The Centerpiece Book of Bel-Air | A Review of "I'm Still Here" By Austin Channing Brown
Hi friends. I'm back and I'm switching things up again. Stop groaning! I promise I have a good reason.
If there is one thing you should know about me personally (besides the fact that I love books) is that Will Smith has been one of my favorite actors since I was a kid. Which easily makes The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air one of my absolute favorite shows growing up.
I've rewatched it a few times as an adult and Will's character is incredibly obnoxious, but that's a different blog post for a different day. I still love the show as a whole and I quote it every chance I get.
So, when I heard they were making a dramatized version of my favorite sitcom, lovingly titled Bel-Air, I was apprehensive (if it ain't broke...) but then I saw the preview for it and I was hooked almost immediately. Couldn't wait to see the direction they planned to take this new version in.
Currently, we are in Season 2 of Bel-Air, and it is absolutely giving everything it was supposed to give and more. The fashion is fashioning. The art is arting. It is the modern-day version of a successful black family. Black excellence at its best. You love to see it. Season 1 of the show was used to introduce us to the characters and get some of the more memorable moments out of the way, but now that we are heading into season 2, it's really starting to blossom into something else. Something deeper.
Bel-Air vs. The Fresh Prince
There are a lot of similarities between the two shows, but there are also a lot of differences. Not only are Hilary and Jazz dating in this newer version (Jazz is actually a completely different vibe and I love it) the baby of the family, Ashley, has also hinted at being a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
The first few bits of seasons one and two had Ashley mostly in the background, but these last few episodes have given her more of a storyline. In Season 2 episode 2 entitled: Speaking the Truth, we get a glimpse of Ashley interacting with one of the school's beloved (and very few) black teachers. Ms. Hughes.
The role is played by the OG Ashley Banks, Tatyana Ali. It has been a joy seeing one of the characters from the original show back on the screen in this newest season. Especially since they hurt my feelings when they didn't bring Will Smith in as the role of Will's dad. I mean come on! That would have been amazing. You can't convince me it wouldn't have been epic! I'm still salty about it. Even though Marlon Wayans did a better job than I expected. Anyway...back to Ms. Hughes.
She is seen offering Ashley a book that isn't included in the usual curriculum. In my opinion, some of the best teachers are the ones that aren't scared to venture out from the approved curriculum and expand their students' knowledge as much as possible. At all costs.
Ashley reads the first book (more on that one in another post) and tells Ms. Hughes how much she loved it, before asking if she had any other books of similar topics. Ms. Hughes pauses for a moment, considering her answer, and then grabs a book from her own bag titled "I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness", by Austin Channing Brown.
I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Have you ever been watching a television show or a movie and one of the characters is reading a book? Have you ever wondered what that book was and whether or not you'd be interested in reading it? No? Just me? Pfft. That's fine.
Ashley read the title of the book out loud in this episode, and curiosity got the better of me. I pulled out my handy dandy Libby app, to see if the book was available at one of the libraries I have a card with. It was! And it was a quick read (about 4 hours) so I figured, why not go for it? I could probably finish it in an afternoon and then write a quick review. No biggie.
What I wasn't expecting, was for this book to resonate with me so heavily. Literally...this is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. It reduced me to a puddle of tears to hear so many of my deepest childhood thoughts, that I didn't have the knowledge to put words on at the time, so eloquently laid out in front of me. It felt like this book was written exclusively for me.
Austin Channing Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools and churches, Austin writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker, and expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion.
In a time when nearly every institution (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claims to value diversity in its mission statement, Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice. Her stories bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric—from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.
For readers who have engaged with America’s legacy on race through the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, I’m Still Here is an illuminating look at how white, middle-class, Evangelicalism has participated in an era of rising racial hostility, inviting the reader to confront apathy, recognize God’s ongoing work in the world, and discover how blackness—if we let it—can save us all.
Without diving too deep into my psyche, because none of you asked for that, this book verbalized a lot of the things I struggled with as a kid and still somewhat struggle with today. I grew up in a mostly white school where I was often subjected to some incredibly hurtful and hateful comments by kids who were just parroting what they had learned in their home environments.
"Do black people tan?"
"Black people don't usually have a lot of hair, why is yours so long? Are you mixed?"
"My mom won't let me be friends with black people, but she says you're one of the good ones."
"The police are just scared of black men, that's why they kill them so much. I'm scared of them too!"
"I don't usually find black girls attractive. Sorry."
"You're fine. It's those other black people that I can't stand. You know? The ghetto kind."
If I had a nickel for every micro aggressive, racist, and stereotypical comment I heard growing up, I would be rich enough to live next door to The Banks family in Bel-Air. At the time, I didn't know how to deal with it. I was young and I just wanted to fit in and be liked. I would smile awkwardly and just shove away the uneasy feelings I'd get whenever they would say something that was problematic.
The only time I would see people like me, was at home or at church. The kids at church would tolerate me, but I never felt like I fit in there either. I never knew the songs, or the black references that everyone seemed to know. I was always picked on for sounding "like a white girl" or "not being black enough.'
Even to this day, my blackness being called into question: whether it be because I haven't seen a movie, heard a song, or watched a show or because the color of my skin is lighter than others, triggers me. I'm aware of it and I'm working on it, but I still have a long way to go. I had an old friend whose sister would constantly call me white or Mexican or anything other than black. She would pick on me because I didn't drink Koolaid or because I hadn't seen a certain movie. Suddenly, I was not black enough. No matter what I did or said. I was a white girl. That friend could see how much it hurt me; she could see that it would trigger me every time. She heard how I would fuss, but nothing was ever said in my defense. I would feel hurt and embarrassed and like I still wasn't black enough after all the work I had done to love and accept myself. It never failed. To the point where I would have to talk myself up in order to hang around that friend's family. For years, I just swallowed down the hurt and did what I could to convince people I was black enough. I was cool enough. I felt like I was taking a class on "how to be appropriately black" and failing miserably.
Austin Channing Brown understood me. She knew exactly how I felt because she had lived a similar experience. Too black for the white kids. Too white for the black kids. Never enough. Listening to her tell her story (I listened to the audiobook) made me feel heard, validated, and understood for the first time. It put words on the things that young Lauren used to struggle with but never knew how to articulate. It reminded me that no matter what, I am black enough. I am enough. In a world that tries to convince me that I'm not.
I hadn't expected this book to hit me as hard as it did, but oh my God. It was so beautifully done. I think everyone needs to read it. Even white people. Especially white people. If they are ever in the space to hear and accept it.
The best teachers are the ones that can open your mind in ways you never imagined. Sometimes they are life teachers, meaning: they are people you encounter outside of the classroom that force you to open your mind and open your heart.
Sometimes they are fictional.
In this case, Ms. Hughes, aka Tatyana Ali put a book on my radar that absolutely changed my life. As soon as I can, I am getting a physical copy of this book so I can highlight and mark it up (something I NEVER do). My kids will read this book. And hopefully they will pass it along to their kids.
Austin Channing Brown, thank you from the bottom of my heart, for reminding to love my blackness.