#Ask Rachel: What does it really mean to “act” Black?

052813-celebs-in-blackface-Judy-Garland

The day Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, decided to play loose with her own race, the day she complained about a “hate crime” that would later expose her as a liar, the day she took the minstrel show off the backstages of history, the day she reasoned that being Black was just another privilege of being White, the day she checked the Black box and stained her skin to matched the dark dye she spilled on the truth, on the day she declared that she was Black (not African American–she hates that term), Rachel Dolezal murdered any attempt that she might make to find solidarity with and in the Black community. She–no better than vigilantes or wayward cops, than hooded mobs and the overseer culture that produced them-lynched another Black body.

The type of lynching Rachel Dolezal performed deals less with physical violence than with the cosmetic apparatus of erasure. It is the same motive force operative in gentrification and other physical acts of removal, where folks of privilege invade and otherwise overtake spaces not belonging to them. In Dolezal’s case, the stolen space is the Black body–a body that is sun-bit though not hers, that bears scars of struggle from which history has thus far protected Dolezal.

Acting Black is not the same as being Black. Instead, it is a way of skimming the surface of Blackness, merely performing flesh without having to reconcile the bruises that lie beneath it. Indeed, it is a type of erasure, and what follows from this act of erasing can only be viewed as twisted and sick.

We have seen this kind of erasure play out over and again in history. In the heartbreaking case of First Nations’ people, not only were lands stolen, bodies also fell subject to this cruel carnival of theft. Hollywood, for example, has given us a history of White actors playing indigenous, and beyond the movie screen exists a dark and regrettable tradition of Whites claiming First Nations status.

Beneath these examples is a sordid tale of people who subjugate, occupy, and otherwise delete other people from history and then reinvent themselves in their place. The final injury of erasure, of fatal cultural appropriation, is viler than the first.

Some would find my characterization of Dolezal’s Black pose as extreme or harsh, considering instead Dolezal as a kind of cultural opportunists, someone benefitting from being Black. In this light, the story of Mindy Kaling’s brother, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, comes to mind. Ingam, who is the son of Indian immigrants, posed Black to take advantage of affirmative action policies to gain admittance into medical school.

In so doing, Chokal-Ingam sought to dramatized a silent narrative in American mainstream consciousness, that of “Black privilege.” Black privilege is the belief that Black Americans gain social advantages through policies such as affirmative action. Individuals like Chokal-Ingam, whose deep belief in Black privilege led him to pose as a Black medical school applicant named Jo-Jo, maintain that being Black can play a significant and positive role in the social advancement of otherwise unexceptional non-Blacks who might pass as Black.

However, there is an irretrievable flaw in the logic of “Black privilege.” Programs such as affirmative action, in fact, benefit non-Blacks as much as, if not more (especially in the case of White women), than they do Blacks. Another problem with the logic of Black privilege is the lofty, but statistically unsubstantiated, idea that Blacks are privileged. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Black mortality rates around the globe are among the world’s highest. Unemployment, mass incarceration, poverty, employment and educational discrimination, racial profiling, and so on (in what feels like a never-ending list of constraints) suggest that, more likely than not, Blacks sit on the side opposite privilege. That is, in many (if not in most) indicators associated with social success, Blacks occupy the bottom. And among indicators associated with social failure, Blacks tend to sit atop. This isn’t what privilege looks like.

Programs such as affirmative actions are crumbs swept off the main table, given to the historically disfranchised, like pig intestines once were tossed to slaves to grovel over. So what Dolezal has done–in posturing herself as a Black woman to gain influence and perhaps even a job–can be compared to a privileged person who, though having access to the main table and the hearty course it affords, squats over and steals the crumbs (and even the chit’lins) from the less fortunate.

Let me put this in perspective: Dolezal’s story is little different than the story of Alicia Esteve Head, a Spanish woman operating under the alias Tania Head. Head claimed to be a survivor of the World Trade Center September 11 attacks and joined the support group World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. She later became a spokesperson and president of the group and was regularly mentioned in media reports of the attacks.

In 2007, the world learned that Head’s story was fabricated. She was not in the towers at the time of the September 11 attacks but had traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 2003. Once discovered, Head disappeared, only to resurface in 2010 at the White Plains, NY memorial. This time, she posed as Ester DiNardo, a supposed victim’s mother. Survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks who knew Head personally speak of the incredible pain and sense of betrayal they felt when they learned Head was in imposter.

While the comparison might seem a reach to some, the sentiments of survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks help to put the Dolezal scandal in perspective. Black Americans are, themselves, survivors of historic and continuing trauma. Therefore, the incredible pain and sense of betrayal stemming from Dolezal’s decision to act Black cannot be understated.

Even still, many people remain baffled over the immediate and deeply personal responses to Dolezal’s betrayal of both her race and mine. They wonder, what’s the big deal? If Dolezal wants to pose as Black, then let her. They reason that we live in a post-racial world where the so-called exaggeration of race as a static reality lends itself less to new and fluid imaginings than to the old, stale realities of race. There are some who even take this logic to the extreme, suggesting that Dolezal has perhaps set us on a course for new racializations–where we are not only post-racial but magically transracial, whatever that means.

