Traveling While Black: Facing What You Left Back Home

I’m feeling conflicted. It’s my second day back from London, and there are many reflections I’d like to record. Thoughts of why I’m drawn to London more than any city in the world, accounts of the many great experiences I had, observations of how ethnicity and identity functions in the city… But, I’m distracted by what I’ve come home to.

I just read an article that in the month I’ve been gone, there have been four killings of young, Black men by our nation’s police. None of these men deserved to be killed, but there are those who are trying to find justifications for their death.

While I was in London, and, last year, while in Thailand, people asked me, “Are American cops really as bad as the news says they are?”

They’re increasingly becoming worse.

In London, I walked around with my Black husband, with no worries of being targeted for our Blackness. When we walked into restaurants, high-end boutiques, pubs, we didn’t worry about being poorly served, not receiving service, or being judged. When we saw London police, our instinct was to become tense, but we quickly realized they didn’t pay us any mind. We even felt comfortable asking two police officers, who were in front of a government building with intimidating automatic assault rifles in their hands, where we could find an Indian restaurant in the area. We were spoken to kindly and politely, and were given directions. Another evening, we went into Brixton—a mostly Black neighborhood—after there had been an all-day festival of reggae, dancehall, and drum and bass. It was rowdy. People were throwing their own after parties on the street, the crowd was predominately Black, police officers were around, but they weren’t intimidating folks, silencing partygoers, or being assholes. I actually felt like they were there “just-in-case” something went wrong.

London is far from perfect. London—the capital of the world’s colonizers—has had messy relationships with its continuously growing multiethnic city. There have been battles between ethnicities, and Eastern Europeans are currently at the brunt of ethnic stereotypes and prejudices.

Black people don’t have it easy either. A couple of years ago, there was a young Black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by a London police officer. According to my friend, the city—particularly its young people—were horrified. Young people of all ethnicities, protested and rioted, because this tragedy was too horrific to ignore. My friend said that people were surprised, because nothing like this had happened before. That was three years ago.

Here, in the US, Black lives are being taken for merely being, by cops, neighbors, and people trying to police the actions of Black people. The news of another Black person being murdered for walking down the street with a friend, is no longer news, but a tragedy for some, and a mishap for others. According to MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, “From 2006 to 2012, a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country.” There are many of us who are angry, many of us who feel helpless, but too many of us who don’t really care.

This is home.

When you come home after being a way, you’re supposed to feel welcomed. The intensity of being in a foreign place melts, as your shoulders relax. You have loads of memories from your holiday, but you’re relieved to be back in the place where you understand the way things work. But, how is one to feel, when “knowing how things work” means knowing that you’re constantly negotiating your Blackness? Coming home means returning to a place where you’re repeatedly shown that people who look like you, like your brothers, like your sisters, like your husband, don’t matter. How is one to feel when you come home to a place that doesn’t always treat you the same way that they treat people with lighter skin than you?

If you return home to a place that makes you feel like you’re continuously on alert for personal safety and basic respect, is that place even home?

Happy 90th, James Baldwin!

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Couldn’t let the day pass without honoring the great and most inspirational, James Baldwin. His fearlessness, his pointed tongue, and graceful pen were before his time, but necessary for the progress of Black intellectuals, of American people. I’m forever in awe of the work he produced. To have known him, must have been life-changing, for to have read him has been soul-shifting.

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To have heard him speak live must have been chilling. His cadence, his dialect, his carefully chosen words… How does one finds power to confront such hate with absolute finesse and grace?

Wish he could’ve been my godfather; happy he is my inspiration.

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Happy Birthday Jimmy!

Have a drink with your girl Nina up in the heavens, dear Baldwin…and then have a chat with Maya, Amiri, Billie, Miles… What a fantastic birthday party you must be enjoying!

Would you mind including my Nana into the conversation– you two would have the most fabulous debates! Is Jesus turning water into wine again? What a treat for your 90th!

Traveling While Black: A Fragmented Response to London’s V&A ‘Disobedient Objects’

When we decided to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, I didn’t have many expectations. I’d been before, and aside from the fashion displays, the V&A was never one of my top stops in London. Imagine my surprise when we discovered– in the midst of British textiles, and European busts–  a thought provoking exhibit exploring revolutionary things, called “Disobedient Objects.

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The exhibit showcases varying objects that have supported social movements from the 1970s to present day. On display, are poster signs, quotes inspiring action, and other objects created to defy political institutions, and to symbolize human rights around the world. As a whole, the exhibit showcases the ways that seemingly simple objects can serve as points of resistance.

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The above picture, also the cover of the exhibit’s catalogue, gives directions on how to create a protective mask from a water bottle. Protestors from many recent “occupy” movements used these masks to protect themselves from getting hit by police with tear gas.

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When I think of protest movements, I usually think about the past.  But, what was chilling about this exhibit was how recent many of these social movements were, some happening now (i.e. police brutality, LGBTQ rights, Palestine, budget cuts in schools). I wouldn’t consider myself ignorant to what’s going on in the rest of the world, or walking distance from my Oakland flat, but I guess I hadn’t really contextualized our reality– the daily grind of people all around the world fighting for safety, education, peace… As I walked through the powerful exhibit, it felt like I was looking in a mirror.

