Friday, November 19, 2010

For Colored Girls

It's been two weeks since two female friends and I went to see Tyler Perry's movie make of Ntozake's play For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Few men were in the audience, no surprise, I admit.

I am thrilled that Perry brought this work of art from the 1970's into the consciousness of a new generation of women and I hope it will encourage many of both genders to read the original work. I certainly feel the need to do so, unlike when I saw the play on Broadway, years ago. I'm not sure why that is, since I don't recall much about it except when I heard the poetry out of Loretta Devine's mouth...the "trying to take my stuff" lines. That divine poetry resonated where the rest was lost, raising its melodic memory of splendor and sorrow.

Ntozake's play is a sisterspeak. Sisters' wounding and re-wounding in their relationships with men, with each other, and with themselves is where the lens is aimed. It is wide angled to include the tremendous power and majesty of sisterhood. Is it socially just to frame the story here without ensuring that black men are represented more favorably or balanced? I have come to the answer of 'yes' for the most part. Yes, we do not need to have every story of a black woman or man represent the entire complexity of our experience. We do not need to shut down or disparage artistic voices in our community out of fear or concern about how outside voices will respond or make use of material. Dominant outsiders will do what they do. What do we do? I say we look and listen to the stories that come out of the artists in our community and try to address the places of injury and injustice among us, as we also celebrate the beauty that flowers in our midst. I say we cannot afford to look away from the sexual and physical abuse that goes on in our community with claims that its stereotyping to raise it. I say we need to be able to hold to the outrageous magnificence that exists as we also seek to address and redress the places where we fall excruciatingly short. We will not escape it otherwise. Except as a temporary one, a Walt Disney of the mind.

And finally, the acting in Perry's film was phenomenal. It came from talent for sure, but also I believe, from love.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Costs of Winning

The Monday morning news just a week ago included a segment on 'a weekend of rough hits' in the NFL, and the story of a Rutgers player who has been left paralyzed from the neck down after a game that Saturday. Footage revealed him down on the ground, but more painful to watch were the clips of some of the NFL hits -- the sudden, hard-hitting attack, the heads whipping back, the bodies flattened, frozen. Men doing their jobs. Making effective hits, apparently illegal (using helmets). Taking opponents out with their adrenaline high, their pumping testosterone, that driving mentality to win, dominate. I guess that's why they get paid. But not the Rutgers student.

Eric LeGrand is a 20 year-old junior, and his injury occurred in the process of tackling an opponent, not brutally, but one where the position of his head at the time of impact coupled with their speed and weight left no cushion for his spinal column. An accident of sorts. Just like that, with little more that 5 minutes left in the game, his life as he's known it is yanked. Even if he is able to walk again. Eric's story, and all the others I've heard in recent years involving severe injuries of college football players, move me to pray that these young men and their families are carried by Spirit and the loving support of others through this heartbreak.

I am also filled with gratitude, once again, for my son's decision to give up playing football after his post-high school year of playing. He was an offensive and defensive player, and that year, after scoring two touchdowns, a tackle on him broke his leg. He felt it was a 'dirty' tackle, though I never really understand the logistics of that, but it cost him. Both his dad and I were at that game, watching as he was taken off the field on a stretcher. But he was moving. He never said outright why he decided to forgo the interest of several colleges interested in his playing football for them, but I imagine that the idea of hitting and being hit by beefier guys had no appeal. And I'm sure he did not want to chance being sidelined again during basketball season because of an injury. His decision to give up football did not come easy for him. He took criticism from his dad over it, which hurt him, but he held his ground, followed his own wisdom. I was and am proud of him, as is his dad. I was also relieved.

I am a huge fan of collegiate sports, mostly basketball. At times I may have been too avid in my cheering at my son's basketball, softball, and football games over the years. Once an athlete myself, I am not opposed to competitive play, and understand that risk of injuries is part of playing a sport. But the growing evidence about the long term impact of the concussions that NFL players endure, often with disastrous endings, requires rethinking the practices and policies that encourage men to 'man up' and play with injuries, to 'take out' opponents with brutal hits, or abuse steroids. It requires those of us who fill up stadiums and rock TV network ratings during game time to re-think our participation in keeping these practices going. Money goes far, but only so far when you're left with a damaged brain, a broken body,and millions of spectators who've long forgotten your name.

I watched a recent interview of Eric on his final day of training camp. He was excited about the upcoming season and a couple days of being home with his family. He was looking forward to salmon and rice, a favorite home cooked meal of his mom's. His mom was at the game that day. I pray for a miracle and change.

Photo courtesy of Star Ledger

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thoughts of Omar Thornton and the Families

Omar Thornton, a 34 year old black man who drove a beer delivery truck for a living, drew a line this week that cost the lives of nine people, including his own. It cost more than that because every one, I believe they were all men, had families, who now share in the pain. Omar's pain. Now Omar's pain has inevitably bled into theirs, whether they recognize it or not. His family surely knows that their pain comes from his as well as that caused by his actions. For surely that's how he got to drawing this line in murder. I have not heard from his family of origin, only his girlfriend, who happens to be white, who happens to confirm reports of his racial harassment. Does her skin color make her a more credible witness than say his black relatives?

Earlier today I read a piece on Salon about Omar and comments, Most of them discounted the racism issue and preferred to see Omar as simply "a nut," an ungrateful thief, or a disgruntled employee. They seem to reflect reports from the management of his company that in essence indicate they have no knowledge of any racial "insensitivities." Union officials' indication that they received no complaints of racial harrassment seem to bolster the denial. It is reported that Omar killed the person representing him at the disciplinary meeting, whom I presume was an union official.