Dolezal, and perhaps her defenders, will never fully get that being Black means having to carry the full weight of a history that daily scars you, pins you in hard-to-beat corners, and presses against your unyielding back the immensity of inequity. She’ll never understand that being Black means having to bandage and manage a thousand little cuts endured each day for simply being Black. She’ll never understand how being Black means convincing yourself (and too often the rest of the world) that you are good enough (i.e., Black lives matter) because you live in a world that constantly tells and actively teaches you the opposite.

Unlike acting Black, being Black means endurance. It means enduring the tragedies of loss–of sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, mothers and fathers and friends, who are sometimes literally and often prematurely snatched from your life. It means enduring the long journey to freedom, which you have heard about and, thus, still believe, though this place is mystical, set on the other side of some ecclesiastical horizon that you cannot always see.

It means being forced to live small in a big but stolen land, rich from the wealth of your people’s sweat and blood–their free but involuntary labor. It means being restricted to laws you never had a chance to make–laws that where, in fact, never made for you or to benefit you but to protect others from you while elevating them above you. It means dealing with the feelings of being trapped, the unsettling helplessness that sits violently in the soul after being violated, ripped off, and robbed.

Dolezal must know she isn’t Black. According to her adopted brother, “She puts dark makeup on her face and says she Black. . . . It’s basically blackface.” Hence, seeing Dolezal in blackface, knowing the painful history behind her familiar act, is like witnessing again the theft of Black culture. It’s like being forced to believe the story I was told as a child that the people who erected the pyramids at Giza were White. It’s like being forced to believe that Black musical art forms such as jazz and rock roll (and perhaps soon even hip hop) were invented and pioneered by Whites.

It’s what Black musicians prior to the 1970s must have felt when they wrote songs for Black artists only to hear them performed by others, or when they released albums only to see White faces glossing their album covers. It’s what Kendrick Lamar must have felt when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album. It’s what Azealia Banks must have felt when she appeared on NYC’s Hot 97 and blasted Iggy Azalea for cultural appropriation (did she really “do dat”). It’s what so many of us feel when we know that some things just aren’t right, yet they happen anyway–and usually without consequence.

What feels most reprehensible about Dolezal’s act is that she has been close up; she’s been in my kitchen, so to speak. She’s had a proximity to Black struggles that most Whites will never have. This proximity must have given her some deep sense of our struggles. She attended Howard University (an HBCU) and presides over the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP. She teaches The Black Woman’s Struggle, African and African American Art History, African History, and African American Culture, and Intro to Africana Studies as a part-time instructor at Eastern Washington University. She must have become intimately familiar with the history of violations against Black bodies. She must have understood the damage that Whites posing as Black does to our people. She must have witnessed first hand the relentless pain of our people in its rawest and realest forms. She must have known.

Her actions–as deliberate as they may or may not have been–feel even more egregious in this light. Her being close to Black people, to the Black community, must have shown her that her actions were not okay but potentially harmful. In knowing us, one must ask, did she plan to hurt us? And if she did, how sad and how utterly sadistic was her acting Black.

Having spent considerable time in the Black community, she would also have known how forgiving we are. While being Black entails a kind of suffering, it also involves a permission to rise (i.e., a gift–or curse–to forgive). While it may take a few days or a few weeks or even a few years, we will forgive her.

So let’s pull back our stones so that she might go away . . . and act Black no more.
____________________________
David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Making Black Lives Matter in Classrooms: The Power of Teachers to Change the World

Race, Rights, and Responsibility Image

On Saturday, May 16, 2015, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools held a conference titled, Race, Rights, and Responsibility: What Educators Can Do to Help Our Students Think Critically about Protest, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberty.

This conference was not for everyone. And while it was a conference for teachers presented by teachers, it was designed mainly for teachers who care deeply about racial justice and tenets of teaching for change. It was for those teachers struggling to find pragmatic classroom solutions that might interrupt dangerous patterns of policing that brutalize Black and Brown bodies and terrorize communities of color.

As we’ve come to realize in recent months, police overreach–even to the point of murder–is not an isolated incident. It is not coincidental. It happens daily in settings such as New York and Baltimore, where the students we teach are striving and struggling to make sense of the contradictions of democracy–the gross juxtaposition of ironies: freedom for some tied to the slavery of others, a light of hope set against the darkness of despair, a national dream that rests firmly upon a social nightmare. The questions are intrepid but real. Yet real solutions and spaces to engage in important thinking to overcome structural injustices in society are diffuse and lacking.

At one level we are witnessing what Cornell West calls “a democratic awakening,” the unique union of rights groups with poor and vulnerable people who are asking the right kinds of questions and demanding immediate answers. Still at another level, too many of us are still fast asleep, entranced (and sometimes deeply hypnotized) by the symbolism of the post-racial mythologies that typify the Age of Obama. It is my sincere belief that teachers will lead the democratic awakening because we can arouse to action the youthful but energetic masses lulled to complacency by the seductive and sedating rhetorics of post-racialism.

While it celebrates its first Black president, our nation also continues its disregard for Black lives and Black life. The massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown bodies; the de facto legalization of murder against the Children of the Rainbow; chronic and mass un(der)employment; devastated, wasted, and occupied communities; heightened state surveillance; and the like are but a few of the looming examples of our current state of inequities. For Black lives to matter, for Black life to endure, these inequities must be dismantled. To dismantle them, we need a revolution as active and as committed as the systems that sustain human suffering and psychologies that maintain a deeply entrench yet murderous racial caste.

