Stay Woke

Stay WokeThese days I find myself having difficult conversations. Regularly. With my students. With my friends. With my boyfriend. And with my family members. Though disguised in many different forms—religion and spirituality, politics, ethics and morals—we’re all wrestling with the same question: What will you do when our society falls apart? Which values do you believe at your soul’s core? What will your move be when you’re the next targeted group?  Will you fight, flee, or as my mom cautions with every ounce of love and fear inside of her, will you march to the internment camps in stunning disbelief?

2016 almost took my whole heart. What began as a year full of promise and unabashed Black excellence (cue Beyoncé’s Super bowl performance, Harriet Tubman selected as the face of the $20 bill, Nate Parker’s pre-scandal ascendance, Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards, among other highlights), ended with more police brutality cases than I can remember, the deaths of Black cultural titans, and the rise of a distinctly fascist American president. But just when we all thought it was safe to breathe, reinvent ourselves for the next 365-day stretch, let go of the hurt, and move the hell on, 2017 came in with the left hook. 2017 came to remind us that hatred is timeless and knows no limits. 2017 came to show us the lining of America’s uniquely and unforgivably racist underbelly. It brought people into the streets who had never previously felt targeted or ostracized by government policy. There were pink hats. There were clever signs. There were detainments. Families with immigrant origins have been ripped apart in the name of American safety. The state has made its arrests, sprayed pepper in eyes demanding justice. Bodies have blocked traffic on highways and in the streets. Millions have already been divested from faceless corporations who don’t care about sacred memories or know the basic tenet that water is life.

Despite having grown up in a family that revered Black history domestically and internationally, we find ourselves having conversations that we never thought would leave the realm of the theoretical. We are arranging our family’s emigration. We have purchased emergency preparedness kits. We are purchasing guns and learning how to use them. I remember learning about slavery as a child and telling myself and my friends with the utmost confidence that if I had been alive during slavery, I would have run to freedom, whatever the cost. But as I watch civil liberties get stripped away from citizens by the day, as legal immigrants are turned from American borders, as pipeline construction forges on, I am humbled by the complexities of personal, familial, and legal freedoms. Resistance, survival, and freedom are far more convoluted concepts and realities than I could have ever imagined and my investment in them is shockingly nebulous.

While I do my best to prepare for the worst, I am also faced with a heavy sadness. I worry for the people who are unafraid of the turn society is taking, and who, like the abiding Jews during the Holocaust, or like the Japanese Americans who were ushered into their own incarceration, didn’t think things could ever get so bad as to threaten their own families, lives, and futures. I am troubled by the amount of people who don’t have enough sense to be afraid, if only partially. I think of those people often–some of my own relatives, my students, coworkers–and I keep them in my prayers. Everyone has the right to bliss, whether ignorant or woke.

But if you are like me, and have been reading the news, have sat in classes where you studied reigns of terror, have read your share of dystopian novels, or know the personal and generational impact of trauma induced by the banal policies of an unquestionable authoritarianism, I want you to ready yourselves. For a state of living that you never allowed yourself to conjure in your worst nightmares. I want you to think about living under curfews, showing IDs to move about your city or town. I want you to close your eyes and feel the internal repression of pledging allegiance to a leader that you can never publicly speak against or question. I want you to imagine the burn of pepper in your eyes and the particular bounce of the rubber bullets against your skin when you dare to speak out. And I want you to listen to the deafening silence of the masses who will passively accept the new order. We are in dark times, friends, and Big Brother is keeping his promises.

It is with all this that I encourage you to take seriously all you hold dear. Make the preparations that are suitable to your life and values. And stay ready, so you won’t have to get ready. Because then it will be too late.

And of course, always hope for the best.

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The 5 Blackest Moments of 2016

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Graphic courtesy of onyxtruth.

2016 is shaping up to be the Blackest year of all my living days. In 16 weeks, we have already experienced several peak Black moments that have permanently embedded themselves into our collective memory. I have to admit that only one Black moment can compare to the first four months of the new year, and that is President Obama’s election to the President of the United States. I remember taking bets with my friends in the third grade about when we would see a Black president and I was confident that it would never happen. Imagine my shock, awe, and joy when I cried ugly tears because the impossible happened in 2008. Yet, I still resolved that I would never again experience Black excellence of that magnitude.

And then 2016 came with a vengeance and got me together, real quick. The nation and world experienced unapologetic Blackness in all its splendor, magnificence, and sheer power.  The internet broke a few times, thought pieces by writers of all races ensued, and things got lit. 2016 has me on the edge of my seat, anxiously awaiting what’s coming next every single day and I am here for it. So, in no particular order, here are my top five Blackest pop culture moments of 2016.

January 27, 2016
Super Bowl-bound Cam Newton affirms his Blackness to the press.
First things first, Cam Newton is fine. Like maybe top 5 finest Black male athletes of all time fine. Like Paul Robeson classically delectable. And he celebrates his accomplishments while playing the game he loves and is paid handsomely (see what I did there?) for. And he’s a stellar quarterback, which hurts to admit, because I’m still salty that he knocked my Seahawks out of the playoffs. But I digress. Point is, for most Americans, the combination of a Black quarterback killing the game and flexin’ while doing it is egregiously uncomfortable. Add to it that he plays a position that was previously deemed intellectually impossible for Black men and you can see he’s been one of football’s most hated players. Americans were so racially uncomfortable that Cam had to remind them who he was after experiencing a racist backlash colder than February. When
Cam declared that his existence as a Black quarterback scares people because they’ve never seen anyone like him, he was bold and devoid of shame. And in that moment, Black folks gave him an inner dab.

