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.

The Trust We Owe Ourselves

For far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes. . . .

When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

Last Sunday Casey Affleck won a coveted prize of Hollywood – the Best Actor Oscar. It was another sharp reminder that men’s lives don’t end when they violate women’s bodies. They get rewarded –President to Academy Awards and everything in between. Society has given men, especially white men, great trust. Men have futures, while women have pasts that need to be upended and examined for any signs of evidence we can use against her.

The erasure of our belief in ourselves starts young. When we tell our parents or teachers or friends that something happened, and the questions pour in: Well maybe he did not mean that. Maybe you misheard him. Maybe you did something. Our lives are lived in the vast, harsh circle of “maybe you.” And we begin to think, “Maybe you didn’t. Maybe he didn’t.” And worst of all, the maybe you did, that leads you to think that somehow, you are at the center of any and every problem.

We begin to suggest, never tell. We suggest in our papers a lens through which to read the author’s intent, while our male classmate makes a bold claim and unwaveringly sticks to it. Even in the face of being wrong, the world has taught them that they are right. Thinking back on the Oscars one more, I am reminded of the one La La Land producer who gave an acceptance speech despite having the knowledge that they had lost. He acted as though it was his right to still take up space despite it not being his time, while the La La Land director and producers were forced to breeze through their moment, the words they longed to say still stuck on their lips.

It becomes hard to unlearn the sound of your own silence. To learn to step outside the path laid out for us into unknown territories where we can boldly declare the lives we long to live. Because it always feels like a betrayal to others to live that life. Yet, as one of my favorite authors stated, we have but one life to live, some must be lived for ourselves. The most important relationship to fix then becomes the breakup experienced long before in a life of what we want and what we do because we’re scared of the silent parts of ourselves. Who is the woman of ‘yeses’? Who is she? I can say with confidence that she has learned that our experiences are all we have, even when people try to tell us otherwise. Those who love us will not abandon us because we trust that what we feel forms the basis of what we know. This is why I trust women when they speak the secrets that have burdened their hearts. Because so often women feel as though no one is listening and hearing the sound of our own voice, clear with the conviction of self-knowledge, is the only way we are ever free.

 

A Deliberate Life of Healing

While reading Terry Tempest Williams I came across this line: “Women piece together their lives from the scraps left over for them.” Young girls are too often socialized to think of their highest calling in life is to give freely of themselves to others. While there is nothing inherently wrong with living a life of service, there is something unhealthy when that life of service is socialized as living your one life for everyone else but yourself. Last fall I read the book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. It was one of those experiences where you feel as though a book has read you instead of you reading the book. The book focused on the burden of living the life of the trope of the StrongBlackWoman. Again, strength itself is not unhealthy, but when it is a hegemonic image of black women that leaves us without room to ask for help and to rest, it becomes the type of negativity that kills both spirit and body. And our education, our continued socialization does not teach us how to not be complicit in our own oppression. It is passed on from generation to generation – grandmother to mother to self. We learn to walk on broken legs without ever recognizing that pain is not a natural state of being.

We convince ourselves that we would rather be the StrongBlackWoman than the other identities – the Jezebel, the Sapphire, the Mammy, etc. But we have to begin the process of unlearning those monolithic identities. We belong deeply to ourselves, and have been deliberately created by God, and therefore, must deliberately walk through life on paths that we have crafted. We know because have lived, and most listen to the deep, low whispers of intuition in our bones. The intuition that tells us how to discover our true identities – far from the chains of this world.

Audre Lorde said, in a passage quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke:

“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other. But we can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other. We can practice being gentle with each other by being gentle with that piece of ourselves that is hardest to hold, by giving more to the brave bruised girlchild within each of us, by expecting a little less from her gargantuan efforts to excel. We can love her in the light as well as in the darkness, quiet her frenzy toward perfection and encourage her attentions toward fulfillment.”