In this time of political slumber, we can’t afford to sleep. Indeed certain things in our world endure. Every 28 hours, a bird flies free of a lonely nest. A day, depending on the season, gets longer or shorter. Every 28 hours a mother kindles a novel wish for her vibrant, young child. Every 28 hours, a fresh day is beginning for some, but not for all. Every 28 hours, there is a new Freddie Gray . . .

. . . Michael Brown

. . . Renisha McBride

. . . Rakia Boyd

. . . Eric Garner

. . . Remarly Graham

. . . Amadou Diallo

. . . James Powell

. . . Edmund Perry

. . . Oscar Grant

. . . Sean Bell

. . . Yvette Smith

. . . Victor Steen

. . . Steven Rodriguez

. . . Aiyana Jones

. . . Carlos Alcis

. . . Christopher Kissane

. . . Deion Fludd

. . . Justin Slipp

. . . Duane Brown

. . . Akai Gurly

. . . Walter Scott

. . . Trayvon Martin

. . . Etc.

The use of deadly force has become so standard in the U.S. that every 28 hours an unarmed Black person is shot by a police officer or vigilante acting as a proxy for the State. So I list the names, understanding that this list could be much longer. But only this ceremony–the painful yet powerful procession of pronunciations–can move us to understand and finally act.

Some say this moment is about Black lives, but mostly it’s about Black death–not some medieval plague caused by filth and rats, but a composite of suffering and plight faced by darker-skinned human beings whose true “crime” is being born darker skinned. As a result, we are left to witness the folly of justice made more perverse by a tragic orgy of haunting and desperate scenes–an image we’ve come to know too well over recent years of Black men and boys dying. Our death is not always literal, but nonetheless it’s painful and tragic. Before the physical death there is the fatal violence that hinders our dreams, the brutal slayings of hope and inspiration that too characteristically typify our experiences in school.

For many Black males–myself included–classrooms bury potential, and good-intentioned teachers evict from the pliable imagination of young people a limitless real estate of fluid possibilities. It is in this reality that we define Black males as failing, and we use national statistics to scandalize this myth. We have failed them. To offer hope, human rights workers are now demanding changes in public policy–policing reform, as it were. However, this moment demands something greater than policy resolutions. By changing laws, we would find ourselves lucky to somehow change people’s behaviors. We need heart and mind solutions; we need to change how people think and feel. For that we turn to education. We turn to educators.

Teachers are human rights workers, and our classrooms are progressive vineyards thirsty for liberation’s laborers. Classrooms are never neutral sites. They are contested spaces, where the imbrications of competing interests wrestle daily for ethical real estate. Just as they can harm, classrooms can heal. In this light, classrooms matter. Healing and humanizing classrooms matter most. They have the power to move our assumptions away from the stale and negative deficit assumptions that strip away Black humanity and toward those complex narratives of people that build humanity and nurture sensitivities toward that humanity in ways that abolish pre-existing internal and external contracts of bigotry and violence. In such spaces, teaching takes on a new meaning. Here, teaching means teaching the mind as well as the heart. It means teaching for justice, which is always and only about teaching (to) love.

On May 16, 2015, close to 500 educators assembled as Justice’s (or, better put, Love’s) soldiers. This assembly of transformative intellectuals, activists, thought-leaders, human-rights workers, and passionate individuals came committed to addressing key issues at the heart of race, education, and policing. The conference was empowering, as it encouraged our assembly to teach our truth with more certainty and candor, a grander conviction and clarity, with greater credibility and courage.

About 500 hundred educators throughout New York City have gone back to their classrooms to teach change. One of those teachers emailed me today, saying: “I did a Black Lives Matter lesson with my students. They get it now.” In the end, isn’t that what it’s really about: Getting it! In a world were so many people continue to not get it, we would be remiss to ignore the power of classrooms and teachers to change the world.

____________________________

1. A version of this blog post appeared on The Huffington Post on May 28, 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-e-kirkland/making-black-lives-matter_b_7453122.html

SUMMER OF 2014

url

This poem is a response to the fatal and tragic circumstances surrounding the malicious murders of several Black males in the summer of 2014 (and prior). It is eulogy to innocence loss, premature departures, and the disappearance of hope, which seems suddenly obscured by a dark veil of nihilism blanketing this “time past race.”   

* * *

The night was long—

Black dreams were missing like Black bodies buried beneath mahogany mud— stretched from Mississippi to Mandingo sands.

Dark souls descended upon hot streets blazoned by ghetto flames,

Burning upon the breast of fiery dark places,

And streams of red blood crept six feet beneath the hard surface of Ghetto Earth.

The night that challenges the light of the Sun,

the darkness of the night stalked the Son—

At once closing his eyes.

He is now blind to his Blackness,

While hues of crimson Blues encroach upon his dark skin.

The night, the shadow of his Blackness, appears so with emptiness—

Eclipsed stars, the fallen dreams in his skies,

Give way to a broken moon—which is his crescent heart.

Then, I felt his mother’s tears, drenched upon Black garments that draped her supple, sable lap.

Prevailing in audacious echoes were sorrow songs,which provoked shrieks of wild thunder beneath the Black veil that hid her eyes.

We forgot about her because she was hidden behind the shade of our darkness.

She is our tomorrow—the sparrow and her song

which bear the light of morning, piercing the darkness of today

like the full moon and moonlight that leads to a new day.

Weeping, though it endures for a night,

Joy sits at the edge of dawn—

A new day forthcoming, which says to us . . .

