A thrilling and jarring power

Last night, I encountered a news article about an event on the Mills campus (my alma mater) with a visiting writer named Shobha Rao. And she said that “any piece of writing is the creation of an atmosphere.” This is an intriguing idea and it connects for me to a preoccupation I have been rubbing up against lately. How as humans do we create/open up/curate spaces of possibility?

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Longest Stroke” By Dipayan Bhattacharjee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

I know what it feels like when space suddenly closes down, when someone says something and one’s intelligibility in the room, even to one’s self, gets foreclosed. And I know what it feels like when new spaces open suddenly or when you have built a connection and trust over time, so that a space remains open between you and another person even if you haven’t seen them in a year. What I am wondering is how we do that with more intention and consciousness and how we develop vocabularies for talking about it together, so that the creation of spaces of possibility can be a collective enterprise, rather than something that we are passive about. What if the atmosphere, the climate, wasn’t just something which happened to us.

This requires a rigorous attention to the movement of power and the dynamic between us and the world. I think it also entails being present and honest with what one feels and what others may be feeling as well, witnessing the interplay of energies around us and being intentional and willfully curatorial about how we (re)shape that energy. What does it look like to practice justice in our everyday relationships, to respond or be responsible to what Life calls forth from us?

So, let me return to this idea of “the creation of an atmosphere.” We know parts of how to do this with a physical space. I light some candles. One turns on some slow, soulful music to initiate a particular vibe. Maybe the smell of good food cooking transports one to a space of comfort, relaxation and familiarity. I have never thought about writing in this way. This calls me to a deeper awareness of my relationship to the reader/the audience. And it is profound to center the idea that I have an ethical and political obligation to that community of the audience. That we are exchanging energy. How powerful that my words might curate an atmosphere. I am intrigued by this power.

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Taza Open Mic” by Bragg’s Untrained Eye is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

This past weekend, I read some of my writing at an open mic. This is something I have never done before. I have written pieces to read at rallies, conferences, or in an academic senate meeting. But there was something thrilling and jarring about staring at that jet black stage, a large bright bulb spotlighting a tall black chair. It looked like a space where some legitimate writer would stand and I knew I needed to stand there too and open myself up to engage an audience. To find an audience for one’s words, to enter into that connection is a powerful thing. I was terrified and also drawn seemingly without choice to engage. I felt like a character in a Spike Lee movie, the way they sometimes float above the pavement, little indication that their legs are expending an effort. I have always loved speaking words aloud to people, whether my own writing or another author’s. There is something about hearing words aloud that changes how we engage with them. The cadence and rhythm of our language takes on a new power.

And to read one’s own words aloud means to take seriously their power, one’s own power in the world. I suppose this weekend, reading my work, watching people laugh and cry along with my words, moved me forward in a process. We are in a time when women of color are stepping into our power in whole new ways. There is suddenly a bit more space for our possibility. It is thrilling and jarring all at the same time.

What I am Creating, without shoulds

During the night, I came upon a website of horoscopes that included affirmations for this week for each sign. None of the many affirmations included really spoke to me, except for the first one. It reads:

“I take a moment to consider what it is I am creating. What it is I want to be making. What it is that gets in the way when I try to do so.”

This affirmation reminds me to take a moment and be conscious of my capacity to manifest the life I seek right in the here and now. It reminds me of the title of John Perkin’s book, The World Is As You Dream It. Now I think this is on to something. But the world is also how WE dream it. Sometimes it feels like I am living in the dreams that others have of me. But this affirmation is useful to me because it reminds me of the power of my own dreaming in the face of those other dreams (or rather nightmares). I can take a moment and try to step out of the projections placed on me, remembering that I have a power and purpose not dictated by them, by other people’s ideas of what I should be, or what I should do. So many shoulds in this life.

