Friday, June 22, 2007

invisible to visible to...

today i went to the country's first presidential residence on my lunch hour. it's really just a big excavation site where the residence used to be. i had been reading about it in the paper - how they planned to create an exhibit there and everything until folks realized that president washington had slaves there, and excavation revealed that there were artifacts on the site. right now plans to build the exhibit are being revisited, because planners are trying to figure out how not to lose the wealth of history and information that have been sitting in the dirt there for hundreds of years, virtually forgotten until now.

i wanted to go after reading an article about two older black women who make a daily pilgrimage to the site to see everything that's going on. they wanted to see whatever they could see pertaining to washington's slaves that lived there. shoot, so did i! there's a platform built on a corner of the excavation site from which you can view the foundation walls of the president's residence, including the precursor to washington's oval office, an old well shaft, and most fascinating to me - the tunnel that slaves used to get back and forth from their quarters to their master's quarters. it was used so that as they did their chores, they would be out of sight while the president was holding court with other heads of state, dignitaries and representatives. even back in the 1700's americans specialized in not actually seeing the social inequities we had.

i was kind of hoping to feel something important while i was there, reading the placards explaining the site and gazing over the excavation, imagining slaves and statesmen traversing over the space in such close proximity to each other. most times when i think of slavery, i think of fieldhands far removed from so-called gentlemen planters over in the estate house. here in philly, they were right up underneath each other, building tunnels and such so that the slaves wouldn't be visibly underfoot. but you know, as i tried to feel something special about being ground where our ancestors were enslaved, i remembered that everywhere i go in this city, on this east coast, there were slaves. most especially in my native state of virginia. i left a little disappointed. i wanted more knowledge. i wanted to see the artifacts, which are not yet on display. i wanted to feel some vindication for the slaves - that now they are no longer invisible and people come to visit the house they worked and lived in everyday, seeking information on them. but that's not really vindication. i work less than a quarter mile from the site. i have two degrees, and i don't have to empty anyone's chamber pot or fetch anyone's water - and there are millions of africans in this country who can say the same. for the ancestors, maybe that comes a little bit closer to, if not vindication, then maybe a salve for their injury.

it was worth my time though, and i highly recommend that everyone in or visiting the philly area take a look when they get a chance. there's a possibility that all of this excavation could be filled and built over if they can't get up enough money and creativity to figure out how to keep it on display, and time is limited. if they keep it open to the elements too long, it will wear away.

by the way, it's at 6th and market, ironically right near the liberty bell and all of philly's other monuments to freedom in america.

check it out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

storm's sabbath

last night, lightning flashed off in the sky as i hustled home. when i got in, i started to go about my business as usual. i scuttled about, unpacking my bag, putting things away, getting something to eat... all the while, the storm approached, getting more and more intense. a memory beckoned me to look back at the times i spent with my grandmother down south. every time a thunderstorm came through as they are apt to do on long summer afternoons, she would turn off the television and everything else but the refrigerator, and just sit. my cousins and i had to just sit with her. you see, when a storm came, we sat still and silent, because it was the Creator's turn to talk and our turn to listen. in my youth, i thought that was nice and all, and rather quaint, but storms had a funny way of messing with my cartoons that i didn't appreciate. and i didn't hear nothing but thunder anyway. so far as my opinion went, my grandma was just being old, country, and superstitious. i respected her, but not so much what she was doing. once i almost had my life ended prematurely, because i asked my grandma to explain further. patience wasn't my strong suit. apparently, neither was good sense.

there was something about that memory that made me put my book down, get into a quiet dark place, open the blinds in the midst of the night, and lie there, quietly watching the sky, feeling the rumbling of thunder, and acknowledging God. it was good for me. the elder i wax, the wiser the elders appear.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

it's way past getting old...

full story here.

abbreviated story - some folks at a church in california, while celebrating a graduation from their Christian school, dressed up as slaves in blackface, and then posted pictures of the event on the internet.