The Son will arise

once more.

                                                                       —By David E. Kirkland

* * *

  1. Please check out the following links for more information about the murders of unarmed Black males in the summer of 2014 and the chronic, historic violence aimed at them in recent years:

If We Must Die: An Open Eulogy for Trayvon (and for Justice)

Trayvon-Martin-2

* * *

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

—Claude McKay*

For four hundreds years, across the deep straits of wading waters, through the interrupted tides of justice, far from the humble shores of equity, in the base pits of subjugation, we have endured. In our endurance, we have stood still—and even today we stand as we stood then—brokering an ancient hope against our losses, managing pride through the audacious enterprise of an unwavering faith that firmly abides against the shades of mourning. In mourning, as much for Justice as for Trayvon, our frozen tears cling fast to the inextinguishable fountains of fire that cry out from beneath our mother’s bellies and burn fervent in the desperate hearts of men, the common colors of compassion, ornate and unsullied, where we find ourselves petitioning but to little avail to the quiet, churning, idle ears of Isis.

It is not mercy but memory that calls us to this moment, as The Trayvon Martin Verdict is as palpable days later as it was on the day the jury declared it, as tangible now as it was then, burying a discontent already bottled in broken dreams. If it has not yet made its full impact upon the social establishment, then the nature of The Verdict itself is the reason that a beleaguered, discouraged, but nonetheless proud people have gathered across a globe to mourn and remember, yet again, the crimson fall of a young Black son—an American son, an African son, an African American son, Sybrina Fulton’s son, a sun set too soon. For the break between the revolutionary masses and the complacent mainstream is, perhaps of necessity, clearer now and more decisive than the noisier and more dramatic break between the militants of the past and traditional political and institutional structures that our neglected dealings now support. In death, Trayvon should teach us all to live.

Trayvon was no symbol, however. He was a boy who held symbols in his hands, who brandished hoop dreams big enough to eclipse the American psychotic nightmare that resigns boys like himself to prisons or graves. He was a boy, traveling as many boys do along unfurled paths of (im)possibility, the road to which—if it ever existed at all for young Black men—cannot, by definition, lead from main street to the valleys of promise. Which is to say that few commentators have or even will look upon Trayvon’s dreams with sympathy, even if a number of them might be daring enough to concede that Black boys do dream.

By evoking race—as in acknowledging that Trayvon is a Black boy and that Black boys brandish dreams—I might be reviled as a “racist.” Here the term racist is taken to refer to anyone who acknowledges the proto-existence of race and its monumental social consequences, and performing unto themselves a heinous but racist act of hypocrisy, such dissenters will fling opprobrious terms, such as racist, lightly at Black people now, particularly in the aftermath of this unfortunate verdict. Yet in so doing, they must also now—in the resident silhouette of Trayvon’s hoodie-framed face and fallen shadow—finally own up to all the long layers of rejection and abuse that Black people have experienced and endured at the hands of injustice—with few voices raised in objection.

Is this too harsh and sweeping a generalization? Some people might think so; many other people will not; which is a way of stating the problem and the prospect before us: We are divided, not as a nation occupying the same space but as people capable of empathy and love for another. In the pit of this chasm our approbations are revealed. Here, Black men are assumed to be “violent,” as if violence is the sole invention of Black masculinity. But violence heralded against Black men in the U.S. and throughout the globe is in-built in the established social order, particularly in American society. There is no need for the ruling race to take to the streets to clobber our boys, although there certainly is enough of that, or struggle for him; brutalization is inherent in all the customs and practices which bestow privileges on some and strips them from all others, relegating Black males in particular to the status of social outcast—criminals and deviants.

These are old and well-worn truths, which hardly need repeating. What is new is the reaction to them. Rapidly now, a nation that clings preposterously to the fiction of post-racialism is turning onto that uncertain road, and we are doing so with the approval of all kinds of groping injury. In our desire to appease the wound, we have become too fast to forget that there are many Trayvon Martins who daily languish in our secret social shadows; they are continually reminding us that the foundations of our American Dream, weakened by legalized social injustice and undermined by socialized legal injustice, are broken, unnecessarily lost in burdens of self-hatred (via identification with the oppressor). To awaken from this bemused and diluted trance, we will have to develop a keen faculty for togetherness, identifying, fractionating out, and rejecting the absurdities of the conscious as well as the unconscious racism inflicted upon all of us—regardless of race, united to one bag like Skittles—while making our progress our bait in the truest moral examples of the spiritual goods that have so kept us enraptured.

This was Trayvon’s unknowing message to us all. Though it seems ironic now, he held in his hands the symbolism of our discontent and the candy-coated emblem of its resolution. I do not find it ironic that in one hand Trayvon clung to an Arizona Ice Tea, for Arizona has come to represent the face of national injustice to which Florida now chooses to mimic. There is also insight in the emblem of ice tea, as in the American rapper Ice-T, whose infamous protest song “Cop Killer” is itself witness to the violence of injustice to which Trayvon would fall prey.

If one hand indicts us, then the other might redeem us. In his other hand, Trayvon held onto a bag of Skittles, a candy known for its many colors, suggesting that our variety is not a verdict but a treat. To this latter message, I find it apropos that Trayvon was carrying candy to our future, to a young relative—a child of tomorrow—who on that listless night would not taste the blend of many flavors. His, like ours, would be craving deferred.