February 6-7, 2016
Beyoncé gets us in Formation.
First, Bey dropped the video on us without notice or concern for our heart conditions. A video wherein she declared she likes all things Black like our noses, our hair, our favorite condiment for Southern-fried catfish, and our Southern heritages, both Creole and Negro (although I’m pretty sure you’re still Negro if you’re Creole). Oh yeah, she also managed to show a line of SWAT officers raise their hands in surrender to a hooded Black boy, and submerge herself on top of a police car in a post-Katrina pool of water. Then, one day later, she went on to own the Super Bowl halftime show (why was Coldplay even there?) by singing the same song she just dropped the day before, all while she and her dancers sported their own hair (okay, maybe Bey didn’t, but that’s okay) and Black Panther themed gear on the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And just to ratchet it up, Bey’s outfit also paid tribute to the King of Pop (who coincidentally didn’t like his Jackson 5 nostrils), because hey, MJ is as much a part of Black history as the southern marching band she rolled in with. Lastly, if we weren’t already baffled and drunk enough off her Blackness, she shut down the internet by announcing a
Formation tour. February was the best Black History Month of my entire life.

April 20, 2016
Harriet Tubman is chosen as the face of the new $20.
In the irony of all ironies, leader of the Underground Railroad and women’s suffragist Harriet Tubman is selected by the U.S. Treasury Department as Andrew Jackson’s replacement on the $20. I have to admit, I was in the camp of people who didn’t understand why a women who devoted her entire life to rescuing Black people from the capitalist system of their oppression—slavery—would be on our currency. It kind of felt like the misrepresentation that was the debacle of
Zoe Zaldana portraying Nina Simone. But then Black Twitter came along and showed me that this was an opportunity for all Americans to use Harriet as a commercial vessel to reckon with ideas of freedom; even White supremacists will have to submit themselves to a Black woman on a daily basis. And that is priceless.

April 21, 2016
Prince gives us life after death.
Though the life and music of Prince never touched me through my bones like it did those in my mother’s generation, I still grew up listening to his songs. I remember playing “1999” at midnight in 1999 and it blowing my fourteen year-old mind. I remember dancing in my room to “Kiss,” and wishing that one day I would be “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” to someone. I was never in love with Prince the way older Black women (and probably some men) were, but I respected the petite super-musician/songwriter’s ability to capture such androgynous sex appeal. He had swag before we could name it. I put Prince in my personal category of superstar icons that could never die, but yet somehow left this world (R.I.P. Michael and Whitney). Part of me is still in denial that he is really dead. But in his death, I am reminded of the micro and macro details that made him an icon—his silky smooth tresses, his custom-made heels, his ridiculously long list of songs, albums, features, and Grammys, his humanitarian commitment to Black lives. And yes, his epic shade that knew no limits.  Prince will forever rest in our hearts and Tidal accounts.

April 23, 2016
King Bey lets us drink her Lemonade.
In her own tradition, ‘Yonce releases another visual album without notice. Unlike her previous visual album, Beyonce (2013), this time she gives us poetry interlaced with the bold and artistic music videos that conjure generational Diasporan experiences of womanhood, love, betrayal, justice, spiritual rebirth, and personal, intimate, and communal reconciliation. She gives us an hour-long journey into the never before seen rawness of Beyonce Giselle Knowles Carter, the self-proclaimed “baddest chick up in the game” who rarely comments on her personal life, let alone that elevator incident. She gives us the American South, West African fashions, rock and roll rage, womanist rituals underwater and on land, the true meaning of “Hot Sauce,” and many glimpses into her holy union of strife that has now given Jay-Z 100 problems to reckon with. Lemonade is hands down Beyonce’s most artistic venture yet, one that solidifies her status among the best entertainers, singers, and now artists of all time. It may still take us some time to process what’s she’s called us into formation for, but in two and a half months, Bey has given us plenty to think about in terms of Black liberation, personal or otherwise.

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Kudos Report: White Rapper Tells White People About Themselves

As anyone who has ever read this blog well knows, I am unapologetically proud of my hometown of Seattle. Which is why I want to take a brief moment to highlight an artist and song that came from a fellow Seattleite. About race. And privilege. And white supremacy. And not just any rapper. A White rapper, whom I recently found out I have literally one degree of separation from. The same one that for many people, put Seattle on the map. And the same one who epically failed to use his Grammy win to celebrate a Black artist we all know should have won, an artist on my personal list of top five rappers of all time, but who lost because he didn’t have the same White privilege and cultural capital as the rapper who won. This kudos report is personal. Let’s do this, Macklemore.

This piece is also personal because a huge part of what I do as a diversity & inclusion professional is help people of color navigate white supremacy and thrive in the workplace while their White colleagues benefit from a racial privilege that they themselves will never know. On the flip side, my professional objective exists because White people continually blunder in their articulations of race and their promotion of racial equity. Simply put: I have a job because White people still don’t “get it.”

