Justice, dignity and freedom

Two days ago, my partner, Brinda, said how

he changed what it meant to be African. He changed what it meant to be African American

as we sat with the news that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had passed earlier on Thursday, December 5, 2013.

Indeed, Madiba changed what it meant to be human. He dignified the whites who had been systematically privileged by apartheid, he dignified the ruling National Party that was the final white-led political party in final years of apartheid in the early ’90s. And he ushered the transition from a violent, white-minority government to a multiracial democracy. Mandela’s tact and approach was unique in that he did not diminish the Black masses, the poor and the oppressed when dealing with the powers that be. He was unapologetic as the figure head and public face for the political party, the labor unions, the youth movement and the social movements that brought about apartheid’s end.

In the 72 hours since his passing, I have been reminded that violence may be a necessity when every other means or resort has been exhausted. I have been reminded that a leader or elected official does not need to relent in their systemic critique of the status quo once they have been elected. I have been reminded

I lived in Swaziland from 1991 through 1994. It was a pivotal time as neighboring South Africa transitioned from an exclusively white-governed nation to a multiracial democracy. I recall one weekend in 1992 when my mixed race family went to Pretoria for the weekend. Our car broke down, so we had to spend one extra night, on a Sunday, in one of Pretoria’s upper class neighborhoods. The two reasons that we could be there, were that as a diplomat and his family we were bestowed with a level of privilege, which was further eased by the fact that in the early 1990s, Black South Africans had begun to live in neighborhoods that had been historically white.

Because our car broke down, I would miss school on Monday at Waterford Kamhlaba. Yet, it was not just any Monday, but the day of the Referendum asking white South Africans if they wanted to vote to end apartheid by granting Blacks and Coloreds the right to vote. To my 13 year old sensibilities on the night before, a race war seemed all but inevitable. I do not know how many stories of widespread race-based violence had been forecast on television nor how many newspapers had written about the possibilities of political violence. I went to bed on Sunday terrified by what would happen in the streets of Pretoria and throughout the country the following day.

Yet, nothing of the sort occurred. There were a few skirmishes fomented (or even staged) by the white nationalist organization, AWB (who’s name in Afrikaans, I never could remember). Otherwise, peace and calm was so widespread that by dusk, I was clipping the posters of various political parties as my mom drove me around the predominantly white, middle- and upper-class neighborhood that we were staying in. I would run up to a streetlamp and cut the twine in two places before tossing the posters either in the trunk or backseat of the car that we were in. I cannot remember, but we gathered at least a dozen, if not 20, posters. A few were those of the rulling National Party that said either “Yes” or “Ya” (the equivalent term in Afrikaans). We encountered few No posters, that we still chose to cut and compile. The one that is most emblazoned in my psyche, even 21 years later, was a caricature of FW de Klerk, the President and leader of the National Party, on his knees bowing before a standing Nelson Mandela. Off in one of the corners is the shape of a red, stop sign were the three letters — Nee — asking that voters refuse to grant the majority of adults in the country the right to vote.

***

It was a magical phase in my life. As a mixed-raced, teenager from the United States attending a middle and high school, Waterford, with a legacy of being a place for Black, white, Colored, and Indian South Africans to send their children to a mixed race school environment. It was a school where I shared classrooms, meals and sports fields with the children (and grandchildren) of the freedom struggles of Mozambique, Zambia and other countries. It was a school where Walter Sisulu came and spoke to the students. I learned a few political anthems and songs, such as N’khosi Sikhelele Afrika (which literally translates as God Bless Africa, and is now the national anthem since apartheid ended in South Africa), that instilled a sense of pride and defiance in the face of a racist history that was slowly receding just across the Swazi-South African borders. I learned from close friends, from numerous countries in Southern and East Africa, about the role that their federal governments played by offering safety and safe passage for the anti-apartheid leaders of the ANC and other banned parties, as well as granted refuge or resources to train soldiers in military combat. In the late ’90s, I would learn more about the instrumental role of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, as I read Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom.

The three years in Swaziland were a time when dinner conversations between my parents at home revealed to me that certain elements in the US government preferred that the National Party or another white political party win the free elections in 1994. There was not a chance of it happening, considering that millions of people lined up and stood and waited for hours for the one time in their life that they could vote for Nelson Mandela. He was one of more than 20 (or more) candidates for president. It was a ballot so long that it had to be printed on a piece of paper as long or longer than legal size. And the faces of each candidate and the unique, colorful logo of their respective political party was included next to their names on the ballot to assist illiterate adults to be able to vote. These were some of the little yet profound aspects of what it meant to live in such proximity to freedom.