Therein lies our servant heart – that to love those who have lived similar experiences to us, to learn how to be gentle with that spirit, is to learn how to love our own. It is an overwhelming task to live with the expectations and oppressions of the world as a black woman. It becomes effortless, however, to love both failures and triumphs when we practice the deliberate act of making space for the full magnitude of being.

I am deliberately finding those spaces and being someone who creates them herself. Last summer I got my first waist beads in a ceremony with other women of color who I had just come to know in my first few months in the Bay. It was a powerful moment of sisterhood and quieting the frenzy of life. In that moment, we were suspended in time as we focused on that love for ourselves and love for one another. Ayodele, the woman who led the ceremony, talked about caring for ourselves as women, and how if we took the top layer of whatever we made, we would sustain ourselves and have plenty left to support others. She reminded us about the precious nature of womanhood, and the life or death of the earth that we bear inside our bodies. The beads connect us to our past and help us deliberately plan for the future we want. They tell the story of that journey in the intimate spaces of our bodies where the scars of life are written. During the frantic paces of life, I often find myself reaching to feel my beads through my clothing to find tranquility in knowing that they are there, and that I have deliberately committed their meaning to my life. New life creations come one day at a time.

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.

Choice Revisited: A Black Woman Reflects on Alice Walker and Returning Home

This was the first time that I did not begin a new journey with time spent reflecting in the Town Where Time Does Not Reside. I boarded my flight in London and came straight to this new beginning in Philadelphia, the weight of time zones and memories jarring the journey.

There was a moment on my celebratory vacation of finishing my MPhil in Greece, that I was standing on a rocky hill by a lighthouse on the island of Mykonos with a breathtaking view of the sea in all it’s blue-green majesty. In that moment I closed my eyes and felt the weight and wonder of the end of one journey and the beginning of the next wash over me. And in that moment I simultaneously wanted to cry, laugh, sigh, and rejoice for everything that was and was about to be. As I let myself feel all of these emotions swirl in me at once, I thought of what it has meant for me to be a black woman living abroad and what it would mean to return home to America. Again.

America is not my homeland of birth, as I often explain to people. It is my homeland by the choice of my parents to make it our homeland, as they believed it to be the place where their children–especially their daughters–would be able to realise things about themselves and become everything they wanted. Long ago too, however, my ancestors came across oceans. Some as indentured servants from India, some slaves from the Gold Coast of Africa, and others still the explorers who first cast the stones of ‘difference’ towards the other parts of me. I am all of those stories in one, and while much of my childhood was marked by those who wished to convince me I was the ‘exception’ of my people, if my time in America has shed light on one truth it is that there are no exceptions when it comes to black bodies that assert their right of humanity through the means they themselves deem fit. While I could sit in a room and smile and make conversation with those who did not look like me, I was all the while “black girl dangerous.”

Is it love and admiration if they only love and admire you within a particular lens? Or only when you stay inside the boxes they created, the spaces that they have named? Though America is the site of some of my most painful memories, it is also the site of many of my greatest triumphs. While I was in many ways forged by its fires, and spat out with a new “birth certificate” in hand, I often felt anxious, as if surrounded by walls that were closing in. I wanted and needed to see what lay beyond this country, what different ways of being and currencies in life were sought and fought for on other lands. I think that’s why I love the red dirt of Ghana so much. I feel the centuries of feet clamboring across the land, the strength of women carrying physical and emotional weights of home and family. My first time, though, leaving the country after my family’s first arrival, was when I was 17. I spent a summer at Cambridge, the very place I am not returning from. I had received a spot at a summer program that was designed for children of wealth. Upon gaining access I explained to them my financial situation, and they offered me a partial scholarship. I told them I still could not afford to attend, and they then offered me a full scholarship. I used the money I had earned from my after-school job to pay for my food and activities while I was there, and I spent the summer pretending to be just like all the other kids. For a moment I wanted to forget free lunches and the necessity for bargain shopping. That summer, I was not Delia the working class black girl who shocks everyone in her community by being intelligent. I was just Delia the summer program attendee who was a great dancer and had a knack for making up funny poems. There was one moment when one of the RAs almost blew my cover by commenting on my scholarship, and my eyes pleaded with her to not break the illusion. I have come to love travel for so many different reasons and have since put years behind me of masking my humble background, but in that moment my love of travel was borne out of something I reflect on still: the ability to view my life from the outside looking in. It gave me clarity to see what it was that made me unique and the spaces I was crafting in my life on a daily basis. I was hooked on travel from the moment I set foot back in America.