Shoulds are part of what “gets in the way” of the life I am trying to create. On Sundays I have occasionally taken up going to a garden yoga class. A brilliant and deeply centered woman named Kristen has begun teaching yoga in a kind of show garden for a farm that sells plants. As we are all planted on the dew filled grass, birds chirp and sail by. The sun always seems to emerge brighter at the end. I can’t help but close my eyes. Anyway, Kristen, the teacher, in this magical exercise is filled with startling wisdom. She always seems to tune into what the group needs. Last week, we focused on slowing down (she clearly has her hand on the pulse of the universe!). But one day a month or so back, she said something about how there were no shoulds here in the class. If we don’t like a position, we can change it. If we want to take a walk, go for it. There are no shoulds there. She said this about all the shoulds in relation to our bodies. We don’t need to sit in judgement of our bodies. Our bodies are. No shoulds. It was startling. I realized I have so many shoulds in my life, in my mind. I should do that. I should have seen that coming. I should have said something. I should have been silent. I should be…. I should be… 

All these shoulds are a refusal to deal with what is and we can’t move to a new place until we deal with what is. This critique of the many shoulds in my life has stuck with me since that yoga class. Let’s stop ourselves when we hear ourselves saying what we should do or feel or think. Let’s take a step back when others tell us what we should be. Instead, I want to notice what is. My to-do list and my email have all manner of shoulds in them. But what is is often that I need to eat or pump milk so my baby can eat or write or just read a new book that has come out in my field (maybe it will transform the way that I teach or maybe it will simply keep my mind sharp).

To return to the affirmation I began with. Let’s try and stop and be conscious of what we are manifesting, but also be super clear about where we are. To consider what we want to be creating without any shoulds.

 

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Photo credit: Sole Treadmill via Foter.com / CC BY

On the need for grounding

For a while now, the universe has felt like it is spinning faster and faster. Does anyone else feel that? Major storms, violent outbursts, everyone lashing out.

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Photo credit: jaci XIII via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

It feels like we are on a merry-go-round, spinning very fast. We are holding on desperately, but it just keeps spinning faster and faster. We are hit with a hurricane, then a decision about DACA that will tear our connections apart, then another hurricane. White men keep talking over me and at me, emails are piling up and my body has succumbed to daycare germs. I keep thinking about people being rounded up and all the ways that connections have been torn apart that way in the last few centuries. Connections between people, place, bones and their cartilage, mothers and their babies.

These forces make me want control, to make sure everyone will be okay, to run, to keep pushing harder for fear that we may not survive as a species. But I think that more than anything right now, we need to slow down. It goes against everything I’ve learned about how survival happens. But I think we have to focus on grounding our energy in the earth and asking: what exactly are we holding onto? What is the nature of our holding on?

While the spinning energy of our society easily leads us to want to hold tighter, to exercise the most supreme control we can muster, I want to suggest that maybe this is precisely the moment to surrender, to let go of our attachment to outcome and our desire to know, our will to control. Maybe this is the time to remember that Life is the teacher. I am not above this extremely chaotic energy. I am in it as well, my friends. It feels like our societal patterns are spinning out. And it makes me fear for my kid’s life and nothing makes me want control more than the desire to protect my baby.

The chaotic energy of our society right now seems to me like the obvious outcome of the patterns themselves: greed, sacrificing our connections to the earth and each other for short term gain, cannibalizing our own children for war on all the boggeymen we can think up. Our patterns are coming to fruition. We can talk about this as the afterlives of slavery (Hartmann) or racial capitalism or furniture without memories. We have to pay attention to all those dimensions.

In Keeping Good Time, Avery Gordon writes about an exercise that she does in her classroom where students list out all the reasons that dreams die in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Gordon writes,

“It was a long list ranging from explicit externally imposed and internalized white supremacist standards of beauty and ugliness, the nature of white man’s work, and the dialectics of violence and hatred, to disappointment, to folding up inside, to the fear of being put outdoors, to the weather, to deformed feet and lost teeth, to nobody pays attention, to it’s too late, to total damage, to furniture without memories, to the unyielding soil, and to what she sometimes just calls the thing, the sedimented conditions that constitute what’s in place in the first place. These turn out to be not a random or simply surreal list, but a way of conceptualizing the complicated workings of those social structures we call race, class, gender. Such a conception requires that we constantly move within and between deformed feet and lost teeth and words with capital letters like Slavery or Capitalism. We must move analytically within and between them because that is the nature of their movement” (author’s emphasis, page 100).

