Not Just for Black People

Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is a requirement for every American. No, no, no, not just for Black Americans, for all Americans.

In June, I joined a sea of people from all over the world to visit the museum in Washington, D.C. I went as a part of a field experience for the Culturally Relevant Class I took last year with Dr. Gloria Boutee. My classmates were teachers, elementary, middle, and high school, from throughout my school district.

I was struck by the images I saw in the museum, but I also observed how others interacted with certain exhibits. A Black father knelt before a KKK exhibit and whispered to his small sons, who looked like they were four and five years old. A woman explained to a teenager the difference between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in the Debating the Path forward exhibit.

The long line to wait to view the Emmett Till Memorial.

The Emmett Till Memorial is the only part of the museum where photo and video is not allowed, at the request of the family. His mother Mamie was brave in the face of grief, ignorance, and hate. She showed his beaten and mutilated body to the world in 1955, and many cite the moment as the spark to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Till Memorial had a long line. It was like the viewing line at a funeral where you wait to see the deceased one last time. A Mahalia Jackson song was playing and we slowly shifted pass the empty coffin. The coffin is the original coffin Till was buried in; he was re-buried in a new coffin in 2005 after his body was exhumed.

Although the coffin was empty, it still felt full to me. The weight of what happened to Emmett Till weighted on me as I waited in the line. The weight of the whole narrative of being Black in American weighed on me throughout the museum.


My Black history begins at my grandmother’s knee. How she told me the story of her life over and over and how one day I finally realized her repetition meant she wanted me to remember. And so I started writing it down so I could remember, and later so that others in the family could remember too.

In my early writing is poems about and poems written in the voice of my grandmother. She was the first original storyteller, my griot, who bore the story to her quiet granddaughter.

At some point I realized Black history went beyond my grandmother’s story, that there were gaps and information she didn’t have access to, and that’s when I hit the library and read every book by and about Black people I could find.

I reckon my Black history IQ was pretty high, but the experience I had walking through the museum, looking at the pictures and videos, reading the stories, walking inside of a slave cabin taught me that I have much more to learn.

Frazier Baker was a schoolteacher appointed to postmaster in the predominantly white Lake City, SC. A mob eventually set fire to his home as he and his family slept. He and an infant daughter were killed trying to escape. His wife and other children survived. I lived 20 minutes from Lake City for the first half of my life and had just heard of this last year…


In the basement of the museum is African American history. It begins with the African Slave Trade and as I walked up, I read and listened to stories about the experience of slavery, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. The top of the museum is sports, arts, and popular culture. When you come up out of the basement, there is a contemplative fountain there for reflection.

Reflection is built into the museum experience because they know that the experience of wading through the 300+ years of oppression is a heavy one. I’m still processing the museum, the words, images, and sounds contained in it.

As we move forward, our country will have to reckon with this history, and its long reaching legacy. Just last month there was a House hearing on reparations for slavery. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told the House panel.

This history is living with us now, and how we face it, or not, will impact the future of this nation.

Who Dey People Is?

Who dey people is?

Growing up, it was the first question my mom would ask if I was interested in “going with” a boy.

She wanted to be sure he wasn’t some distant cousin I had never met. I had to find out his last name and his parents’ names and his grandparents’ names. All of this had to be cleared so we would avoid the dreaded “kissing cousins.”

Who yo’ people is?

I come from an insanely large family on both sides. My mother and father had well over 15 siblings apiece, that includes step-siblings and half-siblings, who I always assumed were full siblings growing up because the words “step and half” were never used. Our family tree is strong and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

I remember as a teenager always meeting a new cousin, who would invariably talk about how the last time she or he saw me I was when I was a little baby. And in my mid-30’s I am still meeting new relatives and making new connections to my blood relatives.

This took on a whole new path when I took a DNA test.

At first I was defined as simply 96.3 percent Sub-Saharan African, but now the service can tell me that that I am 22.9 percent Nigerian, 19.6 percent Congolese, and 15. 4 percent Ghanaian, Liberian, Sierra Leonean and some other West African and Southern East African origins, 1.9% European, and 1.7% East Asian/Native American.

Who is my people?

One of the features of the DNA service is that it connects me to DNA relatives. It shows exactly how much DNA connects you to that individual. The DNA is only shared with permission from both indvidiuals.

So far, I have been able to confirm only one person: My maternal grandfather is her great-grandfather. Her father is one of my first cousins. We have 3.75 DNA in common.

