My Colour Skin Talks

Sydney and I are aware of our skin colour, but we are also proud of it.

This article was published in the magazine Maailman Kuvalehti. This is the English version.

My skin is black. Therefore, it is broken down by society into stereotypes that I live daily. I have experienced racism in varied degrees and in different countries. 

I remember when I travelled to Saint Petersburg, Russia, years ago, by road from Finland. I was the only one (it was a group of us) detained by Russian immigration officers. They reviewed my passport carefully and asked me, ” Why were you in Brazil, Panama, USA, etc?”. “What was the reason for your trip to these countries?”. They went on and on for over 20 minutes before permitting me to enter the country. No explanation absolutely, was given to me. 

Another racist incident happened in 2018, at a supermarket in Helsinki while shopping with a friend from Irak. A man passed by us and said: “It smells like shit”. 

As a black woman, I live double or triple discrimination because of my skin colour, being a woman, or an immigrant. However, I am not giving up on this fight because I know there is a new generation that will continue it. 

One of those young people is my nephew, Sydney, who is an intelligent 12 year old in 7th grade, and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. He is one of the many black boys and men in the United States of America who is a target by the racist system. 

One day, while riding with his dad, they were pulled over by the police. When he got home, he told his mom about the incident and the way he acted. “I put my hands on the car dashboard so it can be visible”, he said. 

Previous to this occurrence he had watched the movie “The Hate U Give” with his parents at which time he learned that his hands need to be visible; so that is what he did that night. 

This past summer the Black Lives Matter campaign was held in several countries, globally. I participated in the one organized in Helsinki, Finland, with my friend from Kenia. I got skin chill when I arrived at the Senator Square, saw and heard the thousands of voices shouting slogans like Black lives matter, I can’t breathe, etc. 

This protest was held during the pandemic and as result, most of us participants took the necessary precautions. When the manifestation was over, I saw a sign that  read: Racism = longest-running pandemic. Yes, it is because black people’s rights had been violated and minorized over centuries. This is not a new incident.

Many brave women and men before me and my nephew have also lived racisms, some even experienced worse situations than those today. They are our heroines and heroes. 

Sydney is aware of his skin colour and that the dramatic incident he went through can be repeated someday. I am also aware of this. Nevertheless, I am proud to be a black woman. I don’t like people to call me brown, chocolate, blackish, or woman of colour. I prefer to be called a black woman, just who I am. So please don’t try to wash away the colour of my skin that talks. 

Indigenous Women’s Day

Today on Indigenous Women’s Day I celebrate my ancestors.

My first knowledge of Miskito Indigenous culture was learned from my ancestors, Rosina Nelson, my great-grandmother who was a midwife; and from my grandmother, Mandy Lee Thompson Nelson, who worked with the Moravian missionaries in Bilwi. 

Both of them were from the indigenous community of Karata located in front of a lagoon by the same name, where you can sit and enjoy drinking and eating coconut as much as you want while talking to the people who are friendly, and tidy in the way they maintain their community clean. Fishing is the community’s main source of economical income. 

Today, I celebrate these two women, who are my role model of indigenous women. They were strong, brave, and never renounced their tasks. I am proud that they are part of my roots.  

I had the opportunity to meet many indigenous women from different countries and backgrounds while working as a journalist in places such as summits, remote places, and during my daily life. They all are full of energy and carefulness.

Since 1983, International Day of Indigenous Women is still celebrated today. It was established in Tihuanacu, Bolivia during the Second Meeting of Organizations and Movements of America. The main objective of this day is to remember all the brave indigenous women who had fought for their families and communities to preserve the experiences, values, languages, and heritage knowledge. 

Bartolina Sisa was an Aymaran woman from Peru, who fougth against the Spanish colony and participated in the siege of La Paz with her partner Túpac Katari, and other natives. She was captured and executed by her enemies on the 5th of September, 1972.

Indigenous women are often discriminated against for their gender, ethnicity, and poor condition. However, countless outstanding indigenous women shaped and are shaping the history of their community and the world. Here, Women Wheel names 5 figures fought or are fighting for native welfare.  

Shirley Colleen Smith ( 1924-1998), was a Wiradjuri woman, activist, and social worker who devoted her time for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in New South Wales. She was the one who created the aboriginal legal, medical, and children services, a housing company and a tent embassy. 

She was known as Mum Shirl, because while visiting her brother in prison she would talk to the other prisoners, so the guards asked what was her relationship with them. She replied, “I am their mum”.

Autumn Peltier (2004-), is a young water activist from Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario, Canada, known as the “water warrior”. For years, she has been advocating for safe drinking water for indigenous people in Canada and other countries.  

In 2018, she spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, USA, where she said: “Our water should not be for sale. We all have a right to this water as we need it”.

Peltier addressing the UN in 2018

Finnish Sami women,  Tiina Sanila-Aikio, Riikka Karppinen, Inka Saara Arttijeff, Anna Morottaja, Petra Laiti, and others are fighting to save their land, water, and animals ( reindeer-herding and fishing) that are threatened by climate change, the construction of an Arctic Railway, forestry, and mining. 

