BIPOC Sanghas at Spirit Rock

Spirit Rock

In what feels like a lifetime ago, as a gesture of self-love, I took myself on a week-long silent retreat for self-identified women at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the mountains of California. The experience was truly transformative.

What a gift: a whole seven days to be with myself and my thoughts, my broken and breaking heart, in both sitting and walking meditation, to eat delicious vegetarian food, and not have to prepare it (bonus!), and be in community.

If you’ve never been to that part of the world know that it is breathtakingly beautiful, with lots of trees and fresh clean air. You feel the sacredness of the land.

I had a bit of a breaking open there, sitting with one of the trees that became my lunch companion during that week, sensing her own pain inherited from the soil that absorbed the blood shed when the indigenous people–stewards of the land and in partnership–were massacred, pushed off by Europeans who coveted the jewels she held.

What’s special about sangha and perhaps even more so about retreat, is that we get to be in community–a beloved community. We miss that when we practice the dharma alone. As Soto Zen priest extraordinaire, Rev. Earthlyn Zenju Manuel, asks of people who tell her they do not need a sangha, “Then where will you go when you begin to experience liberation?” and “Who will know the journey you have taken and your vow to be awake?” (Tell Me Something About Buddhism, 28)

These are complicated questions for people of color who enter the sangha seeking refuge, but who are often (re) traumatized by the tyranny of whiteness in majority white sanghas.

More on that later.

So, one of the beautiful practices that was built into the women’s retreat was a meeting with one of the teachers in community with a few other meditators. There were two such meetings scheduled during the week.

I was incredibly nervous before my first meeting with a teacher whose memoir I had read on the plane ride. Because I am who I am I spent a bunch of time rehearsing in my head the “important” insights that had come to me in just a couple of days and that I was anxious to share with the group (wasn’t I special?).

Spirit had different plans. For as soon as the teacher called my name and turned her attention to me I burst into tears and, through the snot and the sweat, babbled about feeling the indigenous people on the land and grieving their loss and their absence. Her response, measured and quiet as she handed me a box of tissues was “You belong here too.”

Through tear-filled eyes I gazed back at her, and at the beautiful faces of my fellow meditators who sat with me in that tiny hot room, and I understood Rev. Manuel’s question. We need community. We need to know we belong.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

Yes, COVID-19 is a thing.

But we can’t blame our social and spiritual isolation, aka, the delusion of separateness, on this virus.

We’ve been suffering with the disease of isolation and separation long before Mother Earth forced us to shelter in place.

One of the many gifts that COVID has given us is a recognition of, or rather awakening to our isolation from others and ourselves, even in the midst of activity. In fact, we use the activity to escape true relationship. We have been forced into true relationship.

What gifts. If only we would accept them.

As she has also always done, Mother Gaia gave us so much more than (in our minds) she took. This gift came in the form of technology, but more importantly, in the awakened hearts and minds of souls who recognized this time as an opportunity to share the dharma with those who, otherwise, might not have access to it.

This opportunity to gather in a time of profound suffering (let us count the ways), is a gift beyond measure; one which takes on Rev. Manuel’s questions by providing a safe, sacred container for our individual and collective healing and awakening.

These awakened souls at Spirit Rock have created a beautiful sacred space for Black Indigenous People of Color to gather together via Zoom every Sunday morning as a beloved community!!

As it has been a gift to me (and as we do) I want to share with you, my beloved community.

Please join us on these amazing journeys inward.

Spirit Rock generously operates on a sliding fee scale, so cost should not be a barrier.

Come and be nourished!

https://www.spiritrock.org/bipoc-voices-sunday-sangha

August 9 Devin Berry | Online-only

August 16 Solwazi Johnson| Online-only

August 23 Kaira Jewel Lingo | Online-only

August 30 Noliwe Alexander | Online-only

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Changes

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tupac lately.

Like a lot.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite songs by him: “Changes.” 

Tupac made lots of amazing music: “Dear Mama,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” “Brenda’s Got a Baby” are just few of his hits. 

Changes” is my all-time favorite. 

If you’re not familiar with the song, listen here.

Here are the lyrics.

The song is full of wisdom, engagement with history, insight into our current socio-political and economic crises, and foresight:

I love the song because it’s a truth-telling journey.

Tupac speaks about, not only systemic racism, but also systematic racism.

He not only talks about challenges to black dignity that come from outside of our communities, but also those that challenge us from within.

I have always thought that if half of the people who nodded their heads or moved their bodies or drove around blasting the song in their cars really listened to the words our communities would be so much healthier and happier. 

My favorite verse from the song is this:

 We gotta make a change

It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes

Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live

And let’s change the way we treat each other

You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do

What we gotta do, to survive

Tupac was full of rage, but he was also a thinker.

I came across one of his more provocative statements a few days ago in Kehinde Andrews’ Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century (2018).

