I have been contemplating the idea of ‘almost’ quite a bit lately.

Growing up, in my house, the word was certainly frowned upon. My mother had a thing about speaking in definites. If she asked a question like “Tarana, is your homework done?” She expected a succinct answer: yes or no. When I would simply yell back casually, “almost!” She’d return with, “What is almost? Either you’re finished or you are not – don’t answer questions that I didn’t ask!” As a kid it would boggle my mind as to why it made a difference to my mom, but as an adult I can see the absolute value in being direct and clear. Webster’s dictionary online defines the word ‘almost’ as an adverb meaning “very nearly, not quite, or slightly short of,” which means using the word frequently is like perpetually living in the gray area.

I didn’t get it then. I do now.

There are clearly situations to which ‘almost’ applies. One can be almost finished a drink; or almost to the finish line; or almost dressed. It’s a marker for half or perhaps a quarter of the way towards completion when there is a clear end in sight. But, in other instances, like affairs of the heart, Ms. Norwood was absolutely right: almost doesn’t count.

It was Brandy’s heart wrenching song that led to my rumination about ‘almost’ actually. I was sitting up in my room (I couldn’t help it) thinking about my latest heartbreak. Like a good virgo child, I was mulling over every single detail of our relationship that I could dredge up from my memory and laying them out chronologically in the vast open space in my mind. I was thinking through how close to being forever me and “he” had come to on more than one occasion and I kept wondering – why not? Why was there always some-thing, some-situation or some-new development that managed to unravel whatever progress we might have made when we were so close…we were almost there. But that is precisely why almost doesn’t count.

Almost doesn’t talk me through rough nights when I’m doubting my abilities as a parent, a professional and a person.
Almost doesn’t make me feel strong when I’m feeling scared and confused.
Almost doesn’t lose itself in hours of conversation just as easily as it does in long moments of silence.
And almost doesn’t clap for me. Love does, but not almost and I need someone to clap for me.

The conclusion that I came to, although not profound in the rocket science sense, was more of an “aha” of the Oprah variety. When I thought over all of the years I had committed to trying to make something happen that didn’t ever end in my favor and all of the times when I felt like we were so close only to be disappointed again, I realized that as it pertains to emotions – love – in particular, almost was synonymous with never.

Wow.

As much as that felt like a gut punch it was also cathartic. I had to sit up straight and say it out loud. I don’t want to spend my life chasing behind a maybe. I can’t wrap my arms around “very nearly” or plan a future with “slightly short of.” If it’s love it has to be absolute, definite. I deserve that. Everybody does. And I don’t plan on settling for anything less.

This has been my own lesson to learn though. My almost love isn’t all to blame. He’s been telling me for years in one way or another. He’s been communicating, without saying a word, that he wasn’t ‘the one’ and the volumes spoken between the lines of those unspoken words are where the lesson lies. Sometimes we just know. We know when it’s not enough. We know when it’s just a dream held together with scotch tape and lipstick and bendable will. And, when we find ourselves in that gray area, alone with a random text message and another rain check – we have to make some serious decisions. Almost will never make me happy. I’m clear about that. And now that I’m clear, I have to do the work of figuring out why I tried to find happiness in almost instead of in Tarana.

These revelations are always energizing on the first day. But now its the next day and the day after that and the day after that and I struggle sometimes because although it won’t bring you joy, almost can at least make you smile occasionally – and I like to smile. But I want the kind of smile that comes from the inside out. I want the kind of love that lasts forever. And I’ll know it when I see it because I almost had it.

Auf Wiedersehen

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 can’t stop crying.

It has been hours at this point since I plopped on my bed, opened my laptop, clicked onto Facebook and had my heart ripped out.

Whitney Houston, the biggest female singer of my time, has died. And I’m taking it hard.

It’s more than her being one of my all time favorite singers. Or maybe that is it. But I haven’t felt like this since…well, since we lost Mike. And tonight, just like that balmy, early summer evening in 2009, I am struggling to understand why this feels like a death in my family.

