I’m a Chick From ‘The Hood’

Sisterly selfie. Location: The Hood.

I’m from the hood. By hood, I mean a black neighborhood with some dynamics stereotypically envisioned. The occasional box Chevy, all candy paint and rims, blares southern hip-hop. Well-known panhandlers request coins. Crime is heavily scrutinized.

However, my community contains more variance than flat thinkers usually consider. My late grandfather, a middle school science teacher, Sunday school leader, and Kappa, purchased the lot our family home is on 50 years ago and had it constructed. He and my late grandmother, a television producer and his wife, built a family in the home.

The hood was more the ‘burbs then. The hood had firmly middle class black families and fostered intergenerational wealth. Homes stayed in families. People could go off and live, work, and learn, while knowing there was somewhere to return. Others “boomeranged” back home to save for big American purchases, like their own homes. The community thrived.

The hood was also uprooted by the 2008 recession, resultant housing bubble and predatory lending. Generational conflicts exist. Priorities look different. Class dynamics are pervasive.

Barbecue wings and crab legs sell faster than froyo. Kale might as well precede nah. The hood is a place where business building is slow, but improving. Yet, it’s also a place of tireless activism.

And we should remember that hoods, or their functional equivalents, are ubiquitous. But, this post is about the northwest quadrant of Jacksonville, Florida, where my family home is.

The hood bred civil rights watchdogs who outed the city for building on unfit lands. My grandpa was on the NAACP’s toxicology board and helped spread awareness. Apparently building schools, homes and parks for black, brown and impoverished white people on toxic lands is standard domestic practice. But, environmental justice is another story.

Living in the hood is similar to attending an HBCU. Stuff happens. Some of it is glorious and soulful. Some of it is annoying or troubling. Stuff usually doesn’t occur because people are black, though. It’ll be another issue.

Social status. Family name. Profession. Associations. Religion. Sexual orientation. Grammar. Dialect. Speech is huge.

One benefit of being from the hood, but attending majority white magnet arts schools and storied black universities, is effective code-switching. Code-switching ≠ being disingenuous. I learned to tailor messages for audiences. Such is common practice where I’m from. It’s a survival mechanism. As Philly-based rapper Meek Mill spits, there’s “levels to this.”

The hood is cool (enough). I can always find hair products, and thrifty ethnic jewelry. People are loud–in speech, dress and persona. Some have ironic nicknames like, 350 pound men called Tiny. Elders know your kinfolk.

Clever children make music with instruments and random objects. Politicians buy groceries with normalized fame. You know, everybody knows them, but mostly nobody’s fazed. That’s just Representative So-and-So.

But, fear persists. Jacksonville locals nearly quiver when finding out that they or their loved ones ventured into the abyss that is the hood (as if a city so large doesn’t have other hoods or tony and tawny areas are exempt from dysfunction).

In Lion King Mufasa cautioned Simba to remain where the light touches. Not trying to grasp for low-hanging fruit here, but what does the light touch? Whose light? Must the hood Macklemore to get the same love?

My parents’ house is not in a war-torn third world country. Guests come over, usually for graduation parties, rousing discussion and/or food. They return safely to their destinations.

Typically, if I expect company, I’m on the front steps Stoop Kid style, or beside the window in our airy living room, prodding my sister to practice piano for her betterment a free show.

The hood is also a place that, as the nation grapples with killings of unarmed black kids, confuses outsiders. Jordan Davis was killed in Jacksonville. Non-Floridians, especially people who don’t know much about Jacksonville, don’t know or care that killer Michael Dunn wasn’t on the northside. Trayvon Martin was slain about two hours away in Sanford. The entire state (nation and world) experience set backs when lives are devalued and wrongfully taken.

On a personal level, the hood houses our family home. It is a reasonable structure that afforded us memories, passport stamps and nationwide travel. But, people from the hood do take preventative measures. Our home has burglar bars, a Rottweiler and an alarm system.

