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bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/I haven’t conquered yet” -Ntozake Shange

This says it all.

This quote says everything about how I feel in this body, in this skin, with this face, in this world some days. Waking up woman and brown, for me has increasingly becoming an exercise that has to be undergirded by a mental, spiritual and at times, physical armor. When I get up and face the world, I never know what new attack on the body, mind, and spirit of black women or women of color or poor women has happened in the illusive still of the night. If we are not being publicly humiliated by national radio hosts, then we are warding off mainstream media’s attacks concerns about why we aren’t married or “marriageable” or worse we have to be faced with 40 foot tall, full color, attacks on our wombs, using one of our babies.
Our murders go unnoticed. Our children are unprotected. And our existence and humanity becomes couched in the sexualized, unforgiving lens of white men, the incessant needs of black men or the whiney, intrusive, pseudo omniscient agency of white women.

It’s humiliating. It’s infuriating. It’s unconscionable. But mostly, its exhausting.

I have started and stopped this blog post three times. It was meant to be the very first blog I posted back in 2010. At the time I just wanted to introduce the world to the space I created for and about Black women’s lives – I wanted us to be able to sing our songs loud and proud and unapologetically. I didn’t publish what I wrote because I thought there were enough spaces like that on the internet. I was wrong, there are never enough. I attempted to write it again, from a different perspective in February of 2011 when the Anti-Abortion ads went up around the country attacking Black babies in the womb and Black women at the core and again in March 2011 when the 11 year old girl was gang raped in Texas, but I couldn’t quite express my outrage in the way I wanted to at the time. I wanted to cry for Black women all over the page but I didn’t think either narrative needed more pain, so I digressed. Every time a major news story hit the web about Black women or girls, I tried. When Too Short released the video instructing jr. high school boys on how to sexually assault little girls, when the Black maid was raped by Strauss-Kahn, when Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone, any number of the GOP attacks on reproductive health and poor women and children – over and over again – I wanted to write something, but something stopped me.

Tonight, like what has become all too commonplace, I returned home, sat on my bed, opened my laptop and was gutted. Russell Simmons, co-founder of iconic hip-hop label, Def Jam, and often called the “godfather of Hip-Hop” launched a new digital media venture called AllDefMedia. One of the first projects released from this new Youtube based project was called… “Harriet Tubman Sextapes.” Yes, you read that right. By now you might have seen it and definitely should have heard about it. It’s vile and disrespectful and unscrupulous to put it mildly. The immediate response around all parts of the social media spectrum was a resounding “No!” It was shared over and over on Facebook and Twitter with messages of anger and appall at the unbelievable images being acted out in the name of our patron saint of ‘get free or die trying’ – Harriet Tubman. H A R R I E T — T U B M A N!!!!! Who does that? However, The uprising from the virtual black community worked. The video was removed and Russell Simmons issued a (lame) apology.

Ok, so now what?

Today all of the people who missed it last night will wake up to the story. There will be fresh outrage. There will be long, diatribes and open letters. There will be virtual commiseration happening all across the interwebs. And while that’s good – great even. It still doesn’t help me sleep at night or ease into my mornings any better.

I went to a private, catholic school from first grade through eighth grade with the exception of one year – fourth. In the fourth grade my mother put me in The Parkchester School – P.S. 106. I got along fine in the school for the most part. I made a friend or two and our little group played together at lunchtime and did group projects and generally held each other down. The thing we didn’t do was walk home together. I didn’t live in Parkchester, the privately owned apartment complex where the school was housed. I lived in Bronxdale projects about 20 minutes away and used my grandmother’s address to attend the school. That fact was little known to most of my peers, but when a particular group found out, the resident “mean girls” of the class, they decided to torment me about it. Everyday they would say something to me, write notes about me, or do things like tell other kids I was dirty and bummy (and y’all know that’s not even possible – I was born fresh to def). I tried to be friends with them. I tried to tell the teacher on them. I even tried to clap back at them – but nothing worked. They hated me.

This went on for a while until finally, one day they caught me walking alone and said something slick about my moms. I decided to do what my mother had alway taught me to do when surrounded by a group that might attack me. I grabbed the biggest one and began wailing on her first. I was actually getting her good because she was tall but gangly and awkward. Of course the other two jumped in and they eventually overpowered me. They dumped my book bag out and stomped on my glasses. They tore up my bus pass. They even threw dirt on me. I got home and told my mother who of course came up to the school the next day. These girls had committed the ultimate offense by putting their hands on me and she was going to put her foot down. Well, the school said it happened off of school grounds and they had no evidence of the fight, but they brought all of the girls to the office and we had “the big meeting.” The girls apologized half-heartedly – not for jumping me – they didn’t admit to that, but for “making me feel bad if they had done that in any way.” When it was all over and my mom went home and I returned to class, the principal called me over and said “are you okay Tarana, do you feel better?” And because I hadn’t yet been taught to put the comfort of others before my own, I said – “No! They still hate me.” I tried to explain to the principal that this wasn’t over and that wasn’t a real apology. What I said specifically, and I still remember, was “I’m okay today, but what about tomorrow?”

What about tomorrow? What about when this happens again?

Those three girls were just bullies, yes. But I also remember that incident so well because it was the beginning of a shift for me. I knew then that I would *never* let another person beat me and if I ever did get jumped again I wasn’t going to rest until I paid each person back. There was a seed of anger and bitterness that was planted during that situation and eventually rooted itself in other growing feelings of unworthiness which I fed and nurtured. I met girl after girl over the years that I felt like represented what those girls in the fourth grade represented and I figured that they hated me too because of things they said and did, but they were just hurt black girls surviving off of a pittance of bravado, healthy portions of other black girl’s pain and giant gulps of internalized oppression. I figured out how to conquer black girl hurt with unconditional black girl love. I took time to dig into my hurt and anger and bitterness and in the course of doing so I discovered a roadmap to loving Black girls and women in spite of and because of what they had been taught about loving themselves and loving me back. But this ain’t about us loving us. It’s about everybody else hating us. When those girls were tormenting me, before I got jumped, I would go home and spend hours at night trying to understand why or what I could do differently to get them to like me or at least leave me alone. The more things failed, the more determined I was to try something new. Not because I wanted to be down with them but because I didn’t want to hurt anymore.