I get it that people die, obviously. I also get it that I had never met her and didn’t know her personally. But I did know her, or at least that’s how it felt sometimes, and it felt like she knew me – or at least knew my heart. She was ten years older than I am . She wasn’t supposed to precede her mom and her cousin and her godmother in death. She was supposed to bounce back from the bowls of narcotic hell and show the world that her magic was real.

Maybe it hurts like this because we’ve known her since she was 19. I remember hearing “Saving All My Love” on WBLS in New York and thinking “who is that?” I can still remember Ken “Spider” Web, the radio DJ, going on and on about her being related to Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin but I had missed her name. I was, and I still am, a HUGE music fan. Her voice was so amazing to me that I needed to know who she was. I listened to the radio intently for the next 24 hours until her song came on again – it did and I missed the name again! Finally, a few days later, the song came on and the radio announcer said “new one from Whitney Houston – this young lady is sure to be a star!”

You think I’m lying? I remember these things like moments in a relationship. I can also remember hearing Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” while getting ready for summer camp and my mother and I listening over and over trying to figure out what he was saying exactly. I remember when my mother brought home Whitney’s first album, Whitney Houston and told me that she was Cissy Houston’s daughter. (We listened to a lot of Cissy in my house.) I sat on the living room floor and looked at the picture thinking about how pretty she looked to me. That album did to me what it did to legions of young girls around my age at the time – it made us think we could sing! One of my first big Whitney-related memories is auditioning for Showtime at the Apollo. (I’ll pause for wisecracks) My seventh grade friend Keisha and I decided to sing The Greatest Love of All as a duet and we would meet everyday after school to rehearse. When the audition came up my mother and father brought me down to Harlem to the old National Black Theater building and Keisha and I got up and sang our little hearts out. We didn’t make it. But my mother did say afterwards, “Ok, well you have a little something there, you ain’t Whitney, but you held your own.” That made me proud – I held my own. That’s all I needed. I gave up singing but I still loved Whitney.

As I sit here recalling other Whitney memories in my life I can’t help but think about how I matured with her. She took me, emotionally, from middle school to motherhood. By the time her second album, Whitney dropped, I was entering high school and the world of high school boys. Where Do Broken Hearts Go; I Get So Emotional; Didn’t We Almost Have it All all dripped of the drama that a fourteen year old girl needed to cope with the roller coaster ride that is puppy love. And the latter, Didn’t We Almost Have it All? Chile. That song reared it’s unfortunately appropriate head more than a few times well into adulthood. In later high school years I had a ‘high school sweetheart’ and All the Man I Need from her third album became one of our first songs. Another lesser known cut from that album, After We Make Love (which, by the way we hadn’t yet) was another favorite of mine. I wrote lyrics to songs I loved in my journal back then. These were included and I still have it (see below). I can’t find the one with “All the Man I Need” but I can tell you that I had planned my deflowering to a tee and it was to be on July 4th so that there would be fireworks involved and that song was to be playing in the background. Didn’t quite go down like that, but Whitney was apart of the dream.

I was in college when I Will Always Love You hit. I have worn my lungs out on many, many occasions trying to hit those notes. It was just perfection. I used to feel so irritated towards white people, especially in the deep south where I was at the time, who acted like she just became relevant with this monster hit. I can remember walking to my apartment from campus with my walkman on singing I Have Nothing at the very top of my lungs. I also remember a guy who I was sort of seeing at the time calling and leaving “I Will Always Love You” on my answering machine. I was so annoyed because his intention was to woo me but I had to let him know that although a beautiful ballad, it was a BREAK UP song. Which of course leads me to her next album. The Waiting to Exhale Soundtrack.

