A Moment in Detroit

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.

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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.

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Reminders

One of the greatest gifts I have allowed myself to receive in my life are the reminders that I find of things that I need to recall or remember. Sometimes a word, a conversation, a photograph. I just have to be ready to listen.

Last night I went to a celebration in Oakland in honor of Ghana’s 60th anniversary of independence. It was a wonderful night filled with reminiscing about trotro adventures, changing neighborhoods, favorite foods, and lots and lots of jollof rice. I was especially impressed with the young man sitting next to me who knew every Ghanaian song I was referencing based on a simple description of a few words or what someone was wearing in the music video.

On the way home my driver was a friendly Nigerian man, probably in his 30s. As the ride continued across the beautifully lit Bay Bridge, the driver expressed to me that people often ask him where his accent is from and that it was a way of them reminding him that he does not belong here; that this was not his home. The emotions in his voice rose as he talked about people who could never understand his sacrifices, and who had spent their whole lives in their geographic bubble. Such subtle reminders of how one views you is usually coupled with an inability to see the true nature of oneself or the other person.

In Citizen, Claudia Rankine describes this as, “For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person…you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such langauge acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all thew ays that you are present.” As an immigrant, such language about accents and ‘where are you from’ are language acts that exploit a perceived difference in the way someone looks or talks. The point of such visibility being that it is necessary to paint the exact outlines of difference. My driver went on to describe how he does not pay any attention to ignorance that comes from ignorant people. The refusal to engage in those language acts creates barriers toward exploitation. And I return to the wise words of my driver, reminding me of all that has made me that so many can never catch a glimpse of or understand. Clint Smith writes in his poem “what the ocean said to the black boy”: they call me blue because they don’t understand how the sky work/they call you black because they don’t understand how god work. 

We must continue to create our armor against the exploitation of language acts bent to take that which makes us strong and use it to mark us ‘other.’

Finding Flow

Some days feel erratic. There’s a little bit of something here, a little bit of something there, and time feels all over. It’s hard to find solid blocks of time to sit in a moment –to relish the essence that is being completely and totally rooted in that second, that place, that feeling.

I miss those.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention describes “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake.”People master an art or a craft through the type of flow that engrosses them. And I think about the last time I felt that type of focused energy. I’ve barely had time to write in the last few months, something I am trying to ease my way back into through this writing challenge (which I have not been succeeding at) and other passion projects. I think the last time I felt like my entire being was involved in an activity was last July when I was finishing edits for the co-written book I have been working on, so that we could enter it into a book competition. 

I had dreamt of this book for some time. My year at Cambridge writing my master’s thesis was also a time of flow. And it was also a time of immense change and realizations. It was the type of year that you need to find a way to represent and commemorate. For me, it would be this book. But I couldn’t and did not want to tell the story alone, so I reached out to a few other women of color I knew who I trusted to be in communion with. I think about our book often. I reread chapters often, the words soothing me and reminding me that I have words that long to be dripped from ink to paper. That in the telling there is power. I spent hours editing our work, going line by line asking questions of the authors, asking questions of myself. I lived those pages and those stories over and over again. I feel as though I know these women in very special ways. Through the flow of editing, I was helping memories dance off the pages and hopefully into the lives of future readers. I felt like these stories had to be told, and they had to be told soon. I did not know then what November would bring.

Winters not only freeze the land, they sometimes freeze us to the places we are at. As spring comes, fingers thaw and once again fly across keyboards and papers to create and recall the stories of healing and of thriving. The stories of life. I hope this spring brings that flow back, so I can once more use my writing to help myself and others say the words on our hearts.

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.

From the Little Girl who Always Sang ‘1999’ too Loudly

I have what feels like a lifetime of wonderful childhood memories of my sister and me dancing and singing along to Prince songs with my sister. We never had a lot of CDs, but would use cassette tapes to record our favorite jams when they came on the radio and found creative joy in curating our own playlists long before Spotify was a thing. I smile thinking about us belting out ‘1999’ to ring in a new year, or doing dramatic renditions of ‘When Doves Cry.’