However, there are many more DNA relatives I have, but we are unable to find ancestors in common through the names we have available to us through our respective families. And other than the blood we have in common, there likely never will be anything we will have to connect us to one another.

American slavery robbed many Black Americans of the ability to construct a complete family tree. It will always be fractured, it’s growth stunted.

When I saw the worldwide map of all of DNA relatives (just the ones using this DNA service) I was overwhelmed at the enormity of it. Most of them are on the East Coast, but there were some on the West Coast as well and a few in Europe and Africa. From looking at their pictures, they range from White to multi-racial to the various complexions of Black.

I sat at my computer and cried for my relatives, the ones represented on my screen and the ancestors who surely experienced the brutality of slavery. And more than anything I contemplated on the pain of having a child or spouse sold away and never hearing from them again.  

Who is my people?

They are those DNA relatives on that map, but they are the Bartells too and the McCrays and now the Boykins as well. They are the people who called me Jenni Lou growing up; they are the people who came to my graduations and basketball games; they are the people who love me and who pray for me.

And isn’t that the miracle of the Black family? That despite the institute of slavery being an active destroyer, our ancestors were still able to make and maintain family throughout these generations. That the ones who were sold away were welcomed by other families in those new places they found themselves. That although they didn’t share blood, they shared something much more powerful, and together found the will to survive.

That’s the enduring story of my people. Dat’s who we be.

Black Game Maker Creates Hillman the Game

This story was originally published on February 19, 2019.

For updates on Hillman the Game and In All Series-Ness, visit

It all started with foam poster board, construction paper, and a sharpie to create a prototype. Now Tanisha “Queen It Shall Be” Hall is launching her first board game: Hillman the Game.

Board games are not just entertainment for her. She enjoys moving pieces, seeing characters, and interacting with them. One of her favorite board games is Clue because “You have to figure it out!” But something was missing from most board games she played: Black People and Culture. Her board game company In All Series-Ness is on a quest to change that by creating games based on Black TV shows, movies, and original content.

The name In All Series-Ness is a pun that shows her dedication and focus. She was accidentally brainstorming with relatives when she said, “I want people to take this seriously,” and a cousin replied, “In all seriousness.” It was a light bulb moment: “Oh, I want to do TV shows, series, all series-ness. It’s something to remind me to continue. It’s not one thing I want to put out there and stop. I have to keep going.”

One of her goals is to create games for folks to sit “face-to-face instead of screen-to-screen.” And I sat down with her recently at the Richland Library to discuss her journey and play the game. When she walks in the room, you take notice. She’s wearing wooden unicorn earrings, purple lipstick with beige ombre, and an ice blue wig. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Hall has lived in Columbia for seventeen years. She is a poet, cook, wife, and mother of three. She hosts a monthly interactive poetry open mic called The Writer’s Block Poetry Show.

Hillman the Game is named after the fictional university in the 90’s sitcom A Different World. “I have many favorites when it comes to black television and cinema. One show that made me want to fulfill a dream of going to school is A Different World. I loved The Cosby Show, but A Different World represented the escape from parents at the cusp of being an adult. I was a kid, and seeing this made me say, ‘You mean I could be away from my parents with other black kids and learn?’ It was also my first introduction to HBCU’s.”

Little ole’ Black girl me making Black-as-hell board games

Building the game, however, was a time of discovering her power and self-worth. “There are not a whole lot of us (Black game makers) over there,” she says of the board game industry. She says there are mostly role-play games, with some novelty, trivia, and adventure. And then here comes “Little ole’ Black girl me making Black-as-hell board games.”

She pushed forward and enlisted help from Quinn McGowan, a comic illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. The two of them met while “troll strolling” on social media. He created the board and character pieces and the illustrations on the currency. The character pieces feature characters from the A Different World including Dwayne Wayne, Whitley Gilbert, Kimberly Reese, Freddie Brooks, Jaleesa Vinson, Walter Oakes, Col. Taylor, and Ron Johnson. Meanwhile, the money features some of the professors and staff like Mr. Gaines, Professor Foster, Dean Hughes, Dean Winston, Dean Davenport, and Dean Barksdale. Denise Huxtable even makes a special appearance in the game.

Initially, she was hesitant about seeking outside help. “I was scared of who to talk to about it. We come from a state of fear…fear was there somewhere in your childhood. You don’t want nobody to steal your stuff. I had to really step out on faith. Nobody near me has the resources.” But reaching out to others was a game-changer for her.

