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Lauryn Hill Taught Me About Being Black in a Mis-Educated America

"The American school system gave me the tools to build the master’s house; The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill gave me the tools to destroy it."

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There’s merit in learning outside of school hours. There’s no class for love, loss, laughter and especially no class to enlighten a young Black girl like myself on how she fits in the world. I was sorely neglected, mis-educated so to speak. This term, “mis-educated” refers to the 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro. Author Carter G. Woodson claimed that instead of being taught, the Black people of his day were being culturally indoctrinated in the American education system. And suffice it to say 55 years later when Lauryn Hill released The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill that reality held true.

The Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill was released in 1998 and my parents separated in 1999, when the album was at its peak, garnering critical and financial success and winning multiple Grammys. Songs like “Ex-Factor” and “Everything is Everything” made their way into every home, every bodega, and every car radio. I distinctly remember being nine-years-old riding in the car with my mom as we rolled down the windows and let the warm wind hit our faces while we belted the lyrics. But while my mom reflected on her relationship with my father while she sang, my nine-year-old self simply wondered if my singing voice could ever be as good as Lauryn’s.

It was only in retrospect that I realized 1999 was the year I went from having a “mommy” and “daddy” to just a “mommy” and that unbeknownst to me that album aided in necessary healing for a loss no child could reasonably comprehend and a mother who had to contend with the idea that men might just be “full of sh*t.” Lauryn sang ballads for the unloved and misunderstood. Her voice, both soothing and energizing, laid the foundation for three timeless lessons I learned on love, heartbreak, and history.

Lesson #1: Love

The Mis-Education was the perfect union of neo soul, hip hop, and reggae. And while recording began in New Jersey and New York it wasn’t until she moved production to Kingston, Jamaica that she really found her stride. Pregnant with her first child, for months, Tuff Gong studios was her home. A place built by the legendary Bob Marley. If that environment doesn’t scream love incarnate then I don’t know what does.

Lauryn created a world in her album. A world in which young Black children were both instructed and empowered to answer the heavy and complex question: “What is love?” Every carefully-curated interlude built itself on the idea that love and being in love is anything and everything. There is no guaranteed reciprocity in love, but there is a freedom and a power in making the choice to love someone knowing that there are only two options: they’ll either love you back, or they won’t. This was surely the case, the love for her first-born Zion versus the tumultuous romance she had with Wyclef Jean.

"There is no guaranteed reciprocity in love, but there is a freedom and a power in making the choice to love someone."

These polar-opposite examples manifest themselves within the lyrics of "To Zion", “How beautiful if nothing more/ Than to wait at Zion's door / I've never been in love like this before,” versus "Ex-Factor's" “It could all be so simple / But you'd rather make it hard / Loving you is like a battle / And we both end up with scars.” These two songs in dichotomy have illustrated the stable love I have for my family versus my beautifully agonizing romances.

I’ve been in and out of love a dozen times. Falling in love is like a burst of energy in your chest, as uncomfortable as it is exciting. The contrary forces, pain and pleasure, trust and fear, all bounce around in your bones with the gnawing feeling that magic might actually be real. When Lauryn says, “Your love makes me feel ten feet tall / Without it, I'd go through withdrawal / 'Cause nothin' even matters at all," she’s describing that magic.

We’re taught to love discriminantly. But undeniably, when you let the love go, the magic does too. The Mis-Education espouses that to love someone isn’t a sign of weakness, but instead a sign of greatness. In the track "I Used to Love Him" featuring the Iconic Mary J Blige, she exclaims, “But my heart is gold / I took back my soul / and totally let my creator control.” Every unrequited love can compel you to self-love and every healthy whirlwind romance can bring you closer to God, whomever or whatever you believe in, or some unfiltered magic.

Lesson #2: Heartbreak

It’s hard not to think back on my mom and me, nine-years-old in the car. How my mom must have felt singing to Lauryn Hill with my dad in mind. How unusual it is to reflect upon and realize that, at the time, I was listening to Lauryn’s music in blissful ignorance. For most of my life I refused to feel the pain of my father’s absence. I was numb. And it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I sang, “Where were you, when I needed you?” with the painful understanding that I don’t have a real relationship with my father.

I sing Lauryn’s words of heartbreak for my father. I learned that while my broken heart had me swimming in vulnerability, I still had a chance to heal. Those lyrics provided the language I needed to articulate that heartbreak. And my solution to curing the numbness was to blast “Doo Wop (That Thing)” and remind myself “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”

The answer is clear, you can’t win. I had to confront the pain, nurture myself through the numbness. The only thing harder than confronting this is to run away from her question — which in my mind is a question that literally applies to every human being on the planet.

Facing the rejection and disappointment made me weak in the knees. But there are certain heartbreaks you have to let in. They make you stronger, she taught me that.

Lesson #3: History

Throughout my primary education, I thought I learned a lot. I took AP U.S. History and remember drinking my first cup of coffee and pulling my first all nighter in preparation for a project. But it wasn’t until I watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that I even learned anything about him. And it wasn’t until I watched Selma by Ava DuVernay that I even understand that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were not these antithetical icons with combative ideologies. It wasn't just the violent militant versus the peaceful protest — but none of my history classes truly validated the Black experience, and that made me a very confused child.

For example, American textbooks made sure to present historical events like the Boston Tea Party and America’s fight for independence from the British in a positive light. Casting the conflicts in a way that protects the humanity of the white population involved in said conflict. I never once had to question whether those men had the right to dump all that tea into the river. However, the struggle of Black Americans has never been taught through a compassionate or truthful lens.

Prime example: the McGraw-Hill History textbook presented African slaves as immigrant workers, describing the Atlantic Slave Trade as “Patterns of Immigration” and stating, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” Which is baffling.

By calling slaves “immigrant workers,” the education system is attempting to distort the reality of racial inequality in America. So let me make this very clear, Black people experienced unrelenting subjugation in America the second the first ship filled with my shackled ancestors touched the Eastern Seaboard. And to deny that reality is to deny why Black people and their allies have the right to strategize and mobilize in resistance and social change until equality and reparations manifest. So when Lauryn sings: "I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth / Who won't accept deception, instead of what is truth / It seems we lose the game / Before we even start to play / Who made these rules? (Who made these rules?) / We're so confused (We're so confused) / Easily led astray" — I am reminded of the fact that history is mutable. Written by whiteness.

"The American school system gave me the tools to build the master’s house; A Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill gave me the tools to destroy it."

I remember the day I chose to come into my truth. The day I began to question hundreds hours in my AP history classes. I was eighteen-years-old visiting New Orleans for the first time and seeing that even three years after Hurricane Katrina, not a damn thing had been done to help the community. The power of history is that it provides the tools we need to know ourselves. Our past informs who we are now. But as a Black woman in America I wasn’t given that privilege. The American school system gave me the tools to build the master’s house; A Mis-Education of Lauryn Hill gave me the tools to destroy it. Constantly question and then question some more in my search for truth, every Lauryn Hill lyric, every melody paints the story of me, and people like me because, “My emancipation don't fit your equation.”

I can’t imagine a world without Lauryn Hill. She was a teacher, ripping off the veil that was created to distort my vision. As my mom likes to put it “There’s no one cuter. No one who sings better.” She’s a lyrically inclined, melodically divine human being. And I am eternally grateful for the imprint she left on me, on the Black community and on the world. I can truly say I as a Black woman I feel educated in this Mis-Educated America.

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