This week my timeline was filled with two words: “me too.” I read post after post of women I am close with and others I only know from the worlds we engage with on social media share stories of assault, rape, harassment and the struggles, shame, anger, and sadness that come along with these moments of violation. As I read them, I was angered at this mass outing of ourselves as surviving (We are alive – it is surviving enough – we will get to living. I know we will.), when it should be the assaulters. And while #metoo is not in itself a movement, I chose to sit in it as a moment. It was a moment to stand and witness. And it’s a reminder that we can and are often called to stand witness for that which our own eyes have not seen, but our bodies have borne, whether in this life or another.
I have often thought about what it means to witness and the role of the witness, as part storyteller and part affirmer. John the Baptist was a witness for Jesus, awaiting his arrival while speaking of him and affirming his heavenly ancestry. The documentary, I am Not Your Negro, directs us toward James Baldwin’s words on being a witness. Baldwin writes that he “was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed.” Baldwin says he was troubled by the passivity required of witnesses. Yet Baldwin’s thoughts on witnessing feel much like the unfinished manuscript the documentary is based on. It feels like no small coincidence that much of the notes from the documentary are from this unfinished manuscript entitled Remember This House. We are forced in life to remember that which we lived, where we lived, what has marked our lives. Acts and moments of witnessing.
Black women smile readily and warmly at one another. Perhaps to say that if you disappeared, if you are harmed, I have not only seen you, I have felt your very existence in the depths of my being. But it has also been our tradition to take the role of witness and move fluidly through the lines of witness and actor. We have learned to protect one another – time is not bounded for us as we remember witnessing on the plantations.
Earlier in the year, when I attended a meditation retreat for black women, we talked about a tradition of humming for black women. Humming was the beginning of expelling pain and grief from one’s body. But it also developed into a way of humming new things to one another as we witnessed the hardships of life. At the retreat, we practiced humming joy and peace to one another. And I think now of all the stories that are told and not told and untold, and I reach my hand up to necks close and afar to hum into them peace and joy and truths beyond moments.
On Sunday night I woke up in a panic, with a thick smell of smoke enveloping me. I jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen to make sure nothing was on fire, and checked for any potential gas leaks. As I checked the news and watched as images of towns north of us engulfed in flames, I flashed back to a cold, December morning, watching flames envelop my house against the grey winter skies. We watched for a long time, until all we could see were the charred outlines of a once loved building.
I know what it’s like to watch your home go up in flames. To see a vessel that held life go from a vibrant stand to a pile of ashes. To start over with what you were able to carry out and to begin again, again.
We try to tell ourselves during hard times to breathe deep. To feel the legs beneath us to find ground to stand firm on.
But these are moments when we can’t breathe deeply. We open our mouths and the air chokes us, trying to kill us through the very thing that is meant to give us life. And we like to use the term apocalyptic often, but many of us have died over and over again, searching for a place where we can breathe freely in a world that should have the fresh air to support us, and hope to be reborn into a new world, one in which our starting state is not death.
Sharon Salzberg said, “By learning to accept and even embrace the inevitable sorrows of life, we can experience a more enduring sense of happiness.” James Baldwin wrote of the depth of the sorrow of the blues that allows black people to feel a wider, deeper spread of emotions. Somewhere in the midst of fires and soot that coats the body, we are forged anew. We stoop down and pick up the leftover pieces to rebuild, gluing our hopes back together. We create our own map to that next world where each breath is a treasured gift we drink in deeply.
I was reminded recently at church that rest is an act of worship. That I must remember Mama Angelou’s words that the world will keep going even if I stop to breathe. That it is in these moments that I pause to take in the beauty of the world.
I recently went to Alaska for a long weekend with a close friend of mine. I had been longing to leave the Bay for something other than a work trip, and I wanted to spend time in nature to have it remind me of God’s infinite wonders–that I am but one vessel on this earth in all its many splendors and mysteries. To be reminded in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, “I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world can be wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.”
What I had lost.
I had forgotten why I had stopped reading the news in the morning and had tried to just enjoy the sunrise and the noise of the city coming alive again at dawn. I wasn’t drinking enough water. I was spiraling into deep media-driven holes. And I temporarily forgot how to climb out. But I owe it to myself to take breaks from that which tries to cripple me and harden my heart. I know the evils of the world, but they are not of me. I do not wish to recreate them from my own hands.
As a black woman, I not only feel the weight of struggles on my shoulder, I also feel as though I have inherited legacies of the pain of striving for survival. But amidst that are also legacies of joy, of overcoming, of making new ways of nothing. And much of that is through a relationship with the land. The knowledge that when we begin again we ask our feet to find new soil to form new footprints in.
It is always the right time for resetting. It is always the right time to regain that which has been lost.
On a quiet road in an old Detroit neighborhood, you’ll turn a corner and be greeted by vibrant displays of outdoor art. The Heidelberg Project, as it is called, was started by Tyree Guyton on Detroit’s Eastside. It is a labor of love borne from a history of the desecration of black bodies and histories, and the reclaiming of the truths that the beauty and persistence of the city is birthed from black hands that build and black feet that walk along the streets unapologetically. Guyton’s work incorporates the every day – found objects and nature – into its design that I can only describe as a collection of living. Out of devastating change, Guyton’s art makes everyone who encounters it reckon with the existence of Heidelberg Street.
But the same city officials who liked that the art project brought people into the city to see it, and the same people who moved to the city and liked having world-renown art, decided that they wanted the land. And they have come for it. They’ve burnt it, threatened it, and continue to do so. It is a reminder that was is sacred to us is seen as an affront to the subjugation the powers that be continue to attempt to reign down.
But Guyton continues to make art. In fact, he makes art out of the destruction they create. “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were weeds.”
As I looked upon the art sprawling forth along the length of the street, I felt a sense of belonging and tranquility on that quiet morning. Detroit doesn’t need saving. It doesn’t need hordes of people descending upon it with ideas of how to ‘fix it.’ These are people and lives who have survived the darkest of winters long before an outsider was drawn to the city by a new downtown Whole Foods. In a city that is quintessentially black, it is a reminder that we are enough.