Mornings that Go Up in Flames

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.


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.


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.


“Finally, We Eat, and Our Children Play”: Reflections on a Visit to Cuba

Cuando me veo y toco
yo, Juan sin Nada no más ayer,
y hoy Juan con Todo,
y hoy con todo,
vuelvo los ojos, miro,
me veo y toco
y me pregunto cómo ha podido ser. – de “Tengo”, Nicolas Guillen


I first fell in love with Cuba over the poem “Tengo” by Nicolas Guillen. It was my introduction to la poesia negra. In it, Guillen reflects on all that he had not been able to do as a black man in Cuba and how his life changed after the Revolution.

Tengo, vamos a ver,
que siendo un negro
nadie me puede deterner
a la puerta de un dancing o de un bar.
O bien en la carpeta de un hotel
gritarme que no hay pieza,

I loved “Tengo” because of the ways in which Guillen makes me feel this freedom – the ability to call one’s home truly home. It’s the type of freedom I long to feel. The kind that comes with deep breaths not stopped by jagged knives of bullets that barely miss you. And as I walked along the old walls and waves of the Malecon and the winding streets of Havana Vieja, I thought of “Tengo” and wondered what Guillen would think of the Cuba of the last several decades and today. If he would still feel as though he had everything.

For as long as I can remember  I have wanted to travel to Cuba. It has beckoned to me. I became especially restless to reach it after my two years living in Miami. The Cubans who live in Miami, while unique in their own ways, represent a particular subset of Cubans – the ones who fled Cuba on the eve of the Revolution, and those who managed to leave after the Revolution. They live a life of exile, many declaring they will never return to Cuba until there is no Castro in power. They will tell you of a beautiful Cuba they miss and daydream of those days. It has always made me uncomfortable. Because while their truths lie in stories of fleeing Cuba and losing the lives they had there and everything they owned, much of that ownership was built on the backs of Cubans who were not longing for this “beautiful” Cuba of days old. And I see the face of Adriana.

Adriana was our tour guide on an Afro-Cuban religious tour who is an Economics professor at the university. We spoke about different economic models and the flaws of each. She told us that before the Revolution there were no professionals in her family, but after her mother became a scientist, she was a professor, and others had professional jobs. It was not the only time that we would hear how the Revolution shifted the realities of the poor and the darker skinned in Cuba. When we went to the contemporary art museum there was an Afro-Cuban exhibit and one art read (when translated) that it was not hard to be human, but that it was hard to be black. So while I do not and cannot doubt the horrors that Cubans have faced fleeing in the night on boats to cross the ocean for a different life and jail cells overflowing with dissenting opinions, I also cannot ignore Adriana, and her assistant tour guide, and our taxi drivers, and Roberto, and everyone else whose voice would not have been a visible and loud fabric of every day Cuban existence to share those realities with me.


If there is one thing revolutionaries have right, it’s that there is a price to pay for the chance of everyone to breathe freely. What Fidel Castro did not have was the ability to radically imagine what that might look like. It is the fault of many before him and it will be the fault of many after. Edward Said writes about the failure of those who overthrow an abuse of power to conceptualize of a new way of living beyond the oppressions they had known. So they reproduce them. This is true too of Cubans in America who largely support policies that oppress black and brown people in America. And as I talked to more and more Cubans during my stay, what emerged was a portrait of a man led by his fear of losing power instead of a vision that changed a country. So while Castro may have started in some ways as a revolutionary, he lived for years and died as a dictator. We cannot trade some freedoms for others – they are all critical to achieving an environment that best supports the liberation of the people.

Cuba is not the perfect land that some black Americans believe that it is. You cannot escape or erase its hardships. But black Americans know hardships, and we also know the weight of daily life in America. Cubans by and large, though, are happy people, and it is an intoxicatingly enchanting country. While it is not perfect, Cuba is a reminder that I can breathe air that is not tinged at the end with daggers. That I can dance at 3am on dark streets without fear. That I can see a part of myself reflected in so many. That I can be welcomed like I am being welcomed home. It is not perfect, but it has captured something special. There is something unique about the Cuban spirit of survival. Our Airbnb hostess Rosie declared one night to us, “Cuba needs change, but it needs a Cuban change, not an American change.” She went on to describe that she does not leave Havana because Havana is safe and that it is not lost on her that her son can go out on the streets at any time to play. And that even if some days preparing a meal may be tough, that finally they eat and their children play.

I’m not even sure if children born to me would live to see adulthood on these streets paved with anti-blackness. I miss the way my skin glowed in Cuba.