Now, this professional paradox of promoting an illusory racial equity that is deeply rooted in racial exclusion is something I have to wrestle with. And knowing that on some level, a portion of diversity and inclusion exists to appease racially insecure White people is discouraging, to say the least. But that’s another article.

Here I want to highlight Macklemore as a White male who actually tried to to talk–TO FELLOW WHITE PEOPLE in various stages of their racial awareness–about being WHITE, living in a white supremacist society, and benefitting from White privilege. If I look back on January 2016 and the entire twelve months of 2015, I can count a solid two White people who used their celebrity to do just that: Macklemore and Bernie Sanders. Though this personal estimate is devastatingly disappointing, it’s sobering and illustrates the fact Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” is kind of a big deal. Plus, if we’re being super honest, although Bernie Sanders wins undisputed gangster points for that Killer Mike interview, Macklemore’s appeal is far more broad than Bernie’s. On  the heels of another #OscarsSoWhite debacle in the American entertainment industry, Macklemore’s 9-minute musical tour, “White Privilege II,” is timely.

I’m not going to deconstruct Macklemore’s presentation of race and racism. Plenty of other media platforms have taken on that task. Rather, I’d like to encourage the Diasporans in the room to  pause, focus on your breath, and do whatever activities you had planned to do today that have absolutely nothing with being Black. Relish in this rare moment of not bearing the responsibility of calling out/schooling/explaining/minimizing/getting exhausted/losing hope in humanity/throwing up your hands at White people’s refusal to engage the racial realities that we as Diasporans cannot opt out of. Macklemore  stepped up and effectively gave us 9 minutes of our lives back. I’m not saying he nailed it, or even that he didn’t, but I will declare that it felt good to see a White person try today. Two points to you, Mack. I can go get my laptop fixed now and get back to a manuscript that I haven’t looked at in months. Thank you.

Oh, and if you didn’t catch it, “White Privilege II” is a sequel, which means this song  –and several Macklemore interviews–are just one step along his journey in figuring out how to to be an ally in the fight for racially equity. That deserves extra kudos.

Not sure what to think of “White Privilege II?” Take a listen.

 

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Beasts of No Nation Nailed It, Diasporically Speaking

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Beast of No Nation, released on Netflix in October, 2015.

I watched Beasts of No Nation on Netflix (shout-out to Maurice for letting me on his account!) a couple of weeks ago.  And I seriously haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I was moved when I read Uzodinma Iweala’s best-selling novel of the same name when it came out back in 2005. The subject matter of civil war in Africa and the life of a child soldier was a lot for me to mentally get over at the time. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be another stereotypical depiction of Africa and Africans in disarray. But I was glad I gave it a chance. It rocked me. I actually felt like a more compassionate person after I read it.

Beasts was shot in Ghana last year, after Netflix bought the worldwide streaming and theatrical rights to the film for $12 million. Both rights are essential for the film’s Oscar run. There are already whispers that it could win.

If you’re like me and are typically late to music and films that can change your life, don’t worry. It’s not too late to watch Beasts before the award season. And in case you need a little motivation, here are my top four reasons why this is the best Diasporan film to come out in a while:

  1. Idris Elba. Because, who doesn’t love them some him? I usually don’t have crushes on popular celebrities, but I can’t deny that he’s delectable. And really talented. Without fail, the man can pull off the role of a Black American street pharmacist, abusive and power-hungry West African warlord, South African head of state Nelson Mandela, debonair American gangster who looks ridiculously suave in suits, and devoted single father to Black Southern American girls.  In Beasts of No Nation, I believed this man in all his wickedness. Well done, Idris.
  2. The rest of the cast. Don’t hate on me for putting Idris in his own category; he got it like that. That aside, the actors in the film — most of whom were total rookies– are absolutely incredible. The family scenes are palatable, and their portrayals of living in a war-torn region are heart-wrenchingly human. And my God! Somebody please give Ghana’s own Abraham Attah, the film’s 11-year old child soldier, every freaking acting award possible. I’m turned all the way up just thinking about how a relatively unknown child actor was able to pull off such a range of skill on topics dealing with death, loss, despair, and survival. He killed it every second he was on screen.
  3. The geographic and cultural landscape. The best Diasporan feature of the film is that the actual West African locations and cultures represented throughout it are deliberately left unknown. Genius! At times we’re hearing Twi (which makes sense being that the film was shot in Ghana), pidgin, and English, among others. Like the journey of the child soldiers themselves, the cultures and languages stay moving and keep us on our toes. I’m here for it.
  4. Uzodinma Iweala. He’s a Nigerian author and physician who wrote the 2005 novel, which was based on his thesis while at Harvard University. He’s won literary awards including the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award and was named one of Granta magazine’s 20 best young American novelists in 2007. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a doctor? AND physician?  And Harvard graduate?!!??! All I can say is that his fiancé is one lucky lady. Yeah, girl. He popped the question earlier this month. Let’s have a moment of silence for what could have been.

Please check out this movie. And let me know what you think!

 

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A Very Empire Halloween

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Maya as Cookie Lyon (sans wig), October 2015, La Habra, California.