It is extraordinarily tragic that so many lives were destroyed and families maimed by the rage in his body, the fingers that fired the 9 mm trigger again and again. The pain beneath that rage does not justify Omar's actions. And yet, even if he did steal the beer, does it preclude the occurrence of racial intimidation and devaluation? It may be hard for some to wrap their minds around how things such as the n word or display of 'nooses" and other provocative gestures/comments could lead to such horrific actions, but it is not difficult for me. People get tired of the microaggressions and many of these racial provocations are triggers to a long legacy of cruelty and subjugation that we as African-Americans have inherited. And if you also live with a long history of being on the edge of a financial cliff you are even more tired. You have even less power to change things. You feel like people keep f___ing with you, and you just get to the place where you are going to take control, or so it seems, you are going to go down f___ them up to the max -- that final line in the dirt. It is a lose lose place to be.

I am sorry that Omar arrived at that place. I am sorry that so much destruction of life and family went down that day. But I hope we all open our minds and our hearts to the fact that racism is an assault, it is a trauma, and rage and despair are often a response to it, especially when there are other assaults coming at you as well. Add in the presence of guns and...

May the sacrifice of these lives give rise to some higher good in our minds, hearts, and in our practices.

Photo courtesy of Facebook

Thursday, July 22, 2010

None More Invisible -- Native Americans

Before the Iroquois' recent catapault into local news, I'm not even sure it made it to the national realm, when is the last time I heard anything about any Native American in this land?

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man surely captured the experience of African-Americans in his day and in new forms today. But there is simply no competition in invisibility when it comes to the Native populations. It is astounding. Not once in my graduate or undergraduate studies, my teaching of graduate and post-graduate trainees have I encountered a Native American, or one identifying her/him self that way. Where are Native American students? The next to last time I heard something on the news about Native Americans it had to do with them taking revenue from New York State because they sell tax-free cigarettes on their reservations. We do have ads about Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos but the Native American association is not particularly, if at all, visibible. And how informative would that be, if it appeared?

The recent news story involving the Iroquois lacross team centered on the use of their tribal documents as their passports. Though they are apparently granted American citizenship by virtue of being born in the U.S. they and the land they occupy are considered sovereign. Lacrosse is a game that originated with Native Americans and the Iroquois lacross team was set to go to England to participate in an international competition. However, England would not accept their Iroquois passports, even though the U.S. issued a special waiver that recognized them as valid for travel. The Iroquois are quoted as saying it is a matter of identity, and they did not go. They would not barter with it.

Who knows when we'll hear again about them or any other Native group living in NY State or any state for that matter.
Sure, we have the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, but these are mere holdovers of relegating a group of people to team mascots. No honor.

How many Native American creative writers do I know? One, Sherman Alexie.

How many Native Americans do I know, period? Two, a Hopi/Havasupai colleague in the mental health profession, also one of the 13 indigenous Grandmothers, and a good friend who is Native and African-American. Though I have Native blood running down from three generations back I don't identify as Native. I do feel a connection though, to the suffering, to the collaboration on survival in our histories, to the beauty of their understanding and reverence for Mother Earth and to the artistic craftsman/womanship they continue to pass down through the winters of the generations.

Keeping Native Americans invisible means that we do not have to face the way the trauma of genocide has decimated so many, the way that many reservations are populated with high numbers of suicidal teenagers, drunken men, victims of sexual abuse, and diabetics. Keeping Native Americans invisible means that our Nation does not have to face its own shame. But denial and amnesia will not make it go away from the soul of this country. We need to remember and to see the legacy that lives and dies among us.

If we remain silent, we collude in the invisibility. So, let's ask where the Native American students are in unviersities, diversity programs, theories of psychology and family functioning. Let's ask about Native Americans in mental health, morbidity, life span, college graduation statistics. Let's learn about the Native American tribes that live in our state and invite them to speak to us of their lives, their concerns. Let's ask our government about its current policies in regard to Native Americans, how it is meeting its accountability. Let's stop using the term 'caught red-handed' to refer to discovering someone in the act of malfesance. Let's talk about the history and present of oppression. Let's change.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

South Africa and Soccer

Millions probably learned more about South Africa in the last few days than they ever knew, as a result of the coverage of the World Cup. I myself never knew they had a Youth Day, a holiday to commemorate the students who protested apartheid, and their inferior (Bantu) education in particular, including the many who lost their lives as a result. I'm not a soccer fan but the footage of the buoyant South African faces, the colorful attire of Zulu women with their signature hat crowns, and the design of the South African flag itself have been captivating.

I don't wish to be in that stadium mashed in with all the people and melting into the buzzing sound of those horns, the vuvuzelas, but I want to visit South Africa. I want to witness what was brought into being in that land through struggle, sacrifice, and generosity of spirit. I want to witness the beauty of Capetown's landscape as well as the shanty towns that still exist. I want to be on that soil and pay homage. I will never forget the day I stood for 7 hrs, along with my daughter, along with hundreds of other black folks in Harlem to see Nelson Mandela. What a moment! There was an amazing electricity of connection in the crowd, a love voltage, a feeling of being joined with and validated by his freedom.

How sad that his joy at having the World Cup held in his land has been stolen by the tragic loss of his great granddaughter. Divine timing is hard to understand at times. How unbearable for her mother, who wrote such a lovely piece about her daughter, saying in essence that she should have allowed her to wear all the make up she wanted to wear, let her sleep later when she said she was tired because maybe if she had her daughter would come back to her so that she could hold her one more time.

But that does seem to be the nature of life, grief and joy, horror and grandeur, dry and soaked side by side, even as it seems like one does not leave room for the other, and yet there they both are, time after time. I've enjoyed seeing the locks on some of the soccer players, the natural hairstyle of Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, the young people teaching the soccer dance, and hearing the melody of the South African national anthem. I didn't see Desmond Tutu dance but I can imagine so well this expressive man who calls out what needs to be called, who bent over with grief during the Truth & Reconciliation Commission at hearing the inhumanity of man. Such greatness abounds!