During a panel discussion the Indiana Black Expo, Tupac defended is use of the term, “nigga” saying,

I don’t care of you’re a lawyer, if you’re a man, if you’re an African American, if you’re whatever the fuck you think you are. We’re thugs and niggas to the motherfuckers…How you gonna be a man if you’re starving? You know? You could go to four or five different houses and there ain’t a man in any one of those motherfuckers. How we gonna be African Americans if we out here dying? We’re thugs and we’re niggas until we get this shit straight. (136)

Indeed, what’s in a name if you have no control over it and its uses?

Tupac was full of such gems. 

Unfortunately, most of the people—black and white and other—who throw around words like “thug” and “nigga” as well as terms like “bitches,” and “hoes”—labels that have been and continue to be used to dehumanize us–do not put any thought into why they use them, nor their implications.

Or they use them in order to continue to inflict harm. 

With a desire to contribute to the positive change that Tupac advocated for, I would like to share a resource to help us on the journey to not only survive, but THRIVE!

Let’s start with food:

A few years ago, I read, and taught parts of Breeze Harper’s Sistah Vegan.

I then became familiar with the beautiful Annette Larkins, the now 78-year-old African American woman who, many years ago switched to a raw living foods diet and has maintained amazing health and a youthful appearance. 

Here’s a recent story about her: 80 Going on 40: How Annette Larkins Has Found the Fountain of Youth

I then came across Tracye McQuirter, author of By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Eat Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat (2010), a riff on one of Brother Malcolm X’s most memorable, however, abbreviated phrases: “By any means necessary.”

Many people know Ms. McQuirter as the Ageless Vegan, thanks to the publication of her most recent vegan cookbook by that name.

Indeed, she, like her mother, Mary, Annette Larkins, and another of Black women vegan elders, Karyn Calabrese, seems ageless.

Larkins, like Calabrese, is a raw vegan. 

This blog is all about celebrating Blackness; our many contributions to the world, and collective empowerment.

Again, in the interest of helping us realize the dream that Tupac shared, I share with you, my beloved readers, an offering that Tracye McQuirter has organized: The National AfroVegan Virtual Conference this Saturday, July 25th:

https://www.afrovegansociety.org/event-details/national-afrovegan-virtual-conference

While you’re at it why not sign up for McQuirter’s newsletter

https://byanygreensnecessary.com/

She will also be one of the featured speakers in the Holistic Holiday at Home online conference from July 26-August 1

https://virtual.holisticholidayatsea.com

Both events are completely free, which of course means there is no excuse for not signing up, learning, and executing some positive changes!!!

Much love!

Toni 

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Celebrating Black Creative Genius: Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley photo
Lonnie Holley

Amongst everything that’s been happening lately–though, of not unconnected from what’s been happening for centuries: continued pressure for racial equality in this country, finally, a national recognition of Juneteenth, the commemoration of one of the worst cases of white aggression against Black people just trying to live their lives in the Tulsa Massacre–I was sent this wonderful documentary that is yet, another testament to Black genius.

The documentary entitled Lonnie Holley: The Man is the Music, is about a self-taught African American artist who is the embodiment of art.

Enjoy!

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The Revolution Continues: Alligator Woods Now

Bois Caiman Ceremony that marked the beginning of the Haitian Revolution

In naming this blog Alligator Woods way back in 2009 I sought to uplift and share the revolutionary spirit that was alive in the enslaved men and women who declared liberty or death that fateful night in August 1791 in what was then the French colony of Saint Domingue and that continues in its countless contemporary iterations.

I did it to showcase and celebrate our brilliance and to encourage us to keep on keeping on. 

This revolutionary spirit, I know, lives on today throughout Africa and its diaspora. 

These past two weeks, following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police officers, which followed the brutal murder of Breonna Taylor by police officers, which followed the attempt by a white woman, Amy Cooper, to weaponize the police against African American birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, for demanding that she follow the law, which was preceded by the revelation of the murder in broad daylight of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men, have reminded us of not only the fact that the Black revolutionary spirit lives on, but that it remains as critically needed as ever. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder we have seen a mass mobilization of a revolutionary spirit that seems to have been laying dormant; the kind of revolutionary spirit that few of us have seen firsthand or been apart of. 

A marked departure from the responses that assaults against people of color that we have traditionally seen is the way that white people have shown up to do what is right. 

And that’s a good thing. 

Because this country is built on the ideology that white life is more valuable than Black life the only way to guarantee that change will happen is if white people place themselves in the line of fire the way that Black folks have been doing since we arrived on these shores. 

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts this morning, For the Wild: An Anthology of the Anthropocene, which featured an interview with Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry on “Rest as Resistance,” recorded in April 2020. 

Before the recording of the interview started the founder and host of For the Wild, Ayana Young, relayed Hersey’s words during this revolutionary moment: 

“My dream during these times of protest against the police state, are for more white folks to be on the front lines and for black folks to be home, healing, grieving, and taking naps. We stand in solidarity with all the uprisings. Cover your faces while out and look out for each other, hydrate and rest.” 