These were some of the moments as a 13, 14 and 15 year old living in Mbabane, Swaziland. After two years and ten months in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President a month or two before we left and I would return to New Mexico and the US. It was overcast in Mbabane, the morning of the inauguration. I sat in the tv room of our house, owned by the American Embassy, with my mother, Lena, Louis and one other domestic worker, who’s name I have forgotten. Lena was partially blind in one eye because she could not afford or had not been able to access necessary health services when she was younger. Louis sat and recognized nearly every foreign leader and dignitary who was shown on tv, able to say their name and their home country before the commentators on the South African Broadcasting Channel (or Corporation) could. The five of us sitting, largely in silence, as we witnessed the enormity of the day’s activities and the history happening a few hundred kilometers across the border.

***

Mandela’s life is an anamoly to my psyche and my sense of history. He lived to be a very old man when so many indicators meant that he should not have. In fact, all his time imprisoned in South Africa’s prison systems was one factor that resulted in his long life. He was a severe enough threat to the apartheid country that they would have attempted to assassinate him in the streets of London, Nairobi or some other foreign city had he been free to live abroad. Yet, exile was not a part of the path in the life of Nelson Mandela. And as I sit and remember the touchstones of my life, I recall that Chris Hani and Steve Biko and thousands of other political activists in South Africa and the world have had their lives brought to a premature end. Violence and fear being tools to kill and end the lives of individuals and social movements seeking justice, dignity and freedom.

***

South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution is a truly radical political document. It protected the rights of sexual minorities when no other nation on the planet was doing so. Rather than be mired in vengeance and animosity, South Africa took steps to practice democracy in the months and years immediately after a majority of people gained freedom.

Mandela’s passing is a teachable moment. A chance to recognize that this is what it feels like to live history, to be a part of the history that is being made today. We tend to diminish the small actions, unseen moments that constitute so many days in our lives. Yet, when we recognize our own connection to the prophets that live among us, the bigness of history is mirrored back to us. It is not just the history of Mandela or MLK, but all of us who were participants or bystanders to the social movements that they are connected to.

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War reflections in Milwaukee

They asked me for a six word story, after 10 hours. So what I told ’em was:

Investing in 21st Century multiracial leadership

In terms of class identity and race, I grew up in a middle class and multiracial family. I studied Economics and History. One part of my military story is that I am the grandson of a Tuskegee Airman.

History teaches us that at the end of the Vietnam War, the Army was a powder keg of animosity and racial strife on the cusp of tremendous violence. I recall one historian stating that Black veterans were so radicalized that 70% of them planned on joining the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense upon returning stateside.

As a result, the armed forces embarked on an unprecedented intervention to train, recruit and support a new wave of Black officers and officers of color in order to abate the festering race dynamics between Black soldiers and an overwhelmingly white class of officers that was the legacy of Jim Crow. The efforts to support and cultivate leadership for people of color was more successful than in any other aspect of society. A soldier in the military is more likely to have a person of color as a supervisor than someone in any other field, profession or realm of life.

The military’s intervention is a lesson of how dedicated resources can result in systemic change, when we so choose. There is an opportunity for society and a nation to invest in multiracial leadership to heal a wounded and traumatized nation that is still hobbling into the 21st Century.

Further investments in leadership and communities throughout the country and the globe could mean that we invest in our daughters as much as drones. That Corner Store initiatives are as pervasive as guns in communities. That we would treat PTSD as quickly as we discipline students and detain immigrants.

Investing in life, rather than war, would mean that less goes to automatic weapons, flak jackets and SWAT teams so that we invest more in shovels, straw hats and wheelbarrows. Where we invest in community organizing and agronomy and less in surveillance and military intelligence.

After a day like today in Milwaukee, I have hope that in the years ahead we will invest in the War on Poverty and War on Hunger with the gusto and at the levels of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs in recent decades.

The choice is our’s to make: do we want to dedicate our resources to death and destruction or life and love?

Public Library as resource

I visited the public library this afternoon after passing by the outlets. The parking lot was over-capacity so people parked on the grass at the stoplight intersection. Meanwhile, there more empty spots than cars in the library lot.

