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Melissa Harris-Perry: Listening Sessions

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melissa harris perry

I hated being 12. I recall that age without a single flicker of nostalgia. Being a 12-year-old girl means being trapped at the intersection of rapid physical transformation, careening emotions, heightened academic expectations and unpredictable peer relationships.

My elder daughter, Parker, is currently navigating the morass of middle school, a maze whose elusive object is social acceptance and where popularity is quantified by the number of likes on your latest Instagram pic. Of course, I understand the absurdity of measuring oneself by the contemptuous half smiles of the dim-but-in crowd, but the angst Parker feels is real.

Initially, I fumbled the tween transition. I kept trying to use strategies that worked when Parker was in elementary school, like telling jokes to ease her bad moods. Only after she told me that I was an embarrassment who understood nothing did I realize that we weren’t in the proverbial Kansas of childhood anymore. We had entered the Oz of adolescence and I was ill-prepared to usher her down the yellow brick road. I felt like the sham Wizard cowering behind a curtain and spouting platitudes such as, “Well, if they were really your friends, they wouldn’t act that way.”

One way I’ve managed to help my tween tackle adolescence is by becoming her personal DJ. Coping with being a natural-haired Black girl in a predominantly White school? Time for India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” on the morning commute. Mean girls sniping at one another? A chance to sing along as Queen Latifah calls for “U.N.I.T.Y.” Teachers lacking cultural sensitivity during Black History Month? Then we blast Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”

I’m not using music simply to distract Parker from the challenges of growing up. Building Black musical literacy is a way to embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “creative maladjustment”—the development of strategies that keep us sane as we resist the philosophies and practices of inequality. Dr. King recognized that therapists tended to push individuals to become adjusted to their environments, but he was wary of the danger of Blacks and poor people adjusting to discrimination.

Historically, Black music has been one of the most important tools of our creative maladjustment. Enslaved people crafted spirituals that invoked the presence of the divine in the midst of slavery’s evil. When America denied the personhood of Blacks, we sang blues that marked the depth of our humanity. When the nation deemed us intellectually inferior, African-Americans innovated jazz and altered the global musical experience. Hip-hop emerged from the poverty of postindustrial urban America to critique the collective disinvestment in a generation.

This legacy of creative maladjustment is what I hope to pass on to my daughter as she stretches toward adulthood. I know she yearns for acceptance. I hope she achieves originality. I know she wants to fit in. I hope she grows comfortable with standing out. Our listening sessions are my small way of reminding her she comes from a people who are actively, creatively maladjusted. We have a rich soundtrack and it is hers to claim if she so desires.

This article was featured in the June 2014 issue of ESSENCE . Pick it up on newsstands now.

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