Caption reads: " The slaves served lemonade- it was a riot"

Caption reads: "Someday we gonna be leavin' When a workin' day is done"

Caption reads: "Bringing home the runaway slave in the Senior skit"

Caption reads: "Pastors Charles and Wilma Spencer with some of the students"

i don't think what these people did was indicative of hatred so much as it was particularly indicative of indifference.

i also am tired of hearing people say they didn't mean anything by it.

what you meant doesn't matter. from the white students at parties dressing up like blacks and latinos and masquerading in their respective stereotypes to the white people in these photos, what you knew about the history behind your actions and chose to ignore because of callous indifference towards the concerns of black folks is what matters. it shows that you have a lack of respect for black people, and a lack of concern for how you knew your actions would be perceived once you put them on the internet. no american i've ever met who has been raised in american society with a television set is so sheltered that they are ignorant of race relations with blacks in this country. no american i've ever met believes that they can participate in such mockery and not at least suspect that if they are seen, they will face criticism and accusations from those of us who recognize the lack of sound judgment and social decorum in your actions. you do these things because despite your knowledge, you just don't care.

you people are probably nice to the black folks you see in the drugstore or at the bank. you probably don't belong to the klan, or pass out white supremacist literature along with your tracts about being saved. you more than likely believe that you are good, fair people and that you are not racists. but when some fool said, let's go out and pretend to be slaves, another said, ooh good idea, oh - you know what would be funny? if we got some blackface too, and some slave costumes! and not one of you listened to your conscience, opened your mouth and said what you were thinking - that this was not a good idea. you didn't want to be the liberal tree hugging overly politically correct wet blanket, and you cared more about going along with what you knew was wrong than standing up for what you knew was right, especially knowing that in your lily white church and your lily white town, no blacks would be around to make a stink about it anyway. but our Creator calls us to be bigger in character than that.

in fact, i am probably giving you too much credit - maybe you didn't have that nagging thought to question what you all were about to do. maybe it didn't even occur to you that this could be offensive. but i doubt it. perhaps i'm giving you too much credit in another way - maybe you DO hand out white supremacist tracts along with your tracts about the Holy Ghost. maybe you happen to have some blackface in the attic, next to your daddy's klan sheets and the photo album full of lynchings your granddaddy took your daddy to. i could be wrong, it could be hatred and not indifference. can you blame me for wondering so?

and yet, as a Christian, i am called to be bigger in character than what i can ascertain from your actions and forgive you. i am also called to try to look past your actions and see the human being there - to recognize that just because you've done these things, you're not any less redeemable from your wrongs than i am from mine. i'm called to recognize that you are just a small group of white people, and that not all white people feel this way or act this way. it just seems like at least once a week i get this call. i'm tired of this call ringing off the hook.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

the italicized above

did you ever wish you could temporarily suspend your senses for a little while so you could take a mental vacation? i think i might be struggling with sensory overload right now.

on the way home from work, i had to catch the bus i caught. why couldn't i have caught another bus? let me explain. there was another passenger on the bus who was listening to headphones that were so loud that i could hear every word and horn line in the song from several seats away. i wanted so badly to tap that person on the shoulder and tell them, "you're going to ruin your hearing like that." i have in fact done that a few times before. you know, there's a certain way that you can talk to strangers in which there doesn't have to be an issue between you and them, just chatter. i know how to do that, and i like to do that. i'm no fool - i stay away from taboo topics like telling girls with the muffin-top effect what not to wear, or telling women how not to speak to their children - some things will only lead to altercations. i haven't been in one in my whole adult life, and i'm not trying to start. this whole italicized section will become much more important - keep on reading - i will refer you back to this.

at some stop, we pick up a passenger who sits right next to me. i picked my head up from the affordable housing article i was reading and i started being friendly, chattering to her jokingly about how that person with the headphones was ruining their hearing and if they were within arm's reach i would tap them on the shoulder and tell them so. she agreed, the music was so loud she could hear it clearly, too. i joked about the person's eardrums screaming for help - she laughed, i laughed, all was well in bus land. she said that you have to be careful though because you don't always know who you're talking to, and some people might wanna... at which point i told her the italicized above, and added something like, "how am i gonna just get punked by the idea of talking to a stranger when i don't even know them like that? part of the reason people don't talk to each other now is because people aren't used to talking - that ain't right." she told me i did have a point.

shortly after i got back into my article -which i still haven't finished - the girl next to me recognized someone she knew on the bus.

nicole turns around, but doesn't see anyone she recognizes.
nicole turns around again but still can't see who's calling her.
"you hear me talking to you, dag! NICOLE!"
finally some eye contact. "hey!"
"where you stay at, nicole?"
"number street and cross-street."
"oh for real? i stay at othernumber street and othercross-street all the time."
"oh that's not too far. i be through that way sometimes."

chatter chatter chatter... move it along folks, nothing to see here. UNTIL:

"yeah, nicole, i be at the chinese store sometimes, such-and-such a place, or right at the corner."
"yeah, i got them 25's... them 75's... them 25's will get you, for real. they be lasting for a long time."