Beyond listening to his music, I loved looking at images of Prince. There Prince was, defying the boxes and labels the industry demands of its stars, flowing effortlessly between name and symbol and back again- never to be defined by moments in time. For two little girls who were different from those around them, Prince mattered. Looking back now, I can say that as I walked through childhood defying the binaries and confinements around me as best I could, there was a bit of Prince at the foundation.

And years later, as I developed the concept of heterotopic spaces of internal resistance (HSIR) for my master’s thesis, it was Prince’s creativity of space and place that engaged me in the work I have done on young black men who live beyond the walls.

Prince did it to show us all how to do it. Thank you.

For 26: A Look Inward

It has been a few days since my birthday, and I continue to ride the high of assisting my brother in his first murder case that was a big win against a leading prosecutor. Throughout the entire process I was really emotionally and mentally invested in the case, especially for the sake of the client and his family. I kept thinking how he was only 2 years older than me, and how being in the wrong places opens you up to a world of people who will be quick to judge, quick to assume, quick to codemn. If 26 has shown me anything, it is that people build these worlds around themselves, lies that become the cornerstone of their reality as Barbara Kingsolver so eloquently wrote, and if they were to examine what they have so blindly crafted, their world as they know it would fall apart; cease to be.

So I have let people go. I shed. And I shed, and I shed, and I shed. Because it was no longer about saying we just respectfully disagree on an issue, but rather who can cradle the pains of humanity in the palms of their hand and weep because there is so much to do at any given time. It is about recognizing that some ideas are just ignorant and harmful and have no place in any conversation. When people say that makes me uncomfortable to talk about or if you would only say it this way, people might be more receptive, or that protesting students are ‘petty’ and ‘soft’, what they are really saying is how completely terrified they are of their world as they know it to crumble as we look to them and say that the lies they had convinced us of about ourselves and the lies they told of the world, we see and will no longer accept. We are capable of having these confrontations and coming out better on the other side. There is a lot of hate in this world. There is a lot of exhaustion too. I treasure the moments of harmony; of lives coming together in various ways, and I have to believe that there are still many good people in this world. “Not everything is lost.”

In reflecting on the last year, I think about what has come to settle in my heart even more firmly than before. As we become more and more a world where we can hide behind keyboards and computers, we think we have access to learning more. In a way, the computer age has given us the world at our fingertips. But it has given us a world at our fingertips in the most robotic of ways. While I believe that there are amazing ways that social media and the internet has brought about connecting globally in times of crisis and pain, I have to wonder if it also makes ‘think pieces’ and hashtags a substitute for action. There can never be a substitute for real change and real action. The internet can help with that, but it cannot BE that. We have to also never forget what it means to connect in the spaces of reality.

I try to live my life by the mantra (and Mother Theresa quote), “Do not look for God in the far lands. He is inside of you–He is you.” If I am a part of Christ, then I am His body here on earth; the extension of his goodness, even when I can never match it. The durabilty of my faith is one thing that has never changed in the years I have been alive. It never will.

My fifth year reunion is coming up next May, and for it we were asked to write a ‘report’ for this “Red Book” they publish of what each one of us from our class has been up to for the last five years. I thought about what others might write–stories of graduate degrees, jobs, new cities, etc. I could not think of anything that I wanted to share with everyone, when anyone who I love already knows what I am doing. I thought about the last years and what has truly stuck with me, and I submitted a short poem reflecting on the black lives lost (far too many), how grateful I was to be alive when this world has shown my degrees do not protect me, and why I must keep doing work that honors those who have died and those who still fight, even on the days when getting up means getting through the day on wounds that have not quite healed.

Twenty-six was about cutting off my hair and starting over again. About telling people when they had no authority to speak on a subject. Twenty-six was about reading less news and hugging more people. Twenty-six was about securing the language I use and who I share language with. Twenty-six was about research that mattered, and learning along with 8 incredible young men from Indianapolis to London about how and why we creatively craft our own spaces. It was about recognizing the distractions of racism and choosing to not bear that burden. I am here. There is nothing for me to prove. No validation of my worth is required. Only to love myself, and to demand that I am given the spaces to do so. In all of this, 26 was about taking care of myself better. Taking breaks because if I stand still, the world will go on for those minutes without me.