This year’s Halloween was everything to me. For the first time in fifteen years, I was surrounded by fellow crazy folks who love to step out of their everyday identity for one night to embody someone—or something—else. I’m not just talking about the  hundreds of Los Angelenos who were in full effect on Hollywood Boulevard, I’m talking about my family. I have many fond memories of trick-or-treating with my older sister and parents, who, despite helping us assemble our costumes, probably low-key hated us for dragging them around our neighborhood in the cold. Halloween was never about the pillowcases (yes, pillowcases…boughetto fabulous!) full of candy that I never ate. It was about stepping outside of myself. I don’t know if my family ever connected to Halloween the same way I did, but it was always a special experience to share with them. So, this year, the first time since my freshman year of high school, it went down. And two key members of the fam (let’s be honest: coordinating everybody is just too much work) had a theme: Empire.

You’re probably going through a range of emotions right now. Zahida, how could you? That’s show’s trash. That show makes Black people look soon bad! I didn’t know you were one of those. And so on. And I gotta admit, I get it.  But. I’m not gonna wax lengthy about the complexities in Black culture and media representations of Blackness (or lightskinded-ness) that Empire embodies. There are plenty of other articles you can read about that. I’ll simply say that this: Empire’s grandiosity and dramatic flair are so good and simultaneously terrible (in a Sexual Chocolate kind of way) that I cannot turn away. Nor do I want to. I’m good with it. I celebrate it. It’s a sheer miracle that I was able to continue on with my life after Season 1 ended. Okay, maybe not, but you get my point: I love Empire like a fat kid loves cake. And I don’t care who knows. Not White people. Not even the Diaspora.

For some reason, we seldom talk about the intra-Diasporan gaze. But there is a certain Diasporan criticism (read: judgment) out there that’s arguably as lethal and seductive a trap as the White gaze and the politics of respectability. It argues that if you mimick Whiteness (read: downplay stereotypical Blackness) with enough finesse, you too can live out the fullness of the American dream. So live in the suburbs, opt for names like “Jessica” or “David” instead of “Aisha” (my sister’s name!) or “Jamal,” go to private school, get top grades, dress preppy, and most importantly, should you choose to surround yourself with other Black people, only associate with Black people who are just like you. If your family recently immigrated, identify yourself by their national identity (Nigerian, Jamaican, Bajan, etc.), and never refer to yourself as “Black” or “African American” lest people get confused and start treating you as such.

Before Empire first aired, I gave it the side – eye. Great, that’s just what we need: another show about out of control Black people in the hip hop industry. Flavor of Love and Ray J had shown me enough of that. But really, the Empire previews made me remember my own fear of the Diasporan gaze.  When I was in college, most of my Black classmates were immigrants or first-generation American. Whenever we watched a popular TV show or movie with a predominantly Black American cast, I was always deeply embarrassed by how pervasive the stereotypes of Black Americans were. The characters were materialistic, lazy, loud, and hyper-sexual. I was ashamed of what I saw, not because those things weren’t true about some Black Americans, but because it was an incomplete and narrow depiction. I was afraid that my classmates might believe those things about me. I wasn’t prepared to feel the disgust and insult I would feel when I found out I was their token Black American friend — an backhanded exception to a rule they ascribed to.

I knew that I couldn’t blame the media for internalized racism, but I desperately wished the Diaspora could rid itself of those incomplete truths, those dangerously single stories that we wield on each other, for just a moment. But you can’t wish away the media. And over time, I expanded my Black cultural supply and got better at reading and appreciating the nuances. So now, when I watch Empire, I can find beauty in the flaws, I can place its dramatic story-telling within a larger context of Black narrative, even if it is on the more wild end of the spectrum. I love that Hakeem Lyon and Theo Huxtable would never be friends, and that Cookie Lyon wouldn’t be caught dead shopping at the same stores as Aunt Viv.  This kind of character diversity tickles me.

The characters on Empire give us permission to be our fullest and truest selves in a way that’s unmatched. They are themselves — all of themselves — no matter what, all of the time.  And if being Black in America for 30 years has taught me anything, it’s that the act of being myself, in lieu of American racism that’s penetrated every fiber of society, is the most powerful act of defiance that I can wield. When I watch Empire, I simply watch, clap my hands, stomp my feet, clutch my pearls, and dance to Timbaland’s beats, because on a Wednesday night that’s just how I’m feeling. I don’t worry about what difference my tuning in will make on the ratings and the future of Black shows, or what anyone will think of me for watching. America is still racist to its core, but for one hour each week, I can go to my happy place and boldly be me. As Jamal reminds us in an episode that only a Black person would ever fathom titling, The Devil Quotes Scripture: “My obedience is no longer for sale.”

 

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Me as Lucious Lyon, October 2015, Universal City, California.

Some might think me and my family crazy to bring my 18-month old niece into our Halloween Empire shenanigans. And maybe we were slightly wrong for trying to put her in that wig (spoiler alert: she was having zero parts of it). But every family has its traditions, and every culture has its pop cultural markers.  It just so happens our little brown baby checked both boxes this Halloween. I can’t wait for next year’s theme.

 

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My Love Letter to Junot Diaz

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Me and Junot Diaz, Occidental College, September 22, 2015.