This hurts.

And its a complex pain. Sometimes it’s sharp and jabbing, but most of the time it’s an unrelenting and indescribable kind of dull, lingering pain. Feeling like you have to carefully navigate your existence around the whims of any number of others is continuously painful. Will they attack my skin color or hair, will they call me an unfit mother, will they say I’m not marryable, will they attack my child, will they harass me at work, will they rape me, will they kill me – and if they do who will care? Carefree feels like a luxury when our reality is a practice in vigilance and resilience. It may sound outrageous, but that’s why I kinda-sorta envy the reality show chics and those who aspire to be like them. There is a disconnection from ‘giving a fuck’ that they wield with supreme precision and expertise and sometimes I just want – that. I want that so that during the times when I can’t find an ally who doesn’t bamboozle me into expending what energy I have left on heaping praises on them for ‘allying’ for me in the first place or the times when I feel like I’m screaming into a deep, dark well that sounds like a groundswell of support but in reality is just my own voice screaming back at me – I can say fuck it, I’m twerking by the cakes and get on with my life. But I don’t have that luxury and I’m not throwing a pity party about it because it’s a clear choice, but damn, it’s a choice that’s isolating as hell. I love that I have the support of my online community in the midst of these whirlwind storms, but then I shut down the computer and lay in the dark of my room thinking, “damn, even Russell Simmons hates me? Do they all hate me?” And I don’t know him, or particularly care what he thinks or doesn’t think normally and I know he by no means represents all Black men, but today, that thought makes me cry a little bit. Nah, alot. It makes me cry because, I have to go to sleep and then wake up tomorrow (God willing) and I have to crawl through my daily download of information and try desperately to avoid the land mines and hand grenades that can be waiting to rip me up from the inside out. And then when I don’t avoid them, because I never do, and they continue to tear away at my spirit…then what?

“Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl’s song…sing a song of her possibilities…”

Dear Brothers:

I guess I want my song. We sisters have been singing to each other for a long time. We have a small chorus of brothers who join in from time to time. But really, we have been force-fed songs for everybody else. We know all of the words to our songs by heart and our songs are pretty, but they don’t soothe our souls like when…you sing. I don’t expect * them * to sing, but I want you to sing. my. song. Love me. Sing to me. Protect me. Make this pain go away. Don’t create this pain. Is it too much to ask to go to sleep and wake up to the melody of you singing my song? I want to go through the day with your song for me playing over and over again in my head. I want to have random memories of your lyrics cross my mind and make me smile. That’s how I want to survive, with you and I singing each other through unjust verdicts and heinous videos and anything the world throws at us. I know how to sing your song. I sing it with a hoodie on, I sing it in front of prisons and courthouses, I sing it every chance I get, I promise you I do.

sing. my. song.

Don’t hate me because I love you. We could sing together but my voice is tired. I just want you to sing for a little while.

Please.

“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer breathe”
― Frantz Fanon

In March of 2012, a few days after I first heard the name Trayvon Martin, I wrote a blog post about being outraged that Zimmerman had not been arrested and how “justice” for Trayvon was in order. Less than a year and a half later I find myself outraged again – this time crying into my pillow and staring off into space trying to wrap my mind around the events of the last few weeks leading up to this verdict and I’m having a hard time.

People have used words like “activist” and “organizer” and even “freedom fighter” (mostly my daughter) to describe the work that I do and have done over that last 25 years. I never know how to describe any of it personally, but if pressed I usually say something like “I love Black folk and I’m committed to the work of making us free – in whatever form that takes.” Although I could never predict the twists and turns my life in this work would take, I was clear from a very early age what it would involve: commitment, tenacity, honesty, resilience, and love, lots and lots of love. But, what I didn’t know until it was too late to turn back, was that it would involve living my life in a political, spiritual, and sometimes moral duality that I can never quite fully comprehend but have an overwhelming need to maintain. I know what Dubois said about Double Consciousness and what Fanon said about Cognitive Dissonance, but I’m talking about my lived experience not intellectual rationalizations as much as I appreciate them. For example, when I heard Trayvon Martin was murdered my deepest desire was that his murderer be brought to “justice” and arrested for his crime. I wanted George Zimmerman to be arrested by the police force that, like every other police force in America, is grounded in white supremacist principles and racist practices. A police force that could have very well been the culprits in the profiling and murder of Trayvon Martin. I also wanted Trayvon’s murderer to be prosecuted in a state that has routinely and systematically disenfranchised and discriminated against people of color. In hindsight it seems preposterous but, it’s the same thing I wanted in the countless other cases that I rallied around in the last 25 years (Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Rodney King, Latasha Harlins, Yusef Hawkins, The Central Park 5, Bernard Goetz, Sean Bell and dozens of other names between New York and Alabama that never made a blip on the national radar) – justice.

But what is justice?