When I tell you that I could barely believe what I was hearing when I found out that Babyface was putting together this all-star album with all of my favorite singers: Anita Baker, Patti Labelle, Faith Evans, MARY J. BLIGE and…Whitney Houston – I nearly passed out. To this day, Exhale (Shoop, Shoop) just makes me feel better. Seriously. Her voice in that song, the words, the lullaby like repetition, it just soothes me. In the same regard, Count on Me takes me through it. I love my friends so much. I can’t think of that song without thinking about that love, particularly for my best friend. When I hear that song I always get choked up thinking about the ways in which I have been able to count on her through the years. Makes me sad for Whitney’s close circle of girlfriends like CeCe Winan and Kim Burrell and Perri “Pebbles” Reid. There is a version of Bridge Over Troubled Waters that Whitney and CeCe sang on a Vh1 program years ago that shows the power of their connection.

My connection with her grew even stronger when she released the Preacher’s Wife soundtrack. I had never really listened to gospel music growing up but my relationship with God was growing and I felt like I needed to move away from secular music. The problem was, all I knew was secular music. I lived with a constant soundtrack in my mind and there was no way I could give that up. I felt so torn. Then I heard Whitney’s version of I Love the Lord and it turned it all around. I played that soundtrack out. I do to this day. I Go to the Rock and I Believe in You and Me are mainstays in my gospel rotation. Whitney ushered me into gospel. Her version of This Day is perfect. Bar none. The familiarity and comfort I had with her voice allowed me to be introduced to gospel at my own pace and eventually just fully embrace and love the genre.

I have to admit as much as I loved her first big “come back” with the 2007 release of Your Love is My Love. I wasn’t a fan of much of the music Whitney put out after that. It was hard for me to hear the straining in her voice and see the fear and anxiety in her eyes as she realized that we realized that things were not the same. Like most of her fans, and there are legions of us, we spent much of the new millenium deeply worried about her. And to be honest, it might have been easier to take this news six or seven years ago when we were watching her public spiral and challenges with addiction and sobriety. I can remember saying on more than one occasion, “please Whitney don’t die.” I also remember being moved emotionally watching her Christian sisters praying for her on live television during Cece Winans religion channel program.

After watching all of these clips of Whitney what has dawned on me is that this is harder because we were all rooting for her full recovery. The world of her fans, those of us who believed most in the possibility of her triumph – not as a singer – but as a human are that much more devastated by this loss. Many of us have dealt with drug abuse in our family. I know I have. And if you have you know that it’s often, more often than not, not a happy ending. Whitney represented the possibility of a happy ending. I joked after her return that I couldn’t wait for the tell-all autobiography ala Tina Turner that reveals the depths of despair that she pulled herself up from to become the beacon of hope that she would go on to be for so many who thought it wasn’t possible for them. She would be for addicts what Tina was for survivors of domestic abuse. When she came out on stage on Good Morning America last year I was moved to tears. Not by her voice, but by her spirit. That she did the work, took on the challenge and fought back for her life made me so happy. Watching her sing to her mother who has never once left her side and never once stopped praying was overwhelming. I didn’t care what her voice sounded like. I just knew we had Whitney back for the long haul.

You can’t imagine how sad I am that I was mistaken.

There are so many more Whitney memories I could share. I mean Heartbreak Hotel and Why Does It Hurt So Bad have stories that are worthy of their own posts. The names say it all – but I will digress. Our generation is loosing it’s “icons” way to soon. When I think about the legends of my mother’s time and her all time favorites: Patti, Aretha, Gladys…they were all able to come through rough times, continue with stellar careers and move easily into legendary status. They are here to be honored and cherished. It’s so perplexing to me that Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston would be lost at these young ages. And when I think about who my daughter will call icon, it just makes me sadder. There is no one in her generation and no other in my own who could do this or this or this or bite your tongue THIS.

Whitney was an original. Inimitable.

I’ll leave you with this clip. I feel like it embodies everything I (we) are feeling right now and why. We believed in Whitney. We wanted the best for Whitney, we wanted her to win. And maybe in some way that we aren’t meant to understand — she did. Maybe she won because she’s free.