Last night was the best night of my life. And I say that having had some good times, all over the world, with strangers, and with those whom I share unbreakable bonds.  I’m still high from meeting Junot Diaz, the Dominicano, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times best-selling, uses words like “culo,” “motherfucker,” and “cocksucker,” Junot Diaz. The same one who, when I read This is How You Lose Her, made me examine why I accepted deceit veiled as love from a man, why I didn’t expect more out of my own quest for my heart to be understood and cherished, how we’re taught to view women as male means to ends, how one would write about love and loss so effortlessly, so naturally, and, among other things, why he spelled the vernacular use of the “n” word with an “er.” I was mesmerized and hooked and anxious to see where his narrative would take my mind and heart in the next book of his that I read, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And I gotta say, when I picked up the book, I was instantly hooked. Like, Game of Thrones and Empire kind of hooked. Afro-Latino Diaspora? Nerds who aspire to be novelists? Women who didn’t bend to social conventions?  He was speaking the language of my heart.  And he is one of the few authors who, by the book’s end, brought me to tears.  Yes, I’m sensitive sometimes.  I own every ounce of that.

I almost passed on my opportunity to meet Junot Diaz last night.  Even though my mom emailed me a few days prior that he would be speaking at Occidental College, just a 20- minute drive from where I live in downtown Los Angeles, I was feeling tired and didn’t want to throw off my workout plan.  Priorities.  But then,  my inner circle spoke some sense to me.  Inspiration is worth a minor inconvenience, they said.  And if it’s wack, I can always dip. Plus my mom was going, so the accountability (read: guilt) factor kicked in right on time.  I was going.  And for the first time, I brought his book with the intention of getting him to sign it. It might be the kind of night where the unimaginable happened.

That night, I experienced a miracle that I will likely fail to attempt to articulate here.  After waiting in a line that spanned what must have been at least three city blocks, me and 600+ other souls sat raptly on the edges of our seats, calling and responding like only the Diaspora can, when Junot insert-explicative Diaz read from This is How You Lose Her and Oscar Wao, then answered questions ranging from when he’ll write a children’s book, to his advice for writers, to how he responds to criticisms that his writing is misogynistic.  I listened to him shout out the Latinos, Domincanos, and people of African descent.  Listened to him talk about how art puts you in contact with your best self, how the hardest thing you’ll ever do, whether you’re a writer or not, is to deal with yourself, how we’re all complicit in racism and sexism, how he considers himself a lazy writer, how he exudes compassion when his older relatives criticize him for claiming blackness, because, after having survived a regime wherein Dominicans were hacked to death for their blackness, his grandma still associates the machete with being Black.  There was no place I would have wanted to be and I thanked the cosmos that entire time for conspiring to make my presence at his reading—just one week after I finished Oscar Wao—happen.  I was elated.  I was transfixed. I was in awe.

Words have always held a special power to me. Maybe that’s why I take them so seriously. This is what I get for being the daughter of a novelist/librarian.  Growing up, I was never into the things that would gain me popularity and social status like fashion or beauty, instead I read books. My mom always enrolled my older sister and me in summer reading clubs and by the time I discovered Toni Morrison, Gabriel Marquez, Laura Esquivel, and Herman Hesse as a pre-teen, and was in.  Deep.

At some point in my mid-twenties (read: professional career and tumultuous marriage), I realized that I had stopped reading and writing. Not in the literal sense, trust me, I was writing plenty of emails and occasional speeches for work events.  But I stopped reading and writing to feed my spirit.  Stopped writing to discover myself—the flaws hiding in the darkest crevasses, hidden to my public and private world, and my strength and resilience that had sometimes poured out of me so seamlessly it terrified me. If I’m staying honest here, I’ll have to admit that graduate school was the culprit, or rather, forcing myself into an intellectual and creative constraint that was too tight, too coarse, too much of a plan that my father or ex-husband approved, too suffocating for my voice echo off the walls of the universe. Funny how your spirit dies when you live for everyone but yourself.

If it weren’t for my mother’s unwavering belief in some of my untold stories—you know that kind of conviction only a mother can give, the kind that voices opinions ever so subtly because they know they have to introduce you to your own brilliance when you can’t yet see it for yourself, the kind that then overtly urges when they know you’re not really hearing them and you’re wasting time—I wouldn’t have rediscovered writing, and by extension, reading, at the age of 28. But I did.  And slowly, I started writing, freely, in my spare time. That summer, and for the next six months, I began writing what’s become a manuscript for my memoir that loosely deals with African and African Americans, gender, and becoming, well, myself.

Then I began writing articles. About different aspects of Black life that fascinated, confounded, inspired, or tickled me.  And it was a miraculous process because I soon discovered that my words and accounts actually resonated with people I had never met, and some who I had, in different geographic locations, with different life stories.  I guess James Joyce got it right: “In the particular is contained the universal.”  And all of a sudden, this hidden essential part of me that I had buried for so long in pursuit of an unattainable self somehow started to flourish.

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Being in the presence of Junot Diaz last night gave a tremendous amount of joy to the part of me that’s been reawakened.  To the part of me that thrives and utters its truth, because to do anything else betrays my soul.  I will forever cherish my evening with him and the blurred selfie that we took together (because we thought my mom’s maneuvers ruined our shot, an accusation for which I’m still eating crow) because it reminded me why I’m alive. More importantly it reminded me the unimaginable power of words and their gift.  Junot Diaz, sus palabras son tesoros.