Our home provides comfort, which could develop anywhere. It’s a place with art, music and pets. Pets should not to be confused with siblings; however, some of them live there, too.

It contains gap-toothed pictures of relatives, smells like incense, and has more books than opportunities to read them, but enough room and natural light to try in good faith.

It’s a brick house, and mighty-mighty, a place with people bound by biology and values. It welcomes good energy and intentions. The people at home in our home might surprise you.

More than anything, our home and hood illuminate classism, fear and respectability issues.

Hoods are often good enough to give the world greats, but too shamed for longterm appreciation. Yet, no place or people are perfect. As the nation’s face evolves, so should perspectives of community value. A hood, barrio or cul-de-sac’s composition isn’t the biggest quandary.

Hierarchical personhood is. Do as you wish. And live where you may, but don’t disparage where other people stay.

On Zooming, Lil’ Boosie and Buzzkills

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Warning: If you are humor deficient, the respectability police, cannot recognize a high top taper haircut or never had the urge to swerve on someone, then this is not the post for you.  If you expect legal analysis or a premature prognosis for rap/pop culture/ black people, then this also isn’t the post. Also, I like to think that when my time is done, the Big Homie will judge my deeds and compassion more than appreciation of storytelling, which sometimes includes ratchet rap.

So, Torrence Hatch, aka Lil Boosie, almost broke the Internet, and simultaneously my phone Wednesday night. Media reports reappeared. Screenshots, hashtags, photos and lyrics crossed social media. Someone tweeted ellipsis from his official Twitter page. Lil Boosie was being tweeted about with the likes of sponsored content and Ukrainian unrest.

Closet Boosie-heads, longtime Boosie fans and folks who like some songs, but can’t spit all of his albums, mix tapes or comrades from memory, buzzed.

This was another example of when it’s fun to be part of the Internet, social media and see how folks respond. It is also an occasion to ignore and unfollow folks who used Boosie’s release from prison as their moment to give e-ultimatums or slap vapid labels on people who found his Mr. Hatch’s release newsworthy–or gasp– exciting.

Here’s the thing. The Internet and social media rock because we can galvanize in instances of necessary resistance, raise money, counter stereotypes, and support indie content curators. We can also be academic/enlightened/conscious/whatever-else while admitting that entertainment news is … entertaining.

I’m no less “down” for flashing back to Greek stroll-offs blaring “Wipe Me Down” in undergrad, although I spent all of today briefing cases and distinguishing doctrines. People are dynamic. It’s ok to breathe.

Some of y’all love Jesus and like Boosie a heckuva lot. Y’all thought I was gonna say love. No predictable parallelism here, bruh.

If nothing else, I appreciate that any time I have tried to engage my mother in a rap conversation in which Boosie is included, we have to hop the “No, not Bootsy Collins” hurdle. My older cousin responded the same way. Maybe it’s generational.

My favorite Boosie song is “Devils.” Yes, he takes shots at the same justice system that imprisoned him and others. But, for me, we all encounter “devils.” Negative energy. Unnecessary drama. Covetous spirits. Unfairness. Disloyalty. All of that can “get up off me” or zoom right by me, posthaste.

Whether loved, hated or rendering folks indifferent, Boosie inspires discussions. Fans argue the politics of Boosie and savage life  the way others argue normative politics. And sometimes they are the same people. As. In. Boosie. Fans. Can. Have. Nuanced. Discussions. Then, there’s his autocorrect rap, spelling the word “independent” on a track about a desirable woman. So many options.

In college, I saw a guy swell at his roommate, get thisclossse to Roomie’s face, and realize that arguing over a man who didn’t know they existed, was dumb. He took a seat. I want people to flock to bookstores (some day), my articles and blog with that same enthusiasm. I want my craft to get people involved. No almost violence, though. Vigorous debates!