Rest in Peace Whitney. We love you.

Kim Burrell tribute to Whitney

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.

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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.

Back story: I originally wrote this in early 2010 after an incident with my daughter. Like a number of blogs I start and don’t finish, it was buried in a file that I just re-discovered and I decided to finish and publish it mostly because I have had many more of these moments since this one and many others before it. Life can be fleeting and it seems more so lately. So, I want to give my mother her roses now. Purple ones of course!

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Dear Mommy,

First I have to thank you. There are a number of things to thank you for obviously, but this is specifically for yesterday (and several others days like it) when I have called you in a panic about the baby Giant (BG) or “kaiahead” like you call her.

As you know, I am not prone to hysteria. You raised me to be rational in most situations and to take a moment to think things through before I fly off the handle (mostly). As such, when I had not heard from my child – your granddaughter in two and a half hours, I didn’t panic – i pondered. I started thinking about all of the reasons the BG could be late, like sitting in the library (where she was supposed to be) having a conversation with the librarian about the fine line between young adult and adolescent literature or maybe there was, you know, a puppet show. You never know with this kid. I thought about these things as I called the local library branch where she was supposed to go after school today and was told that she hadn’t been there – at all. That shook me up a little because I knew she should have made it to the library and been on her way home by that time, but I didn’t worry – too much. An hour later when she still wasn’t home, I decided to take a walk up to the library and see for myself; because, like you always were with me, I am proactive in my approach to raising my child. I thought, like you taught me, about what the reasonable explanation could be for not hearing from her for now three and a half hours. I still didn’t completely panic – but I prayed. Maybe they had made a mistake at the library and she was holed up in a corner reading as she always is at home. Maybe she was on a bus that was re-routed and it was taking considerably longer to get home. Maybe this was another of her hair-brained schemes to have a little “free time” and she was out gallivanting at the mall. I prayed: “Lord, whatever she’s doing – wherever she’s at, please bring her home safely.”

Mommy, I have to say as I walked up the hill to the library with my prayers in tow, my heart began to sink lower and lower. I foolishly allowed thoughts of the “worst case scenario” to creep in and I started to become unnerved. I took a brief moment to sit and collect myself and then I called you. You said to me “calm down” “Take a deep breath” “Think,” you said. “This is Kaia we’re talking about.” And I thought “what would I be thinking at 12?” And that’s when I remembered.

I remembered the time when I decided to “run away from home” in the seventh grade. I had been deeply embarrassed that day at school because I laughed during my public reading at church. In my pre-teen mind, the pressure of that and the other problems I was dealing with at the time were simply too much – and I bolted. I know now, or at least I believe, that what I really wanted was another reality. I wanted just for a little while not to have “those” problems, even if it meant creating new ones. I didn’t think for even a moment about how my sudden disappearance would affect you. I didn’t think about how panicked you must have been when I didn’t call you like clockwork by 4:00PM to say I was in the house and safe. I didn’t think about what your worst fears might have been about what had happened to your only child. I didn’t think of these things because I was selfish – as children often are. Not a mean, malicious kind of selfish, just a self-absorbed, naive kind. The kind that thinks that their problems are larger than life and the only ones that exist. The kind that thinks that no one can help them because no on understands. And the kind that thinks that they have the answers at the tender age of 12.

I’m sorry. Or rather, I apologize because, like you always taught me, “anyone can be sorry, it takes a big person to apologize.”

I know now. I understand the gripping fear that takes hold of you when you allow yourself for just a moment to imagine your life without your child. I understand the deeply sad and vastly empty feeling that creeps up from the pit of your stomach and anchors in the depths of your soul. Even if you don’t wallow in those feelings, just a glimpse of them is nightmarish. I understand.

The BG and I are different and the same. She is dealing with some similar, but many more dissimilar issues than i was at her age. But I’m sure her 12-year-old mind processes many things the same way that i did. She didn’t run away yesterday, she simply got her wires crossed and was at the wrong library branch. I thank God for that. She is mostly a good kid and I never have too much trouble from her, but you never know.

