Saturday, April 25, 2009

she spirit (from Gutta Beautiful's time warp)

She spirit lives strong in the river, bathing atop blue rock, whispering through the limbs of strong bamboo, resting between the light rays of a sun descending orange behind the tree tops of Assin Manso. She spirit strong and waiting along a shaded trail, where bird-song tickles the ears, laughs pouting lips, gives dance to tired feet. She spirit. A blink of an eye and lashes long so. She spirit. Hands on hip, back bone dips, and strong so … sugar cane sweet and ackee yellow. Nana Pra. Nsmanfo. Egun. She is me. Her language? Soul speak and mountains dressed in clouds hung low, green tree leaves juicy, and roots deep in red earth, holding on. She spirit live strong in that river, bathing atop blue rock, whispering stories of courage between the gathering place – a prison made of boulders way north in Paga – and the journey of many shuffling feet, a chain of bodies sold down the dusty path south to Elmina.

It is in this place that I lost my love. I thought that maybe I would see him in a day or two. I thought that maybe I would hear his voice from somewhere behind the wall. I would put my face on the floor and listen for him to call my name. And this is what we lived for. We were children together. And he was my love. How could I go to the white man when he called me? A nasty thing. I wanted to spit in his face, gauge out his eyes, fight him … to get to my love. I would stay chained forever, waiting. I sit in silence for two months. I do not speak. I stare out, eyes locked somewhere in space. Don’t leave me. We wait for what we do not know.

And across big waters, flying water vultures with teeth that rip some apart, bodies packed one on top the other, wailing, screaming, dying and birthing us new over raging waters, angry waters. And the names of the ships crossing them over? Jesus. Holy Mary.

She spirit live strong, still bathing atop blue rock, whispering through the limbs of poplars and resting between the light rays of a sun descending orange behind tree tops in Louisiana. She spirit strong and waiting along a shaded trail, where bird-song tickles the ears, laughs pouting lips, gives dance to tired feet. She spirit. A blink of an eye and lashes long so. She spirit. Hands on hip, back bone dips, and strong so … sugar cane still sweet, though cotton pricks the fingers to bleed so. Corn in husk for roasting over hot fire on a dusty path beyond the Delta. Nsmanfo. Egun. She is me. Her language? Soul speak and swamps thick with crocodiles, tree stumps burn, still – roots deep in red earth, holding on She spirit live strong in these rivers, bathing atop blue rock, whispering stories of courage at the gathering place in Congo Square, where rhythms memory home and the journey of many feet, a chain of bodies sold …

It is in this place that I lost my love: My eyes on the machete, my palms sweating. I watch you and wait for a sign. Life. I wait for yes. And I do it. I take the machete and life in my hands and stand next to you. I take the machete in my hands to get back to you. Freedom. Blood on my hands. In my womb. I scream. Freedom! And it hurts. I had to do it. Blood on my hands. In my heart. And it hurts, ‘cause I still lost you.

gypsy in the bronx 1

I am gypsy. I know, right? That's obvious. Been shuttling up and down the east coast, trying to find my way into somebody's American dream. I wonder sometimes if my children will remember me as a crazy mama with little sense for all the movements I've caused inspired by my whim and desire, trying desperately to make their lives a little better. It's a stupid feeling, being a woman like myself, caught inside some genius idea that words will make my living profitable and get my babies to the summer vacations over-seas they dream about aloud. I can't stand that I can hear them. They don't even have passports, and someone stole mine. Guess this one woman with visas for Ghana and Brazil amounting to only one and half months of my thirty four years was too much for the thief, had to steal my just got to blossoming new self in one second and snatched all my rights to leave this place. Got damn.

But I'm still claiming I'm a gypsy. A gypsy in the Bronx. I wear my scarf everyday. Tie it tight around my head and let the tail of it swing in the cold wind. I tighten my lips against the grit. I step over the dog shit. I used to tell my daughters to walk with their eyes straight ahead. Something black girls got a right to do - - keep their heads to the sky and be proud of they skin and what they got from the generations before. Now I insist that they look down at the concrete, beware the feces, and please don't trip over that broken glass glistening in the sun light so pretty.