Still, despite the stark symbolism, many will ask, was The Trayvon Martin Verdict about race? Of course it was about race, if little else, but it was about race and more than race, all the same. It was about the long-awaited ending to that enduring procession of justice for which many have marched and died; it was about a dying dream whose pulse, withering like leaves of winter, finds itself frozen and asleep in the terrestrial slumber, which tempts our patience in purgatory to further wait. As we have seen and heard in recent weeks, conscious and unconscious racism is everywhere, and in spite of our fatigued and waiting souls, we find it infecting all the vital areas of national life. But the revolutionary intransigence of new generations carved from this waiting, like a new rainbow of hope stretched across the sky, have bred of a young, interracial coalition of witnesses, who are themselves declaring that racism will no longer exercise its insidious control over us.

I take as example a white female Twitter friend, who courageously spoke against the ignorant racist rants of a man responding to one of my recent tweets on the Trayvon Martin trial. There is also the young Chaldean female Twitter friend, who was as demoralized by The Trayvon Martin Verdict as I. If the tag of “racist” is one that the racist will chain to us in dismissing our cries for justice, then we are more than willing to bear that. He will not separate the cause that we seek, the unfortunate reality for which Trayvon gave his life; he will not delight himself in our sacrifice of tears, for these young non-Black Twitter friends know as millions of unheard Black people in this country have long known—that on the other side of that great conversation that this nation must hold, on the other side of our struggles together with race—should we ever authentically choose to struggle with it together—there is healing.

In spite of the injuries that injustice has inflicted upon our souls, I am hopeful still because across this country, many young people—regardless of social identification—have been infected with a fever of discontent. We are no longer satisfied with an unjust status quo. We are finally saying, “Enough!” Social media is reacting with a liberating shock of realization, which transcends mere objectivism, cronyism, complacence, and even race. We are rediscovering the strength to bind a new heritage, the courage to write a new history, the will to love. And with newly focused eyes, we have become struck with the wonder that this strength which has enabled us to endure and, in spirit, to defeat the power of prolonged and calculated oppression after centuries of being told, in a million different dialects, that some are more beautiful than others, that lighter skin is more valuable than darker, we have, in the recesses of our deep developing psyches, revolted.

The trend has not yet reached the point of avalanche, but the future can be clearly seen in the growing number of young people—like Trayvon, friends of Trayvon, children of Trayvon—who are snapping off the shackles of intimidation and are wearing their Skittles across their skins, perfuming their hair in the fragrances of justice, and inclining their features with the ruddy brush of struggle.

So if we, too, must die—

. . . let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain . . .

* * *

1. The title and poetry in this piece is take from the poem “If We Must Die” by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. The poem can be read at the following link.

IN DEFENSE OF LOVE

282551

* * *

. . . the purpose of being here, wherever we are, is to increase the durability and the occasions of love among and between peoples. Love, as the concentration of tender caring and tender excitement, or love as the reasons for joy. I believe that love is the single, true prosperity of any moment and that whatever and whoever impedes, diminishes, ridicules, opposes the development of loving spirit is “wrong”/hateful.

—June Jordan

I am not sure when it happened. I am not sure why it happened. All I know is that today we find ourselves grappling with the untenable truth that love is in danger.

I first recognized this reality recently when I met Justin and his longtime partner Jack. Justin and Jack epitomized the power of the heart’s good intentions. Their love was storied through thoughtful conversations and laughter, sullen hands clasped and whispers, a sincere and genuine concern for one another, and an invincible bond that would make super glue look lax.

Justin held Jack’s endearing eyes in his own, held them with the strength and blind fascinations of seriousness and faith. He held them tightly with the frank qualities of delight, those existential yearnings that twin the dawn of gravity and pretend the draw of magnetism. Jack said that he loved the way Justin first “saw” him. He said that he had never been gazed upon with such beauty and depth, such steadiness and care, that no one had ever humanized him so fully with only a stare. Not only did he feel human in Justin’s ocular embrace; he felt loved.

For their love, the two young men dedicated the promise of a life together, a life that made sense to them, to be led on their terms between the ironies of false abominations and above the lucidity of empty accusations and the revulsions of ignorance and judgment. Their nuptials, however, would be made in secret. They would have to settle for an unspoken ceremony because in Michigan and 37 other states in our country two men cannot marry—at least not legally. If marriage is meant to perform an open act of love, then in 38 states, two men, two people of the same sex, cannot legally stage their love in public. And this is appalling!

Some might think that marriage between one woman and one man is the issue. However, the mere suggestion privileges a definition of marriage that confines love to sets of forced dualities, of conventional commitments that license the heterosexual “norm” over all other possible love configurations. Too often this confining of marriage to one woman and one man restricts the freedom for which love strives.

Others have argued that love in marriage doesn’t exist, only a complex play of interests that wears the disguise of love, the patriarchal masks of tradition and convenience, of woman given to man to leverage personal gain in an otherwise treacherous sea of inopportunity and misogynistic thirsts. Here, love becomes a possession, somewhat of a toy, disposed in random fits, handled with carelessness, like the disheveled certainty of those who feel they own love in ways that permit them to exploit it without exploring its hidden, more illustrious and transformational depths.

Still others have blamed faith, which abides with Love, suggesting that the dogma of entrenched beliefs tied to the morsel of “god” to which their bigotries cling demands that love as expressed through marriage be “pure” and “protected,” unsullied and preserved for some righteous elect for whom, in the name of “love,” they get to bear witness and define.