This is not a diatribe about how “I knew the verdict was going to be not guilty” or “why anyone would be surprised at this outcome?” This is a person who loves Black folk with all her heart trying to make sense of the hate and vitriol heaped upon us on a daily basis, the all too familiar pain and anguish and heartache that accompanies these moments and the seeming insanity of consciousness. Each one of those ideas is a study unto themselves, I know. But I have been so numb for the past few days since this verdict and every time I read a status message or an article or look at a #justiceforTrayvon hashtag, the same questions keep crawling through my mind and I don’t have any answers, I just have thinning breath, and swelling temples and teary, bloodshot eyes. I feel crazy in a sense to think that what we commonly refer to as justice in the context of the American judicial system is possible for Black people in the way that the people who devised the system intended. This is not to say that I don’t know what justice can look like outside of the American judicial system. The opposite side of this coin is that I know that I have to, like thousands of others who have the capacity to do so, create “justice” for Trayvon Martin and others like him. That form of justice happens as we take to the streets to express our outrage, as we, not just call for people to organize, but make efforts to help organize groups of people to continue work that protects and empowers young black and brown men and women and it happens when we use these moments to turn inward to our communities and spread the compassion and understanding that we have for the Martin family and friends amongst each other. I know this is happening everyday in some communities and as a result of this trial and verdict will continue to happen. I’m not completely dependent on America to provide closure through their system of justice because I know better. But, I also can’t stop myself from ramping up every, single time to * demand * it or from being genuinely outraged when it’s not served. For the larger part of my life I have described myself as an “African living in America” or just Black. I was raised not to pledge allegiance to the American flag – for political, not religious reasons. There were never any flags in our home unless they were RBG and although, as a family, we gather together some time around the first weekend in July – we NEVER celebrate American independence day. In fact I can’t even wear a combination of Red, White and Blue clothes around my mother. My grandfather gave me Before the Mayflower to read on my 11th Birthday and moved up to Franz Fanon, J.A. Rodgers and Ivan Van Sertima before I was out of Jr. high school. I have studied at the feet of Dr. Asa Hillard, Mama Marimba Ani and Faya Rose Toure and have read practically every speech ever made by Malcolm X and I do know better – but still I yearn for American “justice” and ache when I can’t find it – and that makes me feel unhinged. I knew there was a good chance that Zimmerman would be acquitted, but I still had some hope that he would not get off. I had to have hope. I can’t live a life where hope is outweighed by cynicism – not if I want to continue to love Black folk. And, not if I want to feel sane. Part of me feels like having hope is for suckers and the other part knows that if I don’t hold on to hope then what does that mean about me and the work that I say I’m committed to. The duality again.

Really, I’m just talking. I went through the range of emotions like most of my friends and millions of others when I heard the verdict. I haven’t been extremely vocal on social media because…I just didn’t know what to say or had too much to say, I’m not sure. I’ll have more to say soon, I’m sure. But for now I just needed to get these thoughts, feelings and emotions down in the off-chance that someone might relate.

There is no flowery language to explain how this case has affected me.

My heart aches about TRAYVON MARTIN, the 17-year-old boy brutally murdered in February, and for his family. Having a baby brother, growing up where we did, the fear that we would get a phone call one day like Trayvon’s mother did has always been nested right in the pit of my stomach. Every time I see the police “sweep” the neighborhood plucking random black and latino boys from wherever they can scrounge them, any time I see a group of brothers pulled over on the side of the road with a cop roaming freely through their possessions or barking in their faces, or when I wake up to news of another black child gunned down by police or like in this case a rogue neighborhood watch leader – I ache. For my brother, for my unborn son and for every black man and boy in this country. I ache. And then I get angry.

When I first saw the KONY2012 video I was so put off. I thought “here is another white, liberal, missionary framing our stories and presenting ‘his’ voice (and his organization) as the answer for what ails Africa.” Well, not really. It wasn’t that eloquent – I really thought, “this is some bullshit.” But that first statement is what I meant. I was astonished to say the least when in a matter of days it went viral the way it did. It was clear that folk didn’t do due diligence, like finding out if Joseph Kony is even still in Uganda or what Invisible Children’s history was. We just jumped right in and started hashtagging like our lives depended on it. Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26th. The first article I saw was maybe a week after he was killed. This has been like a slow leak. Finally making national headlines and media outlets this past week. It’s like we needed more evidence.

All of the usual suspects on my facebook friends list picked it up right away. All of my intellectual, activist, freedom fighting, smarty-art type friends have been talking about Trayvon’s murder for two weeks. But what about the rest of the world? Why weren’t we leery when the Kony video showed a list of the World’s Worst Criminals and it was pretty much made up of all Africans? Why didn’t we twist our lips a little at the whole “I made him a promise to DO something” part talking about his little Ugandan buddy? Why didn’t an eyebrow raise when we saw that the solution seemed to be wearing tee-shirts and buying $10 string bracelets. Where is the money going? How are you – white (or non-white), wide-eyed, idealistic, college kid – going to stop a notoriously evil warlord who has been in “power” for 26 years with your macrame bracelet? And the biggest question is where is the same outrage for Trayvon? I don’t expect anyone outside of our community to be mad. It would be nice but I don’t expect it. But we should be FURIOUS. We should be calling the Attorney General’s office and CNN and The local police department where Trayvon was shot. The police are covering up this crime. That makes them as culpable as the gunman Zimmerman. It’s defacto police brutality. (I made that up but you get it)

The point is WE should be posting status messages and tweeting and hashtagging #JusticeforTrayvon and #ARRESTZIMMERMAN. George Zimmerman is enemy number one right here and right now. Make him infamous.

There are some names we just can’t let slip from our memories and our tongues.

Eleanor Bumpers…Amadou Diallo…Aiyanna Jones…

Trayvon Martin

I’ll leave you with this: Video:-Teen-witnessed-part-of-Trayvon-Zimmerman-confrontation

Call the Sanford police department and demand justice (407) 688-5070

I made a promise (to myself) that I would blog at least once per week back in December and although I haven’t done that I am still trying to be consistent and there is not shortage of things to talk about.

