By JO-LAINE DUKE
In 1995, a writer came looking for courage in a roomful of 13-year-old girls at a Catholic school in Brooklyn. All of us in the classroom had similar stories — first generation daughters of immigrant parents who struggled to provide a quality education for their children, trying to find our own voices, as we watched our parents work relentless hours and maintain homes. What would make my story great enough for an author to choose for a book capturing what it’s like grow up as a young black girl in America?
That writer was xoJane Managing Editor Rebecca Carroll, and I was among the 13-year-old students that day at St. Francis of Assisi, when she came looking to find interview subjects for her book, “Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America.” She engaged our small classroom in a discussion about self-confidence, identity and race in America and our very own neighborhoods.
My normally timid and shy voice was given the right light to blossom that day, and boy did I talk. When Rebecca and I had our one on one, I decided at that moment to speak through my heart, tap into my truth and tell my story of being 13 and dealing with colorism, standards of beauty, and at a deeper level, the pressure of expectations set by my family to succeed. I admired her compassion and felt a familiarity in her story.
It felt like forever waiting for the book to be published. My family anxiously called every other week for updates. I come from a very large family on both my mother and father’s side, and we are all very close. My parent’s families grew up in the same village in Guyana, South America, which was a great accomplishment for our family, especially given that education takes precedent over, well, everything.
Nothing will ever replace the pride and joy my family felt when the book was published. Family members proudly purchased copies across the country. Copies were shipped to Canada and Guyana. The title of my chapter was called “BROOKLYN Jo-Laine, 13,” and I was the only girl from New York in the book. I will never forget that feeling, the feeling that of accomplishment for my entire family, it was like a “win” for all of us. I was honored, and I promised myself that we would have more wins. It was then that knew, if there were anything I ever wanted in life, I would simply ask the creator, apply myself and receive.
Growing up in Brooklyn was a truly a unique experience. My family exposed me to dance classes, track and field, debutantes, cotillions and girl scouts. I was blessed with the best of both worlds — an American spirit marinated with the essence of Caribbean Culture. I lived in a neighborhood of beautiful Caribbean culture. My street literally housed all of the staple Caribbean restaurants that tourists traveled to Brooklyn to experience. The West Indian Parade’s early morning festivities were judged on my street.
It was a community that instilled values and nurtured the entrepreneurial spirit. It was exciting and inspiring to see my family open a clothing and shoe store when I was in high school, and to be given hands-on experience working on the operational and sales end. Traveling to trade shows, doing marketing campaigns on the radio, along with late night and early morning inventory. It was my first taste in entrepreneurship, and that level of ownership and freedom tasted amazing.
As an undergrad at the State University of Albany, I joined the business fraternity that everyone said I couldn’t get into and became the president of the Caribbean Student Association. I just thought about what I wanted, applied faith, went after it, and got it.
One day during my freshman year, my roommate came home excitedly: “Jo-Laine, is this you?” she said, as she pointed to her sociology class syllabus. Apparently one of her required books for the semester was “Sugar in The Raw,” and my chapter that they were studying was mine. I nearly died. At that time, I had not told a soul at college about the book, so it was both an awkward and proud feeling when the word started buzzing around campus.
After I did some more research on the book, I realized that several other professors had or where using the book, my chapter and others to illustrate race, class, identity and the media. Later, my chapter sparked late night coffee discussions, and I used it as a lesson in my workshops during graduate school. My story is important. It is mine, and I owned it proudly.
My business partner, Tiffany, and I met in 2010, through a mutual friend. Tiffany is a self-taught pastry artist and chef, and I have years of experience designing events and dessert table styling. We both are from Brooklyn, and even though we are from opposite sides of Brooklyn, we share a similar story — both married, with beautiful young daughters, and the desire to succeed on our own terms.
Over the years, we managed to successfully open and operate our small business, IM Pastry Studio. Tiffany and I are honored when people tell us how inspiring our stories are — professionals, mothers, and entrepreneurs who are still on the search for the true balance.
The demand for our pastries and custom deserts has outgrown our kitchen space, and now we are excited about opening a storefront cafe in Brooklyn — on the same street I grew up on! We want to create an experience for our clients, and ode to our communities, to our story. In the store, we plan to have beautiful framed pictures of our grandparents, parents and children. We have already signed the lease, construction has begun, and we have launched a Kickstarter campaign.
More than anything else, though, I hope that my achievements will inspire my daughters to be their best selves, and to always do what’s best for them and do it with passion, character and integrity or not at all. Despite how many boxes people will attempt to place them in based on their appearance, they should never require validation from any other human being but themselves when pursuing their dreams.
I encourage them to surround themselves with people who remind them that they matter; I encourage them to sing, write and dance. Most importantly, I encourage my daughters to always speak up for themselves, as you never know who is listening, and how your story can make an impact the lives of others –- just like I didn’t know all those years ago how my 13-year-old voice might impact the lives of others, not least of all my own.
Jo-Laine Duke is an Education Administrator and Entrepreneur, and the mother of two beautiful daughters, Nia and Chloe. She is also is a Choice Advisor with the NYC Department of Education and works with a team managing the Pre-K, Gifted & Talented and Kindergarten admissions process for New York City. Jo-Laine is also the cofounder and dessert table stylist of IM Pastry Studio, a custom dessert company which will open a retail location in Brooklyn, NY this summer.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.