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Our reality is already being curated, and soon it will be neatly organized onto a timeline in our children’s history books. This exhibit not only highlights the revolutionary nature of signs, buttons, or water bottles, but it also reminds us that social movements aren’t glorified moments of the past, but critical conditions of our present.

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The question that always runs through my head when I think about my position as someone who wants to see social change is, how can my actions bring actual change, rather than mereley being an echo of the past? What happens with movements when the marches are over… when the objects of disobedience are obsolete?

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On a side note, it felt a bit strange to be in the ornate V&A, which– let’s be honest– reeks of the legacy of colonization, while observing an exhibit that responds to the disobedient usage of money and power.

 

All photos were taken by my lil’ ol’ iphone 4s– no filter.

Disobedient Objects will be open and free to the public, until 1 February 2015.

Top 3: My Happy Things

This has been an unusually busy  summer. It began with two weeks of Professional Developments. Then, for the first time since my grandmother died, I went back to Florida, which is now home to my mother. The following weekend, I turned 30 in Gatsby-fashion, and spent my first week of 30, packing up my apartment and placing my belongings into storage. Two days later, I locked in an apartment for the end of August, and hopped on a plane to London, which is where I’ll be until then.

Emotions have been high—from anticipation to excitement to worry to jetlag to gratitude to sheer happiness. In the hustle and bustle of my summer, here are three things that have been brining me happiness.

1. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. When life is feeling crazy, it’s comforting to escape into a book, and to envelop yourself into someone else’s chaos. The Lowland is much like other post-colonial books I’ve read—two family members, in this case two brothers, separated by different lifestyle choices. One is committed to a life independent of and against Western frivolity, and the other is soaking up Western privileges—in this case, American education. I’m only on page 100, so I know it will become more complicated, but more than the plot itself, I enjoy Lahiri’s ability to create moods, making me feel like I’m inheriting the experience of her characters. When introducing the reader to the third character, Gauri, she describes Gauri’s relationship with her parents by writing: “She had no memory of spending a moment, even in a house in such an isolated place, ever, alone with her mother or father. Always at the end of a queue, in the shadow of others, she believed she was not significant enough to cast a shadow of her own” (72). I know this sentence is prophetic for something, and I’m eager to read on to find out.

2. Travel. A few weeks ago, I was in Florida. I used to go there a couple times a year, but hadn’t been back since my Nana’s funeral, which was three years ago. My mother now lives 30 minutes from where my Nana used to live. Regardless of my complicated relationship with Florida (nothing like seeing a huge confederate flag waving amongst the lush greenery of it’s landscape), there is a piece of home there—especially now that it’s my mother’s home. Going back “home” has its complications, but, nonetheless it grounds you.

Now, I’m in London—another place I call home. This is my fourth trip to London; my first trip being 10 years ago, when I studied here for a semester. Like each trip, when I first arrived, I felt shy, like someone seeing a loved one for the first time in years– not knowing if the intimacy we once shared could last beyond the years of separation. But, as each day passes, I find myself getting back in step with what was once familiar—navigating the tube, staying in step with the bustle of High Streets, being amongst P.O.C’s in every type of neighborhood, and NOT receiving constant stares. There are multiple reasons for this trip, but regardless of what happens, I know I will not return the same.

“ I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took.” – W. Somerset Maugham

3. Friends. It’s cheesy, it’s mushy, but it’s true, that I don’t know what I’d do without my friends. These past few months have been overwhelming,  and I’ve had to rely on the support of friends in a way I’m not used to. Friends have stepped up to listen to my worries, to help me pack, to celebrate my turning 30, to take care of my beloved dog…. I’m in awe with how many times friends have offered help, or replied with a “yes,” when I needed a favor. I understand that’s what friends are for, but I’m still humbled by their love.

What’s making you happy this month?

Top 3: My Happy Things

 

Things can get a little heavy around here. My blog centers race, which isn’t a topic that lends itself to lightness.  In attempts to alleviate some of the heaviness that can come along with the discussion of race/racism in America, I want to bring a little sugar to my blog, with a dose of happiness.

Meet, “My Happy Things.”

This is an ongoing series to appreciate the little things bringing joy into my life. I invite you to think of, and maybe even share, the things that are making you happy.

Let’s begin with…

1. This book.

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It’s the first Octavia Butler book, and the first “science fiction book,” I’ve read (though Butler classified this book as “kind of grim fantasy”). The storyline isn’t exactly light, but Kindred is a page-turner. Dana, the main character lives in 1970s Altadena, CA (the neighboring city to my hometown, Pasadena) with her white husband, but is mysteriously transported to the antebellum South. She is continuously transported back and forth between the 1800s and 1970s, and we, as the readers, try to make sense of her experience through her travels.