While I smiled, completely understanding the sentiment behind Hersey’s pronouncement–Black people have been on the front lines, again, since we first arrived here—and we’re exhausted–the one thing I would caution against is giving into the impetus to turn the movement over to others. 

We have to continue to be the drivers of change, because our lives depend on it.

In the tradition of revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Dutty Boukman and Cecile Fatiman, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Fannie Lou Hamer–the list goes on–I wrote in a recent personal reflection piece that “people of color must take up the space to speak our truths”.

(The question of what does Haiti have to do with the U.S. context should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, my answer is Everything.

Because Africa and its diaspora are connected in many ways, not the least of which is our historical and continued oppression in the name of white supremacy, as well as our continued resistance to it.)

In the spirit of supporting people of color speaking our truths, and because I am a reader and a seeker and love to share knowledge, I include below a very short list of books, articles and interviews with/by people of color about the history of slavery and its legacy and the damage it does.

So that we may educate ourselves, before, during, and after the protests.

Here it is:

Breathe: A Letter to My Sons by Imani Perry

We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America by D. Watkins

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Lama Rod Owens with Jasmine Syedullah

We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and The Art of Survival by Jabari Asim

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

Back To Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century by Kehinde Andrews

Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century by Barbara Ransby

Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? by Mumia Abu Jamal

Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace by Rev. angel Kyodo Williams

Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates

Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out by Ruth King

The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming our Communities Through Mindfulness by Rhonda V. Magee

Lori Lakin Hutcherson, “My White Friend Asked Me on Facebook to Explain White Privilege. I Decided to Be Honest” Yes! Magazine 

Sensei Alex Kakuyo, “The Buddhist Pureland and Living Under Curfew” Lion’s Roar Magazine

Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” New York Times

Zenobia Jeffries Warfield, “Why We keep Talking About Racism” Yes! Magazine

I also found this a podcast on Wellness and people of color to help.

There’s also the three-part series, Race: The Power of an Illusion, which is an excellent introduction to the origins of U.S. racism. 

Insight Timer, a wonderful FREE meditation app features a playlist of Teachers of Color

Let me know if you’ve read any of the books, had a listen to any of the interviews or podcast, watched the film, done any of the meditations.

Are there other resources you’d add to this list?

In the meantime, Be well. Stay safe.

The struggle continues…

Posted in Africa, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, culture, Haiti, history, literature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Gentle Reminder to be Gentle with Yourself

I received this in my inbox a few weeks ago, but thought it would be a good message to share now.

Prince Ea
Prince Ea

Prince Ea is a gifted filmmaker, speaker, creator!

Learn more about this amazing person and his work here!

For now, enjoy, these beautiful words of inspiration:

http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=8566

Yours in peace and wellness

Posted in Africa, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, culture, environment, film, health, nature | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Toni Morrison Conference: March 19-21, Montpellier, France