Brazil Indigenous girls and women activists, Rayanne Cristine Maximo Franca, Célia Xakriabá, Sônia Guajajara, and many others are campaigning under the slogan “Our land, our body, our spirit” to save the Amazon rainforest which is called the “lung of the Earth” from deforestation, climate change, and mining. 

My fifth figure of the list, but in no way the least,  is someone I know from my hometown and had the opportunity to work at moments with her. She is Lottie Cunningham Wren, an indigenous lawyer and human rights defender who has been fighting and working efficiently with the Miskitos, Mayangnas, and Afro-descendants communities in Nicaragua for many years. 

Do you know an indigenous woman in your community, who is changing history? Share your story!

As soon as I open my mouth

No language is correct or incorrect. Languages are part of communities.

Have you ever been in a scenario where you are afraid to speak your language because you can be judged by your accent? Often we hear that just Standard English should be spoken among us. But wait, let’s stop here. Who has the right or audacity to decide this? I think there is no such thing. 

English is the most accessible language globally due to the mass influence of films, music, and the Internet. It is also mentioned that it is the most studied language and probably 20% of the world speaks it. 

Regardless of these figures, there are no such things that there is just one English language that everyone should speak.  

Last year, during the holidays I travelled to the United States of America to visit my family. One day while shopping and paying my bill, I was asked by the cashier: Where are you from? I said: Where do you think I am from? She replied: From Africa or Jamaica. So, I said, from both. Her expression said it all, confusion. I did not clarify it because it is not right that as a human being you always got to give an explanation. My answer was not rude since my ancestors are from both places as the cashier later acknowledged.

Yes, as soon as I open my mouth, that question is often asked. I do not get intimidated anymore because I think that language is part of our identity and culture. We are the ones who mold it according to our use and convenience. Lisa Delpit says “language plays an equally pivotal role determining who we are: it is The Skin that we Talk”.

I was born and grew up in an intercultural environment in the North Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, Central America, where two Afro ethnics and three Indigenous groups share territories, culture, language, literature, and more. I learned to speak my native language (English Creole) at home and my second (Spanish) at school, which is the official language.

During high school, Standard English was taught to us. I remember that in the classroom along with my friends we spoke “smoothly”, but once we were out for recess our Creole English or Spanish was back. I guess this can be called a mask of language, which is slipping from one language to another. This probably was the most normal thing for us. 

My second sister has a Bachelor’s in Art (BA) degree in Spanish with a minor in Latin-American Studies. She teaches at a school in upstate New York, to 8th and 9th grade students. In various conversations with her, she had confirmed that for these students it is not the same scenario, as my high school, to change the language mask. 

African American children can do it and understand both languages distinctly, but white kids just can cope with Standard English, not African American English. 

In the book, The Skin that we Speak, Lisa Delpit describes in one of the chaptershow she was blown away when she heard her eleven year daughter (black) speaking African American English since Standard English was her mother tongue. She was worried that people were going to judge her based on the words she speaks. However, her daughter was confident saying, “Well that’s their problem”. Then Lisa realized that her words came back to her, “It doesn’t matter what other people think about you; you have to be who you are”. 

Another lesson her daughter gave her was that it is important that you learn to “code switch” language according to the environment. I, personally, agree with this because it gives you the confidence and capacity to manage more than one language, and most importantly, not to be ashamed to speak your mother tongue.

I am proud to speak my Creole language, which has given me the opportunity to understand the syntactic of other languages and have a better approach to Standard English which is like my passport to communicate when I travel. 

No language is correct or incorrect. Languages are part of communities. “We do language,” as Toni Morrison said. Worldwide, thousands of languages have died, so why should we let one more die?

Indigenous Roots

Do you have indigenous background? I do. This is my roots.

The 9th, of August commemorates the International Day of World’s Indigenous People, which is to encourage the protection and promotion of their culture, land, and rights.  

Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their languages, oral traditions, writing systems and literatures. Further, it provides that States shall take effective measures to protect this right, including through interpretation in political, legal and administrative proceedings. Articles 14 and 16 state indigenous peoples’ rights to establish their educational systems and media in their languages and to have access to an education in their own language”.

According to the Forum of Indigenous Issues from the United Nations, indigenous people are less than 6% of the world population; however, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages.  On the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, Central America, there are three native languages: Miskito, Rama, and Sumo.

Miskito is a Misulmapan language, which along with Sumo and Matagalpan, comprises this linguistic family. It is spoken by almost 150,000 people in the North and South Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua and the eastern coast of Honduras, both Central American countries. 

Moreover, the Miskito language uses the five vowels, most of the consonants can be voiceless, nasal etc., It has present, past and future tenses, uses adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns. 

Furthermore, in a sentence, a verb is regularly located at the end, and the subject, if a noun phrase, usually precedes objects and constituents, for example, Yang Honduras ra iwisna (I live in Honduras), Yang wan sna witin ra yabaia (I want to give it to him/her).

My ancestors

I was born and grew up in an intercultural environment. At home, I learned my mother tongue (English Creole), and a second at school (Spanish). I also understand Miskito (fairly), which is my ancestor language. 

