It is no secret that at this age, love is simple, sweet, powerful, terrible and overwhelming. At this age, love is everything.
Now, don’t you tell me any different because just a few short years ago I came to the NCNAYO conference every single year to find bae. I bought new clothes, new shoes, everything for this conference. There are very few things I remember about the NCNAYO conferences besides the fact that Ms. Shirley has the best crafts. It’s always too hot to walk around. I never had enough time to get ready for the banquet and that the chaperones be all up on you at the dance. To those that put their blood, sweat and tears into workshops and keynote speakers in order to change my course, im sorry. I really am.
But in high school, my mind was in a billion different places. Some completely natural places. Some not so natural places. And some places where I had absolutely no right being but I was there.
What I am going to share in this speech is a little dangerous because some of you know me and you are going to know absolutely everything and everyone I am talking about and honestly, I don’t care. When you are in high school everybody knows your business anyways. So today I am going to talk about love.
In fourth grade, I began a love affair that I still enjoy today. I fell in love with some of my best friends. When I met Amanda McNeill, she was mean, short, chubby and she dressed just like a boy. She was nosey, rude and if you got on her bad side, she was impossible to reason with. She had a temper like a pitbull and she was only in the fourth grade. Amanda is my person, my best friend.
Around 2005/ 2006 I fell in love. Not that puppy love. Not that I sorta gotta crush kinda love, naw, this was real love yall. So real that this man didn’t even notice me. Well I loved this boy for a year or so until someone told me he wouldn’t date Native girls. And just like that I dropped him. Well two years or so later I fell again. It was the summer before my junior year and I was head over heels in love. This love stood over me like a cloud. Everything that I dreamed of and hoped for was in the shadow of this love. Where I was going to college was based on this love. What I did at school was based on this love. Who I hung out with was based on this love. Well that is until I saw this love with another girl in her bikini. And at that time I thought that my one piece was no match for what she had to offer, so I reluctantly cut ties.
You ever have a love that you don’t want to admit. You know that love that you never tell anybody. Okay, ima be honest, I love McDonald’s cheeseburgers. That aint the kinda love you just want to share. First of all, you don’t LOVE McDonald’s cheeseburgers, you eat them because they are cheap, not because they are good. Well, I’ve had a secret love for many years. I never talked about it. I never told anyone. I just kinda swept it under the rug and just hoped that nobody noticed. For many years I was in love with education. I don’t know how it is now but back in the day this was not cool. Nobody wanted to go to school. Nobody wanted to learn. But it was this love, this steadfast hidden love that has been so prevalent in my life. It was this love, this hidden love that I have sheltered for so long. It was this love that saved me so many times. So I may have been a hoodrat during high school. I skipped class but only after I submitted my assignment. I did hoodrat things with my friends, only after my homework was done. So whether or not I wanted to admit it, I was in love yall.
My senior year also brought about a new kind of love. A love that I had spent years running away from. A love that parents dreaded. I can’t exactly remember when she told me or how she said it. You remember Amanda, my person, well at some point in our senior year Amanda decided that, against my pleading, she would take part in activities that would lead to the reproduction of humans…if you catch my drift. When she told me that she was pregnant I sat there completely blinded. You see, Amanda was MY person and now MY person was having another PERSON which meant that WE were having a person. In September of 2009 my PERSON’s person was born and yet again, I was faced with a love so different than the love I had dealt with before. This love was all-consuming in the most powerful way. I am a rather stingy person. I live for a dollar menu but for this little person I would spend my absolute last penny. Love has the amazing power to change our paths in ways we never knew were possible.
You ever stumble upon love? You know, you got that one guy friend, who’s just a friend but then one day you wake up and your like dang, he’s hot. You know, yall been in school together forever and you remember when he was in second grade and he used to sling snot and cry all the time but all of a sudden it was like God slapped him with a blessing over summer break. Yeah. Yall know.
