Saying Goodbye to A Town Where Time Does Not Reside, Part 1

From age 4 to 18 I lived in the type of sleepy towns you read about in books, where people don’t always lock their doors, unless of course you’re us – the only non-white family around for many years. In that case your world is surrounded by Confederate flags in a state that was part of the Union but later became the central stronghold of the KKK, people who believe that immigrants are taking over jobs and that God does not call us to be in interracial relationships (but of course, that doesn’t mean their racist). A few months ago, I posted an article about how the people I knew in my childhood were friends of convenience and not true friends. I had someone reach out to me to say that article made them angry and that even if I thought that, they thought of me as a friend still. Nevermind that friendships do not work that way – that this man’s need to feel absolved from anything that occurred made him forcefully insert himself into my life. But the article rings true as it explains how as lone black children in white schools, you played with kids on the playground only to grow up and see the hatred they spew through social media and their lives.

Being in A Town Where Time Does Not Reside means you can be suspended in a moment to think, but it also means if you never leave, you are almost always suspended in these moments of the type of hate that has formed the foundations of this country. The type that people ignore because they think that racism looks like hooded figures burning crosses, and not the teacher who forces your mother to come into the school to demand that she holds you to the same academic standards as any other student. I’ve noticed that of the handful of true friends I do have from that time in my life, they have all left and found a world outside a sleepy one stoplight town. I’m especially grateful for my friend Emily who has been the type of friend who grows with you as you watch a nation disregard the lives of your brothers and sisters. I think of her comfort and happiness as the one white face in a sea of darker ones in my brother’s wedding photos, and I think of her strength in being willing to cutoff those who she confronts for their inability to understand that #blacklivesmatter.

See, there are those who message me to say they are ‘sorry’ for the constant loss of black life, and I have even been contacted by people who wanted to tell me that they wish they had been better allies when we were children. But I don’t need messages over a decade later or people who would private message me instead of publicly denouncing the anti-black racism of this world. No, I’m not scarred from my childhood. That town was filled with numerous anti-role models and those are sometimes just as valuable as role models. I have become all the things I wanted to ‘in spite of’ and ‘because of’ it.

My family began the process of moving in to a new home this past week. When I visit next month, it will be there that I stay. People have asked me if I am sad that I will no longer be going home to my childhood home. I laugh a little and shake my head ‘no.’ I’m grateful in many ways for that house and that home – but it was the world built within those walls that was home. My parents built a home in the midst of spaces that sometimes actively worked to break it down and passively often wanted to. With that love, they raised five children who knew what it meant to thrive in ways that we carry with us to every place we inhabit. As far as I am concerned, the best people that ever happened to that Town Where Time Does Not Reside will no longer be there. I will have no reasons to return.

Living My Own Narratives

What does it mean for something to be mine and not yours? what “right” do I have to a space, a land, a boundary? Maybe I’m the “good” immigrant to them. The Ivy degree, no criminal record, “good addition” to this country checkboxes. I think about the first time someone told me that I should distinguish myself from American-born blacks. “You’re not like them,” they said. They were attempting to sell me what they thought of as a dream –no, a nightmare. An acceptance based on placing my foot on the throats of another; an unholy union with whiteness.

But I look into the mirror, and I see brown skin and eyes that are haunted by ancestors crying from unmarked graves and the bottoms of the oceans both east and west.

Is it love if they only love you if you present in particular ways? If your story is one they can exploit to vilify another? We cross oceans in search of a different story, and find ourselves forced into another we did not author. I became an “immigrant story” –which gets your family featured in the local paper under the title “The American Dream.” Sometimes though you dream of things and wake to find that they are empty of any promises that keep you whole. That’s when you realize the sacrifices it takes to pen your own story. To be you, not a trope, not a one size fits all existence.

Not the “good immigrant.”

But a person. A person who crossed an ocean in search of the room to build a different story.

Reflections on Commencement upon 5 years of Journeying and Writing

For Trayvon –

I think I always start with you because your murder was the first time I had the responsibility of looking into the eyes of a younger generation, and try to find the words to make sense of the senseless. There were never the right words, the proper lesson to do that work, so I instead made room for exploration and examination of all the steps it takes for a country to continuously create the mechanisms and look the other way in the face of the execution of black . I didn’t have any true conclusions to share, just the want to hold the sanctity of black childhood a little longer than is awarded.