Actually, that’s sort of the problem. There is SO MUCH to talk about that I can’t ever figure out where to start. Life has been sorta, kinda trying to kick my butt lately – but if you know anything about me you already know that I’m nice with my hands so I’m not worried. It’ll all work out. 😉

This past week I was so riled up about this crazy video went viral showing an incident between Temple University Police and some local teenagers. A friend of mine told me about it and I went to check out the video for myself. What I saw blew me away. A cop gets into an altercation with a teenaged boy. Another cop gets involved and the boy’s friend comes to his defense. The fight falls into the street and the cop is on the bottom of the pile. While laying on his back with a coat covering his face, he pulls out his pistol and waves it above his head. The boys move off of him and he jumps up and waves the gun at the crowd of teenagers on the sidewalk yelling, “back up!” Those teens, mind you are just watching the fight. It just outraged me. And the lack of response to it has outraged me more. I get that the kids should not be fighting with cops – albeit college campus cops – apparently Temple University police are the same as Philadelphia police. But Temple University, like many urban universities is in the middle of a low-wealth community that simply gets in the way of the school’s ‘manifest destiny.’ North Philly, where Temple is located is one of the poorest sections of Philadelphia riddled with poverty and blight. The only consistent progress that I see in N. Philly is where Temple decides to build. There are all kinds of complaints about how the students from the school are being attacked regularly, so much so that they must be drowning out the news of what the state-funded university is doing to revitalize the community. Bottom line – that cop was wrong. I’ve exhausted myself thinking about this. After writing an email to the Chief of Temple police and contacting local youth group leaders and reaching out to local politicians – it is clear to me that this incident will not be addressed in the manner that is should. I keep forgetting I am not in Selma anymore and not a full-time organizer any more and really not connected to youth leaders anymore – which kind of made me sad. I don’t believe reactionary organizing is helpful in the long-term for our community, but I do believe that in many cases a reaction is necessary. The “powers that be” from media to the politicians need to see that these things bother us, that they don’t go unnoticed and that we care about how our children are treated. It was just a wake up call for me. I am used to people who swing into action. I used to be one of them. I am afraid that in my effort to move away from the tactics and philosophies that I thought were ineffective in my work in Alabama I might have thrown the baby out with the bath water. But that’s for me to figure out. I need to figure out how to be strategic and proactive in this reality. Philadelphia is highly, highly political and I have never mixed well with politics – capital or lower case.

Rachel holding the flag at a 21C Camp

It makes me think deeply about this reunion coming up of 21St Century Leaders. 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement is the organization that I grew up in. I joined at 14 and went on to be on to work for them and later be on the Board of Directors. I love this organization for everything it gave me. My grandfather and mother grounded me in history and consciousness but 21C took it a step further and taught me what to do with it. They trained us to organize, to fight against injustice, to think about how to grow a movement and to be leaders. It was in everything we did as an organization. As we got older we (leaders) realized that although 21C had readied us to fight the good fight it did little for our emotional and spiritual development. Much of my work as an adult youth worker has been centered on developing the individual vs. the group. I felt like my calling was to deal with the radical healing of the young people in our community so that they can be whole enough to “fight the good fight” but maybe I have it wrong. Or maybe I am not seeing the whole picture. Actually, what I’m thinking is that I need a community. I want to connect with someone doing the leadership development while I do the personal development and another group handles education and another handles arts and culture and another something else and together we create what I have been calling for years: “a continuum of care” for our young people. This work shouldn’t be a competition. The fact that we are all fighting for the same dollars to help the same kids is disgusting. But I am about to get all idealistic so I’ll stop. *sigh*

I am having a conversation with myself everyday about the next best move to make. I feel like whatever the next move is for me is going to be the biggest in my life. I want to be sure and I want to be ready and I want to be supported – although if I’m not I will likely have to make it anyway. I think this week has shown me that I am moving closer and closer to the answer.

Stay tuned…

Our Motto

When I first read out about Occupy Wall Street this past September I remember thinking, “oh that’s cute.”

That was my actual response to seeing the pictures of, at the time, hundreds of young, white protesters converge on the New York’s financial district. I read the article online and moved on to the next news item unmoved. A few days or weeks later as the movement began to grow, like most people, I became more interested in what was happening. I read through the articles and watched video clips trying to better understand what the goals of this growing movement were and how they connected to some of the deeper concerns I have about my community. I was unsuccessful. I read a number of articles that cited the outrage that the group, like many people in this country, had about the bailouts on Wall St. and the general pilfering of our economy that was happening from the “1%” of the people and corporations (since they are one and the same) in this nation. I read about how a Canadian group started an internet campaign that grew into an action campaign that was now spreading like wildfire across the country, but I still didn’t read about what these “occupiers” wanted to happen as a result of their efforts.

I felt torn.

On one hand, I had a growing sense of excitement about the idea of a movement – of any kind – that was a counter to the visible activity on the other side of the fence from racist, imperialist, deeply divisive groups like the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity. Before the “occupy” protests began it was starting to seem like people, of any race, who had beliefs opposite of these aforementioned groups were voiceless in the media and powerless against the cultural hegemony that was happening right before our eyes. On the heels of Arab Spring the fervor felt from the massive collection of protesters, with their rallying cry: “We are the 99%” was invigorating at best and reminiscent of U.S. resistance movements of the past…kinda. On the other hand, what I was seeing day after day watching the occupy movement didn’t speak to the greatest of my concerns as an African American, working-class, single mother living and working in a country where “the 35%” or the percentage of the population that are People of Color are consistently under-served and overburdened. For organizers this group didn’t come across as very organized. As the movement crept from one major city to the next the underlying question was like the elephant in the room: “what’s the point?”

