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. 

Advertisements

“And what shall we do, we who did not die?”

“And 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?” -June Jordan

I will always remember when I was talking to a friend about some of the scenes of extreme poverty and underdevelopment I saw in parts of Ghana, and how they told me that there would come a time when I would see such realities so often that I would become numb to them. I always think back on that conversation and how horrified I was of that potential day, and still today I think, ‘Dear Lord, don’t let today be that day. Don’t let it ever be that day.’

Being unmoved is a rejection of our basic humanity. Paul Harding writes about the ache in our hearts and the confusion in our souls being signs that we have not yet forgotten how to be human, still alive and capable of sharing in the ebbs and flow of the universe.

This year, if it can even be summarized, has been a year of coming undone. And I have watched the land I call my place of home come undone from windows across the sea. Sometimes I feel so far away but I lived/live it and know very well that feeling of striving, of pain, of the need to forgive, of the weight of hopelessness, of the stretching out of hands to find the love and hope that keeps us moving forward. It isn’t God who made me black. It is society that made it so and America that reminds me of it daily. It’s God though who helps me through it and emails from my mother reminding me that a time will come when she and I will not have to grieve in silence, and that she knows that change will come and I will not only see it, but be a part of it. I try to live by those words.

And it is silence that is demanded of us, as to speak out would be too much, cause too many issues. Why make it all about race, they ask, when everything is going so well? And I ask in return: America, the beautiful, who are you beautiful for?

As a teacher in Liberty City in Miami, there was no shortage of students in perpetual states of grieving. Nothing prepares you to see young lives torn apart by gang violence and senseless acts of pain, some right before their very eyes. I had one student who I tried to just be a witness and listener to her pain that I could only help so much, and she would beg me to help her leave because in the midst of such horrors, she had come undone. And it’s enough to make me, as the adult, come undone as well, hearing day after day that it did not matter. This pain, this disconnect of reality and classroom, did not matter. That we had to, that we must, go on. I was told repeatedly that there was no time to stop to grieve, that this was something that they had grown used to, and they would move on.

Numbness makes you lose your humanity. And if we felt it, as we are starting to feel it now, we would become ‘dangerous.’ But the bread and circus is over–we have paused at a great mirror and saw in the reflection someone we hardly knew and we. are. taking. it. back. Because #blacklivesmatter.

I had a conversation this term with a coursemate and I was expressing feelings of guilt for leaving my students behind to pursue this degree at Cambridge and also a wider feeling of knowing there were those I was hurting in my absence. She asked me if that was my responsibility. I did not understand the question.

I did not understand her question because I have always been a ‘we.’ I do not attribute successes to single, brilliant instances that I orchestrated myself. I, one of the ones who did not die, am the sum total of all those who did die and for those who run head first into the street shielding me from the bullets.

So what shall I do now? I will begin to wail, just loud enough for them to know I’m here; just enough to begin the moment when my grieving is not in silence. I am so very tired of being told that being vocal or showing my grieve makes me angry. In the words of Toni Morrison, “I want to feel what I feel, even if it’s not happiness.”

But I’m not angry. I’ve grown wary of anger. I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife and preparing for the moments when the realization hits that Ferguson is more than a moment, it’s a movement. And the revolution will be televised.

Dr. Strangehate or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Embrace the ‘Angry Black Woman’ Trope

“I know a few things to be true…I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory. I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood.”  -Warsan Shire, from Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth 

As tragic and shameful and heartbreakingly reoccurring events in Ferguson, Missouri are, it has also been a very telling unfolding of events within my connected social spheres as well. The most telling of these is the silence of (too) many. The inability of people to sympathize with those in Ferguson, and instead label them violent rioters and people too bent on making ‘everything about race.’

Not everything is about race. But Ferguson–that is about race. This is about individuals feeling more comfortable throwing ice buckets over their heads (albeit for a great cause for a deadly illness), because that is so much ‘easier’ and less controversial than making a statement about Ferguson and related social issues. People with ALS are majority white males. They live amongst mainstream population and have a face that people can recognize as potential family members. The same is not true of race. With places like Ferguson, it is people who look different from white America, live in segregated neighborhoods, don’t attend your schools, and don’t frequent most people’s circles. It is the recipe for creating an ‘other.’ The ingredients to shutting out mouths that are screaming to be heard, impossible to think about how we got here in the first place

I don’t hate America. And I am greatly put off by those who believe that to criticize something means to not understand or love it. No, quite the contrary. America is one of the great loves of my life. And like with any great love, you are well aware of their shortcomings and wish to build a life with them in which you strive to be better together. America can be for everyone–but there are those who have re-imagined America in a very dangerous light, who will go to lengths to reshape it and change already marginalizing glass walls and ceilings into cut off islands with no views at all. 