As Adriana and I discussed together, the models that we need to foster and build have yet to exist in full forms. But in the middle of the night, in the margins of the people, I can hear the early cries of something different. Maybe the only true revolutionaries we should champion then are the ordinary – yet extraordinary – Cuban people. The ones who constantly seek ways to move one day at a time toward declaring the truth of Guillen’s “Tengo”:  Tengo lo que tenía que tener.

I have what I had to have.


A White Man Called Me “Nigger” in the BART Station Yesterday

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday.

He was standing alone on the platform. He watched me as I came down the escalators, hatred shining in his eyes as I drew closer. He glared at me and then he hurled the word out of his twisted mouth, as if he were spitting the word out on to me. And then he walked away.

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday, and I felt scared because he had made it an ugly intimate scene of hate, and only he and I bear the name of witness. Everyone else was further down on the platform and I walked swiftly over to the small group of people because this is America in any year and I am a black woman, and I did not want those to be the last words I heard.

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday.

But I was on my way to healing. And surrounded by my beautiful black sisters, Mama Walker read to us her poem “Nigger in the Language of Love.” She spoke of after extended periods of identity eradication, we are coming to our own. She spoke of the word as meaning after all the fighting, finding we are one.

She held my hand and looked me in the eyes with the same amount of love as that man had glared at me with hate, and said that man only knew nigger in the language of hate. That he only knew it as something ugly, and I had a different understanding. A different way of living on this planet.

A white man called me ‘nigger’ in the BART station yesterday.

But don’t he know?

Don’t he know?

No one can throw me out of creation.

In Search of a Pair of Wings

I find solace in some of the most ordinary moments of life. One of those moments is when I deep condition my hair after it has been straight for some time and I can touch the curls once more bouncing from my head. It feels like coming back to roots, back to a familiar once lost and now regained. I savor those tiny moments of contentment because this world is filled with too many moments of fighting to breathe. I recently finished reading Clint Smith’s hauntingly beautiful book of poetry Counting Descent, and I am reminded of the line:

“I wish I could give my breath to the boys who had theirs taken, but I’ve stopped counting because it feels like there are too many boys & not enough breath to go around.”

Last week I read an article that made me feel like my heart was ripping out of my chest once more. Nothing felt new – we know that they lie about us. We know we don’t deserve to die despite the narratives that are painted. But reading about the new footage of Michael Brown and the things Darren Wilson has said and believes, and knowing he is alive while Mike Brown never got to experience his first day of college hurts. I reached out to my mom as I do in these times and shared with her the article. She responded: “Yes, it hurt to read that what I believed happened, was indeed the truth. I am beyond anger. My only emotion is a dull sadness that will persist, because of the lack of true accountability. My prayers will continue for those who lost their loved ones. Their character can be cleared, but it does not restore their life.” That dull sadness is a pain only some of us can truly know. It persists until you can feel it running through your toes, threatening to root you to spots unmoving. But as Pastor Mike reminded us one sermon, cry, but cry in a place that gives you power. I hope the loss of life always hurts, even though it can feel overwhelming. If I feel this way at 28, I can only imagine what my mother and others with their age have had to hide away in their hearts. We should never grow accustomed to loss. I refuse to let it become my default.

This past weekend I saw the play Eclipsed with a close friend. A running theme throughout the powerful, all-female show, was about naming: naming your feelings, naming your situation, and, most importantly, naming yourself. When it feels like others have only taken of you, made their beds on top of your back, we must reclaim the power of naming. And within that power of naming is the power of self-creation.

I want to share another poem from Clint Smith’s poetry book that has stuck with me since I first read it and clutched the book to my chest:

what the cicada said to the black boy

i’ve seen what they make of you
how they render you a multiplicity
of mistakes

they have undone me as well
pulled back my shell & feasted
on my flesh

claimed it was for their survival
& they wonder why I only show my face
every seventeen years

but you

you’re lucky if they let you live that long
i could teach you some things, you know
have been playing this game since before

you knew what breath was
this here is prehistoric
why you think we fly?

why you think we roll in packs?
you think these swarms are for the fun of it?
i would tell you that you don’t roll deep enough

but every time you swarm they shoot
get you some wings, son
get you some wings

-Clint Smith

I think my life has always been about finding a pair of wings. But maybe this is no flying creature that I or you has ever seen before. The kind that manifests in our dreams, and we keep searching for materials in our wake, looking at one another as if to say: Get you some wings. Get you some wings. 


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.’