“Creating this game has introduced me to a whole world of black game creators I had no clue existed. The community is love. Everybody wants to help everybody,” she said.  Another individual who was important to her success was the creators of the Martin Trivia Card Game, Rick and Jason Gray, who are also the creators of

Jason gave her advice on doing research on trademarks, connecting her to other game makers, and answering all of her questions. With an illustrator in place and free consultations from someone who has created a game, she was able to push through her challenges. At this point she thought, “All of these doors are opening. I can’t stop, won’t stop. Stopping is stupid.”

She had her fair share of challenges, not only financial or facing fear, but believing in herself. “You get put face-to-face with what you don’t like about yourself and what you need to change. For me it was my people-pleasing side. This is my creation and I can’t please everyone. This put me face-to-face with how I see my self worth. Lots of times I felt bad saying I made a game. We’re taught to be humble and sit down, especially black women. I took a thought and put it into a thing and you can touch it now. It’s okay for me to talk about it. Working for my self has been the most challenging job I’ve ever had and the most work I’ve ever done! I’m proud to say I made this game.”

Experience the game:

Hillman the Game Launch Party was on Tuesday, February 19th.

See the Facebook event page for pictures and videos of the event.

Own the game:

Pre-Order Campaign on IndieGoGo

Begins on Tuesday, February 19with Special Prices plus shipping.

  • Standard Version with game mat for $44
  • Deluxe Version with game board for $60
  • Alumni Version, includes standard game, deluxe board, 9 additional event/trivia cards, and signed artwork from Quinn McGowan, the artist who drew characters, $200 plus shipping

Stay up-to-date on Social Media:

@inallseriesness (FB, IG, Twitter)

@hillmanthegame (IG)

@queenitshallbe (FB, IG, Twitter)

Only Believe

My grandmother was born January 9th, 1911.

She was born black and woman in South Carolina during Jim Crow’s heyday.

She had a middle school education because cultivating her mind wasn’t more important than cultivating cotton or tobacco.

Irene Harvin McCray was a smart woman.

She was one of the few literate people in her neighborhood.

She was the one people brought their letters to for them to be read and she was the one who wrote the responses back.

She was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

She could read the Bible well into her 90s without the need of reading glasses.

She sewed clothes with her big black Singer sewing machine with the gold letters.

She stitched quilts made from old clothes, sheets, tablecloths, anything that could stand the piercing of a needle and thread.

She was the granddaughter of woman born during slavery.

She made the best deer hash you ever set your lips to.

She made the best biscuits, not them thick ones they sell at those chicken joints.

She gave you the best advice: just what you needed to hear when you needed to hear it.

She was fiercely in love with her grandchildren and wanted the best for them.

She would have been 108 years old today. And although she died in 2013 at the age of 102, her legacy is alive in me.

She cleaned white folk’s homes for the price of a hoghead; she cropped tobacco and picked cotton so that I wouldn’t have to, so that one I could become the poet and teacher I am today. She knew I would be a bearer of the story before I did, and nurtured it by telling me her life story.

I’ve been thinking about her much lately, especially after I was named Teacher of the Year (TOY) of Spring Valley High School about two months ago. My granny, who didn’t finish middle school and had dreams of being a teacher herself, would let up a holler to the Lord if she were still living! Look at my grandbaby! she would say. All things are possible if you only believe! she would say.

My tenure as TOY won’t begin officially until the 2019-20 school year, and I dedicate it to her. This honor is her honor.

And in honor of her memory and the life she lived, I am sharing here a story I wrote about her for her 95th Birthday Celebration. It’s written in her voice, in her beautiful, Geechee voice. Happy Birthday, Grandma!


January 2006

We used to play all the time and make mud pies when I was little. I learned to plait on a grass dolly. We used to wash it hair too. We used to have a good time playing.

I went to school at Battery Park. It was a rotten-down two-story building. We had one book with a green back on it. I wore old shoes to school. I didn’t talk much as a girl. I stopped going to school in the 6th grade. Sometimes I would go one day to school but when April come and tobacco come, I didn’t go to school none.

When I was little we would help the white folks sweep up the yard, pick up the sticks and we would get a piece of hogmeat, rice or flour for pay. They would give us clothes sometimes, good clothes.

I been sewing ever since I was big. I was sewing with two fingers and I had holes in my fingers and black spots right now from that.

My Ma learn me how to quilt. I only gave my quilts away never sold ‘em. I give them away to me and my family and my kin folk. But I tell you who could make a quilt. My ma could make a quilt.

We used to sleep on the quilts on the floor. We cover with the quilts—we had a time, hear?