In all honesty, I don’t know who to blame for this current crusade against love in our country nor am I interested in blaming anyone. However, I do want to make a case in defense of love—the kind of love that Justin and Jack share. In so doing, I hope that we might recall the inspiration to save love and, in the process, save ourselves.

In the coming weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the constitutionality of two related matters: California’s Proposition 8 (2008), which banned same-sex marriage (the proposal was later overturned by the State’s Supreme Court not long after its adoption), and Congress’s use of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) to withhold federal benefits from same-sex couples who are legally married in the states where they reside. The impeding decisions have been viewed by some gay-rights advocates as a historic opportunity to establish same-sex marriage (or what I have called non-discriminatory marriage) nationwide. Whether this is true or not, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling will require us to look deeply into the core of our national soul and define its location with respect to love.

Regardless of what it decides, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision promises to be groundbreaking because, in many ways, marriage as a legal/civil issue, in the face of love’s danger, has become a moral and personal one. Hence, at issue here are great philosophical concerns with which we must grapple. These concerns go beyond debates about who has the right to propose to whom. At the heart of the issues is a single, crucial question: Who has the right to love?

In both instances referred to above, the U.S. Supreme court will be deciding an issue far bigger than that of marriage rights. As the modern marriage has become merely a ceremonial expression of the heart’s tastes, the decisions will spell out the conditions of our rights as citizens, as human entities, to practice love and have that practice affirmed openly and civically by contracts of the State. The decision will also speak to an issue of governance: Does the State have the right to govern the heart? Here, my hope is that the Court decides to pull away from fear and intolerance, which have led the steady push to legislate the terms of love and the conditions upon which that love might be declared.

Still, in this current cultural struggle, fear seems to be triumphing over freedom. With the passage of the heavy-handed and limited Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), marriage was explicitly defined in federal law as a union of one man and one woman. Enacted in 1996, DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions and allows each state to reject same-sex marriages performed in other states. While over a dozen jurisdictions have legalized same-sex marriage through court rulings, legal actions, and the vote, seven states have prohibited it by statue and 30 other states prohibit it in their constitutions.

Indeed, this outlawing of same-sex marriage across the U.S. is an act of fear (if not terror)—a fear that suggests that our children and we need fences surrounding our hearts not to protect the heart, but insidiously to protect us against the outer limits of love. This fear suggests that we cannot and should not have the freedom to choose who to love, and if we do, that freedom must be limited by gender and number thus making it not a freedom at all, but a farce. Of course, the messinesses of moral dalliance and corruptible beliefs inform such fear, but it is fear, and fear alone, that is the impetus driving our war against love.

In this light, love is revealed threatened by our fear of it. And also in this light, the Court’s decisions concerning love will reverberate through the bend of history, which seems always strained between two impulses: the impulse to affirm our freedoms or hold fast to our fears. As I have suggested, fear has legislated against love that through our laws we might inoculate the heart and the hearts of our children against certain types of love that we deem inappropriate or, worst, “different.”

History has also taught us that, in defense of freedom, our best laws privilege rights over restrictions. These rights, as opposed to restrictions, have made our democracy possible and durable. If you are arrested in this country, you have the right to remain silent and given due process in a court of your peers. You also have the freedom of speech against tyrannical forms of censorship and, yes, the right to bear arms. Given all our rights, given all our “freedoms,” doesn’t it seem ironic that absent from the list is perhaps the most basic of human liberties: the right to love?

Some heterosexual couples who enjoy fruitful marriages might argue that we (as in one man and one woman) do have the right to love. For them, this illusion plays out as true because they ever feel free to stage the scenes of their acknowledged bonds openly. But this play of freedoms is merely a hopeful fiction. Until all people have the right to love whomever they choose, then we all shall be restricted from the right to love freely.

It is this restriction that Justin and Jack has dealt with daily, for daily they must fit their love in a box, restrict it to the shadows away from our most indecent fears so that people afraid of their kind of love won’t be offended. Perhaps Jack put it best: “It’s easy to love Justin, but it’s not easy to show that I love him when everyone’s looking.”

Yet, if we ever truly looked at them should we ever choose to stare at their secret expressions of love, we might understand how tragically insecure we are. Why else would we fence love behind the gates of heteronormativity? But even bound, love is resilient, and it persists. This is true for Justin and Jack. Love found them and many others like them in earnest even while we were writing laws and silent treaties to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

I last saw Justin in a room at a workshop. He said to me that he dreamed to one day marry Jack, to share their kind of love with the world. And looking into his eyes as they leapt across the room to greet Jack, I became convinced that no one has the right to deny Justin this dream, to deny him love. While his dream remains deferred, his love remains alive. You could feel it as Justin’s and Jack’s eyes kiss with an intensity that only true lovers know.

The Night I Heard the Walls Cry

atwar-walls_a

* * *

As a little boy, I grew up inhaling the sun-kissed, muggy air of an old gutted out flat. We called it a Pentecostal church. Back then my yearning ears would recline in the breaths, the heavy plumes of sound, cadence, and echo, that ushered laboriously beneath the Preacher’s raspy hum:

“If these walls  . . . uh . . . could talk . . . they would tell you . . . they would tell you, uh . . . there is nothing new . . . under the Sun.”

