Mama Usta Say

A reflection on holidays, hoarding and how to make Black lives matter in education by Stacey James McAdoo

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A cropping of an original pencil portrait by Leron McAdoo given as a Christmas gift in 1998

Some things momma told me as a child flew into one ear and out of the other as soon as the syllables whizzed down the canal. Other things hit a nerve and stuck. “Never buy anyone anything you wouldn’t want for yourself,” is one of them.

In early December during the wee hours of the night, I ran across something that sparked an idea for a lesson I’m still currently developing. Before I realized it, I was deep inside a rabbit hole perusing the 13 Principles of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action shared by Teaching Tolerance. I found myself nodding in agreement with the needs of their demands for our educational school system to end zero-tolerance discipline, to implement restorative justice instead, to hire more Black teachers and to mandate/require Black History & Ethnic Studies in K-12 classrooms.

As a result, I bought the book Teaching For Black Lives with the expectation of sharing some of its nuggets with our Black Student Union club sponsors and then giving it to my husband as a Christmas gift. But when Christmas Eve arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to gift-wrap it. So, at the eleventh hour, I went to Target to see if I could find a replacement present for him. I ended up purchasing a wireless charger for the phone that always seems to be out of commission whenever I need to reach him. Feeling good about what I had just accomplished in record-breaking time, I resolved to continue reading the book and then gift it to someone else during one of the upcoming Kwanzaa celebrations. Before Ujima (the third day of Kwanzaa that focuses on collective work and responsibility)  had even arrivedI knew that I would not be able to part ways with the book.

The book reminded me that although I am the only black female educator in my department (in a school known for its historic significance for desegregation), I am not alone in this fight. Very few people of color will dispute the important role that relationships and representation play in the education & development of our youth. And while I grew up during a time where I saw very little of me in the curriculum that I was taught, my nephews are facing a different reality. Multicultural posters often adorn the classroom walls. Teachers in charge of plays and programs often seek out content that will lend itself to a more diverse, inclusive and non-traditional cast. And although textbooks & curriculum now incorporate ethnic names in their examples and passages, they often serve us one-dimensional characters and/or revise our history by telling flat-out lies and omitting the hard truths. (Here’s a real example of a worksheet sent home with my then eight-year-old family member who was well aware that this was not his understanding of the history, conditions or terminology associated with chattel slavery in the United States.) 

Rocky. The Karate Kid. Pretty Woman. Most people like a feel good story where they can root for the underdog.  It amazes me how emotionally invested we can become over characters in a novel or on the big screen. In less than an hour we have typically grown to love and appreciate (or at least understand) their rough edges. Before the story is over we find ourselves hoping, expecting and sometimes praying out loud for them to catch a break, find redemption and/or ultimately win. And it makes me wonder if our real life students are not worthy of the same compassion & investment so freely given to fictitious characters and actors? Had it not been for the nine brave children who sixty-one years ago accepted the challenge to fight the status quo, I wouldn’t be allowed to be the previously mentioned only Black female educator in my department in a school known for its historic significance for desegregation.  

Those that truly know me, know that I have a difficult time discarding things. And so as is the case of all the other things that I cherish (like my students, my family and often my voice), I simply couldn’t let go of the book. I had come to love the authors, teachers, students, and poets, as well as, the artwork and photographs sandwiched within its 360+ some odd pages. You can also blame that on my momma. One other thing she told me as a child that stuck was, “Because you never know what tomorrow will bring… if you love something, hold it tight, fight for it and never let it go.”

Leave a comment and share something that your momma usta say that stuck with or helped shape you.

*Stacey James McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year (affectionately referred to as 2019ATOY), is a 16 year Oral Communication instructor, AVID Coordinator and sponsor of the spoken word collective called Writeous Poets from Little Rock, Arkansas. She teaches at the historic Little Rock Central High School where she is the living embodiment of her ATOY platform of using passion and poetry to close the opportunity gap.*

25 thoughts on “Mama Usta Say

  1. Omg, these entries are amazing.

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    1. Thank you my dear, sweet, beautiful, brillinat Victoria. I’m just trynna have the courage that I urge yall to display.

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  2. Another amazing article! Thank you for sharing your insight, and to a lesser extent, recommending a new book for me to read.

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    1. I can’t thank you enough for your kind words and feedback! And you’ll really love the book should you get it. I would offer to let you borrow mine, but you already know that ain’t how my life is set up. 🙂

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  3. I love three dimensional stories. Great story/ lesson/reflection.

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    1. Thank you sooo much! My writings almost never go the direction that I plan, it’s like my fingers sometimes have a brain/plan of their own.

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  4. I absolutely love this article because just like your classroom, it forges a safe-environment to have a much-needed (yet often controversial) conversation. As a graduate of the very school you reference, I saw the disparities first-hand. For a school known for its significance in desegregation, that same image wasn’t mirrored amongst the School’s Administration team. Unfortunately, neither was the grading scale. As a student of numerous AP-courses, I saw the harshness of the scrutiny of my course work vs the leniency for my melanin-absent peers. Thankfully, I had an involved parent. So like the historic nine, I unapologetically sought equality… & won. My teacher was subsequently required to re-evaluate the “ethnic” grades with the help/oversight of upper-level-Administration… to insure fairness for ALL students, regardless of nationality or economic background. Which leads to the conclusion of what my Momma Usta Say: “Never allow someone else to label or define you. Learn to be your own cheerleader… knowing & believing that you CAN do whatever you set your mind to.” Momma’s 2nd most-memorable quote was: Be unstoppable, not because you don’t have failures or doubts, but because you continue on despite them.” #FaithOverFear

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Omg. I LOVE your momma. (And you.) Thank you for sharing, reflecting and providing me with some feedback. Today’s Kwanzaa principal is Kujichagulia. And although it means “self determination” — it’s also about speaking up for ourselves and not letting others define who we are. Thank you for listening to your momma and being full of kujichagulia!