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African-American

African-American

Sometime in September of 2002, when I was seven years old, my four-year old sister and I were secretly smuggled from our apartment in Uptown Harlem, New York, to a borough known as Alakuko in Lagos, Nigeria.

The smugglers were my mother and older sister.

That’s the version of the story that usually shocks people. That’s also the version of the story that I truly believed. That is the version of the story that tried to bandage old wounds with humor. But what I did not realize until I made peace with my past is that those wounds are what made me both who I am and what I am. Because of those wounds, because of the sacrifices my family made for my future, I can say that I am an African-American man, in the total and literal sense of the word.

I grew up Black. I was raised in Harlem, New York, during its pre-gentrified days, when it wasn’t always safe to walk 20 blocks by yourself at night, when seeing a white person near the polo grounds or the projects was cause for confusion, if not a subtle bit of anger. Growing up, I was told that my family was Nigerian, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

I could never stay in school because I would get suspended for fighting and ignoring my teachers. Outside of school, I spent my days either with girls or on the concrete court of Rucker Park. I had no comprehension of what it meant to be African, and I was as normal as one could be in my neighborhood, until I picked up my entire life one day and shipped it to the motherland.

When we arrived at my uncle’s house in Alakuko, I was under the impression that I was just being introduced to relatives I had never seen before in a place I had never seen before. But my perception of the visit swiftly changed when my mom exited the complex without me and my little sister.

I turned to my aunty and asked her where my mother was going, and to that, the aunty that I had only known for about two days replied, “you can call me mom now.”

That response initiated the two and half years of reprogramming that I went through in Nigeria. I say reprogramming because just about every habit I had adopted during my time in America went against some part of Nigerian culture or tradition. To sum up, I was unruly, undisciplined, and lazy, amongst a plethora of other character flaws. I eventually had most of those character flaws beaten and punished out of me.

Over time, I began to understand the culture and its customs. I learned the meaning of respect for one’s elders. And as a bonus, under the tutelage of my cousins, I learned how to play the piano.

Skip ahead two years to December of 2004, and I am back with my family in the United States. My family has fallen in love with my new disciplined mannerisms, and the work I get at school is so easy that I’m asking for work from the grade level above me. My abilities, my intelligence, and my character, however, separated me from my classmates, especially the males, and that brought with it a strain of bullying and taunting. Ironically,  I was finally the one being bullied, and my Africanness was the prime fuel for everyone’s jokes.

The distinction between African and Black was yanked to the forefront of my mind. From my return to the U.S. in the fourth grade up to my last year of high school, I had to deal with the ignorance of peers who understood little to nothing about Africa. I had to deal with being called a monkey, with people constantly joking about the darkness of my skin, with people making click noises and singing Lion King songs around me.

All of these microaggressions turned me from someone who wore his newfound culture with pride into someone who ran away from anything that even tempted to remind him of his ethnicity. As a result, I fell into a dismal hole of existence in which I found myself casting away my culture in order to be seen as normal. I was chasing an identity that no longer applied to me, and a people that no longer wanted me. Meanwhile, my family began to pity my retreat from Nigerian culture–one of my sisters even began to look down on me for it. Relatives and family friends would call me “white boy” or “American” in our native tongue, Yoruba.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I stopped hiding signs of my Nigerian identity, until I accepted that my last name would occasionally get butchered, until I realized that I was both an American and a Nigerian.

I identify and experience the struggles of Black life. And yet, my pride in my Nigerian heritage grows constantly. I live as a medium between these two identities, understanding the world from the lens of both cultures. My inner struggle simply taught me that accepting all that makes me who I am, sharing my identity with the world around me–THAT is the very essence of diversity–not a homogenous group of like-minded look-alikes, but a blend of vastly different individuals, who by the very existence of their originality, enrich our world exponentially. Being different is normal. Understanding the beauty of that difference is a blessing. When we hide our unique qualities, we rob society of our gifts, and worse, we betray our own selves.

To be Black in America can be both exhilarating and traumatizing, partly because that label has the power to unify so many, but also because it has the power to divide and minimize countless cultures and identities. I wanted that solidarity, but it came at the cost of my own integrity, and it made me run from who I was.

Every soul is a jewel. I have no reason to hide who I am, because I am the only one like me in the entire universe. And I stand tall as an African-American, as a child of two worlds, because I have realized that alone, we are strong, but united, we are unstoppable.

Benjamin Adekunle-Raji will be a junior at Kenyon College with a major in Psychology, a minor in Music, and a concentration in Law and Society. If he’s not busy sleeping, playing video-games, eating, or griping about how much work Kenyon professors assign, then you’ll probably catch him on a piano, on a basketball court, in a Chinese food restaurant, or in one of his journals, writing away his endless flow of thoughts.

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Growing Up Black in Seattle

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The four generations.  Pictured from left to right: Charlotte Watson Sherman, Aisha Sherman Commeh, Dorothy R. Glass, Maya L.K. Commeh, and me at Grandma Dorothy’s Seattle home. June 5, 2015.

