Guest Post | “Fight for Social Justice” with Tiff & Lu

Today we continue our Monday series of perspectives on #BlackLivesMatter, racism, police violence, and living Black in the United States. For today’s post my niece Tiff and her daughter Lu share a photograph which speaks to their passion for social justice.

Tiff is an activist, and she is teaching her daughter to stand up for herself and for others. Lu was only a few months old when she participated in her first protest–against migrant children being separated from their parents and placed in “cages.”

Here, Tiff and Lu participate in a recent #BlackLivesMatter protest. Tiff is always on point with her signage, but Lu’s position on the issue of race and social justice is so profound that we have little choice but to lean in and listen.

Let’s get this right before Lu grows up. We don’t want her to [still] be fighting racial injustice at the ages of 18, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 75.

Guest Post | “Safer in War Zones” by Steven Beckford

Today we continue our series of perspectives on #BlackLivesMatter, racism, police violence, and living Black in the United States.  Today’s post was written by Steven Beckford, someone I’ve known since he was a tiny tot. He has served in the United States Air Force for more than 15 years. Here, Steven provides a sobering perspective on what it means to serve a country that does not value him as person because of the color of his skin.

***   ***   ***

Because I serve in the United States Armed Forces, people have been asking me how I feel in light of everything that has been going on, so here are my thoughts. [Please note: These are my individual views as a citizen of the USA who happens to serve his country].

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Bothan Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Charles Kinsey, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin.

This is a small number of incidents that occur too frequently as it relates to Black lives and police brutality.

When people protest police violence against Blacks peacefully and respectfully too often the mainstream narrative becomes about patriotism or the American flag.  Think about Colin Kapernick. Although his “taking a knee”–a respectful posture–was about resisting police brutality, far too many people twisted the issue and made it about disrespecting the flag.

I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. My mother’s side of the family is from Mississippi. Growing up I thought being called the n-word was normal. I thought that being mistreated by the cops was normal. I found myself handcuffed and ankle-shackled at times just because I was driving a car that didn’t fit the supposed Black stereotype, so cops assumed I had drugs on me. I have been denied entry into stores with my friends because we were Black. The assumption was that we might steal something, so we had to go in one at a time to be better “monitored.” I have been a passenger while my older sister was pulled over. I have had to watch police berate her and call her a Black b**** for literally no reason at all.

Despite all of that, I joined the military. I served and continue to serve with honor. However, when I turn on the news, I see how people care more about the perception of unity than actual unity. When I go into a store in uniform, I am treated kindly; when I go to same store in civilian clothes, I am treated with far less than respect.

I have felt safer in actual war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan than I have in America. Why? Because there I know who is trying to kill me and I can actually defend myself. In the United States it’s hard to know who an actual enemy is.

I am a member of the United States Air Force serving my country proudly, but I am apprehensive about returning to the U.S. not just to live, but even to visit.

I not only have to watch people who could be me, my brother, my sisters, my mother, and friends die needlessly but I am also forced to witness different treatment for whites.  We all witnessed it. Think about Dylan Roof.  This white guy went into a Black church, prayed with the congregation, opened fire and actually killed nine people, and was then taken for a meal before being taken to prison.

I am sad, angry, and tired of this. Because of the response to George Floyd’s murder, people say “this time is different” and have hope that America will change. I am not sure I’m as hopeful.  I’ve heard that before. How many “this times” do we need? Someone can call the cops on me while I’m out birdwatching and all they have to say is that I am Black. That’s a near death sentence for me–a death sentence because cops responding to the scene will automatically treat me as a threat that should be and can be put down with little to no consequences. If you do not believe me, research the names mentioned above, and look at the penalty for most of the officers.

This isn’t just about the killings.

This is about honoring confederate leaders, people who wanted to keep Black people enslaved. There is no Fort Pol Pot, no Hitler Air Base. It is in America that we honor those who wished to oppress.

This is about a national anthem for which we cannot even sing the full song, because of lines such as: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave’/From the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave.”

I am just tired… I am tired of all of this… I am not here pleading for special rights… I am not asking for the considerations that America has given to the Japanese after placing them in internment camps during World War II.  I am not even asking for the benefits that America has given to the Native Americas… I want the guarantees and rights that are supposed to come with being an American. I want to be treated equal.

Can America just give me that?

Photo by Tammyatwt on Pixabay

Juneteenth | The More You Know…

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

From its Galveston, Texas origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond.

Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement, and for planning the future. Its growing popularity signifies a level of maturity and dignity in America long overdue. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities, and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today. Sensitized to the conditions and experiences of others, only then can we make significant and lasting improvements in our society. –from Juneteeth.com

Check out these resources for more information on Juneteenth:

Have a safe and happy weekend…

Guest Post| “A Garden Reflection” by Danille Taylor

We are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Photo by Photo AC on Pixabay

Today’s post was written by my colleague and friend, Dr. Danille Taylor. She wrote this reflection after working in her garden and seeing the connection between her work and the work in which we must all engage to undo the isms that are destroying humanity.
***
***.   .  ***.   .  ***
***
I was in the garden yesterday in 90 degree heat digging out weeds. I put a perennial bed in an area where the builder planted bamboo. I contracted to have soil and new plants put in. It was much too much work for my new knees, but the bed wasn’t prepped properly. The bamboo is tenacious! I can neither stomp it out nor can I use poison because of the new plants. I have to dig down and extract the roots. This is tedious back-bending work that requires the right tools so as not kill the new plants–my beauties. I may have to keep weeding for years to rid the garden of the bamboo, but as the gardener, it is my responsibility to protect my beauties. If I get lazy or forget, the bamboo will take over again.
***
Ridding this world of all the ‘isms, greed, and inequities requires that we all be gardeners. There is no quick medicine or vaccine. There is only consistent, diligent, hard, and loving work to destroy the roots. But we have to have the right tools.
Each period requires old and new tools, but we must understand the old to be effective now. The energy of Black youth has brought us to this moment much as it did fifty years ago. They are railing at the bamboo that has them in a chokehold.
***
If need be, we’ll plant a new garden and properly prepare the bed making sure the soil is rich and nurturing. No poisons allowed. We must remember the “bamboo” may still be there, so we’ll have to be diligent in identifying and uprooting it. We have knowledge and lessons of the past and tools of the future. We will sweat. But the wonderment and beauty we cultivate will feed us. As we weed and dig to extract roots we must not lose our joy.  We see the beauty of the garden we are cultivating.
***
Live, breathe, love, and work.

Photo by Photo Mix on Pixabay

Dear Friend | Racism, Outrage, Resistance, and Faith

Today’s post features a letter to a friend in response to a Facebook post. Initially, I was going to ignore her post, but after much prayer and consideration, I felt obliged to respond. Why here instead of Facebook? Because the views I express in this post require a larger audience than one, and though I would love to share with you all the prettiness and light I’d planned to share last week on the blog, common decency will not allow me to ignore the very present atrocities occurring in the United States. I would ask you to forgive the length, but the original was twice as long. 


Dear Friend,

I want you to know I love you. You are my sister-in-Christ. You are my friend. I hope you will receive this with the love with which it was written.

After a very difficult week, I went on Facebook a few days ago for a bit of mindless respite. At the top of my newsfeed was your post:

Black vs White. Racism needs to stop on both sides. When I look at you I see a person. I am white. I am tired of getting a label because of what some “evil” person did to another. It is an issue of GOOD vs EVIL that we need to be talking about! There are good and bad whites. There are good and bad blacks. I sat in the dirt and played right along with black kids growing up. I am not the same as you, but I am no different. I love me some black people, lots of them. I did not enslave your ancestors either. Someone way back, before I was born did that. I was molested, beaten, slandered and used when I was growing up too. I had to make a choice to move on. I had to make a choice to make it better. Jesus saved my heart. We live in a broken world full of good and evil people. Let us good people get on our knees and pray for the evil ones, the unjust ones, and let’s stop this racism. Jesus said pray for your enemies. If the law is broken someone deserves jail, white or black. These bandwagons and riots to stir everything up aren’t helping the problem to go away. Did you pray about it first? Can we just show some love? Can we just be kind? Pray for the police commissioner when an officer does something wrong. Pray for the judges. Pray for justice, but don’t do it because of black and white, please!! Do it because good is better than evil. Do it because Love is better than hate.  –L.K.

On the surface this seems like sound, good counsel. I agree with many of your points. However, it misses the mark in some ways. It fails to realize the complexity of human experience in general and of Black experience  in particular. It fails to recognize the unique circumstances of African Americans and all people with brown skin who live in this “land of the free.”