And yet one thing I'm tired of in the coverage is the repeated message of African teams unable to win even as the hosting continent for the World Cup. It has been difficult to see the losses, especially the two games South Africa played. I was rooting for them to win, for themselves, their country and the continent. And that very yearning is what I see as the subtext to all the commentary of the reported "heartbreak" of the African teams. You might host the World Cup but you're still inferior. Maybe that's just my imagination, or a reflection of my own woundedness from the historic shaming of Africa. But if I know that I have more healing to do, then it's likely that others do too. This legacy of shame is not like baby oil on the skin that leaves its mark as a sheen on the surface, it's more like BP oil in the Gulf that's coloring the ocean's surface and the depths you cannot see from sailing. A fishing boat with deep net, maybe.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Prayer and Kindness for the Vulnerable

This past week I've been tuned into the vulnerability that comes with illness, the heightened sensitivity one has to being alone or to how present and loving our caregivers are in responding to our vulnerability. In neither the case of my friend nor me is the down time permanent or due to any severe condition, and still the emotionality is there. Even temporary helplessness or constriction in our ability to function can be hard to adjust to, along with the increased need for others to do for us or fill in for us. That's why kindness is especially meaningful, even healing,for patients in the hospital.

One such patient in a nursing home came on the local late night news. It sent shudders through me. If not for the cameras in that facility, it would likely not have come to light. A middle-aged black women who look pretty weathered in her mug shot (she has been arrested) was caught on video wheeling a patient's wheelchair around so hard that the woman was thrown out of it onto the floor. The aide ignored her and proceeded on with whatever she was doing and then left the area. The patient, an 85 year old woman, laid there helpless for minutes before another aide discovered her and got help. The patient's hip was fractured.

The things that people can do to the vulnerable are unimaginable. I thought of my own mother who time and again made clear she never wanted to go to a nursing home. I felt grateful again that she made her transition in her own bed at home, having received extraordinary and loving care in her last weeks. I thought of the 85 y.o. patient with a hip fracture that will probably never mend, her utter helplessness, and how her family must feel knowing of her treatment.

With all the news about the oil in the Gulf coast, I've been thinking about all the marine life that somehow seem more helpless than the humans facing loss of livelihood. I am thankful for all those who are lending their expertise to help.

A Native American sent around an urgent call for prayer for all of nature suffering in the Gulf Coast. I join in that prayer, and add in every single living being and expression of nature that is in a state of acute vulnerability. I am also reminded that vulnerability can come in small every day forms, children in the face of adults, women in the face of men, clients seeking mental health services, people in low status occupations, and how a little kindness can be protective and affirming of all humanity, the vulnerable and those more powerful.

And I pray for that aide in the nursing home, for the healing she needs to address the wound that could lead her into such inhumanity -- some vulnerability of her own.

Please join me in this prayer if you are so moved.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Parenting: Old School - New School

I am a mandated reporter, like many professionals, therapists, teachers, medical doctors...we are by law, required to report any incident of neglect or abuse reported to us. We do not determine whether neglect or abuse has indeed happened, that is the job of the Protective Services Unit. It is never pleasant to make such a report. Most of the reports are made by workers in community agencies, not private practice. That is because the agencies provide more accountability, they have their own licenses to maintain, their own protocol. Supervisors in these agencies are expected to monitor the risks involved in workers' cases and ensure that protocol is carried out. If and when reports are made to the Child Abuse hotline depends on the severity of the situation, as well as the particular protocol of the agency. If the abuse is mild or moderate and the parent seems amenable to participating in therapy to learn other ways of discipline, some will delay reports of abuse. I believe in that. Still, there are times when I have to report a parent of suspected abuse or neglect. Most of the time, the suspected abuse is not severe enough to warrant removal of the child. Still, understandably, parents abhor the entry of child protective services into their lives. They resent that their authority can be questioned or deemed inappropriate by outsiders.

I often think there has to be a better way to help parents face the reality that unlike in the past, there are limits to what parents can do to their children in the name of discipline.

Old school is the parenting strategy that says parents have the power to do what they feel necessary to get the behavior they wish to see from their children. Sayings like "spare the rod, spoil the child," and "children should be seen and not heard," reflect this philosophy. The child, because of his or her age, has the right to basic needs being met, but beyond that silent obedience to the rule of the parent is expected. The parent's power is absolute, and no evidence of the child's displeasure is tolerated. No rolling of the eyes, no pouting, no sucking of the teeth. Spankings, whippings, beatings are considered the parents' prerogative, in the name of getting compliance.

It is oppressive, though parents who practice this method do not see it that way. They see it as raising well-mannered, obedient children, children who will do well in life. I was raised by an old-school parent. She never left marks when she spanked me with a glass hairbrush, but for most old school parents welts are an acceptable part of punishment.

Men being the "king of their castle" is old school too. They had the right to do what they wanted with their wives, their property, so to speak. Most mothers now see that this old school position was abusive in regard to women, but many still do not make the same leap with regard to children.

Children are little people, but they are people, and like all of us they need to have some voice, some sense of agency over their lives, it is part of their feeling valued. It is possible to set limits and discipline, something children definitely need, without squashing their sense of person-hood, without "beating" or "whipping" them. New school says children are entitled to their own boundaries, as are adults. Striking an adult can constitute an assault and charges can be brought. New school says that striking a child in a way that injures, including welts, which are bruises, or that is severe, like punching, kicking, or sexually violating, is not a parental right.

Some have suggested that in the case of African-Americans and African-Caribbeans, whippings are a re-creation of our experience under slavery. I do not know, but it is worth considering.

What I do know is that not every tradition is worth holding onto. As someone who has sought to learn about and value my African heritage, I have long realized that I cannot take a knee-jerk position on this. Sankofa, the Adinkra symbol and bird, tell us to take what is valuable from the past. That means, we leave the rest behind.

Old school does have some valuable aspects, like the importance of respecting elders, and the sense of community in which parenting is a communal responsibility and not an individual one.

When they were old enough to appreciate the humor and the seriousness of it, I used to enjoy saying to my children "parents are people too." We have feelings and vulnerabilities, and we are not infallible. The same is true of children. Respect is a two way street. Limits can be set with children in respectful ways.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Gratitude: So Many Mothers to Thank

As we approach the day designated for Mother's to be recognized and receive appreciation for all that they do, my thoughts turn to just how many mothers there are to thank.