Last week I had the colossal pleasure of returning to my hometown of Seattle, Washington for my grandmother’s 80th birthday.  The trip was absolutely amazing—I reunited with most of family, who, for the most part, are doing incredible things, checked on one of my besties, and was reminded of all of the things I love about where I grew up. Maybe it was the fact that my life just took an unprecedented turn for the better and I could celebrate it with loved ones, or maybe it was because living in rural Ohio for four years has made me yearn for urban swagger, but the trip was absolutely everything to me.

Whenever I meet new people, I’m quick to tell them that I loved growing up in Seattle.  And just so we’re clear, I let them know that I grew up in the Seattle that had a slight chip on its shoulder– the one that relentlessly sold off superstar athletes like A-Rod, Randy Johnson, and Ichiro.  The one that could only claim Jimmy Hendrix, Starbucks, grunge music, and Kenny G.  Yes, chile, Kenny freakin’ G.  Going to the Super Bowl was unheard of during my childhood.  We had a better chance of getting rocked by another earthquake.

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The view of Mt. Rainier from Seward Park.

Seattle was good to me.  I spent 18 years living in one the Seattle’s most racially diverse enclaves (what up, Rainier Beach!) where my best friends were Black (like me), Eritrean, Vietnamese , Ethiopian, Laotian, and Chinese. I was surrounded—literally–by breathtaking mountain ranges and immense bodies of water. As such, I learned how to swim, snow shoe, ski, and canoe.  I attended one of the largest and notorious public high schools, which means that I was just as accustomed to walkouts in protest of war as I was to award-winning orchestras and jazz ensembles.  And don’t get me started about Sockeye salmon (true story: to this day, salmon of any sort is my go-to comfort food whenever I feel homesick).  I never regretted growing up in Seattle, even if the city got dissed occasionally.

But people have a new and improved view of my city.  The Seahawks put us on the map a couple of times.  Then that movie about the guy with cancer came out.  Then Macklemore did his thing.  People finally recognize how dope Seattle really is.

Except for one thing: I still get asked if Seattle really has any Black people. And people of all races ask me this in all seriousness.  So in case you were wondering, yes, we exist!  We represent 8% of the city’s finest.  No, that’s not a lot, but let’s be honest, it’s probably more than you thought there were.  More importantly, there are 5 essential Black Seattleite experiences that unite us.  They are as follows:

  1. Your Blackness is regularly up for debate.  Maybe it’s coming from a relative who  did or didn’t grow up in Seattle.  Or maybe it’s by a fellow Black classmate who thinks they grew up in a more authentically Black part of the city.  There will even be times when non-Black folks try to check you.   But you kind of understand because, hey, you live in one of the Whitest cities in the US.
  2. Your Black restaurants are severely limited.  King Fish CafeCatfish Corner? Ms. Helen’s?  Casualita’s Caribbean Cafe and Rum Bar? The Diasporan cuisine type doesn’t matter.  All Black restaurants in Seattle are cursed to eventually close for reasons we’ll never fully understand.  If there is currently one open, frequent it as much as you can, because God only knows when they’ll close.
  3. There’s a max of 3 degrees of separation between you and another Black person. So you know that joke about how all Black people are related, or at least know each other?  Turns out this one is basically true in Seattle.  If you don’t know said Black person living or working in the city of Seattle (all bets are off for Bellevue, Everett, Kirkland, etc.), ask your friends or family, and voila!  Ya’ll know exactly who they are.
  4. Your hair will get wet and there’s no point in fighting it. The rain is real.  You have always known this.  You and your hair have made your peace with it, and you have either given up or know exactly which styles are going to be suitable for the ever-present precipitation. And please believe, you know just how to fit your raincoat’s hood all the way around your edges.
  5. You kinda like alternative stuff. Skateboarding? Kale? Recyling?  Artists that no one has ever heard of? If it’s something that your grandparents would tease you about on the grounds that it’s not Black enough, that’s you all day.  And you love it.  Because how many Black folks’ families migrated all the way to the Pacific Northwest and proudly call it home?
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Racism in Japan: A Beauty Queen’s Battle

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Ariana Miyamoto looking flawless. Photo courtesy of Facebook/ArianaMiyamoto.

Sometimes I come across news headlines that are just too awesome to swipe past.  Such is the case with 21-year old Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, who made headlines in March as the first biracial conetestant to win the prestigious pageant.  Well, she’s capturing our attention again, this time for leading a campaign for racial inclusion in Japan.

As you might imagine, Ariana’s racial background wasn’t always celebrated in a society that is over 98% ethnic Japanese.  She was often ridiculted by her classmates for having an African American father and Japanese mother, despite her identifying as Japanese.  In an interview with CBS news, she recounts how her clasmmates would throw garbage at her and told her not to touch them, for fear that her black skin would contaminate them.

Unfortunately, Ariana’s experiences with racism and being bullied were similar to many other biracial and multiracial Japanese.  After one of Ariana’s closest friends–who was also biracial– committed suicide after relentless bullying, Ariana decided to take a stand against racism.  She entered the 2015 Miss Universe Japan pageant.  And with her exemplary calligraphy skills, permanent smile, and genuine aura, Ariana killed it.