My horizon is beneath my feet. I swear to god I might have to jump over it, and miss my golden ticket out of this daily hustle. This is where my jones has got me. I live for the sound of the elevated train rumbling past while I'm on my cell phone, and I must be finally fitting in 'cause now the shorties on the block say 'wassup' as I pass by, like I know them, when they only used to stare before. I'm proud of this small thing …. acceptance, despite my southern drawl sneaking through the pseudo hybrid accent I've cultivated to pass. My gypsy scarf confuses them. I swear. Be a gypsy, and no one will know how to place you. You just kind of belong everywhere and nowhere.

And I'm cool with that. Aint never had a problem with being a little bit of this and that, one foot in the water, a toe on land, the rest of me kind of hovering in the air somewhere. Moving. It's how I know myself, how I sense the next beat of my heart. Stillness is a place I house on the inside. The rest of it is all about journey. So, I'm cool. I'll gypsy the Bronx for a spell ... and when this juju's done, it's all wing span and free style. I don't covet places. Home is my being. I am teaching my children that ...and going to the post office to apply for a new passport ... actually three. My crystal ball is showing me a new movement reaching crescendo in yet another place in time. Soon come.

But for now, I ponder telling fortunes out front the Laundromat while I do my weekly wash. I will sell my special gris gris in once used honey jars saved for this purpose. Yeah. I will sell two special gris gris. One for love and one for hate, since those are the two extremes we humans tend to live torn between. I will keep them in a small cooler next to my bottle of sangria, and I will drink that sangria out a real pretty wine glass, too.

adventures, tarot cards, and crystals aka one rare bird in the borough

gypsy commits herself to the insane asylum aka mind riddles and m.i.a. escape routes:

the neon pizza sign hums beneath the rumble of the elevated train. outside the laundromat, rain puddles are fishing holes for the grime of an urban life outside the pocket. the pocket: boom bap and head nod, a flow without fight or fuss. this aint it. can't be. glitter stars fall here.

the washer is on spin. gypsy's eyes glaze over with disbelief and boredom. another day in the boogie down. aint nothing but a predictable refrain. sometimes nostalgia forces the chorus of some house song, some club remix. usually it's just one foot over dog shit the other guiding a body forward. to the bodega: dusty 7 day candles, cheap incense with absurd names like butta ball nekid and black love. dreams. silly wishes.

this corner is run by the shorties wearing blue. young and dumb, performing threats, looking harmless, lazy eyes and pimple skin. not gangstas. same dudes sit outside talking the same shit. hellafied ordinariness. everybody gets high. falls to rise again ... backwood sweets, white owls, some chemically altered green leaf get by. america is a joke. gun powder won't change that.

gypsy waits for the right card, the right moment ... the ten of cups reversed indicates delayed bliss. a walk down grand concourse, where a frantic woman chases a thief, screaming, "he took my cell phone!" gypsy laughs, cringes, pushes her own phone down inside a different kinda pocket, checks it every five minutes to make certain it is still there. this is dumb.

cash rules everything around me. a brand new electronic device will pay for one rock. maybe. and no one calls. no one answers. perhaps charity is an eight ball.

grand concourse to jerome ave and back to the laundromat. spin cycle is done. clothes damp and fresh smelling wait for those two hands, lifting cheap fabric into the dryer. gypsy watches them dance. she does not. the five of pentacles: one sorry fool walking on crutches helps another pitiful soul walk in the snow beneath a window. they need a ladder. climb through the window and steal sunlight and gold coins. pirate ectasy. how long will it take for the two idiots to figure it out? or will they continue soldiering through the relentlessly dreary weather, bound and determined to walk this path? stupid. necessary. at least they got each other.

gypsy walks alone confused by other human lives. she foretells misery, moments of laughter like crumbs. we scatter to crawl on the ground, sniffing the scattered bits like clean coke, precious and hiding out between cracks in asphalt.

gypsy waits for spring. an illusion of hope, fertile with mortality. it comes back. keeps us committed. how long before the space ship arrives to lift us beyond this material mind fuck? too long. perhaps the tower is better. a fall from tepid grace and mercy, a shift in understanding, a revolutionary change. is life the devil, chaining us?

the crystal ball tells nothing. simply the distorted reflection of the apartment in miniature. prism. prison. home.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An Open Letter to My Father

