28 – “Annotation and Redaction,” Part 1

“Shards of glass can cut and wound or magnify a vision. Mosaic celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together”
― Terry Tempest WilliamsFinding Beauty in a Broken World

At the beginning of this year in January, I thought that my cosmetics and skincare products were turning against me. And I was panicked and confused by the red scaly patches of skin that would form where once there was smooth and glowing skin. It was strange and otherly – this feeling that your body that you feel you intimately know can suddenly become a stranger. This life that you purposefully piece together, could betray you. I refused to believe it, so I kept layering the old products on. That’s how I ignore pain. I layer on pieces of what I know so that everything on the surface looks right. But that, of course, did not work, and eventually, after rounds of doctor visits and consultation, I found out that I have a contact allergen to beeswax, an ingredient found in the vast majority of my beauty and skincare products. It was time to realize that sometimes the norm just hides things we don’t want to see, despite the labor involved in changing things.

But who gets to tell these stories of our lives? My life? For black people, even on the personal level, our lives are often imaged for us and beyond us. In her groundbreaking (and life-changing for me) book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe describes the type of “woke work” black people must engage with as we live in the wake of slavery – a past that is not yet past. In the book, she refers to one type of this wake work as the process of Black annotation and Black redaction. Because the images that exist of black people serve to confirm already held views of the black body and even repetition of these images (even when people claim to do so that others can see the violence enacted) does not bring an end to violence. The work then is to edit out the appropriation of black suffering and transform the narratives with messages of our own making. Sharpe describes it as the work of trying to really see ourselves, each other.

This past year then has been one of doing that work in my own life, where I fully embodied the words of my favorite poem by 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

So I danced. I picked up my feet and I lifted my arms. I re-developed an intimate relationship with my body through the motions. It didn’t matter if I was good, only that I took up space in ways that I only later realized I desperately needed to take. I took deep breaths, and I asked for help.

Redacting. Annotating.

In her speech at the Glamour Women of the Year awards Solange–who has so often sung the words I have felt in my soul–said:

…Someone said to me you’ve got to shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars. Well, I wasn’t interested in either. I was interested in the journey there. How does one shoot for the moon? Do they just levitate as a celestial being or do they get there by mothership? Did these stars find each other before they became constellations or did they slowly evolve into the divine beings that they are by just existing? And were they afraid? As I’ve journeyed into my own evolution I’m grateful that I’ve never felt the answers, and grateful that I probably never will. I simply stopped needing to know. And I think we as women, we are told from the second that we come into our own that we not only need to be shooting for the moon, but we must hold the moon in the palms of our hands, turn it until the sun comes to morning, nurture all of the rings around our orbits and look and feel like a goddess with crowning glory while doing so. And that has not been my journey. My journey has been a rise and fall. It’s been ugly. It’s been loud, it’s been disruptive, it’s been long. It’s often been painful, but it has been free. It’s been beautiful. And it’s been mine.

Hers are the words I turn over and over again as 28 comes to an end. It is okay to be in crescent phase. And maybe crescent isn’t full, but it still shines. It still makes its way out each night despite the darkness.

It wasn’t until I came to this confrontation of self, where I was forced to see the shards and wounds, that I finally began to see past those pieces to the vision. I am the mosaic, and God is the artist. And does not the artist know their material?

The hardest part is not knowing what lies on the other side, but I will embrace the rough strokes that are found in the middle, as one who does not need to know the answers right away. And while I am waiting I will do so with a prayer, a song, and the confidence that I am approaching a vision. Twenty-eight has taught me that I have nothing to fear when being made anew. I just have to embrace it, and in the words of Solange, say to that fear, “You have met your goddamn match.”

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Witness.

“Memory is a tough place. You were there.” 
― Claudia RankineCitizen: An American Lyric

This week my timeline was filled with two words: “me too.” I read post after post of women I am close with and others I only know from the worlds we engage with on social media share stories of assault, rape, harassment and the struggles, shame, anger, and sadness that come along with these moments of violation. As I read them, I was angered at this mass outing of ourselves as surviving (We are alive – it is surviving enough – we will get to living. I know we will.), when it should be the assaulters. And while #metoo is not in itself a movement, I chose to sit in it as a moment. It was a moment to stand and witness. And it’s a reminder that we can and are often called to stand witness for that which our own eyes have not seen, but our bodies have borne, whether in this life or another.

I have often thought about what it means to witness and the role of the witness, as part storyteller and part affirmer. John the Baptist was a witness for Jesus, awaiting his arrival while speaking of him and affirming his heavenly ancestry. The documentary, I am Not Your Negro, directs us toward James Baldwin’s words on being a witness. Baldwin writes that he “was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed.” Baldwin says he was troubled by the passivity required of witnesses. Yet Baldwin’s thoughts on witnessing feel much like the unfinished manuscript the documentary is based on. It feels like no small coincidence that much of the notes from the documentary are from this unfinished manuscript entitled Remember This House. We are forced in life to remember that which we lived, where we lived, what has marked our lives. Acts and moments of witnessing.

Black women smile readily and warmly at one another. Perhaps to say that if you disappeared, if you are harmed, I have not only seen you, I have felt your very existence in the depths of my being. But it has also been our tradition to take the role of witness and move fluidly through the lines of witness and actor. We have learned to protect one another – time is not bounded for us as we remember witnessing on the plantations.

Earlier in the year, when I attended a meditation retreat for black women, we talked about a tradition of humming for black women. Humming was the beginning of expelling pain and grief from one’s body. But it also developed into a way of humming new things to one another as we witnessed the hardships of life. At the retreat, we practiced humming joy and peace to one another. And I think now of all the stories that are told and not told and untold, and I reach my hand up to necks close and afar to hum into them peace and joy and truths beyond moments.

 

 

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.

Resetting

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.

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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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“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

Tengo.

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.

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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.

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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.