Admittedly, Boosie fans are super Stans. It’s partially because of his raps’ transparency and the relatable way he’s marketed. Boosie makes some dudes feel him. He makes others feel like they ARE him. It’s wild.

So, yeah. The struggle will continue. You might be surprised at who has “some ratchet in” them. The world keeps spinning. Just now, a man who means a lot to a lot of people (and irks a lot of nerves) gets to be in real life, not prison.

Wipe him down?

Here’s 13 Things I Appreciated About 2013

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The year 2013 bids us adieu. As exciting as it is to see this year end, it’s also inspiring to see what 2014 will bring. After finishing my New Year’s resolutions, I opened the Word document of my 2013 ones.

Let’s be real. I did not review resolutions consistently all year. Or monthly. Or weekly. I went for what I knew. I gave my best efforts. I worked hard. Grace covered me.

In no particular order, here are 13 of the many things I’m appreciative of about this year:

•My friends are a kaleidoscope of compassion and companionship. Everyone does not live, look or believe similarly. But, they all provide something necessary and beautiful to my life. I pray that I do the same.

•I performed a poem in class. I hadn’t performed (a.k.a. “spit”) since 2011, the year I graduated from college. Glad to know that case law, legalese and such didn’t rob the kid of her flows.

•I’m freelance writing. It’s unpredictable. Yet, I am grateful for every chance to see an idea to fruition and be compensated for it. I studied communications/journalism in undergrad; however, some people have a disposable mindset on content curators. They think blah-blah-everyone’s-a-journalist-or-writer-nowadays. So, when editors honor the value that specialization brings to publications, everybody wins.

•Which reminds me of how I started 2013. Finding out that the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education picked up one of my columns for HBCU Digest.

• The Duval County School Board voted unanimously to change the name of Nathan B. Forrest high school. People in Jacksonville, Fla. decided not to keep a slave-trader and KKK Grand Wizard’s legacy alive via the name of a training ground for developing minds. My hometown has lots of remaining work in terms of inclusivity and progress, but this is a start.

•My high school teachers welcomed my visit and let me speak to their classes. The students seemed intrigued by my message. It was wonderful.

•A professor I have a career crush on thanked me for my contributions to the learning environment. ‘Twas when I learned of an academic high. Acadorphins? Endorphidemia? Ok. No more jokes? Next bullet point.

•School is better. Things click more. Interdisciplinary advocacy, here I come.

•People have patiently helped me when I’ve been in tight spots. Real-time reminders that no one is an island unto him or herself.

•Black and brown girls are shining. While celebrities, beauty queens and successful women can be triggers for some, they fuel me to become self-actualized. Everyone doesn’t have to know my name. I just want to answer my calling.

Anyway, Rihanna constantly does her thing. Erykah Badu models for Givenchy. Beyonce’s album. Miss America. Miss France. The world is abundant. There’s enough light for everybody to catch some rays.

•My family is a blessing and safe haven from chaos.

•I’m halfway through law school.

•And finally, you’re reading this. Thank you.

Safety, love, light and laughter to y’all. Feel free to share some of your gratitude list. Bring on ’14!

A Non-consensual Toad & Consensual Realizations

Sometimes one prepares for Evidence class and one of his brethren is on one's wall.
Sometimes one prepares for Evidence class and one of these is on one’s wall. Yes. As in inside one’s home.

I will finish reading in the library, I thought. Rolling my backpack outside, a to-do reel displayed cerebrally. Blissfully unaware, I was.

Came back for my lunch, laptop bag and purse. He appeared. Young Leap of the Prince Charming Clique. A toad almost the size of my iPhone decided to be a Monday morning blessing—and then had the nerve to try covert tactics.

He was still at first, as if his greenness wasn’t blatant against the cream wall. Then he did a little stagger step toward the ceiling. Playing conquer-the-phobia-and-capture-the-reptile would likely make me late for a four credit hour class, so Imani was thrust into decision mode.