Dear Dad,
You named me for a woman whose voice tells the story of women daring as pirates, women whose sensual footsteps marked paths unbecoming of any era’s definition of a “lady” but crucial to the heart and soul’s beat of the black Americas; you named me for a woman who calls forth generations of ripe genius, demanding an answer affirming the resilience of a people more beautiful for our collective denial of what popular national policies and practices would craft as our inevitable demise. And though I’ve never known her to belt out the word “feminist” over any melody, her presence, whether live or recorded, fills that politicized identity with the fiery blood, the fearless pout, and the demand for respect which have all merged to birth black women as the foremothers of any rendition of feminism and humanism since our ancestral feet touched soil this side of the Atlantic.

I cannot claim her life and legacy as singly my own. She has many daughters, of which I am only one. But I can find myself, in moments, upon the story-sounds brought into the world by way of her heart, her lungs, and lips. And in finding myself there on more occasions than I could ever recount in this space, and in acknowledging the role you played in guiding me to where I should look for a strong and worthy affirmation, I am certain that you had a pivotal role in designing my life as a rebellious and empowered black woman determined to break free of any and all oppressive forces hell bent on silencing me, or any of the folks I lovingly consider familiar to my own heart. And I love you for it.

We have not had an easy walk together. And this, I think, should never be a surprise for you. There should be some comfort in our tensions, because, even in those difficult times, I was testing the variegations of your initial intent. The name, the path, the promise and prayer you must have carried within when you helped to give me life, demands that of me. So when I railed back at you for setting before me what I recognized as a limitation (whether curfew or expectation of what your experience dictated I should do), I was only living what you passed on to me.

What did you pass on to me, beyond the name, and possibly, somehow, within it as well? There are many gifts I can recall, but I will begin with words – the most simple and obvious treasure for a young woman writer. It was you who taught me how to read at the early age of two, and it was you who traveled with me to countless bookstores come Saturday with the most precious freedom imaginable: you gave me free reign in bookstores with shelves dedicated to the lives of black and brown people so that by age twelve I discovered Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. And on our Sunday drives through the city, you asked me to read Langston Hughes’s Jesse B. Semple stories until we doubled over laughing at the mirror reflection found in small black print. Beyond that, and also converging within that miracle, were the countless meetings and business trips I was so lucky to experience with you, because you lived your words, “If there’s somewhere I can’t take my daughter, what business do I have there myself?” And you were educating me through that choice. I learned the courage and tenacity it takes to be an entrepreneur and a thinker, the joy found in speaking back against the odds, and the importance of living my politics, despite potential personal discomfort. It was you who took me to my first protest in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. on a cold January day. And you would not let me stop walking and chanting, regardless of how cold the temperature or how my shivering lips eventually produced unintelligible words nearing a whisper instead of a shout so that what may have become a whisper there certainly could never stay that way. You affirmed my voice, demanding my input in every family debate and requesting my services on projects that would have typically gone to someone with more experience. You dared me to reach beyond the comfortable place of my youth, and to create a path informed by my ability to think and act from a space of confidence. Thank you.

When I became a single and divorced mother of two daughters, it would have been easy for me to become embittered toward black men, had it not been for your presence in my life. And I have to be honest, Dad, when I was transforming through that painful time, our relationship became a frustration for me in ways I am only recently beginning to understand. In mining my most intimate knowledge of self, I had to look at my relationship with you, the first “man” in life, because I believed that in unpacking all that I had experienced with and through you, I would come to some epiphany about how I, a black woman raised in a two parent household of some privilege, could find herself among the epidemically ruptured, and perhaps irrevocably damaged, contemporary black and broken families. I wanted to hold you accountable for every human mistake, every disappointed frown in my memory of life as a young girl in your home, because in so doing, I could forgive myself, forget the true collapse of sacred vows, deny the sting of this nation’s constant trial against those of us young colored genius’s who often turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the perpetual need to be consciously responsible in our community’s evolution, trading a history of politicized progressive movement forward for a near dupie’s sleep through it all. I wanted to blame you in much the same way that many in my generation blame our parents’ generation for failures we feel too small to clean up. But I could not hold that line. Your life’s work, and the many struggles and victories of those who walked with you, refused me that easy way out at every turn.