Recently, I returned to a piece I'd written several years ago for yet another revision. It was about how a woman I'd never met or heard of, stepped up, with three other mothers, on a Friday night outside an Upper East side bar, and saved my son from serious harm or worse. He'd been pushed out the bar by a white bouncer when he questioned if the latter was serious about him not being able to take a call on his cell in the foyer. In the process, he got separated from his phone and when he attempted to go back in to get it, the other bouncer, a black guy, hit him. These Black women were walking in the area at the time and witnessed this scene and the ominous conflict brewing. They intervened. One of them in particular, convinced my son that his phone was not worth his life, and took him to a bar with a diverse clientele, one she said was "safe." Unlike, her, he was unfamiliar with the area, and had only been there because of a specific event taking place earlier near this bar. I later learned her name, Ms. Simpson, and met her. She 'mothered' my son that night -- protected and guided him -- and I am forever grateful to her.

African-Americans have a long history of kinship that extends beyond biology. It is in fact one of the ways we have endured the oppression of enslavement and its aftermath. They're sometimes referred to as 'other mothers' -- women who have nurtured and schooled us, whether we've had our biological mothers to do so or not. Women who know how to give good enveloping hugs and how to call us, straight up, on our bull and denial. Women who believe in us and in whose eyes we can see our lovely and deserving selves.

Some of these women have biological children of their own, but others do not. They 'mother' the children born of other women in different ways, as godmothers, as therapists, as volunteer mentors and more.

Last year was the last Mother's Day I had with my own biological mother. It was a pointed and poignant day. We actually exchanged our cards on the day before, because we didn't know how much time she had and she was so eager to do so. "Is it today?" she asked that Friday and that Saturday, until finally I said "Yes, it's today." How silly to think it mattered the exact day.

This week I sent out several cards to women who have mothered me in some fashion. I collect beautiful cards that are blank inside, so I can write my own message most of the time. I know how much it means to me to be appreciated, and how often women's ways are devalued or go unrecognized. And so, I want to voice to them, again and again, that I value their contributions to my life. And not just on Mother's Day.

Photo by thandiwe: One mother and 'other mother' I know

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hugo Alfredo: The Invisible Immigrant Who Gave

Let me begin my stating my understanding of who is an immigrant. In recent years, this term has become code, in the dominant discourse, for referring to people of color who have come to the U.S. Belgians, Scots or Swedes are not envisioned. However, in actuality, Native Americans are the only people in this country who are not immigrants, and perhaps, they too migrated here from somewhere else long ago.

But today I woke up to the beautiful and tragic story of Hugo Alfredo, an immigrant from Guatemala. I do not know how long he has been in this country or had been homeless. What I know, from watching ABC this a.m. is that he attempted to help a woman who either was or seemed to be in danger from a man pursuing her. She apparently got away from her pursuer, who then turned his rage on Hugo, stabbing him several times, before taking off. A video camera records Hugo giving chase but only for a few feet, when he collapses on the sidewalk, face down. Individuals pass by him, with no movement towards him. Finally, one guy actually stops and rolls him over, seeing his wounds. It's not clear who called the police, but for one hour Hugo lay on the sidewalk dying. He is going back to Guatemala to his family in a box.

When Ju-Ju reported this story on Good Morning America, she ended with a line and flip delivery that led me to turn off the TV: "A Good Samaritan Who Needed a Good Samaritan." Clever line but no feeling evident in it.

I'd like to think that if I had passed this man on the street that I would have done something. I'd like to believe that about myself, especially if he's face down. I don't think I would have gone over and touched him, out of fear (of germs, of his reaction, of what I'd find). I have certainly approached strangers, adults and children, who seem highly distressed, to see if they need help. But there is this veil, sometimes opaque and other times sheer, that hangs between homeless people and most of us with homes to go to (even if in foreclosure). When the homeless are sprawled on the ground and if we look at their faces, we assume sleep or passed out. But face down on the sidewalk, I believe I could not have done nothing. I believe I would have called the police to report a man face down, perhaps in medical distress. That's all I can do, believe. I wasn't there and so I do not know what I would do. The man who extended himself to at least turn Hugo over may in fact have been the one who called the police.

Hugo, a Central American immigrant, did not have a home, but he had a generous spirit, a humanity of grace. To those who want to scapegoat and traumatize immigrants of color, we can ask, where is your humanity? Does Hugo's humanity reach yours? To those of us who believe we would have done something, we can ask ourselves, how can we lift that veil a little higher?

I hope we get to hear from the woman to whom he made his offering. But even if we don't, Hugo's sacrifice stands as a reflection to us all.

Photo courtesy of AP, F. Franklin

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Appreciating Little Signs of Progress

Most of us want to do big things. We’re led to believe that is what matters. Make a splash, grab a headline, make a lot of money, cure AIDS, turn 100 heads as we walk by. Make a difference. It’s why I’ve always loved the saying by Mother Teresa:

“We cannot do great things in this world, only small things with great love.”

And so it is with our growth. We look to make great leaps and that’s fine. Shoot for the stars, it’s the only way you’ll get there or even close. And at the same time, so many important moments come in tiny steps, a certain look of compassion, the one time, when you don’t respond the way you almost always do, a day when you eat more fruit and green vegetables. As a therapist, you are not always the vehicle to a certain outcome. Sometimes, that outcome is far away, and what you can contribute is to the quality of the process, a different experience along the way, or maybe one new opening in the mind and heart of another. You are contributing, and others will too, maybe down the line, another therapist will see the outcome.
I believe that all of us know a great deal, even if we do not always have access to what we know. Much of what is needed is to remember, keep remembering, and to practice, and keep practicing. And so recently, I noticed one of those small steps in my own growth -- nothing earth shattering, and yet something in which I find pleasure, a sense of goodness.

