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.

 

 

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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.’

The Difference Between Resting and Stopping

“No might make them angry but it will make you free.”
― Nayyirah Waheed

If I said that I was someone who typically overcommits in their life, the people who are close to me would smirk at the understatement. While I am not a competitive person by nature, I am often deeply entrenched in a race with myself. What were the deadlines i set for myself? What was the timeline that I had written to hit particular life milestones? And what comes of that is people take advantage of you. When people know that you can and will get things done, even if the work is not for you, it will somehow end up on your to-do list. My workplace describes itself as a “yes, and” culture, and on any given day I can find people using that sentence structure. I am constantly reminded in this environment of a passage from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen where she writes, “You are reminded of a conversation you had recently, comparing the merits of sentences constructed implicitly with “yes, and” rather than “yes, but.” You and your friend decide that “yes, and” attested to a life with no turn-off, no alternative routes.”

We should be able to steer in different directions and to find the places of rest that provide us strength to keep going. We dread pauses because they are presented to us as stops, as losses, as setbacks. Instead of what they really are: necessary respite.

I have found this nature of needing to react and respond present especially in our current political and social climate. There are the constant demands to show up to protest, to respond to every social media post that one disagrees with, to read every piece of news that is spat out. I have people who send me videos of people denying white privilege or telling people to ‘Get out of our country’ first thing in the morning, as if to let me know that they would never do this or they are acutely aware of America. If we were all in fact so aware, we would not need as much respite.

And I have started to say ‘no’ to these things. NO to the constant barrage of hate news. NO to the demands that I react in words and action to every racist thing that is said or presented to me. NO to other people’s necessities. There is a power in ‘no’ that roots you, gives you the ability to set your own boundaries, and be in control. It’s not that I have infinite privilege to ignore the world around me, but rather it is my right to engage at the levels I want to, and to find the alternative routes of my survival.

I started a Creative Resistance Collective because I wanted to hold space for those who wanted to pause. People who had told me that they never had time to reflect because they were constantly being asked to react and analyze. One cannot nourish one’s soul on fire alone. The world goes on even if we spend a day sitting in our pajamas, eating ice cream, and re-watching episodes of Parks and Recreation. That is a life with turn-offs. Because it is not a turn-off, it’s the difference between resting and stopping, which is the difference between truly living and slowly dying.