Paying attention to the subtleties here might seem self-indulgent. A version of me is yelling “people are dying.” But maybe the intricacies of this chaos are what we must move through. The process we are in is not one that will be survived by increasing our busyness, by speeding up. We can’t conquer what we are experiencing. We have to move through the energy. We have to break patterns by slowing down, being more thoughtful while also acting in a centered way. What if we honored the exact place where we are right now as a society, on the brink? What if we honored our fear, looked at it squarely with compassion and calmly say “I see you there fear. I see the process through which you’ve arrived here and this is how I am going to choose to be in this moment.” Life will be the teacher and we will learn its lessons by moving through this world right where we are. Let’s notice what is coming up for us, how it feels in our bodies, what thoughts and images it brings to our minds. And then let’s work that energy. Move it around, dance it, breathe through it without judgement, knowing that we are exactly where we are supposed to be as a species and that the great changes we are undergoing are sacred. Because as Octavia Butler teaches us in Parable of the Sower– God is change.

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Change can be something that happens TO us, or it can be a sacred force that we co-create with. Either way, it appears that change is upon us and our fear won’t protect us. Maybe by surrendering to who we could become, by letting go of the controlling narratives and patterns, maybe we will be surprised to find ourselves somewhere more beautiful than we could have imagined. Life is often like that I think. Sometimes, pain and struggle can bring us to a new place that is more amazing than we could have dreamed up for ourselves. Let’s slow down, surrender and be gentle with ourselves, each other and all the shit that is spinning. We are giving birth to a new world right now and she isn’t waiting for us to think we are ready.

By Renée M Byrd

Justice for Josiah

We gather here to fight for justice for Josiah.

I want to say a little bit about this thing we call Justice.

Justice is what we seek.

But first a bit about where we are at.

Black lives are cut short all over this country. Black and Brown folks are assaulted by the police physically and verbally and millions of our people are in the State’s cages at this very moment. Anti-black racism is at the foundation of our institutions, our language for thinking through the world and it is at the root of our criminal injustice system. The crux of prison activist scholar, Ruthie Gilmore’s, definition of racism is “ state-sanctioned vulnerability to premature death”… “ state-sanctioned vulnerability to premature death”and black folks around this country are leaving us too soon. Folks are dying prematurely because the healthcare system is indifferent to our pain. Folks are dying prematurely because they are left to die in prison cells, and folks are dying prematurely because ordinary people see black bodies as a threat to be eliminated. We must not forget that the State has a hand in black death.

The gifts that our people bring into this world are being stolen from us. Our children, our brothers, and our sisters are dying in the street and there is so much indifference to that by those that are comfortable. Coming together today is about combatting that indifference. Too often black death is just expected. As Audre Lorde said, “Some of us were not meant to survive.” But we survive for Josiah and the countless over people from our communities who were taken too soon. Our determination to build a better world is a continuation of their lives. Through us and our commitment to justice, Josiah’s spirit lives on.

So what is this elusive thing we are calling Justice? I want to suggest to you today, that the State may not be the primary source of justice. While the investigation continues, I want us to stop in this pain and grief and ask ourselves what justice is in this life. What in our history in this country would suggest that the State will offer anything approximating justice? From police participation in Jim Crow lynchings, to Stand Your Ground Laws that make black death legitimate, to the folks being tortured just north of here in Pelican Bay, the State has never offered us justice. And we should not be mistaken and think that the university is not also this same State that treats our people as disposable.

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Photo credit: bobaliciouslondon via Foter.com / CC BY

Wanting the State to respond is the most human thing in the world right now because that is the acceptable way to seek justice… that is the justice the system offers us. But what if we consider for a moment that seeking recognition from the State isn’t in our interests? What if we demand another kind of justice not predicated on the State’s violence? If anti-blackness is what makes it thinkable to lock up millions of people in cages in this country, what happens when we rely on that very same logic when we seek justice? Maybe justice for Josiah lies elsewhere. Maybe we give Josiah’s power to the State when we think they can account for his death. We must do the accounting for our loved ones ourselves.

Perhaps there is another place to seek justice and it is right here with you and I, coming together in a different way. Our mothers and grandmothers have built justice for generations in spite of the state. What might it look like to fight violence in our communities without relying on the police and their prison cages?