You did not coddle me into understanding this. Instead you challenged me to step up my game in ways that seemed ridiculous to me sometimes. You demanded that I find a way to speak my story of addiction, abuse, and spiritual deficit by helping me to write and eventually see my words live through the performances and interpretations of a special family of risk-taking artists. You also told me something which helped me to understand that, even when your version of black manhood did not measure up to what I thought it should be in relation to my experience as a black woman, it is only possible for us to choose, if spirit finds us strong enough, to become better versions of self; and no politicized identity, no moralized idea of right or wrong, can change that very human aspect of our being. You said, “Every man is [at best] a recovering sexist,” and that one can only work diligently at unlearning what he has been conditioned to practice. Through that admission, I came to understand that we are all always unpacking the debris of a remaining cultural tendency to oppress and deny that which is both our most honest and most troubling inherent trait – LOVE. Thank you.

It is my respect and admiration for you and your determined walk in this life which has kept me wanting the stories and lives of black and brown men, in spite and because of the “failure” of my marriage (not to mention all the other break ups and break downs in relationship with my brothers). What I once shamefully defined as a failure in loving a black man has finally become a lesson in how love can often tear folks down simply to create an opportunity to know a more revolutionary way of loving, one transcending life’s inevitably real and down right ugly ways of testing faith, strength, and awareness. Thank you.

Your choice to push me further away by forcing me to walk alone with a sense of dignity and a certain independence of spirit at times when I was whining and crying out of a sense of apologetic victim-hood has kept me from hiding under your protective wing, even though you risked losing the closeness cultivated during my early years by taking such a stance.

You are always with me, whether we agree with laughter and conspiratorially pleasant smiles or disagree with arms folded across chests and angry words straining but never breaking the simple truth – I will always be your daughter, and you will always be my Dad. There are no replacements, no imitations, no doubts or dismissals. And if I often seem brazenly rambunctious in how I choose to be your daughter, simply remember . . . you helped to design me this feminist black woman, and you chose my name.



Tuesday, March 24, 2009

espiritu takes a bride

I didn’t ever really feel at home ‘round here. I mean, the houses were nice enough – clean brick, concrete porches, sidewalks we could roller skate on and plenty room for jumping rope and red light, green light, but I never felt at home. Not completely. If I tried, though, I could blend in and find quiet spaces inside the house while my folks lived the way grown ups should . . . working, fucking, arguing, tending to me and whatever I might have needed, waiting for me to laugh when something was supposed to be funny, twisting their mouths up when I started to cry. But when I sat up in my room at night and stared out into the darkness, I knew that there was something else to all of it, and I had no words for it, the feeling of a sideways longing for some other place, some other time. So I took to talking to myself when no one was listening, which was pretty often since Lonnie could only come over to play on Saturdays, and my folks appreciated my silence, considering it a mark of my advanced mind. I saw things better that way.
I saw the lives of my neighbors and the messiness of people when the police had to come and get JT from off the roof of his house before he killed somebody, and in the too much too soon way the twins, Sweets and Meaty, leaned over their front yard gate with all the baby fat saying hi to old Mr. Gee. When Meaty’s belly got big before graduation, I giggled ‘cause everybody acted like they couldn’t possibly know who the daddy was, and I just stayed quiet, especially when Sweets tried to tell me that Meaty was like the Virgin Mary from the Bible having a baby immaculately. I had to try hard to keep quiet with that one, though, ‘cause even at six I knew damn well Meaty wasn’t no virgin nothing, and I had seen the too much too soon way she gave Mr. Gee hugs when he called her Hollywood. But I didn’t want to get in trouble for people thinking I understood more than I did, and I liked staying to myself anyway.
I did not feel at home, what with invisible people always talking to me and telling me way more than I wanted or needed to know.