One thing for sure about your “kaiahead” she’s courageous where i wasn’t. I wish i had the courage to talk to you then. I wish i realized that you were my ally and your purpose was to protect me, not mine to protect you. I foolishly wanted to shield you from my hurt and anger and embarrassment and pain. I didn’t get that God put you in my life because you had the space and strength to handle whatever my tender years had to offer.

So this is an open letter to say thank you and I apologize. Thank you for being here now, always supportive, always objective, always a rock. And thank you for being there then with your worries and your fears and your heartache and your patience and your calm and your insight. I know it’s all love.

I can’t turn back the clock, but i can pay it forward. And that’s exactly what I try to do everyday. I hope I can be even half the mother that you aspired to be.

With all my love,

Tarana

I am sort of a romantic.

Not like a “one day my prince will come” sappy type of romantic, but more of the “you’re the perfect verse over a tight beat” variety. I love old, classic movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or “Bringing up Baby” with the feisty, hard shell heroine who eventually melts into the arms of the man she loves in the end. I also love the bevy of Black romantic comedies and dramas that erupted on the scene between the late 90s and mid new millennium: “Love and Basketball,” “Best Man,” “Hav Plenty,” “Brown Sugar” (one of my all time favorites), and of course the movie that many feel like started the trend – “Love Jones.”

Love Jones, the now “classic” movie, starred a young Larenz Tate as ‘Darius’ an up and coming poet and writer and an equally youthful Nia Long as ‘Nina’ a freelance photographer. The story line revolves around the two meeting and Darius immediately feeling Nina. After a hard press, Darius gets Nina to agree to go out on a date – which was actually to a friend’s house to hang out and then to a night club for some late night dancing. The date ends with them hooking up back at her place and so begins their tumultuous love affair. Really, I’m so sure most people reading my blog have likely seen Love Jones and if you haven’t – get on that. I watched the movie in its entirety tonight for the first time in years. After talking to a friend who suggested that I “act more like Nina” and I’ll find a man I decided to que it up on Netflix when I realized that even though I quote from it often enough – I couldn’t quite remember the finite details of the movie and I needed to understand what he was talking about.

Now that I have, I must say, he’s bugging.

Love Jones was released in March 1997 meaning it’s coming up on its 15th anniversary. It also means that when I went to see it I was sitting in the movie theater with my soon-to-be “baby daddy” pregnant unbeknownst to us both. The funny thing about that is what I remember most about seeing this movie is the moment when Nina tells her ex-fiance, after going back to him yet again, that she doesn’t know why she came back. He responds to her by saying, “after all of these years you don’t know?” and Nina comes back with the line that I know gut-punched me and my boyfriend (at the time of seven years): “all we have is all of these years…and that’s not enough.” Ooooh…intense I thought. I was 23 years old. Grown, right? Hardly.

I watched this movie tonight, fourteen years later with far more mother wit and tons less baggage – and quite frankly Nina made me cringe. I kept watching and wanting her to make different decisions. Mature decisions. Grown up decisions. But she was not a grown up and maybe that was the point. This was after all a love story about twenty-somethings for twenty-somethings. However, that being a fact didn’t stop me from dismantling my former heroine and digging into some of her more questionable behavior. And what the heck, you’ve been reading this far so clearly you have some free time on your hands…so here we go:

My first eyebrow raiser was her reaction to the poem Darius recited for her in the opening scene. You all know it. It has the line that we quote the most, “Who am I? They call me brother to the night. I’m the blues in your left thigh, trying to become the funk in your right” Whaaat?? That line is still fly. You’ll can’t front. It’s just sexy. Nina, who is clearly turned on a lil’ bit, confronts Darius outside of the club with an attitude claiming to be embarrassed. Um, really? By what? Who knows that you are Nina? Who knows that he was even thinking about you? That could have been a sweet, sexy, little moment that just the two of them shared. A grown woman would have just walked past him leaving the club and flashed a knowing smile. If she said anything it would have been “thank you” whispered in his ear which would have left the circle of friends surrounding him wondering what was going on. Or if she were truly offended she would have kept it moving. The false modesty of the moment is dumb. And then she writes write ‘love’ on his hand? He don’t love you sis – he doesn’t even know you. He ain’t even the “funk in your right” yet…just trying to get there.