20 minutes sitting in the quiet area on the second floor was more precious than wading through aisles and clothing racks. The quiet was quite a juxtaposition from the busyness of outlet shopping.

The public library is second to grocery stores as places and civic institutions that I frequent. I explore, wander and arrive at unfathomable passages and flavors in each.

Credit + Access, a Marley fable (aka access to credit)

There are two memorable moments (among oh-so many) in the 2012 documentary, Marley. The two that my mind/heart/soul has linked are from two very different phases of Bob Marley’s life and career. He certainly lived as a musician, but I was reminded how he was and is a spiritual figure and global icon for love, nonviolence, and freedom. Freedom of nations, of people, and of our souls. Now, for the two moments, which have to do with credit.

#1 — As Bob, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer are first embarking as an independent three-man band in Kingston of the early 1960s, the documentary recounts the story, told by a distant cousin, of how Bob went to see some of his extended family asking for some support or a loan. The Wailers wanted/needed the capital to buy a car that they could use to independently distribute to clubs, and radio stations across Kingston. Yet, the white Marleys wanted nothing to do with this mulatto son of one of their deceased members. (note: I had not known that Bob had a white father, nevermind one who was so much older than his mother, until watching the movie) Despite their tremendous wealth and plenty of assets that would have made a car loan an insignificant amount, Bob was turned away from the Marley Construction Company empty-handed. The Wailers had to find other means to distribute their newly recorded singles.

#2 — Years later, Bob is cash rich. So much so, that when a Zimbabwean delegation visit him to ask him to perform at their independence concert and ceremony in 1980, Marley is keen. So eager to do so that he/the band cover all of the $80,000 in 1980 dollars (which is approximately $208,888 in 2010 dollars) to ship their instruments and sound equipment from Kingston to Harare.

The Zimbabwean delegation did not have the cash. But that did not stop the Wailers from being at a national liberation concert on the Mother Continent. It is ironic and tragic to see a much younger Robert Mugabe, circa 1980, proclaiming freedom, independence and democracy; how much can change in three decades.