Folks around the country are starting to think about justice outside of the state, a transformative justice. They are theorizing with the People, rather than on the people. We can do this too. We have to address how systemic oppression diminishes our ability to be hopeful and to have agency in our own lives. We also have to address how we can find healing and find new ways of living together. Housing scarcity, food insecurity, daily assaults on our sense of ourselves as human beings, stress, failing educational institutions and violence diminish our ability to bring our gifts to the world. Too often state policies, including those of the university create more violence, more stress and more trauma. What if justice isn’t an individual thing here, but something more collective? What if justice is about the radical act of healing ourselves and each other? Maybe justice isn’t the state recognizing our pain, but our recognition of each other and actually doing the work to make our communities more whole while changing the conditions that lead to Josiah’s death.

What if when we experience trauma and insecurity, we turn toward one another, instead of turning to this state that is so very violent? Together we can build the capacities necessary to take care of each other, to build teams for support during crisis, we can make space for the critical education that we need to survive in this world, we can build economic justice and healing justice where we are able to bring our full selves into the world and create lives of beauty, nourishment and freedom. Let’s build a new kind of justice for Josiah… a transformative, and healing justice that he may continue to be a proud leader for his community.

Walkout Flyer
* Comments from the HSU walkout May 9, 2017

 

Anti-intellectualism, Quiet and the Challenge of Our Times

I get to stay at home for the most part today. Only a brief meeting with a journalist at a local coffee shop. Working from home is such a breath of fresh air. I am committing to doing this more during the next academic year. Even when I drive baby to daycare, I will come home and work. There is nothing better than sitting down to write with a cup of steaming, cream-dotted coffee, punctuated by brief bits of house cleaning. Those cleaning breaks are nice places to ruminate on a topic and generate new sentences and new ideas. I am falling in love with intellectual work all over again. I am remembering the feeling of savoring an idea, a turn of phrase, like I did as a young woman at Mills College.

It is so very delicious. Delicious… Yes that is the word. Critical thinking is like biting into a juicy piece of fruit. But it is also lonely in some ways now because I am often surrounded by people locally and in the wider society that have forgotten this, if they ever knew it. I can’t imagine. I try to remember that there are people all over the world biting into thinking. I have to keep them in view- the whip smart women of color on twitter, the black academics getting books published, the queer thinkers writing poems. And i have to believe that along with these more visible manifestations of intellectualism, there are countless people out there doing this work invisibly- writing songs about changing the world on napkins, making up new concepts to describe their experience. There are people imprisoned in cages all over this land who are making art out of the base materials around them. There are women singing new songs as they clean office buildings. Children are dancing along dirt roads on their way to work.

Anti-intellectualism is a commitment to not thinking. Avery Gordon writes:

… anti-intellectualism has almost always been a form of conservatism, with a particularly long and honored tradition in the United States… There are many dimensions to anti-intellectualism and the dismissal of theory is one of them. And like many forms of anti-intellectualism, the dismissal of theory is often underwritten by a genuinely populist mistrust of elites, of the rule of elite knowledge, and of the often disembodied and inaccessible nature of intellectual work and theory in particular. In my view, there is certainly good evidence and a long historical warrant to question and challenge elite knowledge, its institutional authority, and its social and human consequences. However, populism becomes complicit with elitism itself when it cedes the very activity of theorizing, by abandoning it, to those very same elites. To replace elite with popular knowledge, and to replace the social order we have now with a better, more just one, we certainly need a richer, more precise and complex understanding of power and people. Giving over that task to those to whom it cannot be trusted is foolish and tragic.

 

Anti-intellectualism allows us to move through our lives without questioning the given. So often people (particularly liberal folks) make anti-intellectualism into a virtue. As if sacrificing one’s intellectual work for others or working one’s self to scatteredness and sickness is loving. I cannot imagine that this is what my child needs from me. Maybe refusing to think would be okay if the given weren’t tyranny, if the given weren’t black death on a mass scale and children crushed by poverty. It is simply not enough to live one’s life refusing to make a ripple by thinking differently. So many of us just want to have good intentions and let the rest ride it out. It is as if we believe that just being nice, most of the time, is enough. But we have to rise to the challenge of our times. That requires asking what that challenge is over and over again. That requires thinking. It takes a commitment to remaining unsure, growing uncomfortable enough to sit in the discomfort of asking ‘is this the thing to do right now?’ ‘is this the loving thing to say in this moment?’ ‘am i living a reflection of the world i’d rather live in today?’ We can’t just consume our lives like a quarter pounder with cheese meal, hoping that if we are really docile or if we work at a frenzied enough pace that we will be given a free caramel frappe.