‘Twas a Robert Frost moment. When the two roads diverged … I closed the bedroom and bathroom door, hopped in Jazzy, my Jetta, and pushed the reptile to the recesses of my mind. Of course, when I came home from school he was nowhere to be found. OMG! WTH! I live alone for reasons. A non-consensual roomie with wart connotations and overarching grossness. Lord, help me.

Solutions. I needed solutions.

Because I’m a student with a recently uncovered fear of frogs, I thought textbook-y. Google-y. What do educated people do? Notice? Notice! Yes. I will put the maintenance men on notice. So, I made a work order and request for someone to retrieve Young Leap.

A friendly staffer offered assurances that if Young Leap appears during business hours, and I called the office, they’d evict him for me. He laughed good-naturedly, as if relieved that it wasn’t a break-in, beat-up or mold complaint.

An aside: Sometimes I’m a hyper-rage-against-gender-normativity-and-expectations chick. Other times, my voice ratchets up a few octaves and I want a man to do the manly thing. Namely. Get. The. Frog. Now.

About a month before this, I stood outside for 45 minutes because a toad boy band assembled on and around my front door. Calling my mother proved to be of little use, as her usually limitless well of support dried up a bit when her voice cracked. She was laughing. Or worse, doing that whisper-vibrato one does to suppress a laugh. My baby brother literally Face timed some sense and courage into me.

Otherwise, I might still be paying rent, sleeping in Jazzy and trying to couch outfit repeats in terms of sustainability and going green—instead of admitting that a G gets scared sometimes. Thanks, Kalif.

Well, fast forward. Young Leap hasn’t appeared in about two weeks. Despite scouring every potentially frog friendly crevice of my digs, neither he, nor his icky legs nor beady eyes are visible.

Then, it hit me. He might be gone. Or he might be so hidden that it’s like he doesn’t exist anyway. And tiptoeing around a place that I sign the lease for isn’t fancy, Millennial or cool. So, I simultaneously created an NWA playlist (not really), drank a protein shake (not really) and walked around like the queen of my domain (yes, really).

Young Leap brought other notions to mind. The frog-to-prince trope. Transformations. Growing up. Loyalty to fear. Loyalty and fear.

Sometimes inconveniences scare people out of otherwise healthy opportunities. Sometimes people psych themselves out. Sometimes letting people know what’s bothering you is best, not because they will always do right by you, but because candor is right for you. Sometimes things really aren’t that scary.

My classmates and loved ones have inquired. I’m ok, y’all. Really. Besides, whenever something seems stressful, unwarranted or ill-timed, odds are good that something better is already jumping.

On Dreads & Why You Can’t Send a Girl Who Knows Who She is Home

Exhibit A: Nine year old Imani with a fresh perm and JC Penney dress.
Exhibit A: Nine year old Imani with a fresh perm and JC Penney dress.

“They didn’t like my dreads,” Tiana Parker, a 7-year-old black girl said. “They” are her former school, Deborah Brown Community School. Officials told Parker’s dad, Terrence, that she wasn’t presentable because of her hair.

According to the community school, “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.” And chastising little girls to the point of tears about their immutable characteristics is?

I don’t know a 7-year-old white girl experience. But, I remember being a 7-year-old black one and confronting people’s ignorance and distaste for anything that rendered me blacker or highlighted my parents’ conscious choice to let people know who I am. But, they taught me first.

What do I mean? If Imani Jackson shows up as a resume or application, you might not know exactly who I am, but you have a pretty good idea of who I’m not. First, it’s dope that Tiana is brave and bold enough to wear her natural hair at seven. That her father, a barber, champions his princess’ natural mane? Doper. People want their loved ones to love themselves and to present in ways that cause them the least amount of resistance.

But, it’s bigger than individuals, y’all. When I was seven, my mom finally acquiesced. The relaxer I begged, prayed and hoped for finally morphed my midnight mass into long, straight hair. I wore it relaxed for about four years until it broke, fried and drowned in a pool of split ends and spritz.