In certain neighborhoods, certain regions of the country, strangers acknowledge each other as they cross paths, as a matter of human courtesy. Most times, especially in big cities, strangers may look at each other as they pass and that’s it. Every now and then there’s the exception. In the past, when I have extended myself to be the exception, and the human being ignores me, I have felt one or more of these feelings: foolish, devalued, miffed. Courtesy and respect were BIG in my household growing up -- it’s downright rude and disrespectful to not return a greeting that is respectful. When my friendliness was not returned I wished I hadn’t extended myself.
And yet, I didn’t like the tit for tat attitude either. There is something valuable about extending a friendly greeting, period, the feeling of good will. . I aspire to get to that place, where I may be disappointed that a greeting isn’t returned, but that I don’t feel diminished by it and I don’t regret having extended myself.
A few days ago, I got a glimpse of it. No one else was on the sidewalk when I and a Black man, who looked like he may have been from the Caribbean, approached each other.

“Good morning,” I said.

He looked at me, his eyes rather piercing, and his face like stone, as we passed each other. I wondered about him. I did not feel foolish or regretful. I felt good. I spoke because that’s how I wanted to be in that moment. It’s been easier for me to know the satisfaction of taking a stand on big things, to represent my vision, my values, whether or not it will change anything. It’s been a matter of principle.
But even in small things, I am practicing to see the value of being who I am unconditionally.

Photo courtesy of Bernadine Tolbert

Sunday, April 4, 2010

MLK Jr. - reflections on the anniversary of his murder

I can remember this day forty-two years ago like it was yesterday. I was in my high-rise dorm room when the voice of my friend Jimmy Mac, a cool dude with wire-rim glasses from Harlem, came through the phone. "They did it," he said. "What?" I said. "They killed him." "Who are you talking about?" "Martin Luther King." "WHAT? They KILLED HIM? They KILLED him!" That gentle giant with black eyes like that of a doe, willing to get his and others' heads bashed in in the name of love and turning the cheek. I could not take it in, but told Mac I'd be downstairs in a few minutes to join him and others who were going downtown (Boston) to be together with other Black students in the area.

I am still not over it. The issue of race took on a new philosophy and role in my life. But that's another blog.

What I didn't appreciate at the time was how radical Martin Luther King Jr. was, not just in terms of his non-violence stance (which truthfully didn't seem that radical to me at the time), but when he began to address the immorality of Vietnam and of class oppression, and suggested that the ghetto was a colony. This progression in his thinking, his voice, his actions doesn't get much play, and he had just started to support the Black sanitation workers on strike in Memphis when he was shot down. Bill Moyers recently did a show on PBS about King and the state of class and race nowadays. He and Michael Winship also did a piece in King lost a lot of support when he widened his lens and protest, including flak from the N.A.A.C.P. So sad. It reminds me again of how lonely it can be to take a stand against injustice, and yet as he said "There comes a time when silence is a betrayal."

Not long ago, there was concern that the sculpture of him for the memorial being built in Washington looked too forceful (my word). Or is it that it looked 'angry'? His face, his hands needed to be toned down, smoothed over. This is what society wants to do over time with social justice heroes, render them innocuous teddy bears so they can be loved. I think about this not only with Martin Luther King but Muhammad Ali. These Black men did not go gently against injustice, and they were willing to risk status and lifestyle in taking their stands. Muhammad Ali gave up his heavyweight title, his ability to make a living in is profession for years, and Martin Luther King gave us his life. These men had the courage and integrity to speak up and lose the support of many.

The cost of integrity can be high. This post-modern notion that everything can be negotiated pleasantly with appropriate empathy and good will is itself a sanded-down notion. There is sacrifice, burning, and heartbreak in speaking truth to Power.

I give thanks to these brothers and others who bear witness to such strength. Though I cannot be them, they hold me up in the little steps I take to speak up at times when silence is preferred and well cultivated.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ghana Journal III - Elmina Castle

On our next to last day in Ghana, my daughter, Maia, Bernadine, a family friend and I set out for Cape Coast, intending to see the castle where our enslaved ancestors were kept. Yes, castle. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it at first when others referred to Elmina castle, and Cape coast castle. Somehow an eleven year old girl’s memories of royalty and castles lived on -- the enthrallment with gold, fine jewels, the pomp and circumstance and the drama -- collided with the notion of dungeon. That is the word I put on a place where Africans were held captive before shipped across the Atlantic, not castle. I had been fascinated by British history, the Queens and Kings, learning about them in school the summer my mom and I spent in London. No mention of the slave trade, least nothing that made an impression.

There in Ghana the romanticized version of royalty had to catch up with all the subsequent years of my life. We ended up at Elmina castle, instead of Cape Coast castle, because the former is closer to where we had lunch by the water, Coconut Grove Resort. We’d done the Canopy Walk at Kakum Forest, and yearned for some good food. The water helped calm the irritation that had arisen among us, particularly Maia, about the tense walk on a board plank strung with rope high above the forest. Nothing steady about it and sturdy is up for grabs too, given the netted rope that served as un-reassuring side rails. Concentration was key, and not on the forest.

As we left the Forest, Felix our driver called our attention to the dying coconut trees. Somehow we hadn’t noticed on the way there, rolling fields of tall, barren trunks a nub at the top, besieged with some disease, its remedy not yet identified.

We arrived at Elmina castle late afternoon. The conversation between us faded, as we approached on foot, amidst a swarm of young people, each insisting we give their wares and words attention. The massive off white structure with black trim, peeling, under a magnificent blue sky loomed, and I felt my body brace before we crossed the moat into it. Immediately after paying to get in, extra to take pictures, I felt incensed. Why should I have to pay? I thought, African-Americans should get in for free. It’s not like we wouldn’t donate to keep this monument to the Maafa, the Great Disaster. I let the feeling go as I stepped into the central courtyard of the castle, flooded with light.

