Self-empowerment: A Conversation with Matthew L. Thompson

VIDEO: Join me as I talk with my good friend, writer and educator Matthew L. Thompson about the importance of self-empowerment.

I chat with writer and educator Matthew Thompson on the importance of self-empowerment.

"What am I looking like when I'm free?" 

It's the question Thompson says bell hooks posed to herself during her quest for freedom. It's now a question he asks of himself. It's a question we should all try to answer. What are you looking like when you're free? Share your thoughts with me in the comments or on Twitter @thoughtMD.

UPDATE: The book Thompson references is Dominique Christina's "The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm: A Colored Girl's Hymnal."

Transcript (parts are edited for clarity):

MD: I'm here with Matthew Thompson, writer, educator and somebody with a whole lot to say. Hey, Matt.

MT: What's up? What's up?

MD: We're here to talk about self-empowerment today, and I guess my first question is how do you empower yourself?

MT: That's a good question. It's definitely a work in progress, but I like to say I'm my own cheerleader. I feel like we constantly look for validation outside of ourselves, and when we don't receive that then we put ourselves down and say, "Oh, I must not be good at this," or "I must nor be good enough," or "I'm not something enough." But if we can affirm ourselves and create an inner belief, then we less and less need outside validation. Because a lot of times we just won't get that (validation), right? We do something and we think it's amazing, and we're telling people and they're like, "Yeah, that's cool." So, doing backflips and pulling out the pom-poms for yourself is like a big thing for me, definitely.

MD: As a teacher, how do you empower your students?

MT: My big thing with my students is trying to get them to see that freedom and liberation are options for them. It doesn't just have to be something they see on TV. I'm in Milwaukee, so it doesn't have to be something they have to go to the East Side to see, but they can live that (freedom and liberation) in their lifetime. So, showing them examples of what it looks like to be a self-empowered person -- contemporary examples, I should say -- and pushing them, asking them questions. 

I had a student, I was like, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And he said a basketball player. I said, "Are you on the basketball team?" And he said no. I said, "Okay, what else do you want to be?"  He said, "A rapper, but I don't rap." So I said, "You want to be a basketball player but you don't play basketball, and a rapper but you don't rap." So I say, "Then what else?" And says, "Well, if I couldn't do those two things, then I'd be out the trap." I said, "Okay, if you can't do anything with music, play any sport and you can't be out the trap then what would you do?" It blew my mind because then he said, "Oh, well, I would be a teacher, a veterinarian, an anesthesiologist, or a zoologist," or something. My mind was blown because I'm like why aren't those your initial 'want tos' or things you want to be. And what I realized is he has no example of that. Like, he doesn't have an uncle that is doing that and is successful, he doesn't have the person on TV who is doing that and is successful. But somehow, he has to be able to get there, right? It can't just be, 'Welp, I'ma just sell drugs." So trying to work with him and other students on how [to push themselves to imagine their freedom]. Right now, I'm working on a workshop called, "Unlearning Ordinary" which asks these questions: What do you want to be and why? Do you see yourself happy doing that? I like to ask, not just what they want to be when they grow up, but what they see themselves doing and being the most happy. Because I think a lot of self-empowerment comes from happiness, from doing what makes you happy. Definitely.

MD: You said earlier you like to use contemporary examples. Who are some of the contemporary examples you have of people who are self-empowered in your mind?

MT: One person I look to a lot, as of late, is bell hooks. Because she, being a Black woman in academia and doing the work that she does and produces at such a rigorous rate - she has over 30 books out, has not been compromising in anyway. And she has lost certain opportunities because of that. But she upholds herself and upholds her work and puts her work in the hands of communities that will also benefit and celebrate it with her. I'm not looking for validation from communities that don't benefit form Black women's liberation, Black women's reproductive rights, Black women's self-care, so I think that's also a part of it. Putting yourself around people who will care about you and care about what you're trying to do. bell hooks is a big one, though. 

Joshua Bennett is another big one for me. Joshua Bennett, he's tight, man. He.. I don't know what else to say (laughs). Dominique Christina is huge. I just finished her book, ("The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm: A Colored Girl's Hymnal), the other day and it's just... She has this line in one of the poems, and the line is: What hilltop do you know that apologizes to those who can't climb it. Everybody is always told, to some degree, "You're too this," or "You're too that." And that's fine that you think that, but I don't think it's my responsibility, or anyone else who's been told, "You're too something," to tone that down fir others. If you can't climb this mountain, that ain't my fault. 

So I was talking to a student the other day. She was like, "You think if there's a mountaintop, you're at the top of the mountain and people are below you." I told her, for me, it's not about thinking I'm better than people. I don't think I'm better than anybody, but I do know that I am  the mountaintop. I'm not climbing the mountaintop; I am the mountaintop. And that doesn't mean other people can't be mountains, but I'm not basing my self-worth, or how much I believe in myself, [on other people]. But yeah, Dominique Christina, bell hooks and Joshua Bennett, right now, are the three I definitely pull the most tips, the most encouragement from.

A critical question bell hooks asked of herself that I now ask of myself and try to ask other people is, what am I looking like when I'm free? You have to create this image of yourself. So when I'm thinking of self-empowerment, or even freedom, I think a lot of times you need some ideas of what that may look like and you do turn to people. So what examples of people do you look to for that model of what self-empowerment looks like?

