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Black Autistic Voices: Jennifer Msumba

Updated: Apr 11

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" - Blog Series Vol. 3, Slice #2


Last month, I watched a YouTube video that really spoke to me. Reported by the news organization Good Morning America, the video was titled, 2-year-old boy’s sweet reaction to his lookalike in ‘Encanto’ l GMA and it was about a 2-year-old boy name Kenzo Brooks who went virial after giving his heartwarming reaction to seeing himself in a fictional character named Antonio from the Disney Movie Encanto. In an article titled, 2-year-old boy goes viral after seeing lookalike in 'Encanto', Kenzo’s parents Keith and Kaheisha expressed their feelings about their son seeing his Disney doppelganger. Keith expressed his feelings of empowerment and pride when he states, “It made me feel emotional to know that my son was able to see this and have that experience, and for so many other Black and brown boys and girls to be able to have that same experience." Kaheisha expressed having the same feelings by stating that the experience her son had with Encanto is something that she never had growing up and that the first inclusive character she saw in a Disney Movie was the character Tiana from the 2009 movie The Princess and The Frog. Kaheisha then explains the power of positive representation for people of color when she states, "I do believe there is power in representation, and it does empower young black and brown children." Representation in the black community matters for people of all ages, especially for those who are autistic. When it comes to autism shows and movies in the media, have you noticed that most autistic characters are white? Very little do you see any people of color as autistic characters in the media. Characters such as Renee from the 2020 movie Loop and Billy, the Blue Ranger from the 2017 movie Power Rangers are two of the few characters that people in the autism community know of that represent the black community. Knowing that there is a small percentage of autistic black representation in the media shows how autistic people of color have little to no voice in the autism community. With that being said, I would like to make a change to that concept with my blogs by starting a segment this year called Black Autistic Voices. This segment will take place every February, where I will talk about someone from the black community who is autistic and is making a positive impactful difference for the autism community, and the first person I would like to start with is Songwriter, Musician, Author, YouTuber, and Award-Winning Filmmaker Jennifer Msumba.

 

According to Jennifer Msumba’s memoir titled Shouting at Leaves, she grew up in a quiet, leafy suburb north of Boston known as Andover Massachusetts. She has two older brothers, one older sister, and is the youngest of four children. Her mom is an Italian American who worked as a teacher and a cartographer (someone who draws and produces maps) and her dad is from Malawi Africa who worked as a cardiologist. According to chapter two of her memoir, Jennifer was a well-loved child who grew up in a loving family. She describes her father as a busy yet still loving family man when she states, “My dad’s job as a busy doctor kept him away often, but he loved us very much and he sought to make a good life for us. I remember him coming home from the hospital at the end of the week with a new toy car or truck for me. On weekends after church, I loved snuggling in with my head on his chest, falling asleep to the sound of his heartbeat. He was so calm that the steady beat of his warm heart helped calm the storm that was brewing inside me.” She describes her mother as a warm-hearted, funny, and smart individual whom she has a very close relationship with. She wrote about how her mother made her always feel safe and loved when she states, “When I hug my mom, I feel a warmth in my chest, and I don’t want to let go. I feel safe and loved. I know she is loyal to me for life. When she tells me everything is going to be okay, I believe her.” She even has a close relationship with her siblings.

 

