A few days ago, I saw the video for J. Cole’s recent single “Crooked Smile” (featuring TLC). The lyrics of the song and the images in the video made a powerful impression on me. About a year ago, a brilliant friend/hip hop scholar (Sid Marie Arroyo) told me about J. Cole and seeing this video made me revisit the music she shared with me from his first album. I downloaded the sophomore album and I got hooked on “Crooked Smile.” The lyrics resonated with me. J. Cole said “we ain’t picture perfect but we worth the picture still.” I felt grateful, hearing it as an affirmation. As someone who was never “picture perfect” and yet achieved some success, that line, the message of the song overall, reflects some important truths.
These include… the power in authenticity and vulnerability, women’s agency and issues around self-esteem for people of African descent, what bell hooks and others have written about. In one line, J. Cole urges women to recognize their real beauty and not the beauty in many false add-ons, nor to find security in a (dysfunctional) relationship. In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks said: “[i]f any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.” This doesn’t only apply to women; there are ways that all of us give our power away.
For years, probably most of my life up to now, I smiled in pictures but didn’t show my teeth. People often told me (and still tell me) that I didn’t smile…that I didn’t look happy and/or maybe I ruined the picture. I’d often reply, that is how I felt at that moment or I can’t help the fact that my smile doesn’t meet your expectations. I can’t be or show something I’m not. I found solace and power in being authentic. I felt false and more defeated when I tried to fake it or to act like someone I’m not. Maya Angelou said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” I remember that always; and the virtue I have chosen to try to live by consistently is honesty. Being my honest, imperfect self, is the easiest way for me to be in the world. I teach at UMass Boston, and that is the way I choose to be in my classroom, with students and colleagues as well.
One piece of professional advice often heard is “be careful at work…keep things to yourself…don’t let others know your problems or your struggle.” Maybe I’m unwise or naive to ignore it, but there are pieces of my story that it is important for me to share in times. For example, students may tell me “you have everything…your life is so charmed.” I correct them and tell them that, while I acknowledge my blessings and privileges, there are things that have not been so “charmed” in my life—things I struggle with and ghosts that haunt me every day, such as personal tragedies and character-building mistakes. Then later, when they tell me their own stories and the challenges they face, they know I’m sincere when I say I understand.
We in the African Diaspora were taught not to “air our dirty laundry” but sometimes it’s that very thing that makes an important difference in the lives of someone who may feel alone. We can empower each other through mutual sharing and support. I am a little more believable when I say that if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for them. J. Cole’s clever lyrics expressed this message with credibility and clarity. There are painful realities that we need courage to face and should not sugar coat or cover over. We make mistakes. We have weaknesses and human flaws and it’s okay. It took me years to learn that about myself; and I’m thankful to family and a few supportive friends for reminding me of that when I forgot.
With our crooked smiles and all, we’re still worth the picture, the effort, the patience and reward.