I’ve always been a writer for as long as I can remember. The ability to put my thoughts into writing has always been the root of my ability to keep going, even in the midst of the darkest of situations. When I was younger, I used it to imagine worlds beyond the confines of my own. My family was – for many years- the only non-white family in the school district. I met with the sharp stings of racism early, and the feeling of being hated or stereotyped were needles that did not lose their place in my memory. I excelled because I had impressed upon myself that it was my job to prove others wrong. That my success would break the down the doors of difference and ignorance and in the tiny town of Belleville, I would produce some miracle.

But there came a day that I distinctly remember in which the necessity to confront every form of racism stopped. A black male student had started school earlier in the week and was being harassed by many of the most overt racism white males of the school. On one day, that group beat this new student up and ran around the building shouting ‘White Power’, Confederate flag clothing flashing across their bodies. I stood eyes transfixed on the scene unfolding, when a classmate came up to me, saw the look on my face, and said ‘Not you. You’re different.’ But I wasn’t, and I’m not. The degrees I have earned in my life do not make me better than anyone. They have often come with subtle compromises that some are not willing to make or the luck of circumstances that others have not stumbled upon. I had realized in that moment what I have taken with me to all corners of the globe I have traversed. The truth that if you are not here for ALL black people, then you are not here for any of us. 

As I hurtled headfirst far from home after high school, I ran without a clear destination in mind. I just knew I had too many questions, and no answer save a staunch belief that the earth that my ancestors walked across, even when death would bring the greatest freedom, was also mine to dig my toes deep into. Over the last 5 years of having this blog and doing more serious writing, I have not just researched and wrote for the sake of academia, I have done so to sustain my very existence. When I crafted the theory of heterotopic spaces of internal resistance (HSIR) – defined as the spaces (physical and metaphorical) created as sites of of resistance of the pre-positioning of individuals or groups by dominant discourse, in order to engage with alternative identities –  all the while I was researching for my life and realized so much about my own life through the lens of others. In my master’s thesis I wrote:

“I read a line from Toni Morrison a few months ago that perfectly encapsulates how I felt when I was younger, overwhelmed at the thought of being a black girl for the rest of my life. In a 1975 speech, Morrison noted how the primary function of racism is distraction, and the goal is to keep us [black people] from living our lives: “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Morrison goes on to speak about what I had started doing in my own life: as soon as someone brought up racist statements or prejudicial views about black people, I was there on the frontlines ready to disprove them. I let their reality become my own, instead of focusing on all the beauty and strength I had inherited from my ancestors over the years. However, as Morrison noted in her speech, “there will always be one more thing.”

That is what I have come to embrace in my life, which is why I recognised the beginnings of such a consciousness in my participants. This internal resistance I began to put words to is a rejection of spaces solely defined by structural and cultural barriers. Instead, it is a space created entirely from their construction of reality and crafted as a space of transgression. It is a space to not address the ‘one more thing’ but to perceive the world and build more spaces that boldly state, “I am not here for you.”

For all the people who love and support me through my writing and my journeying, there will always be those who wish to bring the chains of distraction upon me. But no more. “No more shackles, no more chains, no more bondage, I am free. Hallelujah”

In my reflections, I often return to the questions of June Jordan: “What shall we do, we who did not die? What shall we do now? How shall we grieve and cry out loud, and face down despair?  Is there an honorable, non-violent means towards mourning and remembering who and what we loved?” In the face of a land burning more each day, with the smell of flesh wafting from graves long forgotten and fresh blood on the streets, these are the questions we must return to. When I say that Black Lives Matter it is an assertion that we as a people must carry deep within ourselves. It is a phrase that no movement can co-opt for exclusive use and meaning, it does not come with an addendum, no question marks or explanations after to make the utterance palatable for others. It is most felt through the ability of black people to create again and again and again.

These are the questions I still journey to seek the answers to, and through all of it, I will find the spaces to write of myself, of others like me, with the freedom to speak the truths as they unfold, in the best way I have always known to honor and remember who and what we loved. 

The Gifts of My Mother –Reflections on Mother’s Day

”How simple a thing it seems to me that to know ourselves as we are, we must know our mothers’ names.”        

        -Alice Walker

Whenever people ask me why I want to be a writer, I always begin at my mother, who is a writer. I would feel sometimes as though I was about to be overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings, and my mother would tell me to write it down. She would say to me that once I could write about something and read it back to myself, that it would be the moment I had begun to truly face what it was that I was talking about. Over two decades into my life later, and I am still a woman who sometimes feels engulfed by my emotions, and I still go back to the lessons of writing for self-care and writing for power that my mother instilled in me.