I experimented with natural styles, and unfortunately blonde hair dye, for a while until at age 17 I saw a picture of Goapele, thought about Lauryn Hill, and decided to quit playing. I began locks at 10 years old than Tiana. It taught me patience, persistence and self-love. Some days I had to go on with life, when my head looked like Coolio and a Chia pet’s Bill Nye experiment.

Gradually, the nappy, curly and coiled collision locked, grew, and became something I’m proud of. But, it was painful to get there. At Tiana’s age, I attended a multicultural magnet elementary school, as in mostly white, with kids of color and military families sprinkled in.

The teachers were generally competent, although some needed to venture beyond their backyards if they wanted to connect with more students. My hair, which my mother braided, pressed and styled in awe-inspiring black-girl styles, reminded everyone that I was different. I was tired of being different.

Always in the back of the class photos, taller than most of the boys, and having a “foreign” first name in a city that just missed being in South Georgia, my differences felt burdensome.

Why hadn’t my mom named me Brenda? That is her name. It was my late grandmother’s name. Teachers wouldn’t mispronounce Brenda. I wouldn’t be forced into awkward conversations with adults who didn’t know Kwanzaa existed, Swahili isn’t a place, and while Iman was hot stuff, her name is Spanish and I was not named after her.

Teachers barreled through Brittanys, Ashleys and Brandons with reckless abandon. That weird I-word lodged in the middle of the roll was an impediment from quickly assessing which students came to school that day. I learned to raise my hand when anything remotely “Ih”-sounding preceded Jackson.

The long and short of it is that I evolved with family support and love. The kind of love that Tiana has, as her dad, Terrence, went to bat in the media and against that school for her. That’s the same love my father showed when he reprimanded a high school boy who sought to impress his high school friends at the expense of middle school me by shoving a dirty, discarded pick in my Afro at the bus stop.

In many settings I was the only non-mixed black girl who were wore her natural hair. I was nappy and trying to be happy before curling puddings, big time bloggers and a bourgeoning beauty industry would explode into follicular fiestas for women who sat on the sidelines because they didn’t want drama regarding the hair from their mamas.

Today my hair is a big part of my identity. It’s proof that I survived. I was bullied, ostracized, thought suspect and ridiculed for being me in a world that mistreats the other. My hair gets checked by TSA. I force them to discuss the additional searches. I am stereotyped about how I spend my recreational time.

I’m automatically West Indian, even though I’m not. My mom, who has a big, curly fro, is apparently black Latina. Why our ethnicities don’t match is beyond me. I become de facto hair teacher for people of all backgrounds who don’t know how follicular diversity works.

White people tell me about their friends with sketchy showering habits and dreads. Sometimes they share the (BIG!) secret that all of their hair isn’t naturally straight. Rasta men greet me in ways I don’t fully understand. Older blacks tell me that I beat the odds and look nice with “those dreads.” Somehow my dreads inspire conversations about how black men with dreads must disprove ideas that they’re thugs.

Mostly now, I’m embraced. My hair is healthy. It’s strong. It’s long. It’s a lot like me. It’s accepted and acceptable because I accept it, love it, treat it well, and remove myself from situations where I won’t be valued because of what it represents. Life is too short to hang out in hate spaces.

My 1st Year of Law School Was Just Like Being in a Moshpit

It started first semester. You were my, my boos. Please note: This picture does not include additional books & sources that I read/took notes from etc.
It started first semester. You were my, my boos. Please note: This picture does not include additional books & sources that I read/took notes from as a 1L.

Moshpits aren’t my thing.

On a holiday break from college, my friends and I attended a rock show. We didn’t know much about the bands. Tickets were affordable. We were bored. So it goes.

Bury Your Dead (BYD). A normal person unfamiliar with the night’s lineup would have made contextual leaps based on the band’s name. Sometimes Imani finds other nexuses.

