Creating Myself to Freedom

When I was younger, my mom would always tell me to write when I felt confused or hurt or angry. She would say that once I could start putting everything inside of me into some language that made sense to me, that in the creation, I would start to understand myself more. I often think of this as ‘creating myself to freedom.’

In this creating, I have found that I can ground myself. I feel angry so often about the state of things in the world. And if I were to rest myself in that anger, I would stay in a space of destruction. It’s too exhausting to sit in a space of destruction. It eats away at health and happiness. Instead, I focus on creating. This grounds me in a space of building. I have always found the arts to be a site of healing and resisting for me — healing from pain and resistance of all the world throws at me that is aimed to harm me. Some people march, I move through creating art, whether it’s on a page or on a stage. And I want that for others as well. A few months ago, I had a thought about doing a show that would be a series of 5minute one-woman shows on the theme “this is my body”, and I shared that idea with two friends who loved it. So we decided to produce the show. We now have 11 amazing women who have committed to perform in the show.

Last Monday we met those women for the first time. I knew it would be a fun evening of getting to know each other, but I was blown away by their presence. They were not only incredibly engaging, but also entered the space with a level of vulnerability that astounded me. There they were, opening up about their fears, their hopes, failures and successes with a group of strangers. I have to believe that is the power of creating together. The best art comes from the spaces of we weave together with the most honest of threads.

I recently started fasting on Mondays with a friend from church. We share reflections from our focus on prayer and meditation for the day. In my reflection after meeting the women who will be in the show, I said to my friend, “Today I felt God lifted my spirits. I heard His voice on a day that seemed like it would be quiet, and yet He sent me these extraordinary women to share this show with. I’m strong because I’m lifted up by people who remind me to keep going.”

If you are in the Bay Area and want to check out the show, check out the Facebook event page for more details: https://www.facebook.com/events/168976710391016/

 

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“Black Museum” and the Precipices of Death

In the last episode of season 4 of Black Mirror, “Black Museum,” the realities of black suffering and torture on the precipice of death is front and center. I’ve read several interesting pieces on the episode that discuss a range of topics from black torture porn to black revolt. For me, it isn’t just the imprisonment of Clayton Leigh’s mind in the museum that is disturbing, it is repetition of his electric chair-driven torture that brings him to the precipice of death day after day, hour by hour, each visitor who sees it as a chance to relive the pain of someone who is viewed as non-human in this operation. Leigh’s pain is seen as normal, a passing entertainment and attraction for others, where they are drawn to black pain, black body suffering, and moments of possible death. In fact, Leigh’s story was building in the background throughout the story, presented in news clips to build sympathy for the missing woman.

In a world painted in anti-blackness, one of the most significant markers is the claim to ownership of where and when death occurs. It’s the same marker that leads to street executions and migrant drownings. The state exercises power over black movement and lives, dictating through laws and societal acceptances who lives and who dies – which is often directly related to ‘use.’ Leigh presents a clear use for Haynes, a man who presents his belief in Leigh’s guilt as an excuse for the entrapment of Leigh’s mind. As people lose interest in the museum and Haynes turns to selling longing moments with the torture switch to more sadistic museum-goers, it’s almost as if we are meant to believe that these latter set of visitors are worse than the former. There is no difference in participating in active or passive torture porn, as the levels of satisfaction in seeing the pain, the harm, and collecting the souvenir to constantly return to relive is the same. Only the pulling of the handle is longer, and at this point, Leigh is already the silent and shell version of this ‘self’ that we see in “Black Museum.”

That was the hardest moment for me to watch. The growing silence and disorienting of Leigh. A silencing and disorienting so familiar and intimate. And so often, such events go unspoken of, with no one to bear witness.

Clayton Leigh doesn’t have a past that is presented to us in “Black Museum,” but as Christina Sharpe reminds us, we as black people live in the wake of slavery – a past that is not yet past. In the wake of slavery, we constantly find ourselves on the precipice of death. A position that if we let it, results in new ways of engaging with one another and the world. While Leigh does not survive this episode (another topic that my friend Preston reminds us is necessary to discuss), we see the love that Nish has for her father that centers her in her journey to free him from the continued precipice of death. In the wake of this reality, she found a new way to bear witness to the present and the final death of her father.

In this way, “Black Museum” perhaps suggests one way to confront intergenerational trauma. When Nish sets the museum on fire, it is revealed that she shares the spaces of her consciousness with her mother, who voices pride in the acts of her daughter. Acts that she would have been able to witness and voice opinions on as Nish engaged with Haynes, much in the same way that our triumphs and our traumas are complex threaded weaves of connection from one generation to the next. While such trauma writes itself onto our very DNA, perhaps in deciding where and when particular traumas end allow us to move forward in new paths along and beyond the wake.

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.