A lot of people misuse the word “racism.” They use it as if it is synonymous with prejudice, but it is not. Racism is “prejudice, bigotry, stereotypes, and discrimination that is systematically enforced by people with more institutional power, authority, and resources than others to the advantage of that group over others” [Patti DeRosa, ChangeWorks Consulting]. To be racist one has to have access to institutional power—the kind of power that affords one the benefits of all the systems in place [almost] without question. The kind of power that presumes one is indeed innocent until proven guilty and is at least entitled to a fair trial. The kind of power that allows one to be treated humanely and even make it to the prison cell alive and not have one’s life weighed in the balance by trigger-happy police officers and emboldened citizens taking “the law” into their hands. Black people can hold prejudices, but we cannot be racist. Why? Simply because we lack access to institutional power. This was the case even when the President of the U.S. was Black.

While it might be a question of good and evil in the spiritual realm, in these United States no matter how good a Black person is, in interactions with “the Law” and in the court of media and society, he or she is considered evil. Indeed, within a few short moments of the revelation of the unequivocal guilt of a white person in the murder of a Black person, media outlets go far and beyond to uncover some stain in the victim’s character or record that serves to justify the brutal murder. In the cases of the murder of Black men, women, children at the hands of white men or the word of white women, too many feel the need to vilify the victim to make the heinous act less villainous.

Have you noticed how the trials of murderers of Black people are entitled against the victim and not the assailant—e.g. the Travon Martin Murder Trial??? As if the dead victim committed the crime and is indeed on trial?

I’m not sure how slavery entered this particular conversation, but since it has, we need to recognize slavery as America’s deep, dark, wide-open secret. We are in this particular situation because [as a nation] we don’t want to go to the place of our original wound and really have the dialogue about the horrors of that system and about its consequences some 155 years after its purported end. The fact of America’s defective past is very much part of its present. It is not, then, that Black people can’t “move beyond” slavery; that horrific past is very much a part of our present in this nation. The abuse Black people suffer did not end with slavery. It is ongoing–continual.

I’m incredibly sorry about the pain and abuse you experienced as a child. That was horrible, but please, please, please be careful not to assume that because the two situations are alike in one way, they are alike in all ways and must be met with the same antidote. This is a logical fallacy, a “false analogy,” to be exact. Private, individual pain—though horrific—cannot compare to 400 years [and counting] of ritualized, systemic abuse of an entire body of people because of the color of their skin.

Imagine experiencing the abuse you suffered as a child every day of your life. Imagine all of your progeny for generation after generation experiencing what you went through every single day because of a genetic trait.

You decry the idea of people making assumptions about you based on the color of your skin. Imagine walking with assumptions every waking minute of your day. Imagine the danger of those assumptions when you are Black in America.

Recent events give many, many examples of the dangers of those assumptions—Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man out for a jog murdered by white men based on an assumption; a white woman using the fact of state-sanctioned murder of Black bodies as a weapon against Christian Cooper,  a Black man bird-watching; George Floyd, a Black man smothered to death in plain sight of others by a police officer who was comfortable enough with the status quo that he murdered an already incapacitated man with the same carelessness with which one would swat a fly. No remorse. Whatsoever.

Because of such assumptions, Black people are not safe. No matter where we are—in our homes sleeping like Breonna Taylor or playing video games like Atatiana Jefferson; walking home from the store like Trayvon Martin; driving in our cars like Philando Castile and Sandra Bland; playing as any little boy would with a toy gun like Tamir Rice; sitting in our grandmother’s backyards like Stephon Clark. I’m not sure we’ve ever been safe while sitting in church.

We breathe with the knowledge that someone, somewhere at any moment of the day can decide that we don’t matter, that our lives don’t matter. We. are. not. safe.

While your pain was/is real, it is not the same. At some point, you were able to extricate yourself from your abusive situation. To make a choice. To pray. To heal. To give your family a better, healthier experience. Black people have little to no control over what happens when other people’s racist attitudes and behaviors clash with our will and right to live healthy, whole lives. No matter how good our beautiful sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, nephews, nieces, cousins, friends are, no matter the right choices they make, no matter their prayers, someone can still decide they don’t matter. Their lives don’t matter.

So please be careful, my friend, how you hold the conversation with those of us who are racially oppressed. If you are to be an ally and exercise the kindness and compassion you advocate, be careful to release any inclination to counsel oppressed people on how to respond to oppression.