Kwesi, our tour guide, a handsome young man, in his early 20’s with espresso colored skin and a velvety voice, had such gruesome stories to tell, such grim inhabitable spaces to show us. Ground level and below. Up on the second floor, your fate told clearly by which staircase you took there (the back steps, of wood) or the wide polished ones, the Governor’s suite, a balcony, the Portuguese kitchen, the Dutch kitchen. Three hundred women corralled in a lean corridor, lit like a closet, with little attention to their bodily needs. Above their heads, Dutch church services were held. Standing in that space I tried to imagine myself there with my ancestors, but made a fast mental retreat. I wanted to scream a mad woman’s protest, long and loud, the unraveling kind where the woman's hair is all wild and her eyes glazed, house shoes on her feet. But I stayed quiet. For a special occasion, women got herded in the courtyard, for the Governor’s pick, as he surveyed below from the balcony. The chosen one had had the privilege of being cleaned with the collected rain water. Cells a tad larger than a phone booth for trouble makers. And then the last stop for the Africans in Elmina, the cube of darkness, except for the rectangular opening in the wall, the door of no return. Here began the loading onto ships for the Middle Passage, nearly 3 months after being in Elmina's dungeon. Here is where I placed the offering I had brought, a piece of rose quartz from my ancestral altar at home. I put it next to the wreath Kwesi said had been left by other African-Americans. Here is where I said a prayer to my ancestors, honoring them for what they endured, words that could barely touch the unfathomable.

Kwesi acknowledged the role of some Africans in capturing other Africans to sell to the Europeans, and the chiefs who bartered in African lives. I found some comfort in this expression of accountability, even as Kwesi and I both know that no African could have strung a bridge in his or her mind from slavery in Africa to that in the Americas. The presence of Kwesi, in his reverent manner, throughout, was a balm in Elmina. Fifty two years since Elmina came into Ghanaian hands, five centuries since the Portuguese built it, the first prison in Africa for those who lived and died through the Maafa.

Photos by thandiwe.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ghana Journal II -- Food and Fabric

Four out of the five. That's how many nights we ate Ghanaian food. Three of those nights in Accra we hit an outdoor restaurant where we religously ordered kelewele, spiced fried plantain cut like apple slices, and jollof rice. I don't know what seasonings go into that food or whether it's the palm oil, but the flavor is got-to-have it. I liked Red-red, a bean dish, too but I didn't keep ordering it like I did kelewele, jollof rice, and fried fish. I compared kelewele from our hotel, Coconut Grove, her sister hotel Coconut Grove Resort, dining next to the water, and our regular Accra spot, the winner in my view. But Maia, my daughter, said the cook at the guest house where she stayed topped the restaurant's version. She got instruction in making them under the cook's supervision, and has made them since back in the States. I can't wait to sample! The only night we didn't eat Ghanaian we went to an Indian restaurant, invited by Maia's cohorts, who touted it to be the "best Indian food in town." I can't speak on that but my shrimp briyani took a delicious notch up on the spice over the one back home. The other Ghanaian delight not to be missed is their cocoa. Even with mostly water and a little milk, the chocolate flavor was sublime!

All over Ghana, in the bustle of Accra or along dirt roads in the countryside, women wear some of the most well-fitting skirts and blouses made of strikingly colorful fabric on the planet. I'm talking women of all sizes, those with big hips, bountiful breasts as well as those more modestly endowed, or downright lean. Not once did I see a woman with her skirt "cupping her behind" as my mother used to say when she took me shopping as a girl and a dress or skirt I was trying on was too tight and wasn't coming home with us. The Ghana ankle length skirt follows the waist and hips with precision, and the kaleidoscopic colors of the fabric, along with the creativity of the blouse, and precise tailoring, all add up to beautiful, elegant women. Fabric is everywhere for sale, the colors and designs a vibrant feast for the eyes. I bought one of the loveliest batiks from a roadside stand manned by an adolescent boy whose mother had instructed him not to bargain, and though I doubted him at first, he made a believer out of me.

Kente and adinkra are the most prized traditional cloth from Ghana. Kente is an intricately woven cloth of silk threads that come from the okomantan spider. There are many designs, and at one time, a particular design was associated with a particular clan or social status. It is woven in narrow strips which are then sewn together. On my second trip to the Cultural Arts Center I bargained well for a piece of kente and adinkra. The adinkra cloth is stamped with adinkra symbols, each one representing a particular belief or principal of Asante (also spelled Ashanti) culture. Sesa Wo Suban, Transform my life is one of my favorites. That's why it's in my blog heading. One day I'll figure out how to get the symbol there too.

Next and final Ghana Journal - The Castle (where the enslaved were held before making the Middle Passage).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ghana Journal I - Akwabaa and Bodacious

It's nearly a month since I returned from my trip to Ghana, a short but meaningful one. My daughter was going because of her interest in international health, particularly, in Africa. She'd been to Swaziland twice, and I'd gone once before, back in the 70's, to parts of East and West Africa. How nice it would be, I thought, to be on the Continent together. Beyond that I wanted to go to one of the dungeons where the enslaved Africans were held before loaded on ships for the infamous Middle Passage. I had not done that before, but now I had a need to do so. I learned they are called castles, but that journey is not for today's Ghana Journal.

A family friend, Bernadine, and I flew non-stop to Accra. Nine hours. The flight, with center rows of 3 seats, flanked by rows 2 seats deep, was full. I speak from the vantage point of coach class, and have no idea if all the business class seats had bodies. Judging from our section and the airport terminal, Ghanaians ruled the passenger list, and I couldn't help notice that quite a few were mothers with young children, and some grandmothers. I imagined happy occasions on their returning home, to visit or stay.

Akwabaa! This is the greeting you hear and see on signs everywhere. It means you are welcome. And you are. You feel it with customs folks who look over your passport and make small talk, smiling young men who swamp you once you're outside the airport itself, vying for the role of helping you to your transportation, with hotel staff, and the young men and women vendors who approach the car selling home made and store bought food, pouches of water, gum, dish towels, nearly anything that can be used. The Ghanaians we encountered had a warmth and dignity about them, from those in the middle class sector to those who live in a small village we visited in Kligor, a few hours drive from Accra, in the Volta region.