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Photo credit: Foter.com

And meeting the challenge of our times must also mean demanding the luxury to sit and think sometimes. Yes action is most certainly needed. But we also need to learn to sit with the messiness of our current predicament, never turning away and be in the stillness that loving each other requires. Maybe social justice isn’t always running around to the beat of neoliberal time fighting the machine, maybe justice (a concept which almost always makes a potentially dubious promise in my view) is sitting quietly. In Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, he makes the case that only seeing blackness through a social public lens, or, in other words, for its social and political meaningfulness, through resistance (and thus always engaged with white supremacy) is racist. Our blackness also gets to have an interior that is not about white folks. Our blackness gets to be still sometimes. It gets to be introverted and nerdy and vulnerable. The challenge of our times requires resistance yes (although along with Quashie I think that term is too vague and imprecise), but it also requires a transformation of the pace of our living. It requires stillness and reflection. In the words of Kevin Quashie, “resistance, yes, but other capacities too. Like quiet.”

By Renée M. Byrd

 

Gordon, Avery. 2004. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder: Paradigm Publishing

Quashie, Kevin Everod. 2012. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

He is safely here at my table

This weekend, a young black man who was one of our students was killed at a party. A 23 year old white man stabbed him and students are saying that the EMTs and police did not respond promptly. That they had their tasers out and were more concerned with crowd control than helping this young man. He was a CJS major but I didn’t know him. I say that to myself over and over again. I didn’t know him. Photos of him are haunting me despite this. There is so much hope and enthusiasm in them. He has the look of someone who feels strong in his body, like it can move with speed and carry him where he wants to go along with his mind. His smile makes me think he had a clear mind. I think about how young people’s brains can be so fresh, still capable of adapting and changing to analyze new things and take on new perspectives easily. How one can grow so much in even a semester. Who would he have grown into if he had four years of contemplation, new books and new friends? What ideas would he have had? What words would he have found inspiration in if he were in my classroom, at my dinner table, reading this post. What questions would he have asked me that would have pushed back on my thinking, forcing me to rearticulate and thus, rethink my Self?

There is a scramble at the university to support students and host meetings and get things done. I just want to stay at home under the covers. There is a small, artificial glimmer of safety and warm comfort in my home holding my baby. She doesn’t go out in the world yet, except for brief excursions, meticulously supervised and watched over by myself. I still have some measure of control, or seeming control over her safety. It seems that way I guess because I never leave her side, but this too is imagined. It helps me not lose my mind as I try to incorporate this vast and startling love that I’ve found in her. Josiah, the bright, smile-shining faced student who is murdered, had a mother. Her name is Charmaine and she is coming here. The unimaginable terror for her, the way the moments must tick by, while the clock is also stopped in a profound way for her. I keep trying to stop myself from thinking about her. I don’t want to make sense of the senselessness.

As a new mother, I cannot breathe when I think about this pain that can’t have any words. Language is central to who I am as a scholar and yet, this seems beyond language. Writing about it now seems like some solitary, selfish and desperate attempt to feel in control, keep my composure. I don’t want to cry in front of my colleagues. I project onto them accusations that I am silly or incompetent. The residues of too much time in predominately white institutions. Intrusive thoughts that police us.