The next two things that raised my ire were the whole playing hard to get thing in the record store and then letting a TOTAL STRANGER into your home. Who does that? Not in 1997 or 1987 (maybe ’77) but really, you don’t know this cat and you let him come in because he brought you a cd? Ever heard of stranger danger? And what happened to all of that coy ish? Seriously, I know we make some really silly, would-be-life-threatening decisions in our twenties, but come on. The more mature thing would have been to accept the cd at the door and then allow him to CALL her since, as she stated, she knew he had her phone number.

I’ll reserve judgment about her giving in to their chemistry after their first date…because well..there is no age or wisdom attached to that particular type of decision. I’m just saying. Move on.

Skipping ahead a bit, I have to say, I was cringing from the inside out when she listened to her stupid friend (who I will get to later) and decided to play games about going to New York to reunite with her ex. “Okay, okay I got it!” her friend says all giddy as she unveils this brilliant plan for her to surmise if Darius was worth staying for or not. Grrr.

She then puts this plan into place after sex one evening. Now, I have to say, full disclosure: I know some sisters my age who would do this today. Game playing very clearly has NO AGE LIMIT – but then again neither does maturity. In this case Nina tells Darius that she is going to NY to check on some opportunities and to see her ex who she “was close to once.” What she wants is for him to come with “Nina, you know we been kicking it for a minute now, you know, meeting up, screwing, laughing, loving, having a good time and I’m feeling you for real – like more than a booty call, but like my girl, you know. Stay Nina. Please stay. I’ll make sure you don’t regret it.” What he does is basically say, “that’s cool, we just kicking it anyway right? Do you.” What did she expect? There are no parameters around their relationship – no definition at all – which was working for them up until then, but it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t falling for her. My friend’s mother always says “play with a puppy and it’ll lick your mouth.” Yeah, it’s nasty, but it’s true. You get out what you put in. You lead with games – you end with games, period. That scene was a moment for her to say what she meant something like: “I’m trying to figure this out and trying to figure us out too – I’m feeling you for real and I think you are on the same page, let’s talk this through.” Or whatever. Something. And she gets an extra gas face here for not knowing when to get out and stay out. What are you going to NY for in the first place?

While I’m giving out the gas face let me insert my PSA at this point in time about having good girlfriends. Nina’s girlfriend was a fool. Most of us know when we are conjuring up foolishness in our heads. It usually starts late at night while staring at a facebook page or reading through some old text messages. Our brains start thinking of all types of theories about why he this or why doesn’t that. There is usually nothing wrong with that if you can talk yourself off of the ledge but when you have girls who co-sign, or worst yet ENCOURAGE your tomfoolery – you are shooting bad. Ladies, there has to come a point in your life when you look at your home girls and do some self evaluation and then start moving away from the toxic broads (“let’s key his car!”) and closer to the edifying sisters (“let’s focus on the positives that came out of the relationship.”) This could be an entire other post so I digress.

So, this brings me to the coup-de-gråce. The part of the film that made me want to find this imaginary character Nina just so I could make myself her honorary bestie and then snatch her up by her collar. This young lady comes back from NY wanting to find Darius, but doesn’t call him. I actually get that. She left on funky terms and you don’t really know where his head is at. Okay. But then she sees him through the window walking down the street with a chic and decides to GO ON A DATE WITH HIS BOY! Whoa. What??

