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.

On Leaving (Again) and Thoughts that Have No Words

“During the time between ending one project and beginning another, I always have a crisis of meaning.” – bell hooks

There are instances. Instances when I will stand still outside amongst the bustle of life and close my eyes and imagine that I am as alone as I sometimes feel. There is a deep well of emotions that is filled in such times. Wells that let you know that there are feelings beyond sadness in such solitary notions; that these are the very feelings of life itself.

I unpack my bags and learn new motions; memorizing the winding streets and voices of a new frontier. I familiarize myself with new smells and ways of being; footprints leaving paths to ‘home’. I pack my bags and wonder about unlearning new motions; I figure out the ways of being to incorporate, the ones to hold. And I begin to shed the others. I leave the keys and shut the door, and I begin again.

I have been writing. And I’ve been writing and writing and writing, and yet I feel as though there are things I have yet to say that rest locked up in the tips of my finger upon the tip of my tongue. They are swimming around in my thoughts as though I could not produce the words. there is language that has been stolen here, words that English cannot describe. They will tell you it’s your mother tongue, but it is foreign. My mouth rounds the words as though biting off brittle and bitter pieces of realities.

It is when I am forced to suspend myself in this place of timelessness that I find the seeds of rejuvenation. And while ‘funemployment’ for most involves traversing across the expanses of the earth, getting lost in adventures, I, instead, go home to be ‘found’—reading Nayyirah to put salt in wounds, hooks to remind me of practices of freedom, and closing my eyes to find the right words.

Ghosting

Ghosts

Things fall apart

And people disappear

One minute they are there

And the next you are

drinking wine alone at the table

Or raking through 8 years

of memories captured in photographs

And it haunts me

August,

You bring some of the hottest days

of the year

And I returned to America

and fell deep into your fires

And it was pain

Not brief and biting

But long and lonely

But fires melt

Or they can mend

New

That’s what waits for me

as colours change and summer days

become fall’s love of difference

That’s what waits for me in September

Because that’s the only way forward

Even with scars in tow

Returning has always been hard

People move on with or without you

September will be better

“Two people who were once very close can without blame or grand betrayal become strangers. Perhaps this is the saddest thing in the world.” -Warsan Shire

Greece Days 6-9, Mykonos with my Woes

After Santorini took our breath away at multiple corners and left us with very full tummies from delectable meals, we took a fast ferry this time to our next and final stop, Mykonos. Now Mykonos is seen as one of the party islands of Greece, and especially of the Cyclades. There were a lot of people getting off the ferry at Mykonos. We had heard that it is hard to get around the island, so we decided to rent a vehicle for most of the time we were there. I did most of the driving for various reasons and it was quite the adventure driving this small white Fiat up the steep hills of Mykonos. There were a few times I did not think the little Fiat wanted to make the climb, but it always did. Driving took constant surveillance as there were stretches of the road that only one car could pass at a time, and I never wanted to come too close to the giant buses or the weaving in and out ATVs and scooters. The latter group constantly seemed like they wanted to die by recklessly driving all over the roads.

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Our hotel was situated atop a hill and down the hill was a beautiful beach that was not as touristy as many of the others on the island, which was perfect. It also had two cafes that–like everywhere else we went–had delicious food we could sink our teeth into throughout the day. What was crazy was the size of the cruise ships that would come and dock at Mykonos. They seemed larger than the island itself!

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My good friend Julia from undergrad joined us for 48 incredible hours. I love Julia’s spirit of adventure, as I can always count on her to be willing to share in the types of decisions that great stories are borne from. We went out the night she came in to one of the mega party beaches, Paradise Beach. Driving there was filled with windy roads and lots of climbing. When we got there, we joined the party, but were quickly turned off from it as it was filled with far gone drunk Italian men mainly, who could not keep their drunken, sloppy hands off of any woman for more than .3 seconds. We tried dancing on a table top to keep away, but they were there on the table, hands waiting and groping. I do not want to dwell on this encounter for too long, as it was greatly upsetting and some place I never want to be a part of, but I will say that I did not leave without getting a few good slaps in on some drunk surprised faces. Once we got away from that mess (which we had been warned about), we ended up spending the rest of the evening partying with some guys from Canada who were traveling around the world for the year. It was a classic party night, that I had not had in some time, which is always nice in doses.

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On Julia’s last night, we went to a gorgeous elevated, seaside restaurant, where I had the best salmon I have probably had in my life. The restaurant was in Mykonos Town, which is a quaint little town with beautiful intricate pedestrian streets and towering windmills. After scoops of decadent gelato, we finally made our way back to our hotel.

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While a lot of our time in Mykonos was spent laying on the beach and eating more amazing meals at beautiful restaurants, we did have two more adventures. Imogen and i did an afternoon trip to the island of Delos, which is not far from Mykonos. The ENTIRE island is filled with ruins, and it was at one point, the most important seaport in all of the Greek city-states. I love history and hearing the stories of how they built things on the island, and the stories of Apollo and Artemis’ birth by Leto, who gave birth on the island that was created as a safe haven for her from Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. Although it was the hottest I had been since getting to Greece because there is no shade on the island, it was a highlight of the trip.

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On our last evening with our car, we drove it up to the northern side of the island to see more sites. We went to an abandoned lighthouse that gave us breathtaking views of the island. That evening, back in Mykonos Town one last time, I was able to meet up with my friend Kim, who I had not seen in two years. It was amazing to see her lovely face, and I am always astounded at meeting up with loved ones in far corners of the world.

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I would not mind a house in Mykonos, and I saw some being built. It was sad preparing to leave after such a wonderful nine days of rest and relaxation and seeing places I had only previously dreamed of seeing. I had eaten to my hearts desire and drank in all the amazing views. And as I type this from my bedroom in Philadelphia, my wanderlust has already started creeping back up slowly. I cannot wait for the next travel adventure.

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