I sat in a lecture hall at Harvard for a conference on diasporic religions last year - theologies and practices that survived the slave trade by stowing away in sojourners and their descendants around the Black world. Angola reinvented in Jamaica, ghosts of Ghanaian gods writ large in Mississippi, Oshun beating a tattoo and conjuring herself in Haiti, Mali remade in Rio de Janeiro. After a session that gave me language for ritual space and a genealogy chock full of unknown tongues and ring shout, I chat up the woman on my right.
Turns out, she's from New Orleans. So, my Chicagoan self asked her about that woe that gets in the cockles of a city's heart - especially ones with sizeable populations of color, storied folks, folks that have the burden of memory and the heavy tongue that histories create when subaltern. She told me about her heartache for her city, about how nearly a decade later her folks were strewn about the United States as a result of a desperate leavetaking they had no control over...and that pulled on something in me, something still and pained.
Years into my time in Massachusetts, I still read and watched news from home. Intersections that punctuated my childhood and adolescent memories were ritual spaces for murders in a city that was increasingly becoming known as a devourer of itself, to outsiders, a rabid dog chewing off its own diseased leg. A juvenile correctional facility three times as large as the adult one, home to the largest mass closing of public schools in United States history - two sides of a despicable coin.
...and so I found kinship with a woman that knew that woe and worry for different reasons. I thought about that night in 2005 when I heard New Orleanians being advised to write their social security numbers on their forearms - that heartache landed with me at the Museum of Tolerance in LA two years later while in front of a man who'd given his brother his place on a boat to the States and stayed in Poland long enough to get numbers on his own forearm. I though about that man and about his fictive kin born half a world away, some shades darker than he, both for a time pooled at the underside of history. I thought about how absurd and incidental circumstances are...and how conveniently they tend to slip into systems of oppression if we allow.
That night in 2005, I decided that I'd go down there, that I'd go and use my two lil' hands to do what they could do...to be an instrument of empathy and kinship in service of folks experiencing despair while being called refugees in their homeland. I chose New Orleans. It took me just over a year, but I got there.
I remember the soggy, loaded smell permeating the streets. I recall the leaden weight of history in the architecture, the European influence in rounded syllables and staccato delivery, the richness of "but joy" wafting out of musicians and their instruments, the centuries-old shocks of whiteness manifesting themselves in soft curl, pronounced nose and light skin...and I remember our group walking past a young woman in the French quarter. One of us had a camera and asked her how she felt...
...to which she responded, "How do you think I feel?" - Thinking Back on Katrina, Ten Years Later - August 21, 2015
"I suppose this is the underside of fictive kinship, that beautiful, terrible tether - that same pull that bonds you beyond language can wreck you. Yes, I've been wrecked before. Yes, I've seen the hashtags and wept and yelled for people I never met, distant cousins with whom my only connection was that "raced thing" (that demon at the foot of our collective Black bed, that shared set of circumstances that forced us to speak a pidgin in a country that hated us and our tongues for communicating in ways that escaped it).
Yes, I've felt sad before and I've thought about their families and their personal mourning. And yes, I've thought about their abilities cast down into the grave with them - what unwritten books we might've had, what gorgeous music, what innovation is now laid to rest with them.
I routinely think about what all the living (and scared, and stressed, and sorrow-filled) Black folks could be doing right now if we weren't trying to wring some semblance of peace out of this blood soaked, star-spangled rag of a country of ours -
I think about what I could write and be if I looked different and weren't so scared all the time. I think about names and stories, about the parts of the fictive body that are away from us now - I think about the dismembered Black fictively kinned body...and I get sad when I think about all the unfettered literature and language we'd have if we didn't have to walk around with our hands raised and tongues tucked behind careful teeth.
...and because I am a family historian, I think about names and stories again. I wonder why Freddie Gray's is wrecking me so, why it's hitting so close to home. I think about these 150 years off freedom-freedom we're coming up on in June and how cruel it is to witness our ancestors' once distant future come 'round to finish the job. I consider the tether and go back a few generations: "Did we share kin? I mean, blood kin? Are there any Baltimore Grays? Same fields, same owners? Freddie, why is your name wrecking me more than the others? Why am I swapping your first name out for my own? Why am I torturing myself by trying on your shoes for size? I am scared. I'm scared and I'm not sure what the alternative is.
Ideas don't die, and I don't have language for the terrible reality: that all I have is a voice to undo the folded lie. What can possibly be said now that centuries of voices couldn't?