Part of my family tree is from Karata, which is a Miskito community approximately 40 minutes away from Bilwi, North Caribbean of Nicaragua by an outboard motor. It is located in front of a lagoon by the same name. 

My great-grandparents Merehildo Thompson and Rosina Nelson were from this community. Merehildo was one of the founders of the community, a pastor of the Moravian Church and wihta (judge) of the community. Rosina supported him with his duties, but also she was a midwife.

This is my indigenous roots which I am proud to share with you. If you are an indigenous woman, I would like you to embrace, learn, and share it with others. 

Black Civil Rights

The protest for black lives is not a new incident. The Black Civil Rights Movement started it long ago.

Last week, manifestations against racism were headed in many countries around the world. I participated in the one organized in Helsinki, Finland. I was proud to see a new generation of black people shouting for their rights. I got skin chill to hear the slogan #Blacklivesmatter.

On social media, there was a lot of debate about this slogan. A friend posted that is was rare to read it and others were questioning about other lives. The truth is that all lives matter. 

Black people’s rights had been violated and minorized over centuries. What happing to George Floyd in Minneapolis last month had been happening over and over. This is not a new incident.

In the 1950s, after almost a century of segregation, inequality, discrimination, and other acts of violence, a group of black women and men started the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America. They organized boycotts, sit-ins, and pacific protests. For instance, in 1961, the Freedom Rides, and 1963, the March on Washington.

Ella Baker, Josephine Baker, Ruby Bridges, Johnnie Carr, Angela Davis, Thelma Glass, McCree Harris, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Shirley Sherrod, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, etc. are some figures of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Besides the above list, others also played a crucial role as strategists and advocates in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States of America and other countries. These women were also young like the ones I saw last week. 

Septima Clark (1898-1987)

She was an educator in South Carolina who evolved the “A Citizenship Schools”, which taught and motivated Black Americans to learn literature, education, and citizenship rights to empower their communities. She also fought for equal pay for black teachers and was one of the persons who accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Amelia Boyton (1911-2015 )

She was a key figure of the Civil Rights in Selma, Alabama and one of the leaders who convinced MLK Jr. to march in from Selma to Montgomery on March 7th, 1965. This is known also as “Bloody Sunday”. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, over the Alabama River in Selma, the protesters were attacked by policemen, Boyton was brutally beaten.

In 1964, she ran for a seat in Congress, being the first African American woman and first female Democratic candidate from Alabama to postulate for this position.

Dorothy Height ( 1912-2010)

She is known as the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement”. Her activism started in the 1930s, which advocated for women’s rights such as unemployment, illiteracy and voter participation. For over 40 years, she was the president of the National Council for Negro Women and one of the organizers of the March on Washington. Moreover, she had a big influence on leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis.

Jo Ann Robinson (1912-1992)

She was a teacher who became an active member of the movement after having been attacked verbally by a bus driver in 1949. Disgusted by this action Ann led the Women’s Political Council, which focused their work on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Following the arrest of Rosa Parks (she refused to give her seat to a white man), Ann immediately acted by distributing over 50,000 flyers calling for a boycott on the 5th of December, which was a success. 

Daisy Bates(1914-1999)

Bates was an activist, journalist, and publisher in Arkansas. Together with her husband, she founded The Arkansas Press, which was published on May 9, 1941, and mainly supported African American stories and advocated civil rights. In 1954, the Supreme Court landmarked segregation as unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. Bates played a significant role in the desegregation at schools, after this decision by mentoring and organizing the “Little Rock Nine” students to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Photo by Donovan Valdivia on Unsplash

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

She was a cook at the National Lunch Company who was fire for participating in the bus boycott. She embraced her talent to cook from home and support the movement. She founded the Club From Nowhere, which motivated African women to cook and bake goods to be sold outside their houses and at protests gathering. The fund from this action was used to support the bus resistance.

Ruby Dee (1922-2014)

Dee was an actress who used her profession to outspeak the subservient roles given to African Americans in the film industry. Together with Ossie Davis, her husband supported the movement through the arts and demonstrated positive portraits of African Americans in their works. She also was one of the masters of ceremony at the March on Washington.

Corretta Scott King (1927-2006)

While studying music at the Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she experienced segregation, which motivated her to join the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). She married Martin Luther King Jr. in 1953, to whom she gave her support as a wife and mother. However, she continued her quest for civil rights in and out of the United States of America.

Claudette Colvin (1935-)

She was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Claudette’s parents didn’t own a car, so every day she depended on a bus to get to and from school. One day in 1955, at age 15, she resisted giving up her seat on a crowded Montgomery bus to a white woman who was standing ( by law, Claudette supposed to give her seat, even though she was sitting in the black section). For this act, she was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested.

A year later, she gave her testimony at the court case Gayle v. Browder, which, intended to end transportation segregation in the state.

Diane Nash (1938-)

Nash got involved in the civil movements in Nashville, Tennessee, while studying at the Fisk University. She was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizer of the Freedom Rides where Martin Luther King Jr. participated.