Where Have I Been All My Life? A Personal Call for Authentic Leadership

GUEST BLOG by Tiffany Quivers

Bringing the gifts that our ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise.

– Maya Angelou

Still I Rise (1978)

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death. Today is the anniversary of my own death. On that day, I buried the true me — the confident, bold, risk taking, talkative, free 8-year-old adventurer. I traded her in for a people pleasing, doubtful, fake smiling, fearful little girl.

It was a double whammy. I lost the first man that I loved (who was supposed to love me in return) and I grew up in a larger society where black women, women who look like me, were seldom celebrated. This early sense of rejection sent me into a life-long tailspin of low self-worth — landing me, 37 years later, in the midst of what I refer to as my Black Midlife Crisis.

This crisis serves as a critical point of reckoning for me. I sit at a crossroads — do I continue to remain on the path of a dead woman walking or do I rise out of my self-imposed grave and choose a new path? I hear Maya whispering… “RISE”. Can’t you hear her?

I brush myself off and I pull on the one thing that always provided a glimmer of hope, that pushed me beyond my rural boundaries, that provided some self-pride. The voices and encouragement of the women and men from my rural hometown ring in my ears. In the words of James Brown, they reminded me, that I should “say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”

But, don’t say it too loudly.

Even in this communal chorus of black pride and glory, I faced a contrary cadence of…“but”.. 2,3,4…”but”… 2,3,4…

Be black and proud, BUT, straighten your hair, lose your slang, match your demeanor to meet theirs…

Be black and proud, BUT, keep quiet, listen more than you talk, never disagree.

The families in my community, like most black communities, have survived generations of captivity and oppression, creating the necessity for a certain level of conformity. In our black history, going along to get along was not only safe office politics — it was a life-saving preventative measure. These conflicting messages chipped away at me — love some parts of you, but deny others.

I went through life with this dual existence. I was proud of being a black woman…yet I had to restrain her. Like my corporate suit, I had to press out the unacceptable wrinkles of my kinky hair, tuck in the unwieldy intonations of my speech, tie a knot in my Grandfather’s swag. And above all, above all — I had to gird up and suck in my black woman zeal and passion — it will be mistaken for anger and you do not want to be labeled…say it with me… the Angry Black Woman.

Yes, Maya, I choose to rise. I choose to come out of years of self-rejection transformed into the leader my Creator wants me to be. As a colleague says, I bring all of me. I bring every ounce of my blackness! I validate my own ideas, beauty, swag, love of hip hop, slang, and kinky hair! I no longer need to be liked. My strategy to lay low, agree with them, be more like them, only landed me in a pit of rejection and self doubt. No more.

Today is my beginning, again! I am taking on my life’s work — of celebrating others, helping them peel back their own layers to see their full value. I do this work because I want all voices to be heard and validated. I want it for everyone.

I especially want it for black children in America who experience loss, get distorted messages about their brilliance and are taught in the subtlest ways that they are not enough.

I believe the education of our children, the rebuilding of a unified community, the success of any organization or movement calls for an authentic leader — not one that tones down her uniqueness and in so doing tunes out her greatness. I believe what the world needs now is the unbridled beauty, brilliance, soul, swag and inventiveness of black female leaders.

This post is my personal call for authentic leadership, and that work begins with me.

Care to join me? Let’s rise!