The ensuing concert and historic occasion — of Zimbabwe’s independence and of a free Bob Marley and the Wailers concert for a newly independent nation, that is no longer colonized, and no longer Rhodesia — is also an instance of spiritual transcendence. At least, that is how it seems to me, witnessing history through the movie’s storytelling.

~~~~

The trajectory of Bob, who is one of the rare humans who is on a first name (or single names) basis with much of the globe (along with Madiba, Evita or Barack), was marked by his access to capital, and to the other means of production. Those means of production being land, labor and capital. The Wailers’ rise within Jamaica’s domestic music scene took longer because of the bottlenecks and constraints that a young, independent band faced.

Conversely, the people of Zimbabwe would not have had the enduring joy of Bob’s only live performance in 1980, had he been cash poor or debt-strapped.

I am inspired by the story of how even a global phenomenon such as the Wailers faced obstacles such as lacking a car, and the gasoline to distribute their music. The status quo had wanted to control the distribution, release and promotion of Kingston’s musical acts. Much like the 20th Century industry titans who want to impede the innovative people, ideas and companies that nurture the creative destruction today that will hasten the demise of the old ideas of yesteryear, and yester-century.

Ultimately, limited and constrained access to capital is a norm in our economy (and in capitalism). Too few lending dollars provided to small ventures and enterprising individuals. As a result, a bias towards that results in any loans considered being lent to the bigger entities who can either point to previous financial records or who already have the assets that serve as collateral. As a result, those with existing assets have the access to capital. Capital that makes it much easier to grow, or experiment on a new idea. Ideas that can be business or cultural and art ventures such as The Wailers.

Some may suggest that the status quo demands that musicians or entrepreneurs have to show grit, hustle and finesse needed to persevere. Yet, an uneven playing field means that the very subjective nature of lending is not done evenly. It is subjective because lending is, after all, one person making a subjective decision about another person. Instances where a new venture may not have the financial records to demonstrate the return, or safety of such an investment. The current set-up squashes dreams and aspirations when capital is so hard to come by. When the pools of who has access continue to be so dependent on the Old Boy Network.

Armchair Elder

I saw her seated to the far right of the third row. Who was this white-haired woman glaring at me as I strolled down the aisle. I asked to enter the third row, seated just next to this elderly woman, with my mind using a single verb to describe her as she glared at me. I took my seat on my Southwest flight home. I had a story coursing through my head howt his white woman was fixated on my brown skin. As it turned out, she happened to be a curious, storytelling, fellow traveler.

It began when she asked me how the buckle of her seat belt worked. I learned two further data points within minutes, which were this was an 85 year old woman who was on an airplane for the second time in her life. The previous flight was two weeks earlier when she’d flown to RDU from MDW. Meanwhile, I have been on planes regularly. My first flights began at age six (nearly three decades earlier than the octogenarian seated to my left). One of the few questions that she asked me was if my other airplane rides were bumpier than our shared springtime flight from North Carolina to Illinois. I told her that, yes, they could get bumpy.

We shared an armrest, and she shared countless stories. For the next 80 minutes, I had a history tutorial courtesy of Mrs. Marilois Anderson of Morocco, Indiana.

Marilois lives in a duplex. She was a nurse until age 60 in a tiny Indiana town across the stateline from Chicago. At four, her parents moved from southern Indiana to Morocco, as her father got work for the telephone company. Her mother worked for Ma Bell, too, working the switchboard from their home. One time, Marilois placed the mouthpiece in her mouth, getting an electric shock that made the line go dead. Her father had been to war, too. He was a medic and driver. My young mind was curious about which war it had been. It was one of oodles of questions that I can not know a definite answer to.

Mrs. Anderson’s maiden name is Carter. She married in her early 20s, and had three children – one of whom lived in North Carolina, the nudge she needed to get on an airplane in her mid-80s. I got a glimpse of memory, the mind’s work, and the moment-by-moment nature of life when I asked her husband’s name. In the long pausing presence, I noted that she was unable to recall the name of a partner who died six years ago. She pulled her wallet out for a second time out from one of her two handbags. Her eyes searched for an ID with his name on it. Not on the credit card, nothing on her Medicare card. Then she did find a membership card for the World War II Memorial. Her eyes scanned the colors and images, and I read the name aloud: Mrs. Milton Anderson. I had a great uncle named Milt, too. My uncle Milt had fought in some war decades before I was born. For the 20-some years of overlap, I heard few stories of his service and his life.

Thanks to history, my ancestors and their stories, there were so many reasons that made Marilois’ memories of Morocco so familiar to me. She even said to me how she wanted me to meet her son, Jack, when I come through Morocco.

Multiple times during our flight, Ms. Anderson said that the airplane felt like we were “just sitting here.” It was magic when she peered out from her window seat. She remarked at how incredible it was that we were flying at 30,000 feet. When the floor of the clouds opened, she said, “I can see something.” I got a glimpse of how curiosity and adventure can live on. Can live in us. In her bike rides, her love of the public library, where the librarians of Newton County let her borrow knowing that some day, Mrs. Anderson, won’t bring her two books back.

pending: Enough for me and the wasps.

God, I do love this place. I am back here, the last Sunday in August. Hurricane Irene cancelled my Megabus ride between Washington DC and Durham, but provided the opportunity for friends in DC to escape the tropical storm by driving south and sleeping in the hermitage until the media-traumatizing storm blew up the coastline. On Sunday, the skies were clear, not a cloud in the sky. They had all been sucked up in the vortex of what was Irene.