Maybe this is pain and terror that can only be painted or performed. I see images of black paint smeared on a white canvas. The canvas that resists this difference, this trespassing in its pure space. For POC on the HSU campus, we are that paint, appearing to sully the comfort and vulnerability of white folks, trespassing, claiming a space where there is no space for us, where we are an impossibility. HSU is a place where people of color are continually assaulted with questions about our belonging. No one can ever believe we are legitimate. That we have thoughts in our heads. I am so often Professor Byrd’s TA or her student. Sometimes people have assumed I am entering someone else’s office. I like to imagine that I am having a wild affair with Dr. Byrd, the imaginary scholar who legitimately occupies this office space. Her and I steal away and finger the words of all the latest monographs, rolling them over in our mouths. They are sweet, our secret pleasure. How problematic that this is the only way I can imagine legitimately inhabiting this space, as someone’s illicit lover. Once at a grocery store a white man said that I must be some drug dealers girlfriend. Inhabiting my body, buying $100 worth of food at the co-op was upsetting for him I guess. I couldn’t be a professor, collecting her groceries at 1pm on a Tuesday. I must be having a wild affair with one of these drug dealers up here. Otherwise, I’d be at my 9-5 labor exploitation, or maybe even that would be having too much.

I wonder if Josiah felt that way at HSU. Like a trespasser, a thief, which is precisely what those white folks accused him of. The accusation that people say started this all, that he stole their cell phone. The claims that rendered him murderable.  Did locals look at him, another “thug from southern california” trespassing in the purity of their back-to-the-land dream. I imagine they were so sure they knew his guilt. I like to imagine that he is here in this house with me. I am going to keep him here for a little while, safe with me and my baby. I invite him in and he sits with me at this table. He wants to read one of our books and feel the way the words move in his mouth, how the pages feel in one’s hands as a new idea occurs to us. He is safely here at my table, laughing, tears streaming down his beautiful brown face.

RIP Young Brother.

May our tears help you to cross over to the ancestors’ arms.

Lawson
By Renée M. Byrd 

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Sustainable Futures Lecture: Punishment’s Twin…

You can now view my May 3rd lecture for HSU’s Sustainable Futures Speaker Series, titled: ‘Punishment’s Twin’: Carceral Logics, Abolitionist Critique and the Limits of Reform.

“The moment when an oppressive system begins to articulate its own failure and need for reform is precisely the moment that critical intellectuals must remain keen to how the logics of domination are reproduced and repackaged.”

‘Lifting as We Climb’: Black Wellness in the Context of Black Political Struggle

Welcome to the opening of the 2016 Black Liberation Month. I’ve been thinking a lot about black wellness in the context of black political struggle. Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”[i] Let’s read that again.

"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

This month is about our history, about the ancestors who dreamed us and the struggles that define the past and define our present. This month is also about our future. The past and the future are not separate. As James Baldwin wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”[ii] What does Baldwin mean that we carry it within us? What might it mean to carry the legacy of the ancestors with pride and dignity? I like the idea that my ancestors are alive and kicking in me; that the strength and grit that saw them through is within me; that in standing on their bones, I can see that I am not alone, but that I am a part of a great dream that they had.

"I like the idea that my ancestors are alive and kicking in me; that the strength and grit that saw them through is within me; that in standing on their bones, I can see that I am not alone, but that I am a part of a great dream that they had."

The strength of black folks is our diversity. It is white supremacy that would have us believe that we are all the same. Some of you want to look to our history this month and celebrate that legacy. We are preceded by great people who built lives of beauty and integrity in the face of cruelty and oppression. But we are more than our history.  Our ancestors exceeded always the single story that the oppressor had of them. Some of you are more interested in looking toward the future, thinking about how we build our visions and dreams. But as Avery Gordon writes, “We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.”[iii] It is the weave and weft of the past and the future that generates the blanket with which we wrap ourselves in the pursuit of our collective wellness. We need to hold both of these. It is in combining our great legacy and our profound visions of tomorrow that we find our strength.

So, what does black wellness look like? Well I know what it isn’t. It isn’t schools that criminalize our young folks with police patrolling the halls. It isn’t in the toxins and other environmental hazards, which are disproportionately dumped in our neighborhoods. It isn’t the discrimination in the health care system, where doctors routinely prescribe inadequate pain medication to dying black patients because of some image of us as drug users. And it surely isn’t in the NYPD officer choking Eric Garner as he clearly says “I can’t breathe.” Right now, we live in a society that treats black lives as if they are disposable. We have over 2 million people in prison cages in this country, disproportionately black folks. Our society has failed to grapple with the persistent connections between this great confinement in prisons and the logics of enslavement that founded this country and enabled the wealth accumulation to make us a world power. We are living in a society where being named Jamal or Lakisha makes one less likely to get a job interview, than if your name is Emily or Greg.[iv]

What does black wellness look like? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this over the past year.