I rocked jeans, lime green flip-flops and understated makeup. In we walked. Multiple stage dives greeted us. My stomach flopped.

One of my professors says lawyering is about semantics. Trust, Imani. Not recklessness. Sometimes people stage dive, and nobody falls. Aight.

Law school. In I walked. Learn your environment, Imani. Socratic Method. Getting called on.

“Ms. Jackson,” did I care to elaborate on (seemingly) esoteric points of the law as evidenced by the case it took me two hours, a Google history lesson and five dictionary trips to read?

Are we rocking with the majority opinion or does the dissent warrant consideration? As a coffee shop hopping, love bug leftie, I usually root for the underdog. But, is that this professor’s thing?

I’d try.

Success was perfect. Liberating. When I didn’t know the answer… Stage dive. Would I catch myself? Toiling. Reading. Noting. Study groups. Panic attacks. Dreams about class/assignments/justices/dicta/policy/issues. Can sleep please be my happy space, God? Thanks, Mgt.

Competition. The curve. Meh. Part of why I transitioned from performance theatre to creative writing in my arts high school was a desire to dictate my lane without it being relative to what everybody else had going on. Law school sees it differently.

Fists. Ideas. Someone repeats what was just said as if an epiphany god made it rain. People light up. Are some ideas more palatable from certain people? What did I sign up for?

At the BYD show, I didn’t realize I was in a moshpit or that they spontaneously form. Then a cluster of raging, sweaty people surrounded me. Someone punched me, and several ran into me. My flip-flop was swallowed by a crowd. My face hit the wall.

Ready to (try to) fight, the crowd was gone. I’ve actually never been in a fight. A new moshpit formed. Whoever hit me was in that mass of people pummeling each other. Masochism.

Sometimes you gotta move on. Appellate brief. Oral arguments. Midterms. Finals week. Walk by faith and not by sight. And sometimes sight reminds you why you’re there.

A man who lives under a bridge a block from campus spread his blanket beside a shopping cart one evening. I was leaving the library. It was freezing. Blasting the radio and heat in my Jetta, while envisioning a pre-wine to-do list, the man’s blanket broke me. I’m going home to an apartment in a gated community. He’s settling in beside rocks. Sobbing, I turned onto the highway. God, I’ll do this. You let me be here. I’ll do it.

This experience hasn’t been all or even mostly bad. I went first for oral argument. It went well. My partner is a genius. We signed our lives over for the pretend client with dedication until our brief’s submission night and argument morning.

Three attorneys, who I had never met, grilled me for 10 mind-blowing minutes while I defended the rights of a pretend man that pre-law school Imani would have written off as a creeper. A meek legal voice left my lips. With a crescendo-esque cadence, theories flew  and before I knew it, OMG adrenaline. Can I go again? Please? What about these other cases, Your Honors?

Were my client’s rights being infringed upon? Were tenuous connections used to inappropriately authorize invasions against a man deemed a creeper, whose  non-traditional interests shouldn’t be at issue?

Then the February bar takers passed with an almost 83% rate, besting competitive state schools. Strike, Rattlers. There’s always illumination in a tunnel.

Ultimately, law school relaxed me. So much is piled on my classmates and me that if we freak out about each thing, everyone will drop dead. Since I put too much time, money and effort into the education thing to go out like that, I learned to breathe. Sometimes.

That is not to say that I regurgitate statutes or 100% know the demographics I will serve. I won’t pretend that law is demystified. It takes three years to graduate. I have one under my belt. It takes bar passage to be licensed.

But, I’m learning a lot. I read/write/analogize more efficiently. I respect expertise. I notice things I didn’t before. When I renewed my lease, all that crazy jargon formed clearer ideas about what my landlord expects from tenants.