I'm very tired and I'd like to be at home. I would very much like to be "home"." - On Freddie Gray and Not-So-Fictive Kinship - April 28, 2015
"It's very important to highlight janky behavior that people who are socialized a certain way often go to when they encounter Black women. Yes, all people experience pain. Yes, some of that pain will be a direct result of limitations and unfairness imposed by broken societies...
...but we are just as socialized into certain outlets for pain as we are subject to the societal ills that make them necessary. Black women and girls experience personal and social pain and are socialized into "bearing it and being strong" - even if unhealthy, it is socially unacceptable for us to seek help or expect others to assist us. What's more, Black people of all genders are targeted, mowed down, triggered and harassed every day...and usually vilified and deemed unworthy of care after death because of the culture we have around Black pain and what we as a society believe they are entitled to.
People who read as white and male have very different socially acceptable outlets for their pain - which include a culture that makes room for it and humanizes them when they lash out at others (sometimes ending lives) as a result.
This is your daily reminder that emotional labor is labor, that feeling entitled to emotional labor by Black women because of your marginalized identity is not only unhealthy, but different from being in shared community with allies who are invested in your emotional well-being...and therefore, a potentially-triggering, always exhausting form of violence." - On Where Societal Rules of Entitlement Meet Pain - May 6, 2015
"...and if dedication to bettering one's country is expressed by holding it to standards of humanity in accordance with its ideals, protest is a form of patriotism and love." - In Response to Jozen C (@jozenc), who stated that "these days, it feels like love is a form of protest" - April 28, 2015
"The thing that upsets me most about this Affleck Ownergate is that there are Black families who might've needed that information to know where they come from.
In my ten years researching, I've responded to white amateur genealogists about their findings in communities designed for that purpose and have been ignored or given the denial template: "I can't help you. My family didn't own slaves."
Yeah, but they might've worked at the slave market. Maybe one of your ancestors had a cousin in the next county who did. Maybe they went to church with someone that kept a family bible and recorded their slave register. Maybe they were the one to go around the county for the census and they wrote in their personal journal about a mulatto who is listed in the census with no name.
Some Black genealogists hit the antebellum wall and stop. Our families were broken up and sold to different parts of the country. Folks were emancipated but illiterate and would never be reunited with loved ones. They burned our records in some places. You have the luxury of a recorded history and don't want to share it because you're northern and ashamed? You wanna highlight postbellum work done by your family and don't wanna talk about the social conditions that made it necessary? Shame on you."
Shame. Shame. Shame." - Reflections on Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ben Affleck Obscuring His Family's Slaveholding Past - April 18, 2015
"Because the name Rayshauna means "she who worries" in Greek, I'm up past 2am packing so I can move more easily tomorrow.
I'm always so tickled by the things I drag along with me. Two moves ago, I hunched over a box and sifted through notes a class of undergrads wrote me after I stopped by my alma mater to tell them about my Cambridge exploits.
This time around, I'm running my hands over a Norton Anthology of English Literature that a friend gave me during a trip home to Chicago. I flew back to Boston out of Milwaukee that time. It made my bag go overweight and my late stepfather (jovial and warm as always) spoke to one of his friends at the airline and got my bag on anyway.
He was so good at giving people room to be gracious.
I smirk when I look over a play I wrote in the vein of those old school Platonic dialogues. My favorite Platonic dialogue is Symposium because I've always been a sucker for mythology and I think about love a lot. This time, the dialogue is penned by me...and I have Shakespeare's Hamlet and Hurston's Janie Crawford sitting with one another discussing death and grief. They are comfortable with one another, human and soft with one another...just like I get to be with the authors that penned their lives. Shakespeare always sat well with the subaltern canon in my mind, so I wrote more language for two people that never met but shared incommunicable grief.
Lastly, I fold a note card full of scribbles. I'd heard that Vladimir Nabokov outlined Lolita on a series of note cards, so I took to a Cambridge cafe and tried my hand. Eventually, the note card was less an ode to a slender figure standing 4'10 in one sock and more a love note to a writer more fire than anything else. I call him the literary equivalent of decayed flowers used in perfume because I'm dramatic.
I was just going to take a picture of it, but I rip it off the aluminum coil, fold it in two - tucking it away until the next move." - Ballast...or On to the Next One - August 31, 2015
"A lot has changed in my life since I was a 14 year old girl in itchy stockings on Sunday morning. I live a different kind of life now - one that doesn't include twelve hour stints on Sundays, weekly choir rehearsals and Bible studies, but is shot through with a need to find meaning and hope in the world.