It seems to be a trend to fling the nice and easy words of Martin Luther King, Jr. into the faces of Black people in times like these. He was far more radical than the pacifist many believe he was. I invite you to look at a fuller selection of his body of work. Riots may not be the answer, but they are what happens when people are in complete despair and have run out of capacity for the overwhelming stress and emotion. All of the exhaustion, anger, sadness, weariness, and powerlessness spill over and there is no other response to the steady blows of trauma. King spoke about that too.

As a Bible-believing, fervent-praying Christian, you will get no disagreement from me about the power of prayer, but I’m compelled to remind you, in the face of injustice, scripture doesn’t tell us to pray. Scripture directs us to act:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. –Isaiah 1:17

It is because I know Jesus Christ—He who is at once the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah—that I am compelled to pray and act.

Sympathy and prayer are not enough. Protests are useful but not enough. Termination of the officers is a start but not enough. Arrest of the murderers is a beginning but not nearly enough. It is time to “turn over some [figurative] tables” and do more than ask, “Can we all just get along?” It’s time to do the hard work of undoing what centuries of social conditioning have done to convince far too many that Black people are only like real people—a little less human than the rest. It’s time for our nation—individually and collectively—to muster the courage and have the excruciating conversation so these atrocities can stop repeating and we can finally heal.

Yes, ultimately, we are involved in a war of good versus evil, but good is already defeated if we keep losing the battles to racism, injustice, and the like.

If you and I are to meet on the other side of Jordan, then we are to do exactly what God requires of us—

to be just, and to love [and to diligently practice] kindness (compassion), And to walk humbly with [our] God [setting aside any overblown sense of importance or self-righteousness]. –Micah 6:8 AMP

Love to you as we march onward…together.

“I Am Looking at Music”

National Poetry Month is nearing an end and as I fretted [earlier today] over which poems I should share for the remaining three posts, I realized I haven’t shared a love poem. Gasp!

Love poems are tricky. There are many, many absolutely beautiful love poems, but I have a tendency to steer clear of  poems that overly romanticize love and ignore its complexity. If I am to enjoy the poem, the writer has to avoid cliche but still evoke some feeling and truth with which readers [or listeners] can identify.

I first heard the poem I’m sharing today as “Nina’s Song”–recited by Nia Long in the film Love Jones. The poem is actually the work of Louisiana’s first African American Poet Laureate, Pinkie Gordon Lane (1923-2008). Her skillful use of imagery–light, sound, color–to capture the subtle nuances of love is astounding.

I Am Looking at Music
Pinkie Gordon Lane

It is the color of light,
the shape of sound
high in the evergreens.

It lies suspended in hills,
a blue line in a red
sky.

I am looking at sound.
I am hearing the brightness
Of high bluffs and almond
trees. I am
tasting the wilderness of lakes,
rivers, and streams
caught in an angle
of song.

I am remembering water
that glows in the dawn,
and motion tumbled
in earth, life hidden in mounds.

I am dancing a bright
beam of light.

I am remembering love.


About the image: The image above is one of my own pieces. I crafted the original last summer with “leftover” paint. All the colors seem to pair well with Lane’s poem, so I’m sharing it today.

Soar, Sister!

Believe it or not–I actually made a general plan of poems/poets to share on the blog this month. However, I can count on less than one hand the number of times I stuck to the plan. Today, my plan for sharing a longish poem by Nikky Finney transformed to sharing the shortish poem below by George Douglas Johnson (1880?-1966).

Johnson was one of the writers featured in my [so-far-unfinished] Women of the Harlem Renaissance series a couple of years ago. The poem seems fitting for my present circumstance and mood–cooped up in a small space in my home office–cornered by books, research, notes, and creative projects–working feverishly toward freedom from all the demands, ready to fly.

Your World
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Your world is as big as you make it.
I know, for I used to abide
In the narrowest nest in a corner,
My wings pressing close to my side.

But I sighted the distant horizon
Where the skyline encircled the sea
And I throbbed with a burning desire
To travel this immensity.

I battered the cordons around me
And cradled my wings on the breeze,
Then soared to the uttermost reaches
With rapture, with power, with ease!


About the image: The postcard featured in this post was sent to me a decade ago by a swapper named Noni, an artist who seemingly no longer participates on swap-bot. I don’t know much about the art, but I assume Noni made the postcard. She wrote on the back of the card our beloved Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,”–a poem that doesn’t feel as hopeful as Johnson’s but is nevertheless moving.

