Friday, July 24, 2015

“Work in Progress…”: parts i & ii

part i

In the light of this summer (the massacre of nine black people in a church in Charleston, the burning of more black churches, Sandra Bland now wrongly arrested and found hanged in her cell, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book), and at my father’s urging, I want to reflect on my months of respite from American race politics: I came to this place to recover myself.

black folk always be leavin the segregated states of amerikkka – to free themselves, find themselves.

The same was true for me nine years back. It doesn’t get easier, being black in America, it doesn’t get better. The streets have been raging for our sons still being killed at the hands of the keepers of the peace. Our sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, sons, daughters are being murdered in worship. Our churches are burning.

“Lord, I am weary, let me rest,” the white folk sing.

Being black in America there is no rest. We stand together, close our eyes and pray together, bodies swaying with the sound and the spirit, our voices risen as one, singing, “Hold on… just a little while longer… hold on… just a little while longer… hold on… just a lit’l while longer… Everything’s… gon… be all right… Oh, everything gon be all right.”


My first year of graduate school I lived in a sweet but sad neighborhood. Far from campus, on the other side of the river, my home always felt to me severed from the city and the pulse of life. On one end cut the Interstate, on another a semi-industrial zone, and between my home and the river ran a sprawling swathe of University-owned, largely undeveloped land.

Usually, I biked the main road from my house to the river and over the bridge to school each day. I would weave my way through the potholed streets of my neighborhood; out to the main paved road; past the gas station, through the intersection; past the public housing units, emptied, weeds growing tall and wild behind the fence as they waited to be demolished; past more land, fenced and fallowing, and the Stadium on the left looking like a Roman ruin; past the manicured sidewalk at the Business School; and, finally, over the bridge, turning my head left, turning my head right, looking at the lope of the river, curving, extending, disappearing into sight.

One winter or early spring evening, one of my roommates came home, near on tears. N was dark, slim, young, sharp, a beauty. Forceful and passionate, a commanding personality, she was also sometimes quieted as if having been sitting waiting at a country bus depot through long, hot afternoon hours. N studied art, sociology, and museum and gallery curating, focusing on African-American art.

On this evening, it must have been about 8 or so when N got home; after the solstice but before the equinox, it was dark out, dark. N had walked home from school, across the river and down the long stretch of road, past the Stadium, to the intersection, all near on deserted under nightfall and cold. There was a young, white couple walking ahead of her, she said, a young man and woman… and I imagine them holding hands walking in the night, an East Coast or Massachusetts breed of white: milk-fed and Polo-wearing; her with straw hair and pearls on her ears; him rather non-descript; both maybe bundled against the cold. There was a young, white couple ahead of her, she said, heading home at night, and N behind them, Timberland boots and skinny jeans, young and slim and beautiful, the straps of her backpack over her jacket, and her face, her eyes. And it was dark, dark.

I do not remember what else N said, if she said they picked up their pace, glancing back over their shoulders, if they whispered to one another with a rush, or if she felt their fear. But I remember her eyes brimming with tears, her frustration and anger. I remember her describing a sense of split consciousness in the encounter, DuBois’ double-consciousness: the eyes of others’ privilege refracting her self upon her self as suspect (that is, sub-spect, looking at askance, regarding with mistrust).

I remember that I wanted to hold her and shake her and hug her. I wanted to tell her I know it, because I do, I’ve had to. This happens all the time. I wanted to tell her to be strong, that it will never be fair, and to never allow another steal her dignity and pride. I remember I didn’t say anything right, I was surprised. I came off as cold, I didn’t know how to react. I remember being caught up in my own aversion to the situation, my own struggle, and my own trajectory of identifying myself in the realm of race politics in the U.S.A.

…I just want to be whole.

Walking down the streets of Addis, heading home at night, I have never been gripped by the kind of fear and self-consciousness that rushes and swells through my body as it does in the States when I trail behind a stranger. I know that feeling so well: I have been raised on it. Here, when I ask a stranger for directions in the dark, she near on walks me home.


part ii

I have always found the sky in Massachusetts to be low and thin. A sky like watery milk, it is sometimes rather too dense – petrous, heavy. It looks like its name. The land itself looks like its name – muggy, February-frozen, pine-spare and feathery. It is a name from before, Massachusetts, like so many place names in the USA: a track in the land… a name for forgetting written into the country’s collective memory.

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