I been cooking ever since I was big enough to cook. I learn myself to cook. The first thing I cook was flourbread. “Moonsie can cook,” is what my sisters say. My sisters started calling me Moonsie but I don’t know who learn them that.

We used to make brooms out of straw and sell them to white and black folks for 25 cents.

These two little legs here were the only way we used to get around. We used to be so tired.

We had it hard, hear? But I made it through, thank God for that.

Mama always kept clothes and decent shoes on us. My ma would make our clothes but one day I say, “Ma, let me make my own dress.” And I did.

Some people ain’ had no shoe and went barefoot.

Sometimes we had grits and peas and fried meat for breakfast. For dinner we had rice and peas. Daddy would buy meat sometimes. My Pa was a sharecropper.

It been a time when I was coming up. I’m glad you didn’t come then.

We got paid 40 or 50 cents a day to work all day long. Jesus, I don’t know how the people made it. Stuff was cheap then. I work so hard for 50 cents a day! Until the sun go down. Great daddy! I hope it never come back to dat.

I started picking cotton when I was 10 and doing ‘bacco too.

We went to church every Sunday and we walked there. People don’t go all the time now and they got something to ride in.

I would take care of myself real good. Black and white ointment at night and I put some cream or Vaseline on my face in the morning.

I met Sonny when he came by the house one Sunday. A man had told Sonny about me and he came to see about me. He came to the kitchen door and talked to me.

Two weeks later we went to the courthouse in Kingstree to get married.

I felt good at the birth of my children. Aunt Blanche helped me with all of ‘em except Bobbie. Being a mom means to me taking care of my children, keeping them warm, putting clothes on ‘em, keeping their bellies full.

I don’t remember how I felt when Sonny died in ‘76. I don’t remember nothing about no Civil Rights Movement.

In all I lived on the Huggins place, Roy Stuckey place, Oddell Stuckey place, little white house in Muddy Creek, Johnsonville projects, Lola house, and Helen house.

I was scared when I got into the car accident in ’98. I had slowly forgotten about it. I thought I was going to die. I pray nobody never get in a wreck.

I’m happy and glad that the Lord thought good to spare my life. Back then folks didn’t have no time to tell us stories, all they had time for was work. Now everything is much better.

I’m going and you coming, honey. You coming everyday of your life

I want for all my grands and great grands to go to school and get a nice education and a good job. What can you do without an education? You don’t get too much education. You can use something everyday. If I could go to school I woulda been a 1st grade teacher.

Thank the old people for what they do for you. You don’t know what you come into.

Everyday is New

There’s nothing new under the sun, but everyday is new. As we say goodbye to 2018 and welcome 2019, I keep this saying in front me. I’ve had some good years and I’ve had some bad years. The two worst years of my life were 2006 and 2011. In 2006 my mother died after a battle with colon cancer. In 2011 my father died suddenly of a heart attack.

One of the main reasons I have kept and continue to keep a journal is so I can reflect on my life. See what was happening then and assess how far I’ve come and how far I’ve got to go. My last journal entry of 2006 was a list of people who died in 2006 with my mom: her sister Bertha, James Brown, Lou Rawls, Ed Bradley, Coretta Scott King, Octavia Butler, Gordon Parks, Gerald Levert, and others. I then write:

There were some good deaths this year. Or should I say some good people died this year, well, and bad too. Sadaam was hanged yesterday and General Pinochet was no prince by any means. This year was the hardest one of my life. Much pain, many tears—but from all of that joy. Ma is healed now. I’m happy she’s not in pain anymore. I saw a part of myself that I didn’t know existed. It’s amazing what the human spirit can endure. We truly don’t know our strength until it is put to the test. 2007 is a new year. With new hope. Not a fresh start, but a chance for something new.

 I share this because not every year is going to be great. I share this because although I’ve had some terrible years in my life (not just the years my parents died, but the subsequent years following their deaths as well), this year was one full of wonder and joy.

For example, these are some of my moments from 2018:

  • Accepted a marriage proposal on Christmas Day
  • Named 2019-20 Teacher of the Year of Spring Valley High School
  • Sent/Sending my poetry book back out into the world (for the second time) for book publication contests
  • Published a story on Ed Surge about my students
  • Created this website…finally!

I appreciate this year even more so because I know what it’s like to struggle and be hopeless. This year my good outweighed my bad. And I am so thankful! I have much to look forward to in 2019. And no matter how your 2018 went, I want you to remember: Tomorrow is a new day.

Photo Credit: Evonne Washington

Caption: I am hugging my cousin shortly after being named Teacher of the Year on November 30th, 2018.