In her book, Jennifer talks about being very close to her older brothers who are six and seven years older than her, and she always wanted to do all the things that they would do. As typical older brothers, they would let her hang out with them in the neighborhood, but they would also be playful pranksters and tease her as well. However, despite their shenanigans Jennifer always knew how much her brothers loved her when she states, “Even though I would get upset at my brothers’ shenanigans, I seemed to know it came from a place of love. I seemed to know they loved ME. I came back for more.” There was one special memory with one of the brothers that Jennifer wrote about that really stands out to her the most. It was on Christmas Day when Jennifer noticed an enormous box under the tree with her name on it. It came from one of her brothers, and Jennifer was excited to open it. When she did, saw it was several pairs of old smelly shoes. At first, she was confused and didn’t understand the reasoning behind the shoes, but once she looked at the bottom of the shoe box, she realized that the old smelly shoes were just a gift wrapping for her real present underneath: a beautiful gold Matchbox racing car. Even though her brother still got in trouble for the prank, Jennifer didn’t see it as a joke anymore. She only saw the goodness in him and saw that his gift to her was truly a gift of love. Jennifer and her brother understand one another, and she explains that understanding when she states, “We understood each other. When my brothers teased, they showed me love. They didn’t spoil or baby me. They didn’t treat me differently. They loved me. Besides all this, they helped toughen me up, which I would need later in life.”

 

Jennifer then talks about her relationship with her sister who is fourteen years older than her. she described her as a spunky, energetic, funny, and thoughtful person with an amazing talent in singing. Jennifer wrote about how her sister’s rich tone resonated in her bones every time she played the guitar and sung a hymn. She also talked about how her sister introduced her to her first favorite band New Edition, and they would dance and sing to the cassette tape until it wore itself out. Jennifer even explained how even though she and her sisters are opposites of one another, they still have a great loving relationship when she states, “I was always a tomboy and she was a girly girl, but still we built a great relationship and I love her.” Overall, Jennifer grew up as a happy positive child, who grew up in a positive environment of family who made her feel safe, secure, protected, understood and loved. In the beginning of her book Jennifer talks about her autistic traits as a child before she even knew about autism or what it was. In chapter one, Jennifer talked about the chore she dreaded doing as a child, which was emptying the clean dishes out of the dishwasher. She talked about how she would always try to get out of doing this chore, not to be disobedient, but because the sensations were too much for her to handle. Simple things such as the feeling of squeaky-clean glasses and dishes was an uncomfortable sensation that felt like nails on a chalkboard or Styrofoam rubbing together. When she found her coping mechanism for washing the dishes, her mom questioned her behavior and all she could do was shrug her shoulders unable to explain that doing the dishes was a sensory difficulty for her. When Jennifer was two years old, she had a difficulty in socially interacting with others. She stopped letting people hold her except for immediate family members and she preferred to play by herself. Feeling concerned, Jennifer’s mom enrolled Jennifer to preschool to improve her social skills, and that was not an easy picnic either. Jennifer displayed serious separation anxiety whenever she was dropped of at preschool, and she explains more about that in her book when she states, “When I realized my mom was going to leave, I lost it. I was so afraid because I did not want to be separated from her. She was my safe place. I remember crying and crying in the beginning.” This became such a problem that the teachers gave a warning that if she kept it up, then they would place Jennifer in the baby room for acting like a baby. Since the idea of it terrified her even more, Jennifer eventually calmed down and adjusted to the routine. I can’t explain everything about Jennifer Msumba’s autistic childhood (you’ll have to read her memoir for more detailed information), but in the beginning of chapter two, Jennifer explains the story of her experience with autism in the form of a song she wrote, in which the lyrics go like this: 5 years old, dirt under my nails, throwing rocks at the bullies saying, “You’re not a girl!”. Scared of my own shadow, I was in my own world. Longing to be free from the trap in my mind, where the black holes of circles distorted time. But I fought with a champion’s heart, determined to shine. Days burn. Years pass. They say it gets worse before it gets better. I found my own path. I wish I had seen this letter: you will be strong. You will be loved. You will be a person whose people are loyal and true. Don’t be scared, love! Don’t hide your face, in your hands. Look to the sun it’s where you belong. Keep moving on. As a result of displaying social and behavioral difficulties in school, Jennifer’s mom would show up for meetings at school and meet with the counselor to talk about Jennifer’s behavior. Jennifer wrote in her book how the counselor would take her out of class to have one-on-one conversations with her to figure out what was going on, but she gave little to no response. She then writes about how she regrets about not being more open and honest about her feelings when she states, “Looking back, I wish I had told her everything. I wish I could have put into words all of the suffering, the over-and-overs, the rituals, fears, tics, teasing, and teachers. I wanted to scream it all out, but it was stuck inside of me. Even my love of words could not help me express my anguish.” They say that the truth will set you free, and for Jennifer speaking her truth sooner may have helped free her from the traumatizing nightmares that would be waiting for her at the psychiatric hospital when she states, “Maybe saying all these aloud could have helped me. Maybe talking could have prevented the horror that was coming.” The psychiatrist hospital experience would soon play a big role in Jennifer’s life journey, and after a falling out with a friend in middle school, her brothers moving out and living on their own, and her mom’s battle with cancer, Jennifer’s parents announced that she was going to be admitted to a nearby psychiatric hospital. Now, I can’t tell you all the details of what that experience was like for her in this blog (you’ll have to read the memoir for more detailed information), but to make it as briefly as possible Jennifer’s experience at the psychiatric hospital was a traumatic series of restraints, seclusion, lack of routine, behavioral issues, and a cycle that involved being sent back and forth between the hospital and home. Then when she was admitted to the state hospital, Jennifer experienced even more horrifying trauma that involved the infamous skin shock and Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Treatment. However, through all the trials and tribulations that Jennifer has been through, the biggest outlet that she has always turned to for comfort and refuge – is music. Music plays a big role in making Jennifer Msumba the person she is today.

