“Have we arrived?”
Houleye Thiam (she/her)
Houleye Thiam, MPA, MS is a social worker, organizer and Mauritanian Community Activist. She is president of the Mauritanian Network for Human Rights in the US, fighting to restore justice for Black Mauritanians who have been victims of racial discrimination, deportations, slavery, and human rights abuse.
Photo credit: Houleye Thiam
Story collecting support provided by Suparna Bhaskaran
Have We Arrived?
Have we arrived? one might ask
Now that we are able to work and pay tax
Now that we have won the battle for voting rights
After many fights
Now that we have been able to work full-time
Now that we have been putting in our time
Now that we have been able to go to the moon
Although it all seemed so soon
Now that we are able to join the armed forces
Now that we are able to ride the horses
We have come a long way indeed
We got there because many sacrificed their needs.
Have we arrived? one might ask
Women’s rights still seem like a huge task
So many questions that need to be asked
We are still in a lot of fear
Even after Obama signed Lilly Ledbetter
Because right after Obama
We got the other of version of Osama
No, worse, this one is not hiding in the Middle East
He is a beast
To him women are only good for a feast
He has no regard for Roe v. Wade
To him all that is retrograde
What do we do? one might ask
Ohh, it all seems like such a task.
There is so much at stake
In the hands of a man who is oh so fake
But a woman is as tough as a nail
She is on his tail
She might fail
But every time she will get back up
She is always ready to take on another battle
For her rights she will never settle.
Freedom is what she desires
To her liberty she aspires
Now, everything she cherishes is under fire
Safety is never safe
She will not cave
Security is a myth
But she is swift
She will keep fighting for all of her sisters around the globe
Because she knows that they are closer to her than her earlobe.
On this chilly January morning I have something on my mind,
Which is my accent, the way I sound when I talk, as in the ACCENT I have,
The accent you may or may not have.
Yes, how I sound when I speak, more specifically when I speak English.
I have heard it all,
Wait, say that again…
Ohh, you have an accent!…
Can you repeat that?…
You have an accent? When did you get here?
I wonder how many people believe that only people from other countries have accents. The reality is that people in the same country living in different regions can have accents that differ from each other, as much as they differ from those of people from other countries.
You may notice this.
For example, someone from New York may sound different from someone from Ohio,
Someone from Texas may sound different from someone from West Virginia.
Ok, back to my own accent…
Sometimes when I talk, people don’t understand what I am saying;
Note I said sometimes.
Sometimes they are fine,
But sometimes they are not;
Especially when I use long sentences, or words such as “gubernatorial”
Whether the person has known me for a while or just met me, I always get
What did you say?
And I have to repeat myself two or three times before the other person
Can understand what I am saying.
That moment, when the other person is asking me to repeat myself,
And I am repeating myself to be heard and understood,
That moment can be very uncomfortable for us both.
Often, our conversation stalls on this roadblock;
The other person will look up,
Not trying to continue the conversation,
Sometimes for fear of offending and saying the wrong thing
Sometimes because they don’t feel it is worth the effort.
Often in these situations, to avoid continuing this conversation they look up,
Act as if they understood what I said
Just to avoid asking one more time.
But others push on, even though they know that I may just say something else
That they do not understand.
And when they choose to push to continue the conversation
They are in for a treat!
When they push on,
That is when they get the story behind the accent.
That is when I get to tell them that this accent is…
This accent is Mauritanian,
New Yorker and Ohioan.
This accent is a Social Worker by day and an interpreter by night.
This accent is Issa’s mom,
This accent is a human rights activist
And a social justice advocate.
This accent is a high-heels hater, green-color lover.
This accent is a product of four languages
From Fulani to Wolof, passing by French and English.
This accent is the story of survival in immigration.
This accent is nonprofit executive, Youth and Hope President.
This accent is Natasha’s Case Worker,
Jasmine’s Personal Advocate.
This accent is a poet and a storyteller.
This accent is the seed of endless possibilities.
Yes, this accent is me, all the way me, and I am a work in progress.
When our leaders are preaching about building walls, we can choose
Not to go that route;
We can instead choose to build bridges…
And we do so by using these uncomfortable moments.
When we do, it gives us the opportunity
To cross the divide and connect on our humanness.
Reaching out to others can be scary;
This world of immigration and movement can be scary.
But you know what Mandela said —
Courage is not the absence of fear,
But the ability to push on despite that fear.
So I challenge each one of you:
Choose courage over fear,
Push on beyond your comfort zones.
A world of connections and discovery awaits.
The choice is yours.
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