Accra is a sprawling city teeming with buildings, traffic circles, serious traffic at rush hour, and people on the move. Unlike my time there before, where we only walked, we only rode. Felix, our driver, is an Ewe, an ethnic group that originates from the Volta region. Every morning he appeared at our hotel in a crisp neat look, shirt and pants, ready for the day's agenda. A dark skinned man in his early 60's with a head-on smile, he let us know early that he is a Christian man who observes his faith seriously. That didn't get in the way of his humor though, and we had some good laughs. The only time Bernadine, my daughter and I did any substantial physical activity was at Kakum National Forest, where we had some serious climbing to do to get to Canopy Walk. It's not for the weak-hearted. High above the forest, a plank of wood swung as we walked, holding on to the rope banister that topped the braided rope that ran from it to the wood. That was the railing to keep us in. It reached our waist, sometimes. My daughter found nothing enjoyable about it, and I admit the forest got dwarfed, as I concentrated intently on balance as I stepped.

Wherever we went, from Accra to the village in Kligor to Cape Coast, where two of the castles that imprisoned our ancestors were located, Ghanaians brought up Obama. In their faces I saw a deep pride and joy in the son of an African now President, a man who chose to visit their country with his family. I too felt a deep pride, learning more about their first President, Kwame Nkrumah, when we visited his memorial, accompanied by our well-informed tour guide. The audacity of this African man in leading Ghana out of colonization by Britain, only 52 years ago. The strategic foresight he had in marrying an Egyptian woman and envisioning a unified and free Africa. The legacy of audacity in our ancestors is a mind-blowing, immeasurable gift. Growing up, I remember the word bo-dacious . "She's so bodacious," we'd say, like too bold, over the top. But where would we be without those bodacious folks in our history, and in our lives today?

Photos by thandiwe.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Confusing Lists with Life - Rumi, to my rescue

Lists are like brushing my teeth and washing my face -- fundamental to meeting the day with a semblance of togetherness. Even now that I'm working two part-time jobs and not one full-time job and three part-time jobs, they are essential. I make lists by the week, with usually two columns, headed Calls and To Do. They help rein in the panicky feeling that sometimes surfaces, the one of not knowing where to start, the one accompanied by images of me running around from one thing to the next, flitting like a manic butterfly. Lists bring me back to the moment of what I can do, a specific task. It is on paper and I can direct myself to getting it crossed off.

Lists are my evidence of a manageable life, one in which I have control, or some. They are reassuring, like clean teeth and fresh breath, a face refreshed with warm water and a creamy cleanser, topped with rose hips oil and then a moisturizer. Ahhhh! I am in the world, not under it.

As the details and stimuli of life come at me like confetti from a paper-shredding machine in the sky, lists are up there with screening, ignoring, and scanning for a time frame. If its not relevant today or this week, the fine details are left for when I will need to take action. My attention will have more motivation to stick around then.

In addition to a sense of control, lists give me pleasure. Each time I can pick up a highlighter and bathe an item in its pastel, there is a sense of accomplishment. I have done something with my life, my time. I have met a purpose. But every now and then I get some distance on this, and sadly, it seems like much of life is tied up in this notion. The state, the agency wants to know how many clients did you see this week. The university wants to know how many articles have you published. The city wants to know how many tickets did you give out today? Friends ask what have you been up to, and somehow you feel like you have to have something to show, something you've gotten done, an outcome of some sort. And things like enjoying one's children, reading poetry, or spending years to write a poem, just don't cut it as worthwhile living. They don't fit the solid, reductionist measure.

It is easy to get entranced by the pervasive chanting that says accomplishments are the essence of life, racking up numbers, crossing off items on lists. It is so much harder to see and feel the jewel in the process, the quality of trying, the beauty of investing our time in loving and creating, and in reflecting.

"Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place." Rumi

I had a card with that saying on it. That is the life I aspire to, the living I want to do. I need to be reminded, again and again. Rumi offers his own spell and I go to him and others who remember.

Photo courtesy of Bernadine Tolbert

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reflections on Alice Walker and Haiti

While every person and every situation we encounter can be viewed as a teacher, clearly some stand out. Alice Walker is one of those teachers in my life, and my gratitude only deepens with time. I thank her for the term 'womanist,' one that I have taken on, instead of 'feminist,' to acknowledge my feminism as rooted in the African-American culture in which I've been raised. I thank her for taking on the hard stuff that so many people (whites and people of color) rather not take on in the space of their minds and daily lives. Many African-Americans, men predominantly, but not exclusively, disparaged her representation of a black man as physically and sexually abusive, in the Color Purple, particularly when it emerged on the screen. I've heard similar critiques about the film Precious. Back in the days when our only images in the media were that of buffoon, maid, and pimp, I too shared in this sense that our representations needed to be uplifting. But Alice is willing to say the hard stuff about destructive dogma and practices in the world and our backyards, sexism only one among them. And she does not stutter-step.
I remember how excited I was back in the 80's to get hold of her Spelman College Founder's Day speech about 'oppressed hair.' She spoke of her transformation into allowing her hair to be natural in its shape and texture. I shared it generously. I remember how profoundly sad I felt after reading Possessing the Secret of Joy, that pulled the drapes wide open on the magnitude of the oppression of women's sexuality. She blew me away in her essay, The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind, in which she affirms herself, straight on, as a pagan who sees Nature as God.
And now to my latest read, We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For, there is a line that stands out to me, one relevant to the recent imprisonment of American missionaries in Haiti.

"The colonizing mind invites itself wherever it wishes to intrude."

This line emerges as she speaks of NASA wanting to go to Saturn, "uninvited," but its relevance cuts across generations and geography. If it is true, that these missionaries gathered up children with no respect to whether they were orphaned, then we have a colonizing mind in play, the same kind that removed Native American, and Australian aborigine children from their families in the name of betterment. That betterment is an assertion of superiority, often based on identities of religion, culture, race or class. The colonizing mind does not distinguish between help and domination. Haitians, who have paid dearly for being the only Caribbean nation to militarily win their independence, have had enough domination.