Then there’s the fact that I got my ass kicked a lot. I sent manic texts to a few trusted people, all in the legal field. I cried in a bathroom, on the highway and in my pillow. But, all the lawyers and judges I’ve met said that the worst is behind me.

It helped to cling to words. I’m so grateful to use my journalism degree as a writer while navigating this space. My editors are tremendously understanding. P.S. if you’re reading this and we’re social media buds, read me to feed me. I post links often.

In all seriousness, questions remain. I lost some things. Patience for folly. Unneeded weight stressing about stress.

A sexy marketing/journalism job offer in a big city came during first semester. I could make big girl money! Have my beaming brown face plastered on press releases! Diversity!

A mentor-turned-friend once said that my content is more relevant than my countenance. I thought he was just trying to make me feel better because modeling agents said I was “commercial.” Now I get it. I want to absorb all the life, knowledge, love and wisdom I can to make anything I curate worth the recipient’s time.

Romance. Someone I dated began waxing poetic about everything. He appointed himself as my biblical liaison and counselor. Um. What?  Maybe I missed my blessing. *Flashes back to kind collegiate men.* Their family members they had me meet. Dinner dates. Ideas we volleyed. Full stop. Everything happens for a reason.

I accept my role in my journeys. I have complexes. I love to be confided in. I hate being vulnerable. My family is profoundly loving and periodically stressful because they are truly standouts. I just want to carry our name well.

This post is not a rager or rhythm & cry-baby. It’s a victory song. I didn’t need that green flip-flop, although I had hobble-swag back to the car. I’m currently good on some normative success markers. These unorthodox dots will connect.

Adios, 1L year. You rocked and rolled. The homies and I will see another show.

Note: I didn’t actually say that creeper bit in my argument. That was subtext.

Also note: I wrote this forever post ago and wanted to wait until my grades posted and mental arbitrary hurdles were hopped. Here’s to 2L year filling my soul with gooey goodness.

Letter to a Knucklehead

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Hey girl,

You think you know, but you have no idea. Your world will be rocked. Colors will transform. Feelings will transcend. They will evaporate. Trickle.

You will read. You will write. You will want to assimilate. You will want to rage. You will step ahead.

You will connect with brilliant people. Always appreciate them, but don’t lose yourself in them.

You will be right. You will be wrong. You will be anxious. You will be strong. You will outgrow your perceptions of yourself and people too bound to moments passed.

You will want to draw parallels between yourself and others, but they’re fruitless comparisons. A path walked a million times is only yours once your footsteps meet it. And as hard as it was for your cousin to teach you the one-two-step, you should know that other people’s strides are none of your business.

Speaking of walking, walk tall. Wear heels. And colors. And conversation piece accessories. And blue, shimmery eye shadow with rouge. And then only Chapstick for days, if you feel like it.

Walk with your shoulders back. Keep a grin on your face. Not the perfected smile of an adolescent who complied with the orthodontist’s requests. Do the real one.

The one where your top lip disappears and shows the pinkish purple gums you freaked out about. The one with your eyes all squinted and cheeks reaching for the sun’s rays.

Be eloquent. Be ratchet. Be rowdy. Be patient. Be effortlessly you because it is not about names. It is about truth. So do your thing. And know that that thing changes. And that’s ok.

Boys are weird. But, they always have been, so illuminate yourself because when you stop trippin’ they start falling.

Be good to your siblings. They’ll be your soldiers. Appreciate your parents. They made unfathomable sacrifices for you.

Embrace your southern roots and charm. Don’t worry if regionalism affects people’s perceptions of who belongs at the table—because you stay eating, regardless.

Flip phrases til your eyes glaze and conjure connections you believe are amazing. And then top that.

Oh yeah. You will see your social media comments from yesteryear and ridiculous Grinch-like photos. Laugh and delete. And then engage teenagers with patience. Because you were a glittery snow globe with hydraulics not too long ago.

Be grateful. Be great. Keep writing. Expand this letter.

Ciao.