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  • Writer's pictureThe Magnolia Literacy Project

LaWanda Dickens “What My Daughter and Alice Walker Taught Me”

When an important lesson was presented to LaWanda Dickens by her eleven-year-old daughter, she missed the point. Years later, she understood where her daughter was coming from after reading one of Alice Walker's poems. Pictured below is Dickens' daughter, Jasmine Dickens, with Walker, Pulitzer Prize winning author.

With 28-years of experience teaching in higher education, Dickens, a Brookhaven, Mississippi native, is a graduate of Jackson State University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in English/Journalism and a Master of Arts in English. She also attended Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where she studied Composition and Rhetoric. Dickens' research interests include Hip Hop studies; service-learning in college composition courses; and students' transfer of classroom knowledge to campus and community leadership.

"What My Daughter and Alice Walker Taught Me"

One of the most pivotal lessons of motherhood for me was the day Jazzy, eleven-years-old at the time, told me that she sees herself as an outcast.

This realization came less than a month after she started her first year as a sixth grader at University Liggett School, a private, pre-K-12 institution, in Grosse Pointe Woods – quintessential, White suburbia.

The decision Jazzy’s dad and I made to transfer her and her sister, Nat, from Bates Academy, a Detroit public school, was not an easy one. Although Bates had a rich history of educating Detroit’s best and brightest students, it was not immune to the years of neglect and mismanagement that plagued the district. The narrative is common, brutally so for Black parents, who must often choose between the emotional and mental safety of their children and a quality education.

We knew that Liggett’s project-based curriculum, rooted in intellectual curiosity, fit our interest in purposeful learning for our girls. But we were not oblivious to the school’s cultural incompetence and limited ability to understand the wholeness of our brown girls from the other side of Mack Avenue on Detroit’s east side.

When we finally settled on sending the girls to Liggett, we knew there would be trade-offs, but I was determined to do the necessary work to keep them grounded in their identity. Their identity could not be a trade-off.

My first challenge came one September afternoon when I picked Jazzy up from school. We talked, as usual, while leaving the middle school campus on Briarcliff Drive headed to the lower school on Cook Road, to pick up Nat.

“How was your day?” I asked her.

“Good,” she replied, reaching for a bag of Better Made barbeque chips in the snack box on the backseat.

“What was good about it?”

Disregarding my question, she held her hand close to me, pointing to a makeshift tattoo that read, “outcast”.

“Who drew that?”

“Me”, she answered proudly.

“Cute design, but why the word outcast?”

“Because it fits me,” she said, smiling. “You don’t like it?”

I felt conflicted. I didn’t know what was worse, that Jazzy considered herself an outcast, or that she seemed happy about it.

“It has pretty colors and lettering, but I wonder if you know what outcast means.”

“Yep, and it’s how I feel, different.”

“But you have no reason to feel like an outcast. You’re so smart, creative, athletic, and beautiful. And I can think of a million other reasons why you are everything but an outcast.”

“I’m okay because I know it’s true. I’m not like the kids at Liggett, and they don’t understand me.”

Hearing my child self-identify as an outcast initially deepened my worries about transferring her from Bates Academy to Liggett. I challenged her to think about the connotation of the word, and she challenged me in return.

I’m glad she did. An important lesson was waiting for me.

A few years later, in an African American literature class at Wayne State University, I taught a unit on Alice Walker. It was no coincidence that her poem, “Nobody’s Darling”, ended up on my radar.

The first two lines of the poem read:

Be nobody’s darling;

Be an outcast.

So there was that word again, outcast, referenced by a Pulitzer Prize winner as an identify form to be proud of – like a badge of honor, despite differences and judgements from others.

After reading “Nobody’s Darling” for the first time, I couldn’t wait to share it with Jazzy. Of course, she loved the poem as well as the connection she and I made. I had been intrigued by Walker's writings ever since I was introduced to them as a student at Jackson State University. I gained immediate respect for Walker, one of several Black women writers who celebrated the type of women I saw in my everyday life. Her protagonists reminded me of my mother, grandmothers, aunties, and other women in my church and community. Her literature taught me, as a college student, that my identity was special. And it challenged me, as a mom, to respect my daughter's identity development process. I accepted the challenge, which meant acknowledging to Jazzy the validity of her feelings. Clearly, this was a "mom win" for me, but I didn't know what a lasting impression it would have on my daughter.

When Jazzy was 17, she took a trip to Belize and returned home with a tattoo, a real one this time, consisting of a few lines from “Nobody’s Darling”.

By an act of divine order, she met Walker a year or so later during a lecture at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She showed the literary legend her tattoo and told her about our “outcast” conversation. I’m sure Jazzy took great pleasure in exposing me for initially protesting. She was fair, though, in propping me up for redeeming myself once I read the poem. Walker gave her an autographed copy of The World Has Changed as a gift for me. Yes, Alice Walker wrote my name on the title page of her book!

Reflecting on eleven-year-old, sixth grade Jazzy, I feel very proud. There is a tremendous lesson here, one that I didn’t get the first time it was presented to me, but I would have if I had listened more actively to my daughter.

What I came to realize over time was that in peaceful rebellion against Liggett’s ugliness, Jazzy came full circle with who she was. Her full physical features, thick coarse hair, “Michelle Obama-esque” height – all sharply contrasting the kind of beauty beheld in the eyes of her Liggett peers – were uniquely hers. On free dress days, she sported her urbanized attire, Detroit shirts, and hoop earrings. Her emergence from the perm to the straightening comb, then to natural afro puffs, and eventually to locks, was a bold display of self-love in a cold environment of alienation and ignorance.

More importantly, she carried herself with confidence, showed respect towards others, and earned respect from her peers, faculty members, and administrators. Every year at Liggett, her shine grew brighter. And her finish was strong, as she strutted across the graduation stage – a 2017 Magna Cum Laude graduate.

For anyone who looked askance at her, she askance replied, not with words, but with her self-confidence and inner peace, “I am an outcast!"


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