I don’t just think that I would not be who I am today without my mother–I know it to be true. The best parts of me are because she has never given up on me. When I have dreamed within a box, she has shown me how to break open the box and become something which society may not always be ready to recognize, but was always within me to be. I often write about the spaces my mother created that shielded me from the negative bombardments of the world–not in a way that made me think they did not exist, but in a way that allowed me to break through binaries and believe that if I could hold on to the most genuine parts of me that laid beyond such boxed in narratives, that I could forge for myself a life I could be proud to live. She was my first line of defense from Confederate flags to tearful stories of other’s racism and discrimination. I remember the times she would go to my school to advocate for my education, the times she never let me settle for what she knew was half of what I was capable of giving, and I remember the September morning I awoke to a Harvard application on my desk that my mother had laid there–all the confidence in the world that I would be accepted.

I believe that one of the most beautiful lessons black women learn from their mothers is how to continue living even in the midst of pain. When I watched Beyonce’s “Lemonade” the song that took root the strongest was “Forward.” The images of black mothers holding pictures of the sons they had lost to violent systems is one that haunts me. I am not a mother yet, but it reminds me of all the times my mother has told me how she feels the pain that we do as if it were happening to her. To come into motherhood as a black woman is to face the hypocrisy of reproductive rights in this country head on. It is to know that you must birth a child into a world where they do not have the full rights to peacefully pursue the lives they want to live–that at any moment it can be taken by someone in State sanctioned positions who believe them to be a threat. I know my mother fears this, as all black mothers must. That the love and the spaces she has given us and created for us may one day be no match for someone who wishes to end our lives. My mother frequently calls to tell me that she is praying for my safety, how she worries about me as I travel and live so far away.

Despite this fear, my mother is a proud black woman, and has brought her daughters up to be the same. I am capable of seeing the world for that which it is, and yet, with any hate that might be driven my way, I meet it with the love and grace that I have inherited. I may rage at inequality and feel bitter about the apathy around me, but I have never lost my hope and my ability to find others who wish to build community with me. When President Obama told a room filled with majority black graduates of Howard today that they should feel proud of their heritage and blackness, I smiled as I thought that as I watched my mother growing up I learned that some of my hardest moments would come from being black, but my greatest triumphs would come from the wealth of strength gained from that heritage as well. There is so much more that my mother would have done with her life had she been in an environment to do so. My sister and I are finishing the story which she began to tell.

I want my mother to know that I live a life true to the values I hold dearest because she taught me how to do so. I want her to know that her daughter is humbled and proud to be an extension of her life. That if ever someone says to me “you remind me of someone”, I hope, in the depths of my heart, that they mean you.

On Leaving (Again) and Thoughts that Have No Words

“During the time between ending one project and beginning another, I always have a crisis of meaning.” – bell hooks

There are instances. Instances when I will stand still outside amongst the bustle of life and close my eyes and imagine that I am as alone as I sometimes feel. There is a deep well of emotions that is filled in such times. Wells that let you know that there are feelings beyond sadness in such solitary notions; that these are the very feelings of life itself.

I unpack my bags and learn new motions; memorizing the winding streets and voices of a new frontier. I familiarize myself with new smells and ways of being; footprints leaving paths to ‘home’. I pack my bags and wonder about unlearning new motions; I figure out the ways of being to incorporate, the ones to hold. And I begin to shed the others. I leave the keys and shut the door, and I begin again.

I have been writing. And I’ve been writing and writing and writing, and yet I feel as though there are things I have yet to say that rest locked up in the tips of my finger upon the tip of my tongue. They are swimming around in my thoughts as though I could not produce the words. there is language that has been stolen here, words that English cannot describe. They will tell you it’s your mother tongue, but it is foreign. My mouth rounds the words as though biting off brittle and bitter pieces of realities.

It is when I am forced to suspend myself in this place of timelessness that I find the seeds of rejuvenation. And while ‘funemployment’ for most involves traversing across the expanses of the earth, getting lost in adventures, I, instead, go home to be ‘found’—reading Nayyirah to put salt in wounds, hooks to remind me of practices of freedom, and closing my eyes to find the right words.

“And what shall we do, we who did not die?”

“And what shall we do, we who did not die?  What shall we do now?  How shall we grieve, and cry out loud, and face down despair?  Is there an honorable, non-violent means towards mourning and remembering who and what we loved?” -June Jordan

I will always remember when I was talking to a friend about some of the scenes of extreme poverty and underdevelopment I saw in parts of Ghana, and how they told me that there would come a time when I would see such realities so often that I would become numb to them. I always think back on that conversation and how horrified I was of that potential day, and still today I think, ‘Dear Lord, don’t let today be that day. Don’t let it ever be that day.’