But after Ariana won the 2015 Miss Universe Japan, the internet blew up with criticisms that she wasn’t Japanese enough.  Many pigeon-holed her as “haafu” (half), not fully Japanese, and thus not fully deserving of the title.

Luckily, Ariana drew on her own adversity and even that of beauty pioneer Naomi Campbell, to fight her crusade against racism.  She’s also using the changing racial demongraphics of her Japan to propel her campaign.  According to the film, “Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan,” 20,000 biracial and multiracial people are born in Japan every year.  “I think there will be a lot of mixed-race children in the future,” she said in an interview with Bloomberg, “and we need to create an environment where they can grow up free from prejudice.”  And later, Miyamoto told AFP. “I can’t change things overnight but in 100–200 years, there will be very few pure Japanese left, so we have to start changing the way we think.”

Ariana will compete for the Miss Universe crown early next year.

Do your thing, girl!

 

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Black in Greece

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Imani (bottom, center) with her students in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Walk down the “paralea” (waterfront) in downtown Thessaloniki any day of the week between 9 and 5, and the cafes are filled with individuals and “pareas” (groups of friends) sitting in carefully decorated cafe-bars drinking coffee and relaxing as the crisp wind from the Aegean carries laughter and gossip between the tables. Even during business hours, when you would expect most people to be working, the stretch of establishments between the lefkos pyrgos (White Tower) and the limani (port) have customers. Walk towards the ano poli (old city) and many of the shops and businesses are open as well. However, you will see more people enjoying their €3 coffee than shopping for the latest fashions at Zara or H&M. With a youth unemployment rate of 50%, it is no wonder why more Greek people are sitting at the cafe-bar than sitting behind a desk.

Anyone who has listened to the news within the last 5 years is well aware that the Greek economy is in the midst, or as many Syriza supporters like to say now – on its way out of – an incredible debt crisis. Greeks of all ages, but particularly young people ages 18-30, are struggling to find work, and those who have managed to secure a new job or tenure a previously held position have had to accept low wages or significant salary cuts. As new political groups, like Gold Dawn, gain more following, spreading anti-immigrant sentiments and demanding job security for Greek citizens, employed expats in Greece must exercise caution when sharing their reasons for living in the country.

As a 24-year old African American woman with caramel colored skin, tight, natural spiral curls and arguably racially ambiguous facial features, Greeks do not take me for an African immigrant. In fact, most Greeks upon meeting me stare silently unable to pinpoint my ethnicity before finally asking, “Where are you from?” After being asked this question dozens of times, I decided to make a game of it by not immediately answering the question, but rather asking the inquisitor to guess. I am most commonly confused for being Brazilian, for the record. Regardless, no Greek ascribes me to the groups of North African people who have recently immigrated. Most Greeks assume that I am here, as many foreign tourists are, for vacation. After sharing that I am from the U.S., some even follow up with that all too vexing question “No, where are you really from?”  I usually skip the American history lesson and subsequent explanation of my unknown ancestry beyond about 3 generations ago, for all of which my family lived within U.S. borders. I reply stolidly, “I am from New Jersey.” The conversation then turns to the delicate issue of my reason for living here past the holiday season. Diction is key. I can never begin by saying that I am working, but rather explaining that I am participating in a temporary fellowship program which offers recent college graduates professional development and work experience. I made the mistake of just saying that I was working a few times, and I didn’t understand the sudden cold disposition and lowered muttering in Greek that followed. During these times, Greeks are a bit hostile toward employed foreigners, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Yet, my racialization in the context of anti-immigrant sentiments is still affected by my privilege as an American citizen and by the fact that I am participating in a sanctioned fellowship program. I am provided with free housing within the gates of the American Farm School campus, free meals in the school cafeteria, a contract to work within a guaranteed window of time, and an immediate network of supportive colleagues and supervisors to help me adjust this new home. Black immigrants from other parts of the diaspora, on the other hand, have a different experience that I cannot ignore. When they come to this country, they must compete with locals for the few jobs that are available in a society that regards networking and ties more highly than meritocracy. Regardless of skill or ability it is difficult for Greeks to find work, let alone Blacks, without a friend on the inside or some connection willing to advocate on their behalf. I believe this is a large part of the reason why I can count the number of Black professionals I have seen here on my hands. Most of the Blacks I see in Thessaloniki are selling knockoff Beats by Dre headphones, designer belts, purses, sneakers, watches, and other kiosk goods. They do not have the security and comfort that I came to Greece with, so in order to feed themselves and their families they must make ends meet by whatever means necessary.

At the same time, I do understand that my privilege has its own limits. My professional opportunities do not extend outside of the American institution where I work, which values my English language facility and knowledge of the American higher educational system. My reason for living in Greece is first and foremost to educate young high school students about how to attend a U.S. college or university and to help prepare them for that transition by improving their English, exposing them to American culture, informing them about college entrance practices, and preparing them for standardized testing. Starting a life outside of that work and on my own would be an entirely different feat, one that I must tip my hat to those brave souls who are doing it every day.

Imani Ladson graduated from Kenyon College in 2013, where she double majored in Sociology and American Studies, with a concentration in African Diaspora Studies.  She just finished her second year of service as the College Counseling Fellow at the American Farm School (AFS) in Thessaloniki, Greece. She will be begin her Masters in School Counseling at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education this summer.

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