In the quiet moments leading her restless spirit into the world of sleep where she placates the souls of the dead, her small body melts into a gentle dismemberment always beginning with the sharp taste of copper coins in the mouth and a numbing of the lips that she can only link to the feel of a rubber eraser swallowing her whole. Next, her flesh takes on a new malleability, shifting and softening into an ethereal substance perfect for traveling through the crack of her window sill. Soon, she flies through the night sky, looking down upon the slow approach of ragged days, the local warriors who will dress in uniforms of simple jeans and tee shirts, carrying semi automatic machine guns and walking up the hill next to her home, fierce and fearsome, their young bodies aged somehow by the weight of fire-arms, a suicidal mission commanded by their ripe maleness left untended and unloved. They walk in small groups to a destination she knows is somewhere close to her heart, but she must fly past them, remembering the woman from before and the promise they made. This propels her forward against the night sky and the days she must witness later until she finally makes it to the other side.
This time her guide smiles welcome and asks her to remove her shoes as she enters the small thatched hut. The dirt floor is cool on her feet, and the row of pots sitting on top of two levels of shelves remind her of something she cannot speak. There are no words between them, but within the familiar silence she knows that she must sit quietly while the woman kneels before one pot, singled out from the others, its top on the floor. Without feeling herself move, Nzinga hovers over the pot, peering inside and seeing what she could not know throb from inside. And when the woman’s face turns toward her, it is the grip of the woman’s hand that Nzinga cannot shake from her wrist. The fire in the woman’s eyes both indict and congratulate her, and they sit there, the one holding the other’s wrist and speaking through silence a secret that Nzinga can only remember as life inside a simple, clay pot, a tilting floor, and ringing inside her head. And just as the woman seems about to speak between lips slightly parted into a knowing smile, a young boy runs inside, his reddish brown skin glistening, his white teeth breaking through gasps to throw words at both of them . . . yes, both of them, laughing for them to follow.
The walk to the water is fast. Nzinga’s feet are foreign to her, a deeper shade of brown than her usual skin, more agile against the rugged terrain than she would ever be at home. She races ahead of the woman, and then looks back, smiling and looking ahead at the boy who is now almost lost to her in a group of boys, all tall and lean and crowding about an elder man with white hair. Looking down again, Nzinga sees that the ground has changed from red clay with patches of sparse grass to sand, and she hears, before her eyes can see, the sound of waves rushing against the sand, and the sound of the boys throwing themselves into it. Her heart jumps forward without her willing it, and then, those same agile feet quicken to follow them . . . into the water, and specifically, closer to the one who had burst inside the room of pots what seems like seconds before.
But there is the hand again, the deliberately jarring hand, demanding something of her again. No. She cannot follow the boys. She can only watch. And as she looks at the elder woman from before, she sees that she is watching too, her chin lifted toward the sun light and her eyes squinting to see the boy who was now so much further away. Nzinga knew him before he turned back to wave, holding what she knows must be a spear in his hand, and though there is a threat in that, it all seems like so much fun that she can only pull away from the diligent fingers and try to join him.
She looks at back the woman, and asks with eyes pleading now, for her own spear. And the woman laughs. There is no spear, just the watching and the waiting, and the what if he does not come back. And the woman laughs again, because now Nzinga is really there, and troubled, of course, by what she knows is some strange but sacred game rite the boys must play, one that seems more dangerous now that she has finally crossed over, because the other boys are jabbing the sharp ends of their spears into the water, and are, as she can see from her distance, completely reckless about how they do it. Still, the woman nudges her, chuckling deeply inside her chest so that no sound comes out. She winks. And in that single gesture, Nzinga falls in love . . . standing there so silly, eyes filling with so much of it, that she tries desperately to look away. She cannot.

She watches him walk ahead of her in the water, his shoulders angling with the spear and poised with such focus that time would not dare shift against him. A promise. And that one moment – her eyes longing for him to turn around in triumph holding the game’s reward high above his head and smiling back at her just a short distance away – is what she remembers when she crosses back over. And she looks for him everywhere – In Ms. Wiggins' kindergarten class crowded out by snotty noses and absurdly bright colored shapes, in the ridiculous slow jam blue light basement parties where Terrance grabbed her ass like she was every young girl in the city. Until finally, she gives up, soon forgetting the promise, and discovering, instead, life’s rude truths.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

When the Sun Rises for Love: A Legacy

Legacy is a stick fallen from a deeply rooted tree and dressed with nine ribbons, all different colors, and bells, a mask, a cup of coffee, a glass of water, because where the sun rises for the ancestors, it also rises for me.

