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.

20170930_13340720170930_13180920170929_141901

Advertisements

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.

20170911_093957

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.

20170911_09431420170911_094257

“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.

IMG_4053

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.

IMG_20170728_171515

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.

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.

On the Broken Nights, Generating Healing

The staples of my desk at work consists of red chili pepper flakes, salt, a glass name plate, and a black and white photograph of James Baldwin. I am sure others wonder why I have a photograph of James Baldwin on my desk, when they have family photos and old cards, because I can see their quizzical faces. But Baldwin’s life and words are a constant reminder of the authentic self – of what is required to say and do that which aligns with the trajectory of one’s soul.

This is a strange space that I currently inhabit. Several decades ago the population of San Francisco looked much different than it does today. Many of SF’s diverse population have been run out of their neighborhoods and homes and pushed to the margins. I am a transplant. I live in an area that was once warehouses, but now house high-rise apartments. While I find some solace in knowing there were no homes where I currently live, I know that each of us in the city plays some role in how the current events of SF are playing out.

I am also now part of the 3% of black people in this city, and I take the Caltrain down to the peninsula, where I feel the disconnect along the way between the tech capital of the world and marginalized communities who were once the foundation of the very culture that is celebrated here. That culture is a ghost and a shell of itself. The disconnect of community and people is often palpable. I have actively sought the spaces where I could feel connected here. I have found that in a space I have long inhabited in other cities of my now many past lives: the connection of my faith to my passion for social justice and community development.

People have told me I am crazy for traveling 2 hours on public transit on Wednesdays to get to my Live group -the small groups of the church I attend here in the Bay. I go in early to work on those days, so that I can leave early enough to get to my LIVE group on time: I take a shuttle from work to the Caltrain. Wait for the Caltrain, and then take it to Millbrae from Redwood City. I wait on the BART, staring at its doors, already tired from the journey. I get on the BART and ride it 14 stops to Downtown Oakland. I then take an Uber or bus toward to the apartment where our Live group meets. Four forms of transportation. But oftentimes to meet transformation where transformation occurs, we have to be willing to traverse great distances.

Lately, my thoughts have been more scattered, and I feel the weight of the constant tragedies compounding in my mind. I am thinking about honoring narratives. Thinking about how people can feel stuck in the middle of stories they aren’t proud or scared to tell. Thinking about whether or not what we are doing matters. Thinking about what it means to channel social justice through faith. But most of all, thinking about the hopelessness I see creeping steadily into the lives of many.

There are those who use God’s name to enact violence and oppressive systems, and now many feel that Christianity is synonymous with such things. But religion has long been a creation of man, and if we can reach far enough back to reclaim the names of forefathers and mothers in the Motherland than we can certainly reach passed the images of White Jesus to the actual site of salvation. As Jasolyn, our Live group facilitator, reminded us, we are the least of these. Christ came for us. His message is for us. His life was and has always been the work of dismantling hopelessness and bringing healing.

So how then do we begin the work ourselves of dismantling hopelessness? It is not new work, but it is arguably needed more than ever. And not only how do we dismantle hopelessness for those around us, but also what that means to do for ourselves as well. As black women we sometimes forget to do that work. We show up to marches for our men, and bear burdens the size of the world on our shoulders and often forget that we have two hands: one to help ourselves, and one to help others.

Our Pastor on Sunday preached about how we are healers, and how we can help bring healing to our own lives and to those around us.  In order to do so we have to first confront complicity. I know oppressed communities often hear that we are responsible for many of the problems plaguing us, such as gang violence. But what we have to confront is not that which is told to us by the very groups benefiting from systems that create the environments that leave communities ripe with violence, but rather what are we complicit in that brings about the oppression of others. If we cannot confront where we have rejected becoming a healer, than we cannot move forward. We cannot read the Bible in a way that makes it acceptable for people to oppress us or others.

The second thing the pastor outlined was about taking risks. And it is frightening to think about. In Live group last week, I talked about how I let others know at work and in my friend groups about my faith, and I talk to them about how God’s love has saved and kept me, and how I channel that through the work I do. And it is never easy. I wrote my college admissions essay on the miracle I believe God granted my family in healing my brother from a serious illness. I have often studied and worked in spaces where talk of faith is looked down upon as nonsense. But people know me, and they see more than they will ever hear, and that risk affords me the ability to do healing. To talk to people, bear witness to their suffering, and to walk with them through it.

The third and final thing Pastor Mike mentioned is that we have to ask ourselves what crosses we are willing to carry so that we can achieve healing and liberation. Even when you are good, bad things can still happen to you. They will happen to you. It is still the loudest message I took away from my first time in Ghana, when I thought that malaria and typhoid would take my life. This statement is more than health, more than comfort, it is about knowing where you stand in your work and who gives you the power to do so. Despair and despondency are the tools of the world. It is always when the tide is about to turn that we are made to believe that there is something wrong with us, that nothing can ever work out in a world stacked against us. But even when we receive consequences for doing the right thing, we have to keep expecting liberation. I have yet to think of a more powerful force in my life than to know the ending while still in the midst of the battle. I just have to firmly trust it.

So while we wait we should wait with a prayer, with a song, and with the CONFIDENCE that God can do expediently and abundantly. “Above all else, trust in the slow work of God.”

On the broken nights, when I find myself thinking about re-boarding the Caltrain to the familiar tracks to home when it feels like the BART doors will never open or the journey is too long, I focus on blessings upon blessings upon blessings from God and how He always sends me the most remarkable groups of women and social justice believers and builders to do the work alongside. That has always been the true trajectory of my soul.