Live Your Best Life Now

Thanks to the Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-a-Day” program, I was pleased to find “The Rainbow,” a poem by Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960) in my email this morning. Even though I studied and taught early African American literature for many years, I’m pretty sure I have not read any of her poetry before today.

Smith produced three books of poetry–Songs of the Months (1904); Rhymes from the Cumberland (1909); Rosemary and Pansies (1909)–and was even published in the highly regarded Harper’s Magazine. I downloaded Rosemary and Pansies, and will be reading it over the next few days.

“The Rainbow,” from Rosemary and Pansies, is a sweet poem, and perhaps that’s the one I should share today, but “Preparation”–from the same collection–spoke to me, as I’m working on being more intentional about taking time for the things that matter most.

Preparation
Effie Waller Smith

“I have no time for those things now,” we say;
“But in the future just a little way,
No longer by this ceaseless toil oppressed,
I shall have leisure then for thought and rest.
When I the debts upon my land have paid,
Or on foundations firm my business laid,
I shall take time for discourse long and sweet
With those beloved who round my hearthstone meet;
I shall take time on mornings still and cool
To seek the freshness dim of wood and pool,
Where, calmed and hallowed by great Nature’s peace,
My life from its hot cares shall find release;
I shall take time to think on destiny,
Of what I was and am and yet shall be,
Till in the hush my soul may nearer prove
To that great Soul in whom we live and move.
All this I shall do sometime but not now—
The press of business cares will not allow.”
And thus our life glides on year after year;
The promised leisure never comes more near.
Perhaps the aim on which we placed our mind
Is high, and its attainment slow to find;
Or if we reach the mark that we have set,
We still would seek another, farther yet.
Thus all our youth, our strength, our time go past
Till death upon the threshold stands at last,
And back unto our Maker we must give
The life we spent preparing well to live.

“I Am Becoming My Mother”

“Flowers of North America” by Lou Paper

Today’s offering comes from Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison. I am currently reading I Am Becoming My Mother, her second collection of poetry. I struggled with the decision over which poem to share. I would have been satisfied with any poem in the book, but was literally torn when it came to works like “Guinea Woman,” “We Are the Women,” and “Garden of the Women Once Fallen.” I was driving myself crazy, so I decided on the one below on the basis that it is the title poem.

“I Am Becoming My Mother” by Lorna Goodison

Yellow/brown woman
fingers smelling always of onion

My mother raises rare blooms
and waters them with tea
her birth waters sang like rivers
my mother is now me

My mother had a linen dress
the colour of sky
and stored lace and damask
tablecloths
to pull shame out of her eye.

I am becoming my mother
brown/yellow woman
fingers smelling always of onions.

I am drawn to Goodison’s writing for a few reasons. Among them the cadence that makes me want to sing rather than just read the words and her masterful use of imagery, which makes the ordinary deeply striking.


About the image: The postcard above came from my swap-bot pal, EricB. I was randomly selected to receive this postcard via a giveaway on Instagram. Yay, me! The postcard was designed by Lou Papers, and was bedecked with even more flowers on the back.

For Langston | Shatter This Darkness…Into a Thousand Lights of Sun

Today would have been Langston Hughes’ 118th birthday. Some of my Hughes books are in my [work] office; others are unfortunately buried in one of my many unpacked boxes, so I didn’t have the pleasure of revisiting my precious books and slowly inhaling the pages.

Like so many other Black poets, I fell in love with Langston Hughes through the books on my older siblings’ bookshelves. I took a course focusing on Hughes in graduate school and was sorely disappointed by the instructor’s style. He was knowledgeable but not an effective facilitator. He missed Hughes’ brilliance in his focus on the “celebrity” and ambiguity of Hughes.

I accidentally shot the “abstract” photo this morning while finishing up a letter to a friend. It pairs well with the closing lines of Hughes’ poem, “As I Grew Older.”

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
The wall.
Shadow.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

–Langston Hughes, “As I Grew Older”

Many read this poem and see disillusionment. The speaker of the poem dismisses the idealism and replaces it with the realization that in America his Blackness stands as a barrier to his dream. However, there is hope here too…He has “almost forgotten” the dream, but he recognizes that thick walls of racism can be breached, toppled even, by his dark hands.

Moreover…

Dark hands united with other hands can “shatter the darkness…into a thousand whirling dreams of sun.”