We often romantacize leaving. We label those with the wanderlust and means of taking a plane ride across oceans to countries others only dream and read about. We imagine them escaping the racism and emotional and mental turmoil of being black in smoke-filled cafes with a drink in one hand and a pen in the other, writing pages of prose about their epiphanies abroad. However, we forget about those who leave with just the money they have in pocket, or those who take on financial burden for the sake of finding out what else lies beyond the confines of the New Jim Crow and pre-determined narratives.

Sometimes leaving is about not being able to breathe. Beau Taplin on love wrote, ““No, I do not want to be loved unconditionally. I want to be shown when I am treating you less than you deserve. I want you to leave if I ever start making you promises I do not see through. Love me for my flaws, yes, but don’t you dare ever allow them to hurt you.” As black people, we carry the burden of the effect of years of blank checks and psychological warfare. We have allowed such hurt to cloud our vision toward thriving, and we cannot remember if we love or hate this land. As a black woman, love often comes in the form of a radical journey. Journeying to find love of ourselves–our bodies, our hair, the way we carry ourselves when no one’s ill will is watching–and searching for love from our black men, and seeking love from those who do not look like us around us. Loving the land is no difference. In her essay “Choice,” a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker recounts the history of dispossession that black people have endured in America. Such dispossession she writes leads to people leaving the land of their birth in order to preserve the good memories they have of it. But for Walker, land belongs to thsoe who have buried the dead there over and over again. While such land is sacred to families, land and space should also belong to those who live it, whose bodies shape its existence and who have been shaped by it as well. Walker thanks Dr. King for the return of the skies and smells of her homeland, and the ability to invite family members to visit and stay, and moreoever, stay herself. She wrote that the only ones who had previously stayed were those who could not afford to leave or those too stubborn to be run out. While more and more people are returning to their roots, to sow seeds they had previously taken elsewhere, there are those who go and return, and go and return, in cycles that allow the passage of air to flow through the lungs more easily.

Alice Walker wrote that our (black) mothers and grandmothers more often than not handed on the creative spark that was like a sealed letter they could not read, what they hoped for but often did not get to see. My mother loves to read, and she reads about places and their history. She has a list of places she hopes to one day travel to, and when I travel I think about how I am an extension of those dreams. She is always the first I tell about my journeys. I think about her own journey as a mother, and the home she asserted her right to create for herself and her family. In the midst of everything that tried to claim this power from me, I had the spaces my mother formed to forge an identity of my own creation. It is the type of space and identity that I can carry with me to other lands and other countries.

Blackness abroad is in itself a counternarrative. I have often been in circles of other women of colour while we discuss what it has meant and means for women of colour to assert their existence at places such as Cambridge. But to me, even more than the importance of existing in spaces that have typically not seen the existence of those like myself, is the ability to choose my own spaces of existence–those created for me in order to sustain me, where my creativity flourishes without being in direct relation as ‘the other’ or forcibly creating an ‘other.’ Alice Walker spoke of the choice Dr. King gave black people to remain in the South and return home. I revisit choice as this: the ability for home to not be just one space, but rather a myriad of real and imaginary spaces of creations. The type of radical spaces my mother created that allow me to return home. For there is no continuity of place without continuity of the body and mind. It is with those that we make and remake the spaces of our existence. We cannot have place, we cannot have home, without space. We cannot ask for it, nor can we spend our lives preoccupied with the need for others to acknowledge us and those spaces.

I am choosing to create. I am choosing to exist for my own love and my own well being, and to see that love spill over. I am welcomed home because I have named it so.