I can remember the day I made the conscious commitment to nurture legacy in my home and heart. I was thirty years old and a recently separated single mother to two daughters. But truth be told, the journey began long before that. My first breath outside my mother’s womb marked an affirmative moment in time, a choice, a resilient truth, though new-born and fresh-skinned. In that moment, as a baby girl child, I claimed a legacy simply by getting here to the other side, willfully making my way into this world. Growing into this place and space in time, however, has its memory lapses. There are love affairs with the dangers of life that can leave one numb to such grand notions as an inheritance, a charge, a tradition. There are bill collectors and baby daddies and mamas; there are fears and fallings that dull the senses ‘til one cannot hear the whispers of legacy. But somehow, I made the commitment. It was my own personal rebellion against society’s often deafening rally cry against black girls who become women determined to make love out of life, and it all began on a cold January day in 2004 at Rock Creek Park in the Chocolate City some know as this nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C.

On that day, I walked through heavily wooded land with my cousin, Ernesto, as my guide, and I found a stick among so many others just beyond the creek in a place that was once a plantation dependent upon the bodies and souls of enslaved people. I walked through cold rain without an umbrella that day and recovered what was already and always mine – a lineage of a people who had the strength of spirit to conjure healing and passion for life out of blood, bone, and the most intensely back breaking labor pains. And it is not my legacy. It belongs to all of us. And it is not deep and mysterious; it is as ordinary as block parties and sweet potato pie, as life-sustaining as the rhythmic boom bap blasting from the speakers, as necessary to our well-being as water. And yet, we must recover that lineage, re-member it, caring for this sacred and ever-present force so that our children and their children do not forget: There is great power in our history of blackness here in the Americas, and that history matters in the here and now.

On that cold and rainy afternoon in January, I chose to do my part by taking a small step, and that step moved me on the inside ‘til my daily troubles in the world as a single mama battling the broken family blues became less daunting, because that stick became my foundation for a space in my home dedicated to the lives and spiritual presence of my ancestors, their stories, and their strengths.

Where the sun rises for the ancestors, it also rises for me. I listen, and the elders tell me:
‘Ana was born on the Middle Passage. So, they called her Ocean Ana. That is how we remember her name. It was a whole people born on that water. They carried Africa with them, but they made America, too.’

Love . . . a love so strong that the fear of the unknown and the violent way it could come down on a body cease to matter, because life calls. That’s the kind of love I want to claim, because I have known some times where I could not call upon love, even for myself. At least I could not call upon it strong enough to pull myself out of anger. Separation and divorce left me determined to pout my way through the rest of my life, resigning to the failure of a dream. I almost left my sanity in some dusty corner of my mind all because the man I married chose another life rich with women and parties and the elusive feel good all of that could bring. I had the nerve to find that worthy of self pity and tried staring at walls, hoping to fall into one, finally releasing the responsibility of raising my girls alone. There were eviction notices, dangerous walks past midnight…alone and searching for what might kill me, unpaid phone bills, and children crying for someone I could never be. And I would not dare suggest that I was a pioneer in this. We all have our hurts – those places we can go to and close down to the world. Sure, you get up in the morning, throw some breakfast together, get dressed and breathe through another day on the job, but it’s more habitual than a testimony to strength. I craved meaning, a passion thick enough to make the seeming loss into a truth my daughters could remember in their own life journeys. And it was only acknowledging the stories and beating hearts of those who came before me that got me there. What is divorce but a parting of ways, a departure from the old and a new path beckoning when you still have breath, they told me. What was your choice to birth these children but a marker of your life in God’s hands and an opportunity for you to grow into that existence more fierce for the scars, they whispered. How could I not choose that kind of love?

A cup of coffee, a glass of water for their whispers from the other side, a mask for the spirit that got you here, and photographs if you got ‘em, ‘cause the living like to look upon a face. They tell me many love stories:

‘Daddy John and Mama Emily had a home for all the folks in the community down in Hunstville, Alabama. In the evenings, Daddy John would welcome the people into their small space ‘til it got late and he had to put them out. It’d be white folks and black folks. Everybody. Well, Daddy John had been teaching the black men in the community how to make bricks and build homes, bridges, anything. He was a master brick mason. And one day, he took it upon himself to make a union for the black brick masons down there in Hunstville so they could get the same pay as the white men. Well, don’t you know, those white folks threatened to kill them all so that Daddy John and Mama Emily had to move their family and all the other folks who were a part of that union clear across the country? They stayed in Canada for awhile, and then settled in Seatlle, Washington, where he kept on teaching his craft and caring for his people.’