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      1. *Poet-Finger-Snap* to being full of kujichagulia! See? That’s exactly why you’re 2019ATOY!! Always educating & imparting wisdom to those around you. PS: I love you more!

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  5. Deborah "Debbie" Peyton December 28, 2018 — 1:47 am

    Stacey, First let me say hats off to you for your many accomplishments as an educator. Love your thoughts in this piece.. It’s very important to teach diversity in our multicultural society and to help people of all races understand the fabric of our history and how it effects their future.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to the Still Stacey: Mama Usta Say blog post. This fabric of all of ours is indeed very beautiful and if we truly weave it together the whole world can be wrapped in warmth and love.

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  6. J. Chante'le' Williams December 28, 2018 — 11:11 am

    Goodness, gracious! Your words are subtle yet so loudly and profoundly powerful…in a most captivating way. I look forward in anticipation to hearing and reading more as doing so gives way to inspiration!

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    1. Thank you my dear, sweet, beautiful, brilliant Writeous mom! Just for the record, any inspiration received from my words pales in comparison to the inspiration received from the life YOU live. *insert virtual hugs and kisses here*

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  7. WOW!
    What an AWESOME article! I also attended LRCH, back in the day when AP classes were know as honors classes. One memory that comes to mind when reading your article was when I was sick and my African American history teacher would not allow me to make up a test. My “fighting “ mother went to LRCH to “fight” on my behalf, and you best believe, after the conversation with my mother, that teacher allowed me to make up that test! I’ve learned as an adult to choose your battles, my mother always felt that I was a battle worth fighting for and for that I am truly grateful!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and sharing a piece of your own story! You definitely are worth fighting for. (And mh momma still tells me to pick my battles especially when it comes to the 48 year old child who may or may not be my husband. 🤣)

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  8. This is such a loaded topic. So very much to unpack and I am grateful for this conversation. Not only should you not give a gift that you you yourself would not want, the converse is also important…give that which you would want. I desire for all to have an opportunity to be educated and the chance to experience a life better than their today.

    Looking at our current school grades brings to the forefront the influence poverty and diversity has on academic achievement. The gift we can give to our students and the future of the educational system is an unwavering clarion call to educate students in the ways they best learn.

    Most teachers were good at doing school and have decided to make it a life journey, so we must learn what those who are not good at school need to be successful. Systems and practices must offer opportunities for black children and children in poverty to experience success and have an inhibited path toward a bright future. Every woke educator must be the voice at the table!

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    1. Thank you for your very thoughtful response. Ron has had the same resolution every year for at least the last 20 which is simply to be a better man than he was the day before. It reminds me so very much of your stated desire “for all to have…the chance to experience a life better than their today.”

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  9. What “Mama Usta Say” has helped me make some important decisions in my life just as it has done for you and others! Reading this made me tear up (you know it doesn’t take much) and it also took me back to middle school, at Mann Magnet. Keep doing what you’re doing and know that your daily walk has always been inspiring to your family, school babies, and co-workers. Thank you for your transparency and sharing pieces of you with the world.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to provide me with some feedback. Your consistent encouragement, love and support helps to give me the courage to share myself. Thank you for choosing to love me!

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  10. Reading this gave me all the feels of falling in love with a new book but was also a reminder that we live in a country where more compassion is given to a fictional character on the screen than flesh-and-blood brown boys and girls. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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    1. I so love the imagery and memories associated with the kind words you just shared! Thank you so much for responding and reflecting! It is my sincere hope that one day soon humans won’t have to compete for the love, advocacy and protection they deserve.

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  11. Per your request, my #MamaUstaSay:
    “You don’t know nobody.” These words were actually passed down from my grandpa Harrison Talley. There purpose was to always remind me to never be surprised when someone you “know” shows a different side of themselves, or to be cautious when first getting to know someone.

    (Also, the silly millennial in me, won’t let me hold this in:
    🎶Momma told me. Not to sell work. Seventeen five. Same color t-shirt 🎶)

    Great article Mrs. Mac!

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    1. There’s so much truth to the wise words of your grandpa Harrison Talley. And I’m doing the shoulder shake to “Momma told me. Not to sell work. Seventeen five. Same color t-shirt.” I can dig that one, too. 🙂

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  12. First Off, Awesome Post. Very Interesting Links That I Will Definitely Look Into. As With Many Of Your Former Students, You Are A Major Influence For Me As A Developing Educator And As A Person. I’m Proud Of You And Excited About Where You Are Being Taken. Love You And Always Will, Mama Mc.
    As Far As What “Mama Usta Say”, I Can’t Really Remember A Saying My Mom Would Often Say, But She Would Model And Express The Importance Of Knowledge And Never Allowing Yourself To Be Confined By What You Think You Know. Complacency Is Ignorance In This Case. There Is Always Room To Learn More. I’ve Come To Realize And See How Not All Knowledge Is Good Knowledge, But Knowledge None The Less, So Being Able To Learn, Interpret, And Appropriately Apply Knowledge Is A Major Skill That I, And Wish For My Students To, Aim To Master.

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    1. Thanks Randall for taking the time to read this and for the sweet words. I can’t wait to see the world class educator you become, the education profession is going to be lucky to have you!

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