I prayerfully look to 27. I say this because the world is on the brink of something explosive. I can feel it. I will be ready. I know where I stand. And I also know that I don’t always need to be ‘at war’ because it will destroy me. In the words of Nayirrah Waheed:

You do not have to be a fire for                                                                                                                                   every mountain blocking you.

you could be a water

and soft river your way to freedom

too.

–options

 

Greece Days 6-9, Mykonos with my Woes

After Santorini took our breath away at multiple corners and left us with very full tummies from delectable meals, we took a fast ferry this time to our next and final stop, Mykonos. Now Mykonos is seen as one of the party islands of Greece, and especially of the Cyclades. There were a lot of people getting off the ferry at Mykonos. We had heard that it is hard to get around the island, so we decided to rent a vehicle for most of the time we were there. I did most of the driving for various reasons and it was quite the adventure driving this small white Fiat up the steep hills of Mykonos. There were a few times I did not think the little Fiat wanted to make the climb, but it always did. Driving took constant surveillance as there were stretches of the road that only one car could pass at a time, and I never wanted to come too close to the giant buses or the weaving in and out ATVs and scooters. The latter group constantly seemed like they wanted to die by recklessly driving all over the roads.

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Our hotel was situated atop a hill and down the hill was a beautiful beach that was not as touristy as many of the others on the island, which was perfect. It also had two cafes that–like everywhere else we went–had delicious food we could sink our teeth into throughout the day. What was crazy was the size of the cruise ships that would come and dock at Mykonos. They seemed larger than the island itself!

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My good friend Julia from undergrad joined us for 48 incredible hours. I love Julia’s spirit of adventure, as I can always count on her to be willing to share in the types of decisions that great stories are borne from. We went out the night she came in to one of the mega party beaches, Paradise Beach. Driving there was filled with windy roads and lots of climbing. When we got there, we joined the party, but were quickly turned off from it as it was filled with far gone drunk Italian men mainly, who could not keep their drunken, sloppy hands off of any woman for more than .3 seconds. We tried dancing on a table top to keep away, but they were there on the table, hands waiting and groping. I do not want to dwell on this encounter for too long, as it was greatly upsetting and some place I never want to be a part of, but I will say that I did not leave without getting a few good slaps in on some drunk surprised faces. Once we got away from that mess (which we had been warned about), we ended up spending the rest of the evening partying with some guys from Canada who were traveling around the world for the year. It was a classic party night, that I had not had in some time, which is always nice in doses.

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On Julia’s last night, we went to a gorgeous elevated, seaside restaurant, where I had the best salmon I have probably had in my life. The restaurant was in Mykonos Town, which is a quaint little town with beautiful intricate pedestrian streets and towering windmills. After scoops of decadent gelato, we finally made our way back to our hotel.

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While a lot of our time in Mykonos was spent laying on the beach and eating more amazing meals at beautiful restaurants, we did have two more adventures. Imogen and i did an afternoon trip to the island of Delos, which is not far from Mykonos. The ENTIRE island is filled with ruins, and it was at one point, the most important seaport in all of the Greek city-states. I love history and hearing the stories of how they built things on the island, and the stories of Apollo and Artemis’ birth by Leto, who gave birth on the island that was created as a safe haven for her from Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. Although it was the hottest I had been since getting to Greece because there is no shade on the island, it was a highlight of the trip.

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On our last evening with our car, we drove it up to the northern side of the island to see more sites. We went to an abandoned lighthouse that gave us breathtaking views of the island. That evening, back in Mykonos Town one last time, I was able to meet up with my friend Kim, who I had not seen in two years. It was amazing to see her lovely face, and I am always astounded at meeting up with loved ones in far corners of the world.

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I would not mind a house in Mykonos, and I saw some being built. It was sad preparing to leave after such a wonderful nine days of rest and relaxation and seeing places I had only previously dreamed of seeing. I had eaten to my hearts desire and drank in all the amazing views. And as I type this from my bedroom in Philadelphia, my wanderlust has already started creeping back up slowly. I cannot wait for the next travel adventure.

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