Being unmoved is a rejection of our basic humanity. Paul Harding writes about the ache in our hearts and the confusion in our souls being signs that we have not yet forgotten how to be human, still alive and capable of sharing in the ebbs and flow of the universe.

This year, if it can even be summarized, has been a year of coming undone. And I have watched the land I call my place of home come undone from windows across the sea. Sometimes I feel so far away but I lived/live it and know very well that feeling of striving, of pain, of the need to forgive, of the weight of hopelessness, of the stretching out of hands to find the love and hope that keeps us moving forward. It isn’t God who made me black. It is society that made it so and America that reminds me of it daily. It’s God though who helps me through it and emails from my mother reminding me that a time will come when she and I will not have to grieve in silence, and that she knows that change will come and I will not only see it, but be a part of it. I try to live by those words.

And it is silence that is demanded of us, as to speak out would be too much, cause too many issues. Why make it all about race, they ask, when everything is going so well? And I ask in return: America, the beautiful, who are you beautiful for?

As a teacher in Liberty City in Miami, there was no shortage of students in perpetual states of grieving. Nothing prepares you to see young lives torn apart by gang violence and senseless acts of pain, some right before their very eyes. I had one student who I tried to just be a witness and listener to her pain that I could only help so much, and she would beg me to help her leave because in the midst of such horrors, she had come undone. And it’s enough to make me, as the adult, come undone as well, hearing day after day that it did not matter. This pain, this disconnect of reality and classroom, did not matter. That we had to, that we must, go on. I was told repeatedly that there was no time to stop to grieve, that this was something that they had grown used to, and they would move on.

Numbness makes you lose your humanity. And if we felt it, as we are starting to feel it now, we would become ‘dangerous.’ But the bread and circus is over–we have paused at a great mirror and saw in the reflection someone we hardly knew and we. are. taking. it. back. Because #blacklivesmatter.

I had a conversation this term with a coursemate and I was expressing feelings of guilt for leaving my students behind to pursue this degree at Cambridge and also a wider feeling of knowing there were those I was hurting in my absence. She asked me if that was my responsibility. I did not understand the question.

I did not understand her question because I have always been a ‘we.’ I do not attribute successes to single, brilliant instances that I orchestrated myself. I, one of the ones who did not die, am the sum total of all those who did die and for those who run head first into the street shielding me from the bullets.

So what shall I do now? I will begin to wail, just loud enough for them to know I’m here; just enough to begin the moment when my grieving is not in silence. I am so very tired of being told that being vocal or showing my grieve makes me angry. In the words of Toni Morrison, “I want to feel what I feel, even if it’s not happiness.”

But I’m not angry. I’ve grown wary of anger. I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife and preparing for the moments when the realization hits that Ferguson is more than a moment, it’s a movement. And the revolution will be televised.

It’s Home, Even if It Is a Bit Messy

Last night I turned on to an all too familiar street and felt the usual bubble of laughter rise up in my throat as I glanced at the cross streets of my apartment: Bruce and Wayne. One can’t help but love living at the corner of the Dark Knight himself. It’s just one of the many things I love about my life in Miami. But I also have a love-hate relationship with this city.

Maybe it starts from the feelings of this being such a temporary city. It’s less that my program is for two years and that the entire vibe of the city, it’s focus on tourism the lack of a built-up pool of young professionals, makes Miami resonate with the fleeting nature of something that is here today and then gone tomorrow from your life. And then there’s the feeling of excess. The inflated looks of superficial body parts enhanced at a whim and those who make South Beach and its neighboring islands their playground, next to some of the most have-not panoramas in southern America. It also doesn’t help how worked up I can get over Florida education policies that I see fall flat almost every day in the classroom.

Yet, Miami is also the site of a building filled with children who have taught me some of my greatest lessons in life, and reaffirmed my career ambitions. It’s the current home of people who proved to me that some of my closest life-long friends could still be made post-college. It’s the city that reminded me that life begins again in the summertime and how to fall in love with the ocean.

That’s why Miami will always stick with me as one of my homes. Miami makes me feel. I’m not passive towards this home. It makes me shout and curse and rest and relax all in a single roller-coaster day. Miami’s dichotomies are its pain and its wonder. And as my second year of teaching begins next week, I’ll once again begin the job of figuring out just how this tumultuous relationship will work itself out, as it always, so magically, seems to do.

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