In the same vein that many of us women hold the “you can’t date a friend’s ex” rule – clearly, there is a “you can’t date your ex’s man rule” particularly when you and said ex are just weeks/months fresh off of a break up. And, furthermore, dating in the same circle so soon is just asking for all sorts of drama. DRAMA. The kryptonite of grown women. We run from it, loathe it. But not Nina. She runs head-first into the muck. But, as movies would have it, things work out and the two are soon reunited and it feels so good. When suddenly…

More drama. There is a question about Darius and the girl Nina saw him with at the book store. Now, I remember having a discussion about this with girlfriends like, “I wish my man would get up at such and such a time to answer the phone and talk to an ex in the other room – aw, hell no!” And I am NOT saying that I don’t still feel that way. However, after her track record of shady-ness and his track record of not lying to her – why not trust him? And, if she didn’t trust him – for whatever her reasons – why stay? From what we can tell in the movie, she sticks around being a miserable person for a while after the phone call from the ex and continuously badgers Darius about the girl after he has explained the situation over and over. No matter what he says she remains suspicious. In the black church they’d say it sounds like she herself was “convicted” by her own behavior. Ummm hmmm. It takes some time – believe me. But, eventually a mature women get to the place where she has no interest in snooping in her man’s phone, or going through his emails or checking his text messages or any sort of raging jealous behavior – especially when you know you are not going to leave. What’s done in the dark will come to the light. It always does in one way or another. At some point a woman has got to realize that if she was in a real relationship she wouldn’t be going through all of those changes AND that if you’re searching for clues you likely already know the answer. If I have to do all of that to “hold my relationship together” guess what? It’s time to push on. I’m almost forty, but I very, very clearly remember 20 and 24 and 28 and (eh-em) 32. So this isn’t judgment. In fact it’s almost cathartic for me. I didn’t see any flaws (except the dating the friend thing) in Nina the first time I saw the movie. Even in dating the friend I felt like he “set her up.” It is sort of interesting to me that I had such a visceral reaction to watching that character on the screen this time around. I do still think conceptually, the movie was dead on. Like one of the characters said, “once that love jones get a hold of you…ain’t nothing you can do.” I can fully attest to that, but I have come to a place in my life where the “jones” is just what makes everything else I have to offer that much more interesting.

It seems oxymoronic to start a blog by saying “‘I’m a deeply personal person.” but I really am.

I was raised to believe that my business is my business and what happened in my home stayed in my home – under ALL circumstances.

I felt the need to preface this post by saying that because it’s the first of a series of posts that I feel compelled to publish that share some parts of myself that I have previously reserved for a select crowd of people, but I can’t anymore – I’m trying to build a movement. The following post is old. It was written in 2005 when my best friend and I first formalized our organization, Just Be Inc.. I have had so many thoughts in my mind lately that I have been unable to get on paper. So much has happened in the 5 months since my last blog and I have so much to say and so little time, or at least that is what I have convinced myself. The truth is I had led myself to believe that I don’t have the authority to add to the conversation about these issues that are tearing at my heart when there are so many more qualified voices and well written pieces about things like the 11-year old Texas girl who was brutally gang raped or this recent Ashley Judd dust-up because she called out the hip-hop community for promoting a “rape culture” .

I’m not a pop-culture critic or a public intellectual. I’m just a worker. I’m in the trenches with the 11-year-old survivors and the little girls that have been raised on a steady diet of hip-hop misogyny and mainstream media girl hate.

It’s sexual assault awareness month so I thought it was apt to share this now. Some folk who have supported our work from the beginning have already read this, many have not.

I’m glad that there is a month where the media and organizations doing work in the trenches like Just Be Inc. can shed some light on the staggering statistics around violence against women and girls. I’m more glad that these organizations continue to work just as hard the other 11 months of the year.

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The me too movement™ started in the deepest, darkest place in my soul.