The experience of reading Kindred is intense, but  makes me happy because it causes me to think of time in a different way. Time travel isn’t a new concept, but for this sci-fi newbie, it’s new for me to actually consider it as an alternative reality. What if time is more than a fleeting moment that is constantly changing? What if time maintains itself, until the future needs to return to past moments for lessons on the future?

Why would anyone need to return to the antebellum South? I would say never. But, I think Butler may be trying to reveal a different perspective to me.

 2. Rereading My Journals.

Rereading journals is usually an awkward, but revealing process. Sometimes, I’m reminded of moments I wish I hadn’t accounted for, while other times, important life lessons are revealed.

This time around, reading my journals is making me happy, because I’m able to see and learn from themes in my journey.  Noting these themes allows for me to see where I need to grow, while honoring who I am. And let’s be real– reading journals from middle school or elementary school is extremely entertaining. High School, on the other hand, was mostly awkward for me.

3. Anytime I hear, or see a video/ video still for this song. 

On the last day of school, it’s a personal ritual to post DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith’s eternal classic, “Summertime,” AKA “Summa-time” on my FB page. I’m happy when I hear DJ Jazzy Jeff, say “Drums Please,” followed with the scratching record and “Aaaaaaahhhhh   Yeeeeeaaahhhh….. Summa/Summa/Summatiime,” because it instantly transitions me from strict/tense, Ms. Peters to laid-back/relaxed  Kirsti.

Happy Summatime, Ya’ll!

What’s making you happy right now?

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Losing Our Elders: Rest in Power and in Peace, Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou

Losing Our Elders: Rest in Power and in Peace Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou

I feel my process of aging most when someone I love and admire passes. On January 9th of this year, we lost ethnomusicologist/poet/activist, Amiri Baraka. Earlier this week, on May 28, 2014, we lost poet/activist/spiritual mother-of-many, Maya Angelou.

There are people whose power is so great, we think they will conquer death. That is, until they die, reminding us of the mortality of everything and everyone around us. Fortunately for us, both Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou left us their words to hold and to pass down to generations who will only know them as thinkers from before. While their bodies are no longer here, their words remind of us of their power. For that, we are so lucky.

Happy Birthday Billie Holiday: A Poem for Lady Day

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Today, marks, what would have been, Billie Holiday’s 99th birthday. Most who know me, know that I consider Lady Day to be one of my main auntcestors. I imagine she’s looking out for me daily, applauding me when I make my fiercest decisions, and encouraging me to speak my mind when I doubt myself. Her voice was introduced to me as a child by an older neighbor, Miss Madeline. Miss Madeline also happened to look a lot like Billie Holiday in her youth, and enjoyed sharing tales of having an affair with Billie Holiday’s ex-husband.

While there are many other titillating stories connected to Lady Day, her sexuality, and her addiction to the white stuff, I’ve always been obsessed with Holiday’s voice and the work she did for Black people. I’ve felt so connected with Billie Holiday’s story that I spent a year and a half of grad school researching Holiday’s career in music and activism. My Master’s thesis was called, “Is This Mic On?: Reclaiming Billie Holiday and Nina Simone,” and my project worked to uncover the multiple ways that both Nina Simone and Billie Holiday paved the way for and supported the Civil Rights Movement. Both of these women risked their careers and lives for the movement, but are rarely honored as the activists they were. I plan to spend some more time on my blog to extrapolate on this statement, but for now, I would like to honor Billie Holiday’s birthday by sharing the poem that opens my thesis chapter on Lady Day, “Lady Sings More then the Blues; She Sings Revolution.”

“Willow Weep for Me”

She haunts me

Willow weep for me

She haunts us

Willow…

Her voice stops

When their pen begins

Describing

Transcribing

A tragedy of another buxom

Black Lady/girl singer

Whose voice gets silenced

By the ruckus of ‘others’ addiction

To trope-laden fairytales

Where White is right

And she is just a Lady of the Night

Having love affairs with abusive men

Covered in white powder poison–

Unable to save herself

Unable to save the voice They love(d) so much

Willow weep for me

Hear that?

Willow weep for me

Juslisen

Willow…

She speaks to me (to us)

Haunting modern-day ‘fans’ with a story left untold

Though always playing

Over the clicking of forks and credit card receipts

Screaming, through silence, to reclaim her voice

From those who muffled it

With their Blues Lady/girl storytale

Listen to my plea

She has something to say

Hear Me Willow

I’m listening, Ms. Lady Day

Lady Day once sang the Blues

Lady Day once lived Revolution

But memories of those days have been lost

Behind the shuffle of Diana Ross’

acting debut

Behind Holiday students’ and supposed friends’

desire for 15 minutes of fame

while playing pretend

of ‘truth’ seekers

‘truth’ tellers

Weep!

I’ve wept, Ms. Day

For Me

For you, Ms. Day

And through those tears

And through your plea

I’ve tried to scribble down these notes

You’ve left for me (for us)

Notes of skill, of resistance, of courage,

Of will, of persistence, of Mastery

A story called:

Lady Sings More than the Blues: She Sings Revolution.