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: Two Generations Later

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, Site St Charles

Salle des colloques 1

Montpellier, France, March 19-21, 2020

https://tonimorrison.sciencesconf.org

Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Thursday 19th March
9:00Registration
9:30-9:40Opening statements
I.Textual/stylistic Analysis: Morrison’s Word-Work             Chair: Monica Michlin, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
9:40-10:10Cheryl A. Wall, Rutgers University, New Brunswick: “Her Word-Work Was Sublime: The Craft of Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon
10:10-10:20Discussion
10:20-10:40Michel Feith, Université de Nantes: “The Travails of the Negative in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
10:40-11:00Flora Valadié, Université de Bourgogne: “A Bag of Bones for the Blood Bank: The Politics of Matter and the Remainder in Song of Solomon
11:00-11:10Discussion
11:10-11:20Coffee break / Pause café
II. Working Intertextualities Chair: Nelly Mok, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
11:20-11:40Carline Encarnacion, Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès:“An Ode to African American Folklore: Tales, Voices and their Variations in Song of Solomon
11:40-12:00Annie-Paule Mielle de Prinsac, Université de Bourgogne:“Pilate, the Shakespearean character Shakespeare did not create”
12:00-12:20Alan Rice, Institute for Black Atlantic Research, UCLAN, Preston, GB “Looking Inside the Invisible: The Importance of Naming in the Work of Toni Morrison and Lubaina Himid”
12:20-12:30Discussion
12:30-14:00Lunch / Déjeuner
III. Ethical Imagination                                 Chair: Nicolas Gachon, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
14:00-14:30Ashraf Rushdy, Wesleyan University:“Violence and Salvation in Morrison’s Song of Solomon” Discussion
14:40-15:00Claude Le Fustec, Université de Rennes: “‘These things are real’: The Politics of Wisdom in Song of Solomon
15:00-15:20Emmanuelle Andrès, Université de La Rochelle:“Song of Solomon: Goodness, Altruism and the Literary Imagination”
15:20-15:30Discussion
15:30-16:00Coffee break / Pause café
IV. What Reading does                              Chair: Arlette Frund, Université François-Rabelais, Tours
16:00-16:30Maryemma Graham, University of Kansas: “Song of Solomon: Bearing Witness, Heralding Afro-Futurism”
16:30-16:50Jean Wyatt, Occidental College, Los Angeles: “Dislocating the Reader: Psychoanalysis and Temporal Discontinuity in Toni Morrison’s Novels”
16:50-17:20Sabine Bröck, University of Bremen, Germany: “White Reading”
17:20-18:00Discussion
Friday 20th March
V. Black Masculinities                               Chair, Lawrence Aje, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
9:00-9:20Françoise Clary, Université de Rouen: “Extending Intersectional Analysis to the Singly Subordinated Black Man in The Song of Solomon
9:20-9:50:Herman Beavers, University of Pennsylvania: “‘They ain’t never going to have it’: Dematerializing the Masculine Imaginary in Song of Solomon
9:50-10:10Coffee Break/ Pause café
10:10-10:40Carolyn Denard, Georgia College and State University: “Magical Men: Mythologizing Male Roles in Song of Solomon
10:40-11:10Michael Awkward, The University of Michigan: “‘Thought he was a man’: Toni Morrison, Emmett Till, and the Problems of History”
11:10-11:40Discussion
12:00-14:00Lunch
VI. Grounded or Flying?                                Chair: Souleymane Ba, Dr. Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
14:00-14:30Trudier Harris, The University of Alabama: “Grounded Africans: Triumphs of Flight and Failures of Imagination in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon” Discussion
14:40-15:10Claude Le Fustec, Université de Rennes: “‘These things are real’: The Politics of Wisdom in Song of Solomon
15:10-15:20Lara Delage-Toriel, Université de Strasbourg:“The Earthbound Body in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
15:20-15:40Paola Boi, University of Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy: “Like the Sibyl, again. Scattering the sign, conjuring the unknown in feminine, maternal discourse. The ‘Flight’ motif and the invention of “beyond” the language’ in Morrison’s Song of Solomon
15:40-16:00Marcus Bruce, Bates College: “Flying Lessons: Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, and the Pedagogy of Flight”
16:00-16:20Discussion
16:20-16:40 16:40-17:30Coffee Break/ Pause café Roundtable / Table Ronde
20:00-Banquet: La Brasserie du théâtre, rue Victor Hugo
Saturday21st March
VII. Black Diasporic Imagination                               Chair: Hélène Charlery, Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès


9:30-9:40Josette Spartacus, Lycée Malherbe, Caen: “Song of Solomon: The Errantry of the Tout-monde”
9:40-10:10   10h20-10h40Melba Joyce Boyd, Wayne State U, Detroit:“Colorism in Song of Solomon” Discussion     Coffee Break/ Pause café
10:40-11:40Roundtable on the documentary: The Pieces I Am with Cheryl Wall, Sabine Bröck and Monica Michlin.


11: 40-12:00Closing statements
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Review of Imani Perry’s Breathe

Imani Perry’s Breathe

In 1967—it feels like forever ago—the brilliant writer and critic James Arthur Baldwin penned a letter to the son of his only brother and named it “And My Dungeon Shook”, a reference to the famous biblical passage. In the letter Baldwin expresses not only his deep love and care for his young nephew, but also his fears for him as a person of African descent born and raised and hopefully coming to adulthood in a country that did not love him and that wanted to cage him or kill him both in body and spirit. The letter is part of and precedes Baldwin’s more widely known titular long essay, “The Fire Next Time,” again taken from a famous biblical passage. 

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time

A substantial number of years later, Randall Kenan paid homage to Baldwin’s text, calling his reflections on the state of Black America The Fire This Time (2007).

Randall Kenan’s The Fire This Time

Still more recently the literary scholar and writer Jesmyn Ward edited a brilliant collection of essays and reflections authored by Black people under the title, The First This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2017). The contributions, harkening back to Baldwin’s and Kenan’s texts, also explore the experience of being born and growing up in a black body in a society that does not value them and in fact, would rather see them in chains or hanging from a tree or six free underground, as has been the fate of countless…  The one thing that holds all of these writings together, besides the title, is the reckoning with the innate knowledge of the gift of Blackness against a backdrop of profound white hatred and fear of the gifts that Black people carry with them.  

Jesmyn Ward The Fire This Time

When Baldwin wrote “And My Dungeon Shook” this country was in the throes of social and political upheaval as African Americans agitated for their birth right: Civil Rights; that is to be treated civilly in a land that their ancestors had been central to building. The Black Panther Party was agitating for the ceasing of the gunning down of unarmed black people, the right to defend themselves, and very simply, the right to self-determine. The streets were burning across the country while the FBI’s COINTELPRO was in full swing.

When the first The Fire This Time was published this country was again in the throes of social and political upheaval as the crack epidemic had taken hold of many African American communities and white America probably rested a bit more easily believing that the rabble-rousers who had fought for African American people’s Civil Rights in the 1960s had been properly disposed of. 