As a youth worker, dealing predominately with children of color, I had seen and heard my share of heartbreaking stories from broken homes to abusive or neglectful parents when I met Angel. Ten years ago during an all girl bonding session at our youth camp, several of the girls in the room shared stories of sexual abuse at the hands of family members, acquaintances and even strangers. Just as I had done so many times before I sat and listened to the stories and comforted the girls as needed – but avoided as many as possible. When it was over the adults advised the young women to reach out to us in the event that they needed to talk some more or needed something else – and then we went our separate ways. Looking back now, I wish we had a different system for dealing with the trauma that was exposed, but we were young and thought just providing an “outlet” was enough.

The next day a little girl who had been quiet in the previous night’s session asked to speak to me privately. Angel was a sweet-faced little girl who kind of clung to me throughout the camp. Her light, high-pitched voice betrayed her high-strung, hyperactive behavior and I was frequently pulling her out of some type of situation. As she attempted to talk to me, the look in her eyes sent me in the other direction. She had a deep sadness and a yearning for confession that I read immediately and wanted no part of. Finally, later in the day the baby caught up with me and almost begged me to listen…and I reluctantly conceded. For the next several minutes this child, Angel, struggled to tell me about her “stepdaddy” or rather her mother’s boyfriend who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body…I was horrified by her words, the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut, and I listened until I literally could not take it anymore…which turned out to be less than 5 minutes. Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and abruptly directed her to another female counselor who could “help her better.”

I will never forget the look on her face.

I will never forget the look because I think about her all of the time. The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it unexpectedly forced closed again – it was all on her face. And as much as I love children, as much as I cared about that child, I could not find the courage that she had found. I could not muster the energy to tell her that I understood, that I connected, that I could feel her pain. I could not validate her sense of self-worth and find the strength to say out loud the words that were ringing in my head over and over again as she tried to tell me what she had endured… I watched her walk away from me and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.


Empowerment through Empathy

One of the main goals of The me too Movement™ is to give young women, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, a sense of empowerment from the understanding that we are not alone in our circumstances. This is the underlying principle of this project: Empowerment through Empathy. The statistics related to sexual abuse in these communities are staggering. The estimates detailing the number of sexual abuse, assault or exploitation victims who are not reporting what happened to them or seeking help are equally astounding.

We want to turn victims into survivors.

Empathy is the sense of awareness or compassion one person has for another’s circumstances; it is a deep connection with the pain of another that comes from that real understanding.

The power of empathy is sorely undervalued. Oftentimes young women who have been violated in any of the aforementioned areas feel humiliated, isolated and powerless. In several cultures, women of color are encouraged to keep situations like these to them selves. In some communities the prevalence is so widespread that the behavior is almost normalized. And still, in other situations, young women from low wealth backgrounds are left feeling voiceless when they don’t see themselves properly represented by various advocate groups. The me too Movement™ seeks to empower young women past these barriers.

Why a Movement?

Under the me too Movement™ our focus is young women who have endured sexual abuse, assault or exploitation. A number of existing advocacy programs only address rape, date rape, or sexual assault. In our survey of programs across the United States, few were equipped to deal with young women, of a variety of ages and races, who were victims of molestation, incest, or exploitation. The definition of exploitation, for our purposes, covers a wide variety of situations that often go unaddressed in communities of color. Young women who are severally harassed daily in school, made to commit to sexual favors or perform sex acts under duress can be severally traumatized by their situations, and the effects can be just as damaging as being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.

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We are serious about building a movement. That is why I am posting this. I have witnessed the power of empowerment through empathy. I have seen what happens in the life of the giver and the receiver. We are bringing the stories of survival to the children, to the other babies like Angel who need to hear it and see how you got over.

If there are women of any age that are willing to share their story with us – in print or on video – please let us know. Our project is ongoing, so whenever you’re ready we’re ready. Your healing, your time. Just remember, you’re not alone….it’s a movement.

For more information or to share visit our website at http://www.justbeinc.org or email me at tarana@justbeinc.org

Thanks.

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