"i be out there all the time, nicole. i usually have my kids with me. i got three kids. people be like, 'you be hustling with your kids,' i be like, 'yeah.' "
"i might have to come through for one of those 25's, you know how i do."
"you know how i do too."
"you do it with your kids?"
"no, just the first one, my daughter. she alright though, she just got asthma, but that runs in my family, so she probably woulda got it anyway. my other son, he was five [lbs] ten [oz], but ain't nothing wrong with him now. i got asthma... my mom got it... my youngest son, he's on a machine... but i didn't do it with the other kids."
"that's good."
"i mean, i don't know with my kids if it was my family or me, but yeah, but i do smoke though. people say if you're going to do it, just don't do the cigarettes too, but i do what i wanna do, shoooot, i smoke whatever i want. i smoke both!"
"i know that's right!"
"but forget me, though - my mom! my mom been smoking for years. my mom can smoke and smoke... maaan..."

and this whole time i was sitting here thinking, naw they playing. ain't no way somebody is gonna be all up on this bus putting their business out like that, and all loud where everybody can hear everything you're saying. they are joking. they have to be playing. but smokey the bear and nicole just kept on going like they were actually for real until we came to my stop and both i and the woman who was sitting on the other side of smokey the bear got off the bus.

i couldn't help it. "did i just hear what i thought i heard?"
"yes, you did. and i didn't want to hear it, but i heard it too."
"i can't believe that she would just say all of that for everyone to hear, where she is, EVERYTHING."
"i know. i heard you talking to her earlier and was thinking how is this same girl..."
"i KNOW. and it's funny, i had just got finished telling her the italicized above, but i mean, what are you supposed to say to that?"

i was already thinking about my blog, y'all.

the lady from the bus and i had our friendly stranger chatted a little bit more. for the second time that day i was reminded by her that you never know how somebody will react to you talking to them. i offered her the story of when i was on the bus and these two women were arguing really loudly about how one of them, a social worker, threatened to call the authorities on the other one, who had a child in her lap, for how she had threatened the child with some bodily harm. i told the lady who was walking with me that i am a poet, and my poet friends and i are always talking about the community, and how we all need to be accountable for each other. but i asked her rhetorically how i was supposed to be accountable for smokey the bear on the bus? tell her about how she shouldn't be doing what she's doing, blasting her business all out, setting a bad example for her kids, making them asthmatic and probably developmentally delayed? what could i have done as my sister's keeper for her? we got to my stop on the walk, and said "take care," in parting as she kept on walking home.

but then, as i was pulling out my keys, i heard her talking to me. she was walking towards my door saying, "mentor. be a mentor. you wanted to know what to do? be a mentor. but not to girls like her," she pointed in the direction of our bus stop.

i offered, "to those who want the help? not girls like her?"

she agreed. and with that, we parted ways for real.

i am much calmer now than i was when i sat down to write this.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

get hungry

how much do you really want it?

are you willing to get up in the morning before the sun can be seen high in the sky? are you willing to open your heavy eyelids one more time to put in that much more effort before you catch what sleep you can?

truth is, you don't deserve it. at least not for free. not sweat-less. you can claim whatever you want in the name of the anchor of your faith. you can light candles and incense. kneel on your knees until they become unaccustomed to anything like standing on your own two feet, but i assure you that unless you use the gifts you've already been given, you won't get any closer to it. you can visualize and chant, stick pictures on your refrigerator, tell your friends and family - anyone in the world who will listen - but for all your daydreaming and positive thinking, bell ringing and posturing, anything less than putting in the work will not do it for you.

please, do dream. please, do imagine.

please don't just stop there.

for all the energy that you could expend worrying about your ability, worrying about how much you don't know, worrying about the possible pitfalls, worrying about every matter your idling mind could allow to trouble you, you could be getting busy boning up on the knowledge you need, practicing for the experience you need, preparing and clearing the way so you will have the elbow room to get the thing done. you don't need the prayer for magic. you need the prayer to support you mentally and spiritually as you put in your part of the work. you need the prayer for focus so you can rely on the wisdom and strength of the World's Most Successful Ally, instead of being distracted by the world's ever common doubters and detractors.

every article you read and story you hear that inspires you doesn't have to be a mere inspiration - it depends on whether or not you make it a catalyst. why not you? you can achieve the very same thing or even something better. never mind that you've thought that nothing extraordinary has happened to you or will happen to you - it is ordinary thinking like that which makes the extraordinary elude your grasp, if in fact, you have even made the effort to reach out and grab for it. if you haven't yet, you have a choice. you can reach - really truly extend yourself with the belief that your effort is not for naught. or you can go with what you know, catch your extra zzz's, and make yourself comfortable, because where ever you are right now is where ever you will be until you decide you really want it.