When Ward published her own edited collection under the same name, the US, as it has always been, was in the throes of political and social upheaval as mostly white police officers continued gunning down mostly unarmed black men and women. Only this time their crimes were caught on video, thanks to camera phones. 

One of my favorite and most-often cited essays in Ward’s collection is Claudia Rankin’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in which the author lays bare the particular challenges that parents of black boys in the US face on a daily basis. They mourn for the very real possibility that their very reason for living may be taken away from them at any moment by the bullet or the billy club or the chokehold of someone whose blood is poisoned by their beliefs around white superiority. 

Imani Perry, Princeton University professor of African American Studies and Law and mother to two young boys, Freeman Diallo and Issa Garner, explores this condition of mourning and more in her recently published Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (2019). Her title and subject matter, of course, summon, not only Baldwin’s brilliant letter to his nephew, but also W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Langston Hughe’s “Mother to Son”. It also echoes the now infamous plea by Eric Garner to the cop who snuffed out his life: “I can’t breathe.”

The book reminds the reader of the human desire to find space in one’s body, to dream, to envision, to create, to live fully in a way that honors and celebrates the imagination. But in asking rhetorically, “How do you become in a world bent on your not being and becoming?” she makes a critical connection between the physical ability of one to draw life-giving breath and the expansiveness of the life-giving breath of imagining and becoming. This, in a country that is hell-bent on putting chains on not only black feet and hands, but black imagination, if not by their own hands then it’s, as Tupac said, sitting back and watching us kill each other.

Breathe is a tiny book, divided into three sections, “Fear,” “Fly,” and “Fortune.” From the first page I was hooked as Perry begins, following an epigraph by the brilliant poet June Jordan, with a phrase that countless black mothers (and fathers) have heard issue from the mouths of white parents/people: “It must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America.” Indeed, it is terrifying, but those who say such things are shielded from that terror by their whiteness, and indeed, as Perry notes, there is a voyeuristic element to such comments that is enraging to those of us who must live with that terror.

I absolutely love the way Perry, rather than leave white people from whose lips such lamentations drip to an “empathy” that issues from ignorance, expresses at the very least, indignation, and at most, justified disdain.

There are countless similar moments in the text in which Perry takes on “the taboo” of calling out the privileges of whiteness with daring eloquence, grace, and self-consciousness. As Kiese Laymon has remarked about the text, “Somehow Perry manages to mourn, celebrate, theorize about, and welcome us in the space between, and around this Black mother and her Black sons.” 

Laymon’s endorsement though, raises a question: Who is the “us” that is welcomed into the space? Because for all of the text’s truths, rawness, and beauty it is important to remember that those of “us” who will most likely be reading it are members of a relatively speaking, privileged class: educated with resources to purchase the book or to check it out from a well-funded library, and a bit of leisure time to read and digest it. And while yes, Perry’s sons’ privilege as the children of a Princeton professor will not shield them from the weapons of ignorance that too many wield, it should be noted that Perry finished the text while she and her sons were in Japan for a summer, taking in the sights. One wonders how the message would land on Black mothers and fathers who are struggling to make ends meet while keeping their children alive in Chicago (Chiraq), or Little Haiti, or Ferguson. 

That said, there are many things to love about Breathe. In the tradition of those on whose shoulders she stands, Perry’s text is honest, often raw, beautiful, driven by a profound love for her boys, and one gets the sense, a cautious hope for the blind, the pitiable, and the dumb.  

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African Diasporic Cultural Meanderings Part One: The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

Quiet as it’s kept, Washington, D.C.–this nation’s capital–is located in the southern part of the United States. This fact, seemingly innocuous in 2019, has all kinds of implications, not the least of which is the fact that there is a strong connection between the place and the institution that kept millions of African and African diasporic people enslaved for hundreds of years. And when slavery ended it was one of the places where the white citizens who had benefited from those centuries of enslavement–or those who were duped into believing that they benefited–worked themselves into a frenzy, trying to re-enslave the ones who had already built this country for them.

Needing the continued supply of free labor to rebuild their devastated city following the Civil War, those who had resources re-enslaved as many African American men, women, and children as they could. Other whites who did not have resources prior to and during the war, took the opportunity to build wealth for themselves on the backs of those recently freed. This post-slavery era thus, marked a time of slavery by another name; that is, convict leasing when African American men, mostly, were kidnapped, arrested, and imprisoned for the smallest of offenses and sold to individuals, companies, and the state to be used as laborers to build and/or rebuild white wealth yet again. 

When I was doing research on my latest book project I rewatched the wonderful film about Paramahansa Yogananda, Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2015) in which I learned about how when Yogananda was traveling around the US providing life-transforming teachings freely to Americans, he learned that Black people were not allowed to attend his teachings. In the film, his words of inclusion are contrasted with visual depictions of the KKK marching boldly down the streets of DC wielding figurine representations of lynched African Americans.

Despite my knowledge of this history as well as its contemporary challenges, I love DC. I love the walkability of the city. I love the delectable food trucks that adorn so many corners. And I love, love, love the museums.

