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. 

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.’

Caltrain Journeys

Five days a week I take the same train on most days. The 7:56am Baby Bullet from San Francisco 4th and King to Redwood City. Redwood City is one of the multiple cities found in the peninsula of the Bay Area, also known as Silicon Valley. It isn’t a place that I would have ever thought to end up. It wasn’t on my roadmap, and it’s certainly not my favorite part of Northern California. I especially didn’t think I would end up here after spending a year observing and developing theories of identity representation in young black males. I miss that world of creation.

I feel as though my 50 mile round trip journey each day is not quite one of creation but rather of commuting and constants. The Caltrain is a “proof of payment” system, meaning a passenger cannot buy a ticket on the train. It’s as if to say if you have not paid the price of this journey, you cannot earn your “merits” on the way. The Caltrain environment is stressful –bustling and shoving people who don’t know how to give space to others and nervously flying fingers across keyboards of work emails and presentations. For me, I try to sit in the same single seat on the second level each day. I read, I meditate (thankfully morning commutes are quiet), and I listen to some of my favorite songs. Anything to break up the hubbub of commuter life. But it also reminds me of how different I feel on this journey. While Silicon Valley has a reasonably diverse population, the face of the area and the standard of the Caltrain commute are white men, and then others working in tech. The conversations I overhear range from phone calls to buy entire properties (something that costs an outrageous amount in the Bay) to shares and portfolios. Not the life I live, and it makes me think about how far I am from warm drives in my own car on dusky Miami streets headed to be with my students for the day. Or hot walks on red-dirt paths to buy vegetables in the market. Or even still, brisk bicycle rides through meadows by stone buildings, over beautiful bridges and rivers.

I have had to create my own meaning to the 35 minutes journey. Even steel tracks have sparks of beauty.

A Deliberate Life of Healing

While reading Terry Tempest Williams I came across this line: “Women piece together their lives from the scraps left over for them.” Young girls are too often socialized to think of their highest calling in life is to give freely of themselves to others. While there is nothing inherently wrong with living a life of service, there is something unhealthy when that life of service is socialized as living your one life for everyone else but yourself. Last fall I read the book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. It was one of those experiences where you feel as though a book has read you instead of you reading the book. The book focused on the burden of living the life of the trope of the StrongBlackWoman. Again, strength itself is not unhealthy, but when it is a hegemonic image of black women that leaves us without room to ask for help and to rest, it becomes the type of negativity that kills both spirit and body. And our education, our continued socialization does not teach us how to not be complicit in our own oppression. It is passed on from generation to generation – grandmother to mother to self. We learn to walk on broken legs without ever recognizing that pain is not a natural state of being.

We convince ourselves that we would rather be the StrongBlackWoman than the other identities – the Jezebel, the Sapphire, the Mammy, etc. But we have to begin the process of unlearning those monolithic identities. We belong deeply to ourselves, and have been deliberately created by God, and therefore, must deliberately walk through life on paths that we have crafted. We know because have lived, and most listen to the deep, low whispers of intuition in our bones. The intuition that tells us how to discover our true identities – far from the chains of this world.

Audre Lorde said, in a passage quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke:

“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other. But we can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other. We can practice being gentle with each other by being gentle with that piece of ourselves that is hardest to hold, by giving more to the brave bruised girlchild within each of us, by expecting a little less from her gargantuan efforts to excel. We can love her in the light as well as in the darkness, quiet her frenzy toward perfection and encourage her attentions toward fulfillment.”

Therein lies our servant heart – that to love those who have lived similar experiences to us, to learn how to be gentle with that spirit, is to learn how to love our own. It is an overwhelming task to live with the expectations and oppressions of the world as a black woman. It becomes effortless, however, to love both failures and triumphs when we practice the deliberate act of making space for the full magnitude of being.

I am deliberately finding those spaces and being someone who creates them herself. Last summer I got my first waist beads in a ceremony with other women of color who I had just come to know in my first few months in the Bay. It was a powerful moment of sisterhood and quieting the frenzy of life. In that moment, we were suspended in time as we focused on that love for ourselves and love for one another. Ayodele, the woman who led the ceremony, talked about caring for ourselves as women, and how if we took the top layer of whatever we made, we would sustain ourselves and have plenty left to support others. She reminded us about the precious nature of womanhood, and the life or death of the earth that we bear inside our bodies. The beads connect us to our past and help us deliberately plan for the future we want. They tell the story of that journey in the intimate spaces of our bodies where the scars of life are written. During the frantic paces of life, I often find myself reaching to feel my beads through my clothing to find tranquility in knowing that they are there, and that I have deliberately committed their meaning to my life. New life creations come one day at a time.

Loving Myself to Change

We pursue visibility often. The need to know that someone or someones have given us a nod of approval, read our words, liked our photos, has reviewed our work. But if visibility is driven by something at its foundation, that foundation I feel must be hate. Whether that hatred is about hating who you are and needing to know others feel differently, or hating what someone has said or has thought about you and you feel the need to change it, it is still a medium of deficit.

A few months ago I wrote about black women being the daughters of Hagar, and how long before we may know it, God has seen us. And that visibility is one of love. How then can I pursue the changes that are driven by love? The changes that are rooted not in opposition to any ideas or the need to have that change recognized, but simply because I love myself enough to want it and to do it. It begins, again, with decathexis. Finding the things and the people that I am willing to let go of to give myself the room and energy in my life for the new. Because love is patient, love is kind, love is the gentle fall of leaves on trees making room for the spring. Love gives the energy necessary to change.

So what have I done differently in the name of self-love? I am learning to wake up to sunrises over my city, instead of the violence of the news. (It will be there later. It is always there still later.) I am purposefully crafting spaces that help me reflect and heal, and gives others the room to do so as well. (Because loving myself more gives me the energy to continue loving others.) And I am resisting the voice of despair, and instead listening to the whispers of “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

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.