On my block of Girard Street in Washington, D.C., the inevitable sting of gentrification came slow and looming like the shadow of a promise laced in the most bitter sweet premonition of a flavor not meant for our tastes. The block needed the change, but we also knew that the change would not be for us. Open air drug sales were rampant on the block; young black and Latino men were murdered, especially during the months of spring and summer. We found bullet casings at the front door of our apartment building, and neighbors suffering from addiction wandered the block as a constant reminder of a shared problem we could not solve. Brothers who had once helped me lift grocery bags from the concrete to the front door of my building were arrested and sent to jail as ordinarily as the pigeons flocking to what is always left for the alley. And women I knew as friends bore black eyes behind sunglasses or covered internal scars in whatever masks heart-break could afford. I lived inside of that world, struggling to define myself outside of it, only to find that my family, my heart, and my body existed as evidence of a communal ill, an open wound we chose not to see on the best of our good days.

Of course, my block was not Hunstville. And I was definitely not a brick mason, but in taking the time to collect the stories and strengths of my ancestors I recognized how I could find a space of love inside such difficult emotional and psychological terrain. And it came through my hands first. It came through my heart’s longing to create life in spite of the ever-present dangers at home. I wrote poems and crafted art out of beads and acrylics until my room was cluttered with all of it. These testimonies of the common struggle in urban America became a love story I wanted to share with others as a desire to engage my block, my community, in an intimate conversation. I also wanted to share the cathartic process of artistic expression with others with kindred experiences, especially women, because in my mind, public policy’s often dawdling steps to progress will inevitably witness the loss of many lives. For me, giving life to my voice through artistic expression alleviated a seeming political inertia in my community; I believed that this same healing could matter for others.

So, in January of 2005, I founded Ocean Ana Rising in honor of that small baby who took her first breath on the waters of the Atlantic, hoping to deepen the courageous and resilient love that got her here along with so many others.

Since Ocean Ana Rising’s incorporation, artists and art patrons have been able to facilitate mediation and mask making workshops for women housed in D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Unit, and writing resistance and meditation workshops for young women of Barrios Unidos (Virginia Chapter). We have also incubated art projects and theatrical productions, hiring emerging and seasoned artists of color, and sharing those works with many others.

This is our legacy. My daughters witness this. They live it with me. Whether they choose to make art or facilitate arts outreach or not, their presence on the journey will inform their sense of self and community. I will not censor the often negative myths perpetuated through popular culture but I will speak back against them so that a dialogue can take place. I have not righted the countless wrongs this nation has institutionalized in relation to people of color throughout this land, but I have offered an alternative institution rooted in love. And I accept that a utopian existence cannot be reached in a world governed by individual choice, but I can choose to stand on this particular side of our legacy, waking in the morning to tap my stick in remembrance and celebration of a tradition of abundant love, and sitting still long enough to hear the whispers encouraging me. Some of us will make art, some will teach school, and some will study medical conditions toward healing our physical bodies from rampant disease. It is all the same legacy- a love story passed down through the ages.

Legacy is a stick fallen from a tree and dressed with nine ribbons, all different colors, and bells, a mask, a cup of coffee, a glass of water for their whispers from the other side, a mask for the spirit that got you here, and photographs if you got ‘em, ‘cause the living like to look upon a face to remember.

Note: The ancestral shrine detailed here in the italicized sections of the essay is rooted in Yoruba traditions of ancestor veneration. One need not be a Yoruba practitioner to acknowledge your ancestors, however. Take your time to consider those who came before you, whether they are individuals who were part of your biological family or not, and decide how you think they would like to be remembered and celebrated in your life.

