healing was indeed an important process. In “Un/masking Identity: Healing Our Wounded Souls”, she maintained that “Oftentimes, masking ourselves allows us to survive” (p. 1069). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1869) also communicated this sense of survival in his poem, “We Wear the Masks”. He wrote:  

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

I have survived many experiences in my life (yet, I sometimes feel selfish in describing my survival because so many others have had experiences that are – in my perspective – more pressing), but masking them or faking good instead of engaging in genuine healing has stifled my empowerment. I can no longer just survive. I have to live, and in order to live I have to heal. Only after that healing will I be able to answer the question, “How do you do it? How do you stay empowered?” with a sense of affirmation and clarity.

I’m not there yet…but I’m on my way.


Eclectic GRITS

nilah monet


Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71(3), 543-562.

Okpalaoka, C. L., & Dillard, C. B. (2011). Our healing is next to the wound: Endarkened     feminisms, spirituality, and wisdom for teaching, learning, and research. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 131, 65-74. Doi: 10.1002/ace.422

Rodriguez, D. (2006). Un/masking identity: Healing our wounded souls. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(6), 1067-1090.



Mothering from the Margins – and Other Side-Eye Assumptions

Mother to Son … Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Mothering has to be the single most important job that I’ve held in my life. But I am bold enough to say what some mothers may think but not want to say: Becoming a mother, especially at an age when I felt that I should have been partying, was not in my plans. I remember the moment that I got pregnant. No, not the day, the night, or the weekend – the exact moment. Life was good. It was my last semester in college, summer 1997 and I decided to visit my high school sweetheart in Florida while he served in the Air Force. It was the first time that I dared to venture so far away without my mother knowing about it. [Of course I didn’t tell her. She would have flipped the script.] The two of us enjoyed a weekend of hanging out and being foolishly in love – or in like. Then the night before I left Florida, we had sex. I remember jumping up at the exact moment and saying, “Damn! I’m pregnant!” I got dressed and stormed outside mad as hell. [Now, why I was mad is beyond me. When you have sex, that’s the risk you take. Duh.] He laughed at me and said I was over-reacting, but I just knew. Five weeks later, no menstrual cycle. I was right. I knew the exact moment that I conceived.
Fast forward beyond our courthouse marriage ceremony, our honeymoon night spent separately – him at the strip club and me at my mother’s house, my pregnancy “you get on my damn nerves” hormones and my six hours of intense labor – only to give birth at 12:36pm just in time to watch Jerry Springer at 1:00pm…and you have me, a young mother who looked at my son and whispered to myself: “Qiana, what in the hell are you doing with a baby? This was not the plan. Grad school was the plan.” But like I always tell my students, we can plan all we want, the Universe’s plan always supersedes ours. So God’s plan was for me to be a mother. [Now, maybe it wasn’t his plan for me to have pre-marital sex, but I won’t debate that issue with anyone because I’m grown – even then, I was grown – and no one can answer to any higher power for me. So let’s not debate religious doctrine. I promise you…you won’t win.]
After two months of looking at my son and asking myself that same question, he made me realize that I was asking a question that should have been an affirmative statement: “Qiana, you have been blessed with this baby. Get it together.” It was not about what I was going to do because mothering was not and still is not about me. I had just completed nursing him and looked down at his face…and he smiled the biggest, most innocent smile that I had ever seen. At that point, I realized that mothering was about him. Mothering was about loving him, nurturing him, raising him. And that’s what I set out to do on that day. So you can imagine my angst when I tell someone that my son lives with his father and I get the subliminal “What kind of mother are you?” look and side-eye. So after 15 years, I thought about it. Hmm…what kind of mother am I?
I’m the kind of mother who understands that I can teach my son everything that I know about the world. We can discuss life, love, females, friends, spirituality, females, society, relationships, and females. I can introduce him to culture, like when we attended the Atlanta Ballet. I can support his endeavors, like when I scream like a wild woman when he plays football. I scream, “That’s my baby.” when he’s on the field, and scream “Put my baby in!” when he’s off the field. I can encourage him to talk about sex with me, like when I needed a drink as he gave me a lesson in “What 15-year-old Boys Know About Sex” a few weeks ago.  I can surprise him with memories that he’ll cherish for a lifetime, like when I took him to see Alabama play in the Capitol One Bowl in Orlando, Florida. I can nurture him to think carefully about his choices and to stand by those choices with confidence once he makes decisions, like when he asked me if he could go live with his Dad when he was 13-years-old. Que the violin and the tears…
He sat me down and gave me a list of reasons to justify his desire to live with his Dad, and none of the reasons had anything to do with me. He ended his list with, “But Mama, I love you. I do love you. I just think you should share me with my Dad. I’ll still call you and come see you all the time.” Once again, I had to realize that mothering had nothing to do with me. It was all about my son – OUR son. I had always encouraged him to speak his mind, to have the courage of his convictions…and this was no different. So while I was sad (still am sometimes) to see him go, I dared not stand in his way.
So to further answer the question, “What kind of mother are you?”… I’ll write this: I’m the kind of mother who understands that my son, our son craved something that I could not give him – a relationship with his Dad. While I know that I’m EVERY woman, I also know that I’m not a man. Of course, I’m not one to say that a mother alone cannot raise a perfectly well-rounded man because I’ve seen it happen. But for me to keep Marcus with me when he wanted to be shared with his Dad would have been an act of selfishness. We should not be selfish with our children.
Mothering, for me, no matter whether my son is here in Georgia or with his Dad in Alabama is never a marginal experience. It is a gift that has been more valuable to my growth as a person, as a woman than any other gift I’ve received. There is a popular belief that many Black women “raise” their daughters and “love” their sons. This ideology suggests that we raise our daughters to be strong and resilient and attempt to protect our sons from everything in the world because we know their plights as Black men in America are likely to be difficult. I have set out to raise and love my son, and deciding (collaboratively with him and his Dad) to support his move to Alabama is not an act of mothering from the margins or failing to raise him. It is an act of raising him with love.
Eclectic GRITS
nilah monet