MD: A model of what self-empowerment looks like. So people I think live freely?

MT: People who you think got it right.

MD: People who I think got it right? Man. I don't know. I guess I don't know enough. I'm a huge fan of Joshua Bennett, too. I think anyone who puts so much of themselves in their work has it, to me. It's a kind of living free of shame. When [Joshua Bennett] came to Kent a couple, few years ago, he said Alysia Harris writes to eradicate shame, and I think anybody who's able to live free of shame has it right. Anybody who's not ashamed to just exist has it right. So I don't know if I have any specific examples, but people doing that, in my mind, have it right. I'm looking to them.

[Thompson references something I said earlier that was edited from the conversation.]

MT: So someone I also get a lot of self-empowerment from is Kanye West. Kanye will say, "I'm Steve Jobs. I'm Walt Disney. And people will say that's crazy, but why not? Why not you? Diddy, a couple years ago, was giving a speech at Howard University when he got is honorary doctorate. In the speech he was telling the students, "Every morning I wake up and tell myself I'm a unicorn, and I fly at night." And when you exist in a space that's so constrictive and people are constantly trying to put you down, even if it's not directly - especially living as a person of color, you get a lot of indirect images telling you you'll never be anything - there's a level of grandiosity you have to have to be like, "I'm a unicorn." And, in a way, it's also not grandiose. Like, I am that magical. Finding ways to foster a self-empowerment that is not limiting, where people can't really tell you [you're not that magical]. No, I am. And I fly at night; you should come watch me sometime. To really take it there to uplift yourself I think is important.

MD: How do you go from saying that about yourself, to believing it at the same time?

MT: That's the part, right? That's the question. That is the question. How do you start believing this? You keep [saying it]. The only reason we believe we aren't anything or that we aren't good at anything is because people told us that a bunch of times. And then we kept telling ourselves that a bunch of times. So that's why community is really important, [but we have to keep in mind the 'self' part of self-empowerment]. I'm telling myself that I'm a unicorn, I have people that are like, "Yes, brother, you are. And you are going to kill it at what ever you're doing today." And make that a mantra, make that a daily thing because that's where you learned the hate from. That repetition of, "Don't forget to hate yourself today. Don't forget you ain't nothin'." You have to make [messages of self-empowerment] a daily mantra, I think. 

MD: What are other strategies and tactics people can practice to empower themselves?

MT: I would say write it down. I think that is an important step because it makes it concrete, something you can look at, something you can refer to when you forget. Because, you know, stuff happens, days are long and you forget that you're Steve Jobs 2.0 during the day. But if you have a reference, it's like a reminder. So writing stuff down, having [a mantra], something you're telling yourself everyday in the morning. I think it's even better when you can say it in the mirror. I think those are good places to start. And those two, though, I think are good places to start because they're hard to commit to. So once you commit to those two, you'll find other ways. to empower yourself, and you'll start finding people who will empower you and stop hanging around people who aren't. And not because that person is a bad person or anything, but [they might not be feeding your soul in the way it needs to be fed at that moment]. And I think that's fair, especially in a crises situation of "I hate myself." I don't think people look at self-esteem with  the urgency that it needs to be addressed. "I really don't enjoy being me."

MD: That's an emergency.

MT: It really is! I have to do something. So removing people for the sake of myself, a lot of people call that selfish. And not selfish in a good way, but selfish in a way where it's like, "Well, who are you to be selfish? You know what I mean? So, I definitely think writing it down and finding something to tell yourself in the mornings are good places to start. And then go from there. 

MD: Why is self-empowerment so important? Why should this be something we practice daily, hourly even?

MT: Minute by minute, what you mean? My dad always tells me the only person you have to live with is yourself. That's it. Because you can be somewhere and not be around your friends, or something happened and your friends won't want to be around you. Who knows? But everyday you are waking up an going about your life and your day, you're with yourself and that should be an enjoyable thing. So that's why I think it's important. Because otherwise, you walk around living a tortured existence, and who wants to be that sad?

MD: Not I.

MT: Why would you say it's important to you?

MD: Self-empowerment is important because, like you said, you have to get through the day. You have to lift yourself up in order to feel like existing a lot of the time, for some people. And like you said, no one is going to do that [for you], so the 'self' part then becomes incredibly necessary and important in that process. No one's going to do that for you.

MT: And I don't think people can. I've been around a lot of people who I've cared for deeply and have done a lot of things for, just in the interest of [saying] hey we need to get you better, or whatever it may be, but until they had a moment of [saying] I, too, want to get me better, it doesn't happen. I think a lot of times we're like, if this person would do this, I would feel better. But that's just not it. And it's not that people don't care about you, don't love you, but I think we have to acknowledge the ways in which we  don't love ourselves and that's why we're in a lot of the funk that we're in. And life is hard! But it's important to have this over arching acceptance of self. Because you'll have a down day still, and be sad, but to, at the end of the day, be able to say I'm okay with me, I think that's important.  

MD: Good talk.

MT: It was. I could go on.

MD: I know. And we might.