When the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opened a couple of years ago, I was excited to visit. The museum is significant for several reasons: for one, it is the brainchild of Lonnie G. Bunch III who now serves as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. 

 Mr. Bunche has subsequently written a book about his journey, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump (2019) and is currently on tour.

I was not able to go when the museum opened, simply because I do not like crowds. And I do not like scheduling things that don’t necessarily have to be scheduled. So, I waited for approximately three years to visit.

While I did not have particularly elaborate notions of what I would find when I visited, I had been led to believe that the original daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass—the one that so many copies that we find online, and in our texts, have come from, was housed in the museum. In the end I can’t be sure if I did, in fact, see it because the docent that I asked about the daguerreotype was not able to or unwilling to give me a clear answer.

But, I am a curious sort!

Maybe I ask too many questions and then have the audacity to expect answers.

Because of what I teach–African and African diasporic cultural production that is framed by history–my visit to the museum felt like a kind of pilgrimage. Indeed, I learned A LOT during my sojourn, much of it overwhelming because of the pain and suffering involved. But also a lot of the displays revealed the sheer innovation, genius, and fortitude of black people!

For example, there was the wonderful and heartbreaking story of Henry Boyd who, in the 1930s, after saving enough money to purchase the free of his enslaved brother and sister in Kentucky, established his own furniture store in Ohio. “He specialized in the manufacture of bedsteads, including a patented design that he advertised as quick and easy to assemble, sturdy, and vermin-proof. To meet the growing demand, Boyd introduced steam-powered machinery that enabled his factory to produce over 1,000 bedsteads a year by the mid-1840s.”

His success, however, drew the ire of jealous whites who forced the man to close his business after they repeatedly burned down his store. He nonetheless remained a dedicated carpenter until his death in 1886.

Stories like this make me think about what a freaking incredibly talented and gifted artisan he must have been. How smart he must have been to patent a design in the 1830s that garners companies like Ikea billions of dollars a year. And instead of white people either accepting that they didn’t have what it took to do what he did or that they were too lazy to really do anything innovative, they preferred to destroy what Mr. Boyd had built with his own sweat, blood, and tears!

Understatement: it was a little upsetting.

In Lloyd Garrison’s Preface to Frederick Douglass’ narrative of his life the white abolitionist, to illustrate the effects of slavery on a person’s soul, tells the story of a white man who had been enslaved in Africa and when he was found several months later by his countrymen, was devoid of speech and terribly debased.

For all of Garrison’s paternalism I have always appreciated him for his inclusion of that story. Because it is evidence from a white person that, contrary to enslavers’ warped logic–that slavery was a civilizing force for those held in abject bondage–the institution, at its core, robbed those who were subjected to it of their humanity.

I have for years in my classes, used the image of an elderly black man, his back to the camera to show flesh ripped apart by the whips of someone who deemed himself “master”, to illustrate the barbarity of slavery.

I’m always reminded of Toni Morrison’s brilliant description of the character Sethe’s scarred back that reminds her friend, Paul D, of a Cherry choke tree in the novel, Beloved

Imagine my surprise when I learned during my visit to the Smithsonian, that that black man has a name: Private Gordon!!

I also learned that I was not the only one drawn to the horror and disgust that his scars inspired.  The description that accompanies his photo reads: “During the Civil War, Private Gordon’s scarred back became a symbol of the human cost of slavery. The images, “documenting Gordon’s U.S. Army medical examination were widely sold and circulated to support the Union effort and assist self-liberated slaves.”

Mind blown!

The placard that follows this horrific image, however, makes the heart soar! It shows the same man, Private Gordon, now clear and sure of his dignity and self-worth, proudly sporting his U.S. Army uniform and ready to fight for his freedom. According the placard, “After being brutally beaten by an overseer, Gordon escaped slavery in 1863 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”

Stories like these must be told. So, we are no longer left simply with the image of a grown man devoid of agency. Rather, we must also get the image of a man of will who, despite the brutality he suffered for most of his life, took his destiny into his own hands and rose above it.

The museum is full of such stories, some of which are housed on a floor under the heading, “Making a Way Out of No Way.”

One of the big draws of the museum, understandably, is the Emmett Till exhibit which features one of the coffins of the young man who was murdered by racist white men in Mississippi in 1955; an event that many believe sparked the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the coffin there are photos of him with his mother, Mamie Till, before he left Chicago that summer. There are also photos of her at her son’s funeral. In addition, the exhibit features video interviews with some people who knew the young Till, including, I believe, his cousin, who is shown saying that he witnessed the 14-year old whistle at a white woman in the store they had gone to. That may be true. But this is also true:

*****

In 2017, author Timothy Tyson released details of a 2008 interview with Carolyn Bryant, during which she disclosed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. Tyson said during the interview, Bryant retracted her testimony that Till had grabbed her around her waist and uttered obscenities, saying “that part’s not true”. The jury did not hear Bryant testify. The judge ruled it inadmissible, but the court spectators heard. The defense wanted Bryant’s testimony as evidence for a possible appeal in the case of a conviction. In the 2008 interview, the 72-year-old Bryant said she could not remember the rest of the events that occurred between her and Till in the grocery store. She also said: “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”. Tyson said that Roy Bryant had been verbally abusive toward Carolyn, and “it was clear she was frightened of her husband”. Bryant described Milam as “domineering and brutal and not a kind man”. An editorial in The New York Times said regarding Bryant’s admission that portions of her testimony were false: “This admission is a reminder of how black lives were sacrificed to white lies in places like Mississippi. It also raises anew the question of why no one was brought to justice in the most notorious racially motivated murder of the 20th century, despite an extensive investigation by the F.B.I.”