 

In chapter three, Jennifer wrote about her history of listening to music, playing music, and loving music. She even wrote about how playing the violin was her saving grace in elementary school. As we would later see, music would continue to become a big part of Jennifer’s life as she writes and sells her music to the world as a singer, song writer, and musician. Finally, on April 17, 2017, Jennifer Musumba created her YouTube channel, which was originally known as Rebranding Autism, but then later changed it to Jennifer Msumba. Through YouTube, Jennifer has been able to share her music, her life as an autistic adult, and even her newest journey of collecting Vinyl records. Jennifer’s mission on YouTube is to not only educate people about autism, but it’s also to show the world that she’s more than her disability and she wants to inspire autistic people as well as those with other disabilities that they can do amazing things with their lives too when she states, “I created this channel for people affected by autism and other disabilities to show that they can be capable of cool and unique things, and can live a full life fulfilling our hopes and dreams.”

 

In chapter three, Jennifer wrote about her history of listening to music, playing music, and loving music. She even wrote about how playing the violin was her saving grace in elementary school. As we would later see, music would continue to become a big part of Jennifer’s life as she writes and sells her music to the world as a singer, song writer, and musician. Finally, on April 17, 2017, Jennifer Musumba created her YouTube channel, which was originally known as Rebranding Autism, but then later changed it to Jennifer Msumba. Through YouTube, Jennifer has been able to share her music, her life as an autistic adult, and even her newest journey of collecting Vinyl records. Jennifer’s mission on YouTube is to not only educate people about autism, but it’s also to show the world that she’s more than her disability and she wants to inspire autistic people as well as those with other disabilities that they can do amazing things with their lives too when she states, “I created this channel for people affected by autism and other disabilities to show that they can be capable of cool and unique things, and can live a full life fulfilling our hopes and dreams.”

 

In conclusion, Jennifer Msumba’s voice represents one of many black autistic voices that deserve to be seen and heard. I hope that hearing Jennifer Msumba’s story helped you not only understand her as a person, but it also helps you see yourself in her as well. My goal for the February Blog Series Black Autistic Voices, is to share stories about autistic people of color so that young black and brown autistic children can see themselves in amazing people like Jennifer Msumba. If you go to VIP Favorite Book Picks, you’ll see that Jennifer Msumba’s Memoir Shouting at Leaves is one of the newest added additions added to the book list due to its positive representation of telling a true authentic story of what it means to be autistic. If you would like to buy a copy of Jennifer’s book, click on the link to amazon presented here:


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