I'm not exactly atheist, not quite Christian, but I don't wring my hands over the labels. I have a Christian vocabulary for justice with atheist concern that we're not working hard enough to make life as charged with glory and justice as the hereafter.
...but I love Easter. I love the language it gives us for a hope beyond all understanding. I love that women are the first ones to find out - and run with the word. I love the mandate:
"Pray without ceasing, encourage one another in the faith. Flip over tables and kick out moneychangers when you can. And whether the messenger is a 12 year old preaching or a group of women with a word - fix your eyes to see them and your ears to hear what truth they have to share."
When I first stopped going to church regularly, I misread the hope as a sort of stupidity, a failure or refusal to see the world as it is, but now that I've sat a while, I know that was a misinterpretation of the folks I was observing and the theology I'd been taught.
Easter makes me reflect on what comes out of the grave...and whether it's a liberation theology that comes out of a slave trade or a generation of change agents working hard to set society right, there's unparalleled power in the ability to see the world for what it is...and work to engender a better one.
I believe in the power of the risen Christ's story - I believe in the hope it gives us. No matter what your label, I encourage you to consider the ashes, consider the grave, and consider hope.
I've bounced around the country a bit. I've had chance encounters with Midwesterners driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, there was a woman in LA that I fell into conversation with whose cart I pushed for blocks before I realized she had no home, there was Aleksander in LA who told me the story of his family's experience in the Holocaust...and then there was the man at O'Hare.
I was at the United desk with a friend a few years ago when we were being helped by an employee. I noticed the things we always do about others - face, hair, smile (or no) - and then I saw bandages on his wrists. It didn't click for me at first, but after I observed him while talking with him for a little while, I realized that his bandages were soiled and that blood had left a stain - a vertical line on either wrist. I looked in his eyes and he looked away.
I didn't say anything. I tried my best to not have too much pity dammed up behind my eyes, but I'm sure he read my expression. I glanced at his name tag, but his name escapes me right now. Because I'd had that religious upbringing I brought up a few comments ago, I thought of our Easter Jesus - our Jesus with holes in hands and feet - I thought about how vulnerable one must feel to have something so intimate (and shameful in societal eyes) betray you to strangers.
Was the Jesus of your imaginings always proud of his holes? When he went over to ole Doubting Thomas, did any part of him feel vulnerable, exasperated or pissed completely the fuck off because he had to prove himself? Did your wounded (but risen, sure) Jesus need someone to talk to after his experience in the grave? 'Cause if he was as human as some churches preach, surely he needed someone besides the deity he prayed to.
Maybe part of the story is that we can get up out the grave and still carry remnants of it inside us.
Maybe that makes us hungrier, soft hearted, intentional people - knowing the stillness and decided solitude of the grave. Maybe that hunger betrays us." - On Resurrection Sundays and What (Not Whom) Comes Out of the Grave - April 5, 2015
"I've seen people going back and forth on social media about language, about justified anger, about the legitimacy of grief - be it outward and cultural or internal...about everything except why, of all things - of murder and rape in the street by police officers, of neighborhoods currently erupting after decades of institutional neglect and personal provocation, of inherited and experienced cultural trauma writ large - Black words asserting our inherent humanity (#BlackLivesMatter) are what offend most.
Listen, I am not a perfect ally. I get scared, I feel inconvenienced, I feel that gritty place where my personal oppression meets my privilege and I don't always have a solid cultural critique on my mind...
...but I intend to never snatch language out of anyone's mouth from a position of relative comfort. Even in my moments when I fear my own trauma nipping at my heels, I don't deny people their right to assess the conditions under which their humanity is languishing and tell them they ought to feel ashamed for not having considered me when mine is comparatively intact under a specific institution of oppression. It takes profound cruelty to laud the American Dream without mentioning nightmarish historical and social conditions - well, when you are going back and forth with coworkers who don't get it, friends who don't get it, relatives who don't get it, know this:
No one can honor you in your full humanity if they are not concerned with your ability to fully exert it in the world. Beware of people that are comfortable and satisfied with you living a life of partially humane half-measures, who would romanticize your unnecessary suffering by imploring you to stay close to a cross you should've never been nailed to anyway, who would play the coward's role of chastising you for asserting the truth in a compulsively conniving culture that still stands in need of challenging and reconstruction.
Steer clear of people who would have you confuse unrest with pointless tumult and call for peace when they mean compliance." - On the Language of Black people, Their Lives, and How It Matters - April 28, 2015