The New York Times quoted Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till’s, who said, “I was hoping that one day she [Bryant] would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction. It’s important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days.”

In a report to Congress in March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that it was reopening the investigation into Till’s death due to unspecified new information.

*******

What is also true is that, as my brilliant son reminded when I talked with him about what I had learned, there is NOTHING that child could’ve done to warrant the barbarism that he witnessed and endured alone and without sanctuary that summer night.

I spent three days in the museum, first taking the guided tour of the bottom floor that traces the origins of those who were enslaved from their African homes and continuing with stories of the hell of slavery, the Civil War, emancipation/slave revolts, and beyond. Several exhibits, I visited multiple times.

But, after spending three days arriving shortly after the museum opened and leaving only when I was kicked out at 5pm when it closed, I was mentally and spiritually exhausted.

Fortunately, at the top floor of the museum and in the very back, I found the respite of visual art that I craved. Leaving the building that early evening, having hit the gift shop to grab some souvenirs for my loved ones, I had a plan for my final day in DC.  

I am happy to have finally been able to visit the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. I was gratified to see so many people from diverse racial and ethnic heritages visiting.

**Unlike when the museum first opened you no longer need to reserve a timed pass during the week (you still need them on the weekend).

The museum was a long time in coming and I commend those who had and sustained the vision to bring this huge contribution to humanity to fruition; many whose names we will never know.

Those names we do know include, again, Lonnie G. Bunch III. There is also lead designer, David Adjaye and lead architect, Philip Freelon.

We should also recognize on whose shoulders these innovators stand, including those who started the Black Museum Movement and Charles H. Wright who started the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as a traveling exhibition!!

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Review of Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside

The Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat has authored numerous brilliant and inspiring narratives. A few of my favorites are her short story collection, Krik? Krak! (1996), her adult novels, The Dew Breaker (2005), Claire of the Sea Light (2014), The Farming of Bones (1999), the YA tale, Untwine (2017), and her gorgeous collection of essays, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2011).

But when I first cracked open my Kindle edition of Edwidge Danticat’s much-awaited collection, Everything Inside (2019) I was disappointed. The first short story, “Dosas,” while poignant and well-written, as is to be expected from Danticat, was one that I recognized.

I felt I had read it before somewhere else.

Skip to the back of the collection and there it was: evidence that I wasn’t crazy or clairvoyant. Not only was “Dosas” previously published, but so were all of the other stories that followed, in various literary venues.

I have no problem with a writer gathering a selection of their work in a single volume and publishing it, but the writer and the publisher should be up front about it.

Nowhere in the publicity about the collection did I see that every single one of the stories had been published in part or in full in other venues.

Book description from Amazon:

******

Named a Highly Anticipated Book of Summer 2019 by Lit Hub, Esquire, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, BuzzFeed, TIME, Good Housekeeping, Bustle, and BookRiot 

From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying, a collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love.


Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant.

In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.

This is the indelible work of a keen observer of the human heart–a master at her best.

******

It’s simple: someone who is a diehard Danticat fan–of which there are many–would have read most, if not, all of the stories in the collection. The reader is denied the option to decide if they want to reread her stories before purchasing the book.

That said, Danticat, like every great writer, offers wonderful insight into the human condition.

I’ve spent a good amount of time researching dosas so I really enjoyed the reference to marasas and dosas in the story, although the way it is explored is heartbreaking. At the end the reader may be left wondering who were the marasas and who was the dosa in the threesome’s relationship.

The second story, “In the Old Days,” is about a young woman who is called to the deathbed of a father she has never known by her father’s wife, Nadia. While the story of the choices that people made—whether to stay in the US or return to Haiti when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the first democratically elected President is important—equally prescient, equally pressing is the issue of how the deceased are laid to rest.

There were countless Haitian and Haitian American intellectuals and professionals living abroad who, upon Aristide’s election, returned home determined to help sweep the streets, teach the children, and build a democratic society based on community and accountability—aah, the idealism of the new and uncharted.

All of their dreams of democracy were shattered when eight months later, in September 1991, General Raoul Cedras, with the US’s help, led a coup d’etat and exiled “the people’s president,” arresting “the flood.” Many of those who had returned home were murdered in the hours and days following the coup. Others escaped under cover of night. Their presence threatened to disrupt the systems of oppression that those who profited from the exploitation of the poor and uneducated had maintained for centuries.