Anyways, this next love was that kinda love. My senior year I applied to college ONLY because it was free application week and the Ms. Jones at Hoke High told me I could get out of class if I did a college application. Well alright then. I gallivanted right on out of class. Did four college applications and three for each one of my friends. Of course, at a cost. On that day I earned a few double cheeseburgers, some fries, and a few extra dollars. I guess you could say I was also an entrepreneur.
Well, little did I know my hidden love for my education was evident to many others. I was accepted into all four of the colleges that I applied to and decided that I was going to attend UNCP because, of course, I was also in love with being at home, being cool and being around my BFF’s, ya know, the people that you more than likely will never speak to once you graduate.
My senior year, I was a follower. I was like a leaf in the wind. If sam, sally and harry were going well or more like if BJ, Richard, KelC Kyra and Amanda were going, I was going to. I couldn’t miss a thing. No matter what it cost me. I have a bazillion horror stories where I look back and I wonder if God just completely skipped me when he was handing out common sense.
Back to that love that you stumble upon. Well, my mother and I made a deal. I agreed to spend 6 months at UNC-Chapel Hill, 2 hours from home, if she promised that if I hated it I could come back to UNCP. We shook on it and that was it. I spent that summer flourishing in the Hoke County/ RobCo sunlight. Soaking up every bit of summer fun I could. There is a 100% chance that I was the best looking thing at Lumbee Homecoming because well one, of course, I was beautiful and two, I had a high school diploma.
In August of 2009, my mama cried for what seemed like days, my daddy argued and my little brother stood in the corner as I moved into a dorm room at Carolina that had NO air conditioning and was littered with smiling faces. I was not smiling. I was not amused. I did not understand why we had to pretend that this love affair would last when I knew that 6 months out of the gate I was rolling deep back to RobCo.
I don’t know when or how it happened. I can’t pinpoint a time, or a date or a place. But like an invisible poison, Carolina swept into my heart and soul and has a grasp on me like no other love. I fell, this time, I truly fell in love. I was in love with something that loved me back. I was in love with something that fed my soul. Needless to say, 6 months turned into four years, turned into a Bachelor’s degree, turned into a Master’s degree, turned into a heart that bleeds Carolina blue.
I would be lying if I told you that love was easy. I would be lying if I told you that my four years at Carolina were rainbows and butterflies. I would be lying if I told you that I moved to Carolina and kept all of my hoodrat bff’s and we are all just happy go-lucky. Today I won’t lie. Falling in love meant losing something. Falling in love meant forcing myself to find my place in a new city. Falling in love meant losing those that didn’t love me enough to support me. Falling in love meant finding new people to love. People that called, texted, messaged me just to say hey. I am not asking you to spend your life seeking happiness because darling, happiness is based on what’s happening. But love and joy. My love and joy is ever-present. Whether it’s raining or sunshineing.
There is no issue with falling in and out of love. In fact, I encourage you to fall in and out of love as often as you find it necessary. I plead with you to fall in love and remain attached to things that feed your soul and fall out of love with things that drain you and leave you feeling lost. I could list a dozen other things that I care deeply about. Things that feed my soul, fill my bucket and slap me with happiness every time I think about them. From my sorority, to my family, to reading, to the good Lord to advocating for Native American youth, I am not ashamed to say that I continuously chase after things to love and bring joy to my spirit.
But dear Native youth, I plead with you to fall in love because with need you. I can never promise you it will be easy. My love taught me that in a classroom with 200 people, I would be the only Native. At an institution of higher learning, we would represent less than 1% of the population. Of all conferred doctoral degrees, our people represent less than 1%, we need you.
We live in a very different world than the one that reared our grandparents and parents. Our world is complicated, beautiful, chaotic, money driven, aesthetic and so many other things. My parents were in love with simply surviving. My grandparents were in love with simply surviving. Their entire lives were spent building a world that was stable enough for me to live in. Though it is true, my parents are still in love with simply surviving if was their love that has given me the chance to do more than fall in love with surviving, we are a blessed generation. We have the unique opportunity of falling in love with thriving.