It was about this time when I came across this video of Occupy Atlanta:

In the video, which is about 7 minutes long, Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta is attempting to address a group of protesters and is completely shut down. The group, which uses this cumbersome complete consensus/call and response process to speak and make decisions, doesn’t fully agree to allow the congressman to speak and therefore he is turned away. The majority of the crowd clearly is in favor of him making remarks, but there are at least two or three who do not and one man who speaks out against it directly. This one man’s point is NOT about the fact that Rep. Lewis has made some questionable decisions during his tenure as a public official like endorsing Hillary Clinton or voting for the war in Libya – but more about his status as Congressman not making him any more important than other protesters. John Lewis, a hero of the United States Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, was not there to speak as a politician though. He was there to lend words of encouragement and enlightenment to the group based on his years of experience as a movement leader. According to him, he was there to say, “I understand your cause, I support what you are doing and I believe in non-violent protest as a means to an end.” Now, as much as I have been dissatisfied with some of the decisions that former Civil Rights Movement leaders-turned-politicians/pundits/”professional profiteers” have made. I have nothing but the utmost respect for these elders for the courage, tenacity and commitment they showed during their fight for our rights in this country – especially John Lewis.

Lewis, who became active in social justice work while in college in Tennessee, was at the forefront of some of the greatest strategical movement work coming out of the civil rights movement of the 60s. Under the tutelage of the great professor Jim Lawson, Lewis along with other great movement minds like Rev. C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash, helped organize the student movement the spread across the South in the early 60s. Along with Nash, Lewis was one of the founders of SNCC or the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – one of the greatest youth led social justice organizations of our time. And, John Lewis was one of the chief organizers of what has been called one of the most significant movements in modern American history: the Voting Rights Movement.

In other words, if Atlanta was serious about building a movement then they had something to learn from him.

This video spoke to the heart of what my issues with the whole Occupy movement were. There was no unified message, there was no discernible strategy, there was no leadership and it was too broad. Everything I have learned about the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, The Labor Movement, and the Liberation Movements in Africa were unified by these three things at least: message, strategy, and leadership. I was also deeply troubled by the lack of color in the faces splashed across newspapers and television screens every day. In fact until the protests hit Oakland and got live I didn’t feel represented in any way by “occupiers” in any other state. The students I work with and even my own child also felt disconnected from what they saw because they didn’t see ‘us’ and they didn’t see how sitting in a tent for days on end would get them a better education or jobs or stop police from harassing them. While I agree that we need a massive movement in this country and the Occupy movement was maybe a start – it is not the answer. The least of these, that 35% referenced earlier are going to have to stand up and get organized in a more visible way. Because we have always been the ones on the bottom – we have continually been organizing and protesting, but not in a way that engages the masses and embeds itself into popular culture. The difference between the social justice work that is heavily led by people of color like anti-police brutality, economic justice, reproductive justice, voting rights, and political prisoner work and the Occupy Wall Street movement is that numbers are sexy and white folk matter more in the media. That’s just the truth. However, there was a time when we did have the numbers. There was a time when we had a unified message, strategy and leadership that translated into results. There was a point in our collective history, black and brown, that we put away differences and focused on a common goal – and we can’t lose sight of that.

There is no end to the work we have to do. In order to reach the level of equality and justice that many of us seek we will have to be committed to working towards it everyday, for the rest of our lives, in the ways in which we are anointed to do so. From organizing to teaching to writing to leading it all matters and everyone plays a role. But, in my humble opinion, we have to be completely cognizant of the successes and failures or our elders and ancestors. If those Occupy Atlanta folk really wanted it badly they wouldn’t have turned John Lewis away and been so disrespectful. They would have listened to what advice he had to offer and picked his brain about strategy. They would have asked for detailed accounts of the worst mistakes he made and then discussed ideas for new strategies for a new generation. THEN, they would have found a place to congratulate him on some of the victories he’s had that benefit the “99%” while calling him to task on some of his current policies and practices. That’s how you build and learn. The arrogance that says, “I don’t need to hear what you have to say because I know what I’m doing.” is a losing stance.

There is an Akan (Ghana) symbol from the group of Adinkra symbols called “Sankofa” and its literal translation is “go back and get it.” In African-American culture we reference it as a way to stay connected to our history. It symbolizes the importance of knowing where we came from and the legacy of the people that came before us – our ancestors. Growing up, I was taught that outside of the Gye Name symbol which represents the omnipotence of God, the Sankofa was the most important and valuable. We come from a tradition where we value our elders and uplift the memory of our ancestors. The work we do now is in part to honor them. A lot of black people, particularly those who do movement or justice work, feel a deep connection to Africa. Many of us don’t feel complete until we make a pilgrimage to our mother continent and reconnect physically, mentally and spiritually to our roots. I am one of those people. However, after living and working in Alabama doing both historical research and justice work, I would challenge EVERY person of color, but particularly black people to make a similar pilgrimage to the South. Many of us head south for family reunions or vacations with family, but few of us have made the visit in an effort to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and elders who shed blood and died for our sake. It’s sacred land. This is not a debate about whether their efforts were in line with your personal or political ideology. It’s about connecting with the spirit of resistance. The south is not just the cradle of our enslavement and oppression it is also the birthplace of our resistance. If you are going to do the work, you have to be prepared and apart of being prepared is being connected. Yes, you can read the books and watch videos of speeches, but the beauty of the modern movements for justice and liberation in this country is that they are so young. Selma was 1965 – that’s 47 years ago. The leaders and participants in the movement were largely young people under 30. That means that there are a number of people only in their mid to late 60s and early 70s who have a wealth of experience to share with us. These movements may have been led by popular figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the on the ground fight was happening with everyday folk like you.