An extremely socially conscious acquaintance wrote via social media, “Peace has been redefined as marginalized folks suffering silently, without recourse, as we pray for the offenders to recall our humanity.” That has been the narrative. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Follow these rules when the cops stop you so you survive. Here’s the Black Male Code. Black women cover your bodies so as to not bring that unwanted attention your bodies crave for. Don’t throw your sexuality around like that or you’re asking for ‘it.’ Like Toni Morrison’s sugar-brown Mobile girls in The Bluest Eye, they aim to take the very essence of life. The attempt to be drawn in closer to white society by conforming to the rules, kills the very soul that makes you, you.  And people have gotten so damn tired of waiting, so damn tired of conforming to rules meant to eradicate, not welcome. As Martin Luther King, Jr. himself once said, riots are the voices of the unheard. 

I have throughout my life tried to be as aware of the plights of others as I can possibly be, take the time to share in their history, their heartbreak, their first-person narrative. My close friend Scott calls it gathering perspective. And I have especially been in tune with the plight of those who look like me, because I have felt it–although in more nonviolent ways–myself. I fully recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. I have privilege that others may never have, and with that privilege I find that I do not have the luxury as others do to not talk about things as complex and ugly as what is happening in Ferguson and across the country. I have to say something when I see something, and I have to be willing to take what others may say and face those labels head on. Because at the end of the day, that’s my existence on the line. And if my voice makes you uncomfortable, then in the words of Jesse Williams, I was not put on this earth to tuck ignorance in at night. If my wearing of my blackness offends or off-puts you, then I would have to ask you politely (because that’s the woman my mother raised me to be) to look away. 

The truth is, it is easy to label a black woman with a voice as an ‘angry black woman.’ When I was living in Miami, I was in an organization that I felt very strongly about who took over that organization because it meant a lot to me. I inserted my opinion quite firmly into the discussions while we chose the new leadership, and in the end, I guess you can say ‘I won.’ Afterward, one of the other board members who was decisively in the other corner told a mutual friend of ours that he believed that what he had built would be undermined by my pushy ways. And again, I have seen it happen over the years where people ask me why I care so much, or why do I write or talk so emphatically on these subjects that ‘no one wants to talk about all the time.’ They tell me to be careful because I may seem militant or angry.

See how that worked? Because the trope exists, it is very easy to shrug off the addition of a black female voice of dissent by slapping on the word ‘angry’ to anything I say. But I’ll say this. If I’m angry, and if any black female seems a bit less happy than what one may prefer, there is so many reasons to be. Namely right now, our ability to bring life into the world without fearing that our reproductive rights do not matter. 

So while it used to irk me to have someone even hint at the fact that I belonged in a barrel of ‘angry black women,’ it no longer bothers me. In fact, I embrace it and turn it back around, because to be angry means to feel the real rage that is bubbling in America. To be angry means to see what has been ripping apart the seams of this country for centuries. To be angry means that I have yet to sit down and accept that these are just the way things are. I can’t do that anymore than I can not sit quietly and idly by injustices. To do that would be to spit on the faces of my students, who desperately need to view contemporary heroes, or even just to hear someone say ‘that’s not normal.’ 

To have an opinion is to risk being labeled, misunderstood, marginalized, ostracized, and more. 

It is also the only way that I have found to feel the depths of my humanity. 

I’ll end this by including a quote from my favorite college professor. A man who taught me that as long as there are people who are dedicated to ensuring that the voices between the lines of history are recalled, that we can continue to redefine America into what it has always hoped to be:

“…but what’s really at stake here, for me, at least, is that I think we all need to hold ourselves accountable (and be held accountable) in public (and in private), and I think social media is a powerful way to do that. It’s not perfect, of course, no medium ever is. But I worry about all the silences and the obfuscations, insofar as injustice is concerned. That said, I get why people are hesitant to speak on certain topics–to venture into the territory of American race and racism or Israel/Palestine–is to risk being condemned, caricatured, misunderstood. But to me, the pursuit of justice requires us to get over our fears, to gird ourselves for these crucial battles, to break silence and speak our truth, especially when it means speaking truth to power. It’s the only way things will change, the only way they ever have. We all do this in our own way; I have no easy answers to any of this. I just want to be able to stand the image I see in the mirror each day, even as I look around at the world and feel so much anguish.”

My only hope is that those who find me ‘angry’ or ‘too outspoken’ will force their chins up and make themselves stare at the person standing before them in the mirror. And I hope when they do, they have the courage enough to break their silence, irregardless of what may happen after.  

I know I will.