I am also going to extend this love to the adults in this room. For years I have watched as our communities break along the lines of generations. We can’t seem to find common ground, connections or understanding. We don’t see how we, one young and one old could ever have anything in common. So instead of seeking out our commonalities we result to tearing each other down and playing the blame game. We are all guilty. “well them young folk” “well them old folk”. There are countless times when I made the worst decisions of my life that I needed to hear “it’s gonna be okay, we got this” instead of “I told ya! I told yall young folk, yall don’t care about nothing”. There were countless times when I have heard “well we can’t make a change, them old folk are stuck” and yet there was no effort made. If you think you can do it alone, you are wrong. I owe everything single victory in my life to God and those around me. To Mrs. Tiffany, Ms. Consuela and Mrs. Mickey for encouraging me to go to the UNITY conferences (even if it meant leaving Amanda) and for spending countless hours on college scholarships and applications, my Aunt Clara who makes me biscuits and pies to take back to school and for the extra pounds I gained at Carolina, to Mrs. Nora who lets me know that 2 hours away from home I can eat chicken n’ rice and paysta and to my Aunt Renee, the real MVP, who buys all my toilet paper… The ground that I am standing on today was built by those around me. Fall in love with each other. Remember that gracious words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Speak life to those around you. Let no barrier continue to evoke hate in your heart. Fall in love with your community, your elders and your youth.
I don’t care what you fall in love with, as long as it is good, meaningful and purposeful. For so long our people have in a dangerous love affair with drugs, alcohol, teenage pregnancy, high school dropouts, unemployment and suicide. Our people have this marred history where we are in a relationship with everything that sucks the soul from us. We watch as our lives are ripped apart because we love all of the wrong things. I have watched as bright young minds fell in love with silly boys instead of books. I have watched as powerful girls fall in love with twerking instead of working, fighting instead of writing, and baby daddy’s instead of young men. I have watched as our young warriors have fallen head over heels with alcohol instead of education, they are fighting a dangerous love affair with drugs instead of learning, and seeking after sexy girls instead of intelligent women.
It’s funny. Now I sound like all of the adults that condemned me. “Leslie, watch where you go” “Leslie, don’t smoke weed” “Leslie, don’t get pregnant” “Leslie, don’t be ratchet”
And I wanted to shout, I KNOW WHAT I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO DO, BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT I AM SUPPOSED TO DO. I want to stop telling our young people what they shouldn’t do. Let me tell you what you should do.
I want you to have the time of your life, right here. Right now. I want you to meet new people. I want you to respect your elders, yourself, your body and those around you. I want you to learn something. I want you to stop complaining about the problem and find a solution. I want you to stand up for what you believe in no matter what. I want you to know that our people need you. I need you.
I need you to fall in love.
I need you to breakup with alcohol, drugs, bad boyfriends, terrible girlfriends, discouraging adults, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, and uneducated peers.
Y’all. Its over.
I need you to fall in love with powerful, strong people that will not just watch you flourish but will take every step with you. I need you to fall in love with something that will change the world. Whether its art, singing, dancing, reading, writing, arithmetic.. lawd, I don’t care but please just fall in love.
I need you to break up with fear and anger. I need you to let go of hurt and pain. I need you to stop becoming a statistic and start breaking the cycle.
I am not here to sugar coat life for you. I am so sick of being the only Native American in my classes and I refuse to let others continue to enter these classrooms only to be faced with a world that renders them completely invisible.
Young people, I come before you today asking you to do more than you have ever been asked to do. I will not be satisfied with your best. I will only be satisfied with excellence. Today I call to you to fall in love with something greater and more beautiful than yourself. I call for you to find what feeds your soul and chase after it as if the hunger you feel is insatiable, sorta kinda how I feel when I get chicken from Bojangles.
Before I leave you today, I want to share some of the greatest words I have ever read:
Jeremiah 29: 11 says that: For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Peeps, I’m just asking you to fall in love again.