After the Preacher would labor through his burdened breaths, Grandma, sitting next to me, would shake her head, her round body mimicking its motion, affirming the Preacher’s statement up and down: “A-men Pastor!”

This interchange of calls and responses would play back beat to more burdens and breaths, punctuating the Preacher’s ecumenical statements with voiced exclamation points that rippled through air like floating ellipses.

Grandma, rocking back and forth, up and down, would sink into the timeworn divots of the long wooden pew and fan herself vigorously in wait of some ill-reserved breeze that might air-condition the perspiration casing her melting flesh. She would agree that there is nothing new under sun: “I done seen it all honey, but there is new life on the other side of the sun.”

Sister Cadwell, seated not too far away from us, would shout in a key of her own: “HA-LLEL-LU-AH, Thank you JE-SUS!” And while unexpected, her sudden burst of conviction would evoke no one’s response. It was part of the natural jazz of the space, part of its music of strength overcoming sorrow, part of the enduring song that stretched above the sun where new things are possible. It was the echo of life that grandma would speak of when talking about heaven, suns, and new things.

I would hear this same music years later when I returned to the church to bury my grandmother.

*

Sitting at the church today, I notice the hush of progress. Not much has changed. The long curtains flung against the buried windows still drag low just above the surface of the floor. Divoted wooden pews still line the surface of the sanctuary in receptive rows all pointed at the pulpit. There are still noises sequestered in the walls, whispers that hold onto the secrets of what’s not new under the sun.

Sitting there, I am taken by the blossoming of remembrances, of old small things hidden under the sun. There is the memory of Grandma’s heavy hands uplifted toward the ceiling of the church. Her face is folded into a less than subtle expression of her thousand agonies ascending from her orbed-shaped body to the four celestial winds of unseen things. This sculpture of pain gives art but decadence to her soul, its tragedies and weakening sorrows, the very essence of whom she had stubbornly resisted.

Seeing her in my mental periphery—eyes tightly pressed with fixed lids so closely milled as to deny even the shadows of light—I recall the reclusive tear, which struggled down her blazoned cheek. It looks a lot like the tears that drenched my face that day, and the tears of many others who have flooded the space to pay their respects to Mother Johnson, my grandmother.

I wipe my tears away. I don’t want her to see me cry. Instead, I want to see her more clearly.

*

Church was asylum for a blues people at a time when their sorrow songs were sang out of Eden, while they labored hungry in the wilderness passing time picking apples until they, like grandma had, reached the Promised Land. For cherished people like grandma, church was an orchard for naked souls to bathe drunk in the cider of God’s deferred graces until God granted them permission to pick up last (-ing) apples and leave the Forrest of forbidden fruits fulfilled.

When she left, new leaves petalled on grandma’s ripened apple tree. And somewhere, between shades of fallen apples and new petals blossoming, I could hear the Preacher hum:

“If these walls, uh, could talk . . . they would tell you . . . uh . . . there is nothing new under the Sun.”

The Preacher didn’t realize that the walls were much like my grandmother; they could talk. Like my grandmother, they were wise though reserved. They preferred to listen and sing to themselves whispers and songs of truth, of leaf-clothed apple trees withering un-freely beneath the naked sun.

*

Eddie Kirkland strolls into the church, singing my grandmother’s song. Her soul, in harmony with his guitar, jazzes into the  inner courts of carnal heaven much like the Spirit of the wind dancing secretly in the celestial meadows of deferred dreams.

Even the creases at the corners of the walls hear and begin to echo Eddie Kirkland’s song. And his blues revives her, if only for a moment. She lies in front of the room as still as the walls surrounding her doing what she and they often do: She listens.

“I am so tired,” Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter says just before the shades close their eyes. The moan of the blues man slumbers into the ancient aura of apple-fattened walls. And grandma looks dead again.

I am sitting, staring at the man with the dark coat standing over grandma’s frozen body. I ask momma, Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter, who is the man with the dark coat?  She isn’t quite sure, but she says, “Maybe one of grandma’s friends.” I think to myself, grandma’s friends never wore dark coats. It would ruin their wings.

A host of other people enters the church quietly like entering a library. (The unspoken soul is a curious thing. People say so much when they say nothing.) Interrupted. Ms. Ann, my grandmother’s other friend—the one without wings—screams into the quiet room, upsetting the ether, bending the silence, but not reviving the dead. I once heard the Preacher instruct, “For everything, there is a season.”  I think to myself: maybe this is the season for granny’s friends—even the ones without wings—to make loud, sudden noises.

“Don’t look so down,” momma says. She sounds a lot like grandma now.

“There go the Caldwells,” she notices.

The Caldwells notice her too. After visiting grandma’s frozen body, which is in the front of the room, the Caldwells make their way to where we are. They sit behind us.

“How you doing, Mul-lean?”

“As good as to be expected.”

“I understand honey. You remind me so much of Dixie. Your grandmother meant so much to us, dear. We have to get together sometime soon. I know that’s what Dixie would want.”

“Ok,” my mother says just before the walls squeal. Am I the only one in the room, besides my grandmother, who can hear them?

*

My mother and the Caldwells never got together. Despite the fact, I never will understand why the seasoned take so kindly to the young. Maybe we remind them of steps once taken—better yet of steps that should never be taken or steps that could still be taken. Whatever the case, I remembered at that moment while listening to the lament of walls my grandmother’s incredible love, particularly her love for me.