You want to understand how to build a movement? Start in Greensboro, NC where the first student sit-ins happened in 1960 and work your way over to Nashville, TN where the foundation for SNCC was laid, then go on through Albany, GA where black girls were at the forefront of the movement and the Freedom Singers were birthed and across to Atlanta where the SCLC was founded and is still housed before crossing the border into Birmingham, AL where hoses were first used on children by Bull Conner and four little girls and one little boy were killed as a result of a church bombing and then to Montgomery, AL where hundreds of black house maids led a boycott that almost bankrupted the Montgomery Bus Co. and catapulted Rev. King to national prominence and then cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma where everyday black folk including students as young as fourteen, led by John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Albert Turner and Bob Mants stood in the face of death and marched anyway and after being tormented, beaten, threatened and even gassed got up a week later and did it all again. Mississippi had some of the cruelest and most brutal incidents of all – but Medgar Evers, Victoria Gray, Bob Moses Fannie Loe Hamer – they stood anyway. We can’t forget that. We have a history. We don’t have to build movements in a vacuum. There is a blueprint and there are lessons. There is a song we used to teach kids to sing in Selma about the movement and the chorus is:

“Someone prayed for you, someone sang for you, someone marched for you
and they didn’t even know you. Someone cried for you, someone suffered and died for you and they didn’t even know your name…”

The history is ever-present – the stories, the faces, the victories, the challenges, the spirit are all there just waiting for us to occupy them.

———————————————————————-

Every year, Selma is host to the largest commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement in the country. It’s called the Bridge Crossing Jubilee and its the celebration of the right to vote and commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery March and the events leading up to it, including Bloody Sunday. I am putting out a call to all of you (especially those who do justice and liberation work in whatever form) to join me in Selma March 2nd and 3rd. In particular, if you were ever apart of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, we are calling you to join us for an alumni gathering. For more information about the Jubilee check out their website at: www. selmajubilee.com for more information about the 21st Century gathering email me at justbeinc@gmail.com.

Remember. Return. Renew.

See you in Selma!

kwanzaa_traditions.s600x600

This year, more than any other in my recent memory, folk have been talking about Kwanzaa. Some of the talk has been breezy and some contemplative. Either way, the talk has sparked some lively debate amongst my “fb fam” with passionate responses coming from both sides of the coin, but it has also prompted others to privately and publicly ask me general questions about the African-American holiday simply bc they don’t understand it. As old as the tradition is, it has only gained a larger mainstream following in the last maybe 10 years. Lots of folk who didn’t grow up with “progressive” parents or didn’t make a switch in college just don’t know. So I decided to break it down using a medium that my fellow bredren are most familiar with – movies.

See, Kwanzaa is all about African-Americans setting aside time to celebrate and uplift our own community. It was NEVER meant to be a Black Christmas. In fact, each principle and the activities attached to them are the antithesis of what America and most of the world have made of Christmas. Kwanzaa wasn’t created as a marketing ploy to get black people to keep shopping (yes, I’ve heard that one before), although like Christmas it is being commodified more and more each year.

However, the principles still stand for our community. They still represent our greatest aspirations for ourselves and our brothers and sisters.

So in the spirit of the Nguzo Saba, here is my attempt to make it plain:

Umoja – Unity:
To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

This one is simple. It’s the first thing black folk say whenever something goes down whether it’s in the club or at the family reunion “black folk can’t never stick together.” Not true. As exhibited in this scene from the movie “Life” starring Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy. In this scene the white warden is trying to figure out which black inmate has “knocked up” his lily-white daughter as evidenced by the brown baby she gave birth to and each of the men take responsibility to protect the real father. If this ain’t unity…

Kujichagulia – Self Determination:
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves; to stand up.

Whenever I’m explaining Kwanzaa to someone I always wish I could make this one next to last. Like, day one, Umoja eases you in and then day two hits you over the head, BAM! But like my grandaddy used to admonish whenever he smelled procrastination or laziness in the air “you see what’s going on in the world? Ni&&as ain’t got time for games!” So, it’s pronounced Kuji-chag-ulia (or CoogiChug Aaliyah if that helps more.) And it’s my favorite principle actually. All broken down it means if you want to name your baby La’shaunt’quavia ZhaNashay Davis – do that. Although traditionally, Kwanzaa strongly embraces African centered practices, there is something to be said about the creativity and distinct nature of new black baby names – you know they are ours that’s for sure. The point is, they came from us, from our community. We created it and claim it, like jazz or hip-hop or afros or locs, no matter how it’s co-opted and manipulated at its core it’s from Us. No other scene in a black movie (except maybe this one) defines Kujichagulia as plainly as this one from Roots. It’s classic, but everyone, especially 80s babies, haven’t scene it. What’s happening here is Kunta Kinte, a central character in the movie, has been captured and enslaved and is now being “broken” and prepared for working on the plantation. His captor in this scene is attempting to give him a new name and take away his African identity altogether but Kunta is defiant:

Ujima – Collective Work & Responsibility:
To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

Am I my brother’s keeper?” – in a word, “yes.” (but not like in that clip) When I first started organizing one of my elders used to say to us all of the time (paraphrasing from Frantz Fanon) that you have to take folk from where they were. She would say, “If you have something to eat and your neighbor doesn’t – then it’s just like you don’t – our problems are all of ours together.” That is the core of collective work and responsibility. I also grew up singing a song that had these lyrics: “I want to lift my brother up he is not heavy, I want to lift my sister up she is not heavy, I want to lift my people up they are not heavy. If I don’t lift them up…I will fall down.” Again, that makes it plain. In this country that was built of the principle of “climbing ladders” but not “lifting as we climb” it’s very easy to get caught up in the competition of it all. But, it’s not in our tradition not to help each other. Philanthropy is ingrained in our DNA because of the times when “we” were all we had.
In one of my all time favorite movies, The Wiz, we see a great display of Ujima from beginning to end. Dorothy, played by Diana Ross picks up the Scarecrow, played by Michael Jackson and offers that the Wiz could likely help him find a brain, they go on to pick up the Tin Man, played by Nipsy Russell and bring him along to get a heart and round out the group with “the mean Ole’ Lion,” played by Ted Ross who needs some courage. They stick together until the end, they sacrifice for each other, when they have an out and a chance to separate they do not and in the end when each of the brothers get their individual needs satisfied they aren’t satisfied until Dorothy is also cared for. Her problems are their problems. There is no one clip that illustrates this most (that I could find on youtube) but this is a good one still. They don’t just share their new-found freedom with each other…they spread the joy with others who have been oppressed:

Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

This could be simplified as “Buy Black” but it’s more than that. Go out of your way to support black businesses. Help to bring Black businesses into your community. Do not support businesses that are not in the best interest of the black community. And, help support cooperative businesses that uplift and support the people with the least in our communities.
People, Black folk more specifically, always wrinkle their noses or roll their eyes when I start talking about finding black businesses. I don’t care it’s important to me. My doctors are black, my dentist is black, my dry cleaner (was black, my bad I’ve been lazy about finding a black one in Philly), my mechanic, etc…

When I moved to Philly it took me about two months to find all of the services I needed from Black people – but I did for the most part and THAT’S what Ujamaa is all about. I thought about using this other movie at first but figured it wasn’t really appropriate. Then I thought about “Do the Right Thing” and this scene where Buggin’ Out asks Sal the owner of the pizza shop why there aren’t brothas on the wall and Sal explains in great detail why he decidedly does not and WILL NOT put any up. The gist of what Buggin’ Out is talking about is exactly why we need to practice Cooperative Economics. Waaaaaaaaake Up!!!!!

Nia – Purpose
To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

So this one is a bit broad, but in a good way. We have a lot of things in our community that need to be rebuilt, repaired or renewed. And if the last three years under our first Black president have shown us anything – it’s definitely that we are on our own out here. As the great June Jordan (not Barack Obama) famously said “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That means that our purpose, as a people, regardless of what path your life takes you on personally, has to be rooted in uplifting our community — more specifically to making the lives of Black people better in some way. So be a teacher or be a farmer; be a dancer or be a phlebotomist – but either directly through your career or some how in your life – work toward making the lives of Black people (and other people of color) better. Is it hard? Could be. Or it could be simple. Your contribution is your decision. But have one.

I chose this scene from “The Color Purple” my all time favorite movie. I could really pull every single principle out of this one movie – and I actually started to. I hope most of you have seen this movie so I don’t have to go into too much detail, but in this scene Celie, played by Whoopie Goldberg is reunited with her sister Nettie, played by Akosua Busia after many, many years and after thinking that she would never see her again. Their reunion is only able to happen because of the work of Celie’s ex-husband, Mister, played by Danny Glover, who was responsible for their separation in the first place and who had beaten and tormented Celie for years. I feel like this contribution from Mister was the defining moment in his life – he had found his purpose. You might think it’s a stretch, but I think it’s an example of the best way for us to build real community – with intention, one person at a time.

Kuumba – Creativity
To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

This is probably the most often misunderstood of all of the principles and that’s understandable. While it does mean that we should be creative in the traditional sense of arts and culture. It also means that we have to be creative in the ways in which we problem solve and deal with the challenges we face in our community (at least that’s what I was taught.) As a people, we exhibit a lot of ingenuity in our day-to-day lives. From “robbing peter to pay paul” to inventing things to make our lives easier.

This principle always reminds me to celebrates not just the genius and cleverness in our community, but the ways in which we come together to “take what we have and make what we need” which is another one of my “elder-isms.” My disclaimer here is that the two scenes I wanted to show I just couldn’t find. The first was the picnic scene from the movie “Uptown Saturday Night” with Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte among a number of our favorite black actors and the second was the social worker scene from “Claudine” starring Dianne Carroll and James Earl Jones. If you haven’t seen either – make a point to – they are both GREAT films. In the end it was either the scene from Sister Act where the kids clean up the neighborhood or this one from The Women of Brewster’s Place – it is a TERRIBLE copy – but, either way, I think you all get it, right?

Imani – Faith
To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Contrary to popular belief, this principle is not so much about believing in God as it about us believing in each other. But, we are a spiritual, not religious, people by nature. For many African-Americans our faith in God is what fuels our faith in each other and mankind for that matter. This principle is about what our faith in general is about. In Christianity it tells us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” Islam says, “Verily Man is in loss, except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and join together in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.” There are similar sentiments about faith in Yoruba, Judaism and many other religions practices by Black people – because it is what carries us. Imani is about us vowing to ourselves to always search for the best part of other black folk. We may be disappointed with each other in our heads but we can’t give up on one another in our hearts.

I tried not to use the same movie twice, I really did, but I just couldn’t help it – these are the movies that came to mind first. Besides, I already told ya’ll that it’s my favorite :). This scene from “The Color Purple” is the perfect display of Imani/Faith both in the more “traditional” sense as in worshiping God and in the communal sense as in “not giving up on each other.” In this clip, Shug Avery, is performing in the local Juke Joint on a Sunday morning and is interrupted by the sounds coming from the choir in her father’s church nearby. Shug, whose father had long since turned his back on her for her “worldly ways,” proceeds to march to the church and show her father that “sinner’s have soul too.” (get your tissues)

And that’s it! Those are all of the principles. The Nguzu Saba is what they are called.

See, it’s not that hard of a concept to grasp, right? And if so, I hope I made it a little easier. I have actually been slacking on my Kwanzaa in the last several years, so this post was for me too. I needed to be reminded about the things I love the most about the holiday – Black folk. I love black people and I love everything about being black and ANY excuse to celebrate and uplift black folk is alright with me.

For more information about how to traditionally celebrate Kwanzaa check out this website: http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml

But you should note, even if you don’t feel comfortable going through the seven-day practice (after you’ve tried it at least once) that’s cool – no one is judging you or snatching your “black card.” But, if you never light another kinara or pour a libation, you can still embrace the principles of Kwanzaa in your life and the life of your children and community.