Down here Mebane, I stood in the orchard picking apples. I gathered figs off of the every growing fig bush. The first time I pulled a fig straight from a branch was for a group, who were some of the first guests to visit the Stone House in the Fall 2007.

The first time I harvested — well, actually gleaned — apples had been a few summers’ prior when Tahz asked me to grab apples. The first batch were for a blue bucket, the second batch were tossed into a wheelbarrow. The blue bucket apples had spots, dimples and blemishes on their skin yet enough apple for the fruit to be pressed with the apple press. The wheelbarrow where apples that were to soft and mushy, or so marked up that they were unedible to the discerning eye of a Stone House guest in the kitchen.

What I most remember about being under the apple trees was the buzz of hundreds of wasps. I so freaked myself out of the oodles of wasps that it took me a minute to realize. The wasps didn’t care about me. There was so much apple to be eaten that the wasps paid me no mind as I picked up apples from the ground and off of branches and placed them in the bucket and wheelbarrow. I went from gently laying them in the two containers to tossing them three feet. The wasps, still didn’t care about me. I had concocted a narrative that they were going to sting me.

My first time at the Rodeo

 

gorgeous long-haired livestock

Mom + 1 of the long-haired cattle

On Friday night, I got two tickets for Mom to accompany me to the 105th National Western Stock Show — an annual event situated under the I-70 interstate that cuts across north Denver. And what was I, a Black man, doing at the rodeo?

Foremost, I was reacquainting myself with Colorado. But I was shocked to find out that that this was Mom’s first time ever at the Stock Show. She never attended as a kid in Akron. Nor while in college at Boulder. Or as a young woman/mother/wife in the 26 years between 1968 and 1984. Nor come once in the ten years she’s been back in Colorado.

As for me, I also wanted to go because a) I had never been to the Stock Show, b) it was some quality time with Mom before she departs next week, and c) it is a highlight every January. I learned that Mom was jazzed to go considering that she i) wanted to arrive an hour early, and ii) put on her finest cowgirl boots and her favorite scully, from Denver-based Rockmount Ranch Wear.

Once we got there, Mom was on the prowl for some grilled bison meat. No such luck. We settled for 1/4 lb sausages — mom having bratwurst, I opted for the polish smoked — that were on the far side of the Education Barn.

The rodeo began with bareback riding. It featured cowboys with names such as Buck Lunak (from Cut Bank, Montana), Tanner Aus (from Granite Falls, Minnesota) and Tim Shirley (from Bailey, Colorado). Mr. Shirley was riding a horse named Lion Eyes. or is it Lionize? I wondered. Turned out that that buckskin’s name is spelled Lyin Eyes.

The second event was steer wrestling. Though there were hundreds of people of color — Latin@s and Blacks — in the crowds milling about and in the stands, there was only one Black cowboy in the ring — #958, Darrell Petry from Beaumont TX. Petry was the first of the steer wrestlers to be successful. As the announcer said, “that veteran cowboy” bundled it up in a wee 4.1 seconds. Seconds seems significantly longer in the 4 or 8 seconds that one person is grappling with 800 pounds of power and flesh.

The third event for the night offered the most laughs: mutton busting. Mutton busting is 6- and 8-year old boys and girls gripping onto the backs of full-grown sheep. So, the mutton has more to do with the little kids riding on the back, protected with their hockey helmets.

Clippers on a cow

The rest of the evening entailed bronc riding, tie down roping, the barrel race and ended with the bull riding. The announcer and clown kept the mood light-hearted, and the sound guy looped rock, motown, metal and hiphop. Even a little bit of Tupac’s ‘California Love’ when a Cali cowboy was in the gate.

The National Western is now over. I’ve got my focus and calendar ready for the Granby Rodeo, that runs from Memorial Day until July 4th.

Tracing slavery

Baltimore, Philly and Greensboro just aint the same after reading Octavia Butler’s science fiction on time traveling into slavery. Kindred — first published in 1997. First picked up by me in mid-August 2010.

I’ve trampled over history this summer of 2010. Looked at leaves swaying along the interstate south of Philadelphia. Seen Black youth, Black families and Black communities with new eyes. New eyes cast having read about the slave trade, migration routes, escape routes, and movement of commerce.

I sat in a branch of the Durham Public Library, pulling books edited by Ishmael Reed and Member of the Club, a collection of articles written by Lawrence Otis Graham. Slavery doesn’t look the same now that it sits on the other side of the wall. A wall capable of taking my arm off, as it did to Dana/Edana in Kindred.

Atrocities of commerce. Or was it genocide borne of commerce, in visiting Colorado’s Camp Amache and Sand Creek Massacre. According to the War Department, Amache was called the Granada War Relocation Center.

All this, for a mulatto in miscegenation nation.

Pops called and asked a question

Just spoke with Dad for 10 minutes or so. [my sense of time is so screwy as I open, and embrace differently. Time is abundant. My following my heart rather than minding with my brain]

Anyhow, Dad called twice yesterday. Both messages asked me to call him asap. Both times he said how he had a question for me. His question?

Did I want he and Theopolis to come out and help me pack up?

I am awestruck. Into silence. In such tenderness, generosity and love. Offerings that have not been a common occurrence with him. Rather than turn him down altogether, I pivoted the offer by saying that I’d like a raincheck once I’m settled in the Fall. He checked the raincheck.

What i’ve learned this weekend

I have been in New Mexico for 49 hours. Through experiential learning, I have learned the following:
1. making pizza on a grill,
2. differentiating walking by using the back of my legs, rather than the sides.
3. how laughter and humor can be used to mask discomfort. That making silly jokes in response to “what do you need?” reveals fear, grappling.