Alice Walker, thank you for writing and living in ways that give me and others the courage to keep giving voice, to keep valuing our sensitivity to injustice, its nooks and crannies, even as the world tells us we're crazy or passe.

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Back from Ghana -- Obama on Tap

I have just returned from a week in Ghana, West Africa, where the warmth and humidity cleared up my eczema and provided me with much to reflect upon. Upcoming blogs will speak to this more. Everywhere I went, Ghanaians let me know how excited they are about Obama. They still have billboards up welcoming him for his visit months ago. But now, I am back in the cold and quite sad about the man, President Obama, who is scheduled to give his State of the Union address this evening. Like many, I was stunned at the outcome of the Massachusetts election (the British version of CNN delivered the info to us in Ghana), and am sure Edward Kennedy has been fitful in his grave ever since. The sadness I feel, hearing about Obama's pivot to curtail spending, is essentially that he seems to go with the wind, or to use an analogy from my field of therapy, he goes around trying to put out little fires everywhere, but doesn't stake himself with a fundamental position that underlies the ignitions. As Bob Herbert speaks to his op ed column,, it's hard to know who Obama is when he turns this way and that. I remember that Max Robinson, a former nightly news reporter for ABC many years ago, and the brother of Randall Robinson, once said as his health was waning, and I'm paraphrasing here, that at the end of the day, he would have his integrity.

I believe that Barack Obama is an extraordinary man. And yet, more and more, he looks like the same old political panderer, though clearly an intellectually well endowed one. During his campaign when I had not an inch of thought that he could win, my daughter kept bringing on her faith that he could. My mother kept saying, "they're going to get (kill) him," and my son has all along offered skepticism, saying that Obama is in bed with the same old corporations and financial folks as his predecessors. If Obama means what he said in his interview with Diane Sawyer, about not being focused on re-election but on being a good one-term President, then I say to him stake a position, stay with it, elaborate it, fight for it -- go down with it, if need be. At least then, I and perhaps others will feel that you truly stand for something, that you are authentically trying to take us somewhere new, that you care enough to commit. No matter what happens, if Obama can do this, then I will feel lifted by his integrity and courage. I do not walk in his moccasins and so I can't know what it's like, but I want my voice to be one of encouragement and inspiration. Admittedly, there is some judgment too, though I have no right to it. I'm with Max Robinson, integrity is peace of mind and nothing is more valuable than that. Come on Obama, take it to the hoop!

Picture courtesy of fan-pop

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti on my Mind and Heart

As the world turns its eyes and humanity to the devastation in Haiti, I pray that out of this exacerbation of the suffering that country has endured, something spectacular and unimaginable will eventually manifest -- on the scale of their birth as an independent nation. Haiti is the only Caribbean country to obtain their independence through militarily defeat of their colonizers, the French, in this case. Touissant L'Ouverture led their victory. My uncle and cousin are named after him. And what a tremendous price Haiti has paid! It is no coincidence that they are the poorest country in that part of the world. They have been made to pay.

The average person in the developing world is immensely ignorant of the history and traditional religion of Haiti. I'm reminded of what pianist Eubie Blake said once about the fact that we don't know anything about Paul Revere's horse, only about Paul Revere, because he, not the horse, told the story. In his book, Quitting America,Randall Robinson, former head of TransAfrica, an organization that spear-headed the divestiture movement against S. Africa, gives an informed, little known history of Haiti and the role of the U.S. and Europe in its destabilization and poverty. I learned a great deal from him.

Vodou, a religion observed by significant numbers of Haitians, has been demonized by the Pat Robertsons of the world, and ridiculed by many of the intelligent folks of the world. I present as evidence the term 'vodoo economics' used by highly educated folks who get op-ed space in the New York Times. I try to imagine the term 'christian economics' with the same meaning ascribed to 'vodoo economics' and I can not get a shred of visual traction.

As many of us send money through various organizations to assist in the recovery, let's also pray that water, at the very least, arrives within hours. Two days in the Caribbean heat without water...I can't even imagine one dry day. Clean water for the Haitians, and miracles by the moment, I ask.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Zumba Class -- Dance and the Legacy of the Enslaved

Abstaining from work this past weekend, I took myself to a Zumba class. I'd only been to a couple of these classes, but was pleased to see a different teacher. Pat, a mature, well toned woman with bleached blonde hair and a somewhat gritty style worked better for me than the ingenue who seemed on the silly side. Plus, this teacher gave us some info on the dances, which shifted when the music did.

Dancing to salsa music is relatively new to me. My dance history is tied up with live African drumming and styles from African, to Afican-Brazilian, and African-Caribbean. But salsa music brings the same invocation to move in joy, to be in and alongside the rhythm, to let hips roll free, everything in communion with the beat. Dancing makes me smile, and when I can go fully into the movement, claim it, I am in endorphin city. When the cha cha music came on, Push Push (I've got to get it), I got head on in it, switching back and forth between the cha cha beat and the half steps I learned to throw in there, doubling the steps. "I was killing it," I later told my girlfriend, still riding the high from the class.

Dancing is therapeutic, and yet the therapy field offers little recognition of this.

Pat, who shared that she is half Latino, with a Puerto Rican father, taught a dance I'd never heard of -- Cumbia -- from Columbia. She related that it is believed to have come from those enslaved (a term that avoids the objectification of slaves). You generally move only one leg, the one that is not shackled, or so the story goes, and the arm movement is one of cutting chaff in the fields. Imagine. I had to touch the floor with both hands, when the dance ended, as I do before the drummers at other classes, signifying my gratitude and reverence for their contribution.

What a legacy my enslaved ancestors have bestowed. Dance dance dance -- however, whenever you can!

Photo by thandiwe