A world defined by black wellness would include an empowering educational environment where teachers can see the potential of their black students, quality housing in our communities, meaningful jobs that contribute to the collective, access to healthcare, the knowledge that one is accounted for- that society will notice when our daughters go missing, or our sons don’t come home at night. A world defined by black wellness would be one where our beauty and intelligence, creativity and spirit are valued for the rich resources that they are. So, let’s declare 2016 the year of black wellness, of black healing. This means looking around ourselves with fresh eyes. Seeing the beauty in the faces of the young black men around us, seeing the wisdom in the young black women here. Inviting in the deep knowing of our grandmothers and the laughter of our grandfathers. That doesn’t mean retreating from the hard realities that we face, it means renewing our commitment to black liberation, but knowing that the battle is long and we need beauty, art, creativity, good food, dancing, our spirituality, our love. It can seem really really difficult to imagine our own wellness in times like these. Ultimately we must listen to the wisdom of Sister Lorde’s words, that self-care is a central component of our liberation. When we work ourselves to sickness, when we don’t get enough sleep, when we stop laughing, when we fail to nourish our bodies with good food, we are working against our own liberation. The seeds of black wellness are already within us, we already know what it is, our bodies remember. Over the next 11 months, lets surround ourselves with images of black wellness, whether that is a picture of an old woman gardening in Arkansas’ red clay soil or a video on youtube of a black child breakdancing.

 

I titled this talk “Lifting as we climb,” for two reasons. One reason was to honor the black women who organized a club movement in 1896 that led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in Washington, D.C.[v] The organization’s founders included some of the most renowned African-American women educators, community leaders, and civil-rights activists, including: Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. ‘Lifting as we climb’ was their motto. The other reason that I chose to gesture toward ‘lifting as we climb’ is because of that ‘we’ in the phrase, — ‘ Lifting as WE climb”. Black wellness is not an individual goal; it is a collective goal. It is something accomplished in solidarity, in communion. It is not just about changing our individual mindsets, but the entire compass of American society’s inability to see that ‘ Blacks Lives Matter’/ that black lives are lives of intellect and feeling, meaning and dignity. We are bound together by a history of struggle, but also by a vision of our own wellness and that is a beautiful thing. I can’t find the healing that I need, I can’t live my purpose here, if you do not find yours. It is in the greatness of each of your soul’s purposes that I can come to know the beauty of mine. So, as we reach toward a greater place of wellness and healing, let’s lift each other up as well. Let’s see our own beauty in one another’s faces, our own joy in one another’s laughter, our own brilliance in one another’s ideas. By learning to really see each other, we can build a world defined by black wellness.

 

[i] Lorde, Audre. 1988. A Burst of Light : Essays. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books.

[ii] Baldwin, James. 1985. The Price of the Ticket : Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek.

[iii] Gordon, Avery. 2004. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder: Paradigm Publishing.

[iv] Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainthan. (2007). “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?: A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” In Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins (eds.) Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology. 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

[v] Jones, Beverly W. “Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896 to 1901.” The Journal of Negro History 67.1 (1982): 20-33.

 

band-aid approaches

During the last ten years, a critique of mass imprisonment has become significantly more mainstream in the United States. 2015 witnessed a U.S. President visiting a federal prison, new legislation to reduce drug sentences and more widespread media coverage of the racial disparities of the criminal justice system. For many commentators, these developments signal a profound shift in our longstanding punitive orientation toward crime. However, the shifting discourses surrounding crime and punishment contemporarily signal a moment of danger as well as opportunity. It is vital that we move beyond band-aid approaches to mass imprisonment and that we unpack the constitutive imaginings that rendered mass imprisonment a legible project from the outset. Seemingly progressive trends such as prop 47 or prisoner reentry initiatives will simply bolster racialized state violence in the absence of a critique of the logics at the heart of this system.

 

Photo credit: Sean Munson via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Sean Munson via Foter.com / CC BY-SA