Harambee good people!

Even if you love history you won’t know his name right off like John Lewis or Andy Young and he’d probably prefer it that way.

You wouldn’t have recognized him at first sight but you can find him somewhere looming in a thousand pictures from the movement.

Bob Mants was a worker pure and simple and his pride rested in that.

I was in my early twenties when I first met him while working at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, AL. I’ll never forget him walking into the Museum with that infamous scowl tucked tightly underneath his even more infamous cap. Although I had met him a half of a dozen times before – that day I recognized him immediately because I had spent months and months scouring over pictures from the Voting Rights movement and his face just leapt out at me. I said, “your Bob Mants!” to which he dryly replied: “All of my life darling” and moved right past me down the hall to visit Joanne Bland the director of the museum – who herself had been apart of the movement and was a long time friend. Unmoved by his prickly response, I followed right behind him like a little kid and began to barrage him with questions. Ms. Ann (as some of us affectionately call her) just explained that he shouldn’t mind me because I was “tarded” and didn’t know any better. But instead, he shocked Ms. Ann, me and everyone else when he turned around and told me to ask him anything I wanted – and I did. From that day until this one Bob Mants has forever remained dear in my heart. Our friendship was odd to some people. He always greeted me with a huge hug and kiss and would immediately turn around and get his scowl right back in place for whomever else was around. It was because of our friendship that he finally granted the Museum the taped interview that they had been trying for years to get from him. He sat with my best friend and me for more than two hours and told us stories that we had never heard and laughed and ministered and taught and for the first time, he says, since the 60s cried about the work. He had endured so much for so long that, like many movement folk, he had just become a hard shell. Most of his interactions about his work were with tourist and college students who really didn’t look at his work through the same lens as we did – as a foundation to continue building movements. Most thought of him as mean. I understood that he was just straightforward and didn’t suffer fools because he had too much work to do. To look at him in his throwback SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) uniform – denim overalls, basic shirt and a cap – it would be easy to mistake him for some old backwoods, long talking type cat. But he was just the opposite. The uniform remained long after the movement dissipated because he was unassuming just like he was taught to be.

Leaders of the Bloody Sunday March. Bob Mants is pictured second from the left in the cap.

Bob Mants was born and raised in Atlanta, GA. He graduated from high school in East Point and attended Morehouse before he left to dedicate one hundred percent of his time to the Civil Rights Movement. At 16, he was the youngest member of the Atlanta Student Movement. He once told me that when he went to join SNCC initially they thought he was too young for fieldwork so they put him to work in the Atlanta office cleaning up and running errands. It wasn’t long before his zeal not only got him out in the field, but earned him positions as field secretary and later project coordinator for SNCC. It’s how he ended up in Lowndes County Alabama – he was assigned. From 1963 until 1969 he was in Lowndes working for SNCC and it’s how he ended up leading one of the most significant civil rights protests of modern American history – The Bloody Sunday March on March 7, 1965. The “leaders” of the march are often mistakenly identified as just John Lewis and Hosea Williams – not true. There were FOUR leaders of that march. Hosea Williams who was working with the SCLC, John Lewis who had effectively resigned from SNCC the day before the march and was therefore representing himself, Albert Turner who was the leader of the movement in Marion, AL where Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death two weeks prior had sparked the call for this march and Bob Mants who was still a field representative for SNCC. It was the four men along with others who strategized together. Over the years the story gets miss told that Bob Mants marched to watch John Lewis’ back – not true. He was just as much – if not more of an organizer than – Lewis.

In the days after Bloody Sunday leading up to and during the actual Selma to Montgomery March Bob Mants continued his work with SNCC alongside others like Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), who was partnered with him in Lowndes county and H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) who he remained friends with always. It was Bob Mants who helped me to better understand how the Black Panther Partythat was birthed in Lowndes County – was so closely related to the one that many people identify with out of California. He was always very clear that for SNCC non-violence was not a way of life but a strategic tactic. He would tell stories of how the SNCC workers would ride five or six deep in trucks through Lowndes with shotguns on their laps “in case something jumped off with some white folk.” I remember one particular story he told of local residents and SNCC workers lying in the fields surrounding their homes all night with shotguns and pistols because word had spread that there were going to be some negro homes burned and folk killed. So they watched and waited. He was a trooper. He was a warrior. He cared deeply and unwaveringly for black folk. Our liberation was his lifeblood.

I could write so much more about him and the things that he taught me but I need to stop. I need to process and I need to mourn. This loss hurts deeply. Moments before I found out I spoke about how nervous I feel about losing my elders. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to have a courageous example of a freedom fighter like Bob Mants in my life and in my daughter’s life. I am forever grateful and a better person for having known the likes of Annie Cooper, Mother Marie Foster, Rev. James Orange and Bob Mants – along with all of the living breathing foot soldiers from across the movements who have deeply impacted my life. I only hope that my continued commitment to my people where ever they are in the world makes you all proud.

I will end by saying this: PLEASE learn our history and then teach our babies. You may not be a teacher, but more than likely you have influence over a child in some part of your life. This history – our history – is dying with the giants who made it. The struggle for freedom in the United States is a great entry point to work from to introduce young people to stories of movement and struggle all over the Diaspora. All of this “occupy” stuff in the news is being presented in a vacuum and with a pale face. Our children need to know – and some of you need to know – that we have a long, arduous history of struggle and movement building in America, in Africa, in the Caribbean, in South America – where ever the skin is dark the fight is real. Learning about SNCC helped me realize that I could stand up to police in my community at 14 years old. It helped me understand that I had a voice. Unleash that voice in our kids – if you won’t do the work – they will. History doesn’t exist simply as fodder for oscar-worthy movies. Our history, especially, is a roadmap. It is a call to action. It is a motivator. Get the facts and then get to work. It’s time.

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