As Nadia explains about her experience of return, “I left at ten with my family and returned after practicing criminal law in Boston for twenty years”…“When the dictatorship ended, I went back to see what I could do. I was working with a group pf Haitian American lawyers who were trying to help rebuild the system, but between the repressive laws inherited from the French Napoleonic code and those passed down through the dictatorship, our hands were tied.”

Indeed, many also left out of sheer frustration at the impossibility of affecting real change.

The story also reminded me of a common practice of married men having affairs with “outside” women, having children with said outside women, and bringing those children home to meet their families—sometimes to live with their families permanently. And those wives accept this common practice.

Though there are important differences between the practice and the story that Danticat tells, it brought up some uncomfortable feelings in me, having witnessed it several times. This ability to make the reader uncomfortable is, for me, another mark of a great writer.

But, I think equally cogent about the story is Danticat’s exploration of traditional Caribbean birth and burial rites, with a proper reverence for their importance and significance in their respective cultures. For example, singing the deceased’s soul into the afterlife.

The narrator/protagonist relates,

“My father’s wife has her own version of the old days. In the old days, she was telling me, conch shells blared for each person who died. In the old days, when a baby was born, the midwife would put the baby on the ground, and it was up to the father to pick up the child and claim it as his own. In the old days, the dead were initially kept at home. Farewell prayers were chanted and mourning dances were performed at their joy-filled wakes. When it was time to take the dead out of the house, they would be carried out feet first, through the back door, and not the front, so they would not know to return, their babies and young children would be passed over their coffins so they could shake off their spirits and wouldn’t be haunted for the rest of their lives. Then a village elder would have poured rum on the grave as a final farewell. In the old days, she said, I would have pronounced my father dead with my bereavement wails to our fellow villagers, both the ones crowding the house and others far beyond.”

Sadly, these beautiful traditions, passed down perhaps in other iterations through the generations, cannot be practiced in the 21st century in a suburb of Miami or any other city or suburb in the US where many of those who had to flee Haiti after the coup now reside. What this means, of course, is that a critical rite of passage—one that sustains families and communities—is lost as, if they are not passed down and maintained, will be forgotten; a haunting thought.

There are several other well-crafted and poignant stories in the collection. Another that haunted was “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” about a young woman, Mélisande who works as a nanny at a hotel and contracts AIDS from one of the foreign men who stay there. The reader will be reminded of the 1990s when the FDA declared that Haitians were excluded from donating blood because of the belief that they were a source for the spread of the AIDS virus. The brilliant anthropologist Paul Farmer revealed in AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (1992), however, that Haitians were not the source, but rather, the victims of infected tourists who preyed on desperate men who had sex for money and then returned to their wives with the virus.

The final story, “Without Inspection,” reveals the memories of a construction worker during his final moments of life. What is revealed is a world with which many of us are familiar through the news, but are ignorant about the interiority of.

The stories that Danticat tells give the reader insight into the humanity of a people who are deeply wounded, disrespected, vilified, ridiculed, exploited, and dehumanized. Simply put, her stories are important and should be read by anyone who is interested in tapping into their own wounded humanity.

Posted in African-American, Afro-Caribbean, black women, Caribbean, culture, Haiti, history, literature, review, Writer | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gift of Rwanda

A long-time-in-coming meandering from Africa–one to inspire!

Please join me in rejoicing in Rwanda’s vision and the hope that the people’s vision will spread far and wide…

Rwanda is working on a “green city,” in Kigali city. The plan is to have the 2.3 square miles allocated to efficient factories, sustainable housing and green cars. The estimated cost? $5 billion, according to the African Exponent.

A project of this scale considers many factors. The “Rwanda Green City Pilot Project” covers every environmental concern and is created in a sustainable way. The project has developed its own “Pillars of Green Urbanism” that the project follows and can be easily piloted in other cities.

The “green city” will have all the infrastructure and services of a city, but each part will be eco-friendly. Electric vehicles, bicycle lanes, biogas, forests, environmental waste treatment are all part of the city planning process and will be part of the final city. The government hopes the city will lead to job creation, improved sanitation and public transport access.

There are two main projects happening on the site. The first, “Cactus Green Park,” is a 410 house development that meets environmental standards. This will be a pilot for other urban planning green building projects. Second, green affordable housing will be added to the city. Future phases will include green office and commercial buildings.

As part of the pilot, the project will track the metrics it has developed. “Key” metrics include avoided CO2 emissions and green jobs created.

Kigali has a new mayor, Pudence Rubingisa. In an interview in September, 2019, he spoke about the need for a Green City, “Now, why do we need green development? This will help cope up not only with the climate change issue but also the urbanisation that is really affecting the city in a way. That is why we need to start thinking of a green city and the key major factors include all Rwandans being or having that environmental responsiveness and understanding. We need to utilise land properly, be innovative and use less polluting materials.”

This is a repost from OneGreenPlanet.org

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