Gazing at my grandmother’s crestfallen face peeking out the open casket, I remembered how she loved me and told me that her love for me would endure forever. And if there is anything common beneath the sun, indeed it is this thing we call love, yet the ways of love seemed, to me then as they do now, to be quite unique, so utterly personal and new that when hearing the Preacher say, “There is nothing new under the Sun,” I instantly questioned his truth.

Love is erected like walls. On one side it contains intentions of the heart. On the other side it leaves open vast space for new intentions to emerge.

Love grows old like walls. Listens like walls. And is sturdy within its own walls. It eclipses the space between old and new. Though flesh decays and lives pass on, Love is eternal like the whispers of walls, which speak of the secrets of new things.

Love echoes the forgotten voices and sometimes sings the remembered blues. But under the sun, it’s eclipsing beyond its own walls. In this space—the space of the heart, the space of a grandmother’s love, Love inspires not only new music, but also new life.

For a while, long after she had left life’s orchard, I could still hear Eddie Kirkland out there, singing my grandmother’s song, telling her secrets. Unfortunately, we listeners are usually too clumsy, too casual, and too busy moaning to our own blues to hear to the song of walls or the passing truths that resound silently in their cries.

I heard the walls cry one night, and, listening, my ears faintly glimpsed the sound of new stars shining on the other side of the sun.

A Meditation on Rainbow Communities, Mosaics, and Flower Pots

???????????????????????????????????????

* * *

Living in NYC spoiled me. I became use to the melodies of many voices singing in the Big City streets, the portrait of rainbow faces blended into a beautiful kaleidoscopic blur, and the witness of sundry hands clinched despite their difference. The range of diversities and inclusivities that NYC offered seemed not only innumerable, but natural. It seemed right that many faces would fit together, as if the scape of color, the magnificent prisms of difference were all by design, all resolutely divine and remarkable, all sublimely and indisputably the essence of who we are and are meant to be—many colorful flowers fitted to one magnificent flower pot.

Fast forward a few years: I am back in MI where colors don’t always dance together in the spectrum of space, where flowers sit alone in their own pots, segregated by color. We recognize them as separate, divided by boundaries that organize blacks from whites, greens from yellows, winters from springs—all sorts of divisions that make uniform but unnatural our common world.

Of course, NYC and MI are different places with vastly different histories. One is a city (which is as big as most American states); the other is a state, which suffers its own internal fractures, like the one that separates blues from reds. Don’t get me wrong. I love MI. It is my home, but I do miss NYC because it frees me from the limits of space to which MI relegates me, and quite unnecessarily to a particular color.

I had a book signing the other day, and the room filled with a sea of Black faces and hungry ears invested in what I might say. In the sea of Black faces sat four lonely islands of White—White faces easy to recognize because in MI such sprinkles of difference are easy to spot because they violate some unwritten color code. To this occurrence, I do admit to being a bit disappointed because I deeply believe in integration and understand that we, the human race, dance better together than we do apart, that the gardens of God are particolored and as fresh and as colorful as the Magnolia blossoms of spring.

Now integration implies a two-way transit of bodies borne of open invitations to explore freely the in-between spaces of our existence. It is an eventuality of willingness, where people choose to exist together for mutual and collective purposes, not through force but by will. In integrated spaces, different people exist together because they want to exist together.

In spite of dissimilarities (or because of them), people in integrated spaces ever feel the lived inspiration that the common space creates. The products of their sharing are uniquely scripted for them and by them. In such spaces, individuals and groups, in spite of their surface differences, see themselves as playing on the same team. They develop solidarity and, from this solidarity, a means to communicate and commune. They share values and temporalities, blend customs and cares in ways where individual qualities do not disappear, but appear amplified as an integral part of the integrated collectivity (or collective activity). Integration, as we would have it, is not the policy that we have long pursued in the States; it is not desegregation.

Desegregation is a policy-driven attempt to force people (who may or may not want to be together) together. In its most disturbing of forms, it is about deficit models where “the poor” are given false “charity” by being forced to live among a population of “better resourced” people who loathes them, where Blacks are doomed to the captivity of White “salvation,” such as being bused to White schools that do not want them. The calculus of desegregation is exhausting because no matter how you apply the equation to real life the fiction of real solution remains a real farce.

This brings me back to my book signing. While I entered the room hoping for a more integrated audience, I left it wondering how this integrated audience might have materialized. In pondering this question, I wondered as well why my audience, whom I was very grateful for, was chiefly Black. After some deliberation, I later reasoned that it may have had something to do with my book, which is a deep meditation on the ontology of Black males and literacy. It may have had something to with my own race: I am Black. It may have had something to do with the history of race in the MI, particularly at a historically White institution such as Michigan State University. It may have had something to do with all or none or a combination of these plus other things. Who knows? I don’t. What I do know is that the room that day taught me an important lesson.

The theory of integration is a good idea, one worth pursuing and fighting for. However, we cannot force it, but we can encourage it by creating conditions where people feel safe and invited to live beyond the homogeneity of convenience. We can also challenge ourselves to extend our footsteps long enough that we flirt with unknown distances and walk in places that seem unlike us but in a sincere search for common elements that might connect us. The truth is, we are greater together than we are apart, that the world looks more beautiful when we are planted together in one pot big enough to embrace our many leaves.

Living together is its own reward, but we must labor for it because rewards that are truly meaningful, that are worthy of us, require that we work for them.

* * *