Toward healing,
Nina Angela Mercer

*Copyrighted February 2008

Sunday, January 18, 2009

recent favorites

1. red snapper sashimi at lan in the village
2. elbows on the table
3. mutual admiration for luda's flow
4. a ten minute wait for a perfect parking space
5. st. marks and that shared space between four walls
6. "the girl from ipanema" as an exit
7. new york city bridges and the chorus of lights in the distance

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

musings on the loss of a loved one ...

my grandmother passed last saturday. and my ten year old daughter cried into the night because her grandmother "left this world." but gram lived to be 91 years old. she was born and raised in birmingham, alabama. she lived through jim crow, segregation, the Great Depression, countless lynchings, a church bombing where she lost a childhood friend, and more than a few wars. she lived long enough to hold both of her great grands in her arms and watch them grow into young girls just stepping close to womanhood. perhaps this is a small thing in this world.

the beloved congo

the world's hands are bloody.

i want to celebrate the life of my grandmother. i want to celebrate the remarkable in an ordinary life. i want to honor her transition with continued movement and truth-telling, 'cause she never bit her tongue or held back on setting folks straight, even when it was uncomfortable. but how do i do this when there is so much death around me? if it is a celebration, it is a humble one.

my daughter asks me why God could not save her great grandmother if God could give her life. i tell her that gram's pact with God had been fulfilled; i tell her that her body was tired and that her spirit had to move on, elevate, and guide the lives of those less evolved in this world. i told my daughter that she now has a special angel walking with her ... one who knows and loves her well.

but how do we move forward with the blood of the world on our hands? my grandmother died of her own will. there were no bombs or guns, no hands stopped her breaths. she crossed over graceful and eased, trusting that her family would gather together in her absence, creating a fortress for one another.

what of the world and this family we make? how do we hold one another accountable for the ego maniacal leaders of the world ... those who dare to judge lives as insignificant or necessary fall-out in the rush for money and power? how do we celebrate one man's rise to power by drinking til the wee morning hours while countless others hide in their homes, trying desparately to create some sense of calm and safety when that home is being ravaged?

if one people's loss begets another, how close must the violence touch the lives of those in this country before we act and demand meaningful change?

i have often said that the united states' financial crisis has been no stranger to my life for the past ten years. while others have only recently taken notice, strained wages and increasing costs of living have plagued my household for years. the feeling of accomplishment born of college and graduate degrees was quickly replaced with a sobering reality - all of that work won't prevent one's presence in the welfare lines. and the looming shadow of addiction and prison was no stranger, either.

the greed of the world breeds dysfunction and criminality, because there are always many who cannot withstand the glaring imbalances. though we can celebrate the victory of our first "black" president, we are living the truth of a massive absence in our daily lives ... absent men, women and children of color ... those locked behind prison bars, their bodies fueling an economy that does not fail but continues to be exported abroad for the construction of prisons world-wide. there will never be enough prisons, because our global hunger for violence and oppression can only breed a volatile resistance which must be caged or obliterated.

clearly, the united states has effectively silenced many of its own. it has taken generations, but the peculiar institution did not fail. we can only hope that in the universe's tendency to order chaos, the scales will become more balanced.

still, as i watch israel's actions in gaza, and the way the violence of that region has been normalized in our collective psyche, i am more than troubled. the majority of folks only choose to care and take action when said chaos stumbles onto the front yard. we wash the blood from our memories daily ... at the club, on our daily jobs, in our comfortable sleep, in the quick channel change on the flat screen ... but so long as lives are endangered abroad, lives are endangered here. the distance created by water becomes less meaningful everyday.

it is a spiritual war. not a jihad in the way that the word has been thrown around in the media and out of the mouths of those who would claim sacred justification for the desecration of bodies. it is not a "holy" war between organized religions. there is nothing holy or sacred in this, except the actual lives being lost for the gain of a few. and this has nothing to do with religion, although leaders of the world will continue to use that as an opiate to convince masses to support their selfish agendas. and if, for the sake of semantics, we want to place religion at the center of these conflicts, the religion is greed, violence, land, and oil, money and the unequal distribution of power ... the most profane motivations of this world.

it is a spiritual war. it is war between love and hate ... and while it may be said that this war will always exist in this world, because that is the burden of humanity - to constantly reflect and act upon these most basic and fundamental ways of being - i believe that if we could choose love more readily and comprehensively we could evolve and grow stronger as a whole. violence is only one way of living. why have we not tried to create another on a broad scale?

the beloved congo
new orleans

too much.

r.i.p. sadye gwendolyn harris james, one brilliant shining star of many crossing over ...