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Do You Remember the Time? At the Lynching Memorial

On September 11, 2021 I visited the Lynching Memorial, which is near the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

At the heart of the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (Lynching memorial) is a vast collection of giant, rusty metal, rectangular pillars, hanging tightly together like a neatly planned and well-looked-after orchard.

Etched in each are the names of (known) lynching victims by date.

We can see that, at times, entire families were lynched.

The pillars are hung so cleverly that one has to experience this artistic installation in person.

Nonetheless, the subject of white terrorism in the deep south is heavy,

Which is perhaps why Guests are invited to visit the nearby museum before the Memorial.

One needs time to prepare.

Naturally, sandwiched between enslavement and mass incarceration exhibits,

The museum also has an array of material on lynching.

This included a giant mural of jars surrounded by videos, infographic murals, maps and

An interactive register of every known lynching by county, date, state, and name.

I’m still stuck on the mural of snapshots of actual lynching advertisements, and

Pictures of actual news reports of victims’ final words.

These were the actual final words of folks etched forever in these hanging, rusty pillars.

Ostensibly, written by war correspondents.

Standing in awe of the museum’s wall of jars, I chatted with a tall Black man about my age.

He’d traveled here from a neighboring state with his teen son to, as he said,

“See how this stuff we go through today ain’t new.”

I recounted to him what a young man at the EJI memorial had showed me a few years ago:

A man’s name who’d been lynched early last century for selling loose cigarettes –

Just like Eric Garner!

Yet, even since then,

We’ve gotten the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,

Or even Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Philando Castile.

Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times in 1999, standing on his own stoop

And while Jayland Walker got 46 bullets this year while fleeing on foot.

Tamir Rice!

Tamir Rice was a little boy.

A little boy playing in the park. But his mere presence terrified a white man.

So he called 9-1-1 and the police showed up and shot Tamir within seconds!

We can watch the tape.

All of these martyrs are included in the museum’s growing timelines (sigh).

After their own legal work in representing the wrongfully imprisoned for damn near life,

EJI began collecting jars of dirt near every known lynching, and

If invited by local officials, EJI would offer a memorial plaque and ceremony commemorating that community’s recognition of historic injustice(s).

An open field sits next to the suspended pillars, filled with a duplicate of each pillar.

These duplicates sit, having yet to be collected and properly dedicated by each county.

These communities are denied healing, and we know wounds fester.

The field of lame duplicates effectively memorializes the festering denial in our body politic.

There are far too many unrecorded victims and versions of white mob violence, and intimidation, not just barbarous torture and heinous murder.

Outside of these few sorts of memorials,

We do have to wonder how else this rich history has stayed in our collective memories.

Too many Black families were too traumatized to talk and didn’t want to pass it to their kids.

We know many fled after any minor incursion,

Just as someone had advised Emmet Till to do,

And there’s no accounting for them and the victims’ families who fled and

Even hid or discarded any news clippings they’d seen of the events.

Yet, whites must have kept record.

Did whites collect the newspaper ads or reports of a lynching they’d attended or hoped to?

They made and sold lynching postcards, curios, and other odd lynching souvenirs.

Where are the avid collectors?

Plus, apparently, terrorists don’t just kidnap and hang someone to death,

So what did they do with all the ears, noses, fingers, and genitals they cut off?

Or eyes they plucked out?

Or scalps they shaved?

Many victims pass out from the immense pain of being tortured and burned alive, but still

I doubt all those pieces and parts got thrown in the fire, because, of course,

Plenty of pictures show entire white families there to celebrate the lynching like (a) V-day.

And in many ways, it was, and

The whites looked as if they would’ve wanted to remember.

Looks can be deceiving, but the ways whites were also bullied into compliance is real.

Still, my mother swears that some white families’ heirlooms must include

Prized, preserved pieces of Nat Turner.

Ooh, wouldn’t that be a treasure that would be.

Plus, given the spate and state of anti-Black policing and violence,

Our democracy, nay, our Constitution itself, is as rusty as these pillars.

The pillars resting in the field remind us not only the work left to do, but also, it’s urgency.

How many more pillars may we still need?

How many amendments did will freedom take?

It goes to show how great thou art now!

See: Slave Ads at the EJI Museum

Catalog of Negores, mules, carts and wagons to be sold

In September 2021, I visited the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in my maternal grandparents’ hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each era. Consider these1854 slave market advertisements from the Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette – still the local newspaper!

Catalog of Negroes, mules, carts, wagons and Co., to be sold in Montgomery. Headlines included: Wenches and bucks, quality Negroes for sale.

Nancy – about 26, fieldhand, cannot recommend her particularly, complains of indisposition, but probably a proper master might cure her.

Ben – A strong and hearty man, about 30 years old, an excellent field hand, and a remarkably handy boy, in any use, being usually quick and intelligent; a No. 1 Negro.

Suckey, A remarkably intelligent Negro girl about 15 years of age, understands General house work well for her age; can sew tolerably, and is a most excellent nurse and attendant for children; has remarkable strength of constitution, and never known to have been complaining even for a moment; a pretty good field hand, and would make an excellent one.

Allison – about 15, fine body and house servant, carriage driver and Ostler, honest, steady, handy, healthy, smart, intelligent, and in all respects a choice and desirable boy.

Mary Jane – about 11.

Martha – about 10.

Louisa – about 7.

Old George – as faithful and honest an old African as ever lived.

His wife Judy, the same sort of character.

Henrietta – about 24… First-rate cotton picker.

One of the humans being trafficked recounted:

“To test the soundness of a male or female slave… They are handled in the grossest manner, and inspected with… disgusting minuteness… in the auction room where the dealer is left alone with the ‘chattels’ offered… God has recorded the wickedness that is done there, and punishment will assuredly fall upon the guilty.” -J. Brown.

The ebb and flow of freedom.

Each exhibit in the ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ museum takes visitors seamlessly through the Atlantic slave trade, past Jim and Jane Crow segregation, to a recorded face-to-face visit with a real-life, modern-day inmate. As you enter what seems like the final hall, you are confronted with an array of individual seats at a glass window/screen projecting an inmate calmly sitting, waiting. Like a real prison visit, there’s a telephone, which once lifted, the prisoner does the same, introduces themselves, and recounts their story. History confronts you in the present: The confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. By 1898, 73% of state revenue came from convict leasing. Now?

One explicit goal of the EJI project, reflected and reinscribed in the exhibits’ descriptions, is a shift in language from slavery and slaves to human trafficking and enslavement. Surely, one can feel the sublingual, subliminal shift from victimology to responsibility, and that implies accountability. To be clear, the entire economy centered around usurping land, driving-out or exterminating the indigenous people, human trafficking and slave labor, shredding the natural environment into farmland to produce cotton, cane and tobacco, manufacturing a range of commodities from these raw materials, trading around the world. Who got rich? Whose labor was exploited?

Who is accountable for giving birth to Jim Crow, if slavery died with ole Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Who is accountable for cultivating chronic poverty and voter intimidation, if we’d exterminated white lynch mobs through the Civil Rights codes of the sixties? Who indeed is responsible for mass incarceration? The exhibits challenge language that focuses on the victim and remains hush about the status quo, masking the ensuing abuse of power needed for its maintenance, especially hidden from abusers who may themselves be exploited by the myth of meritocracy.

As a side note, perhaps people will not actually be able to reckon with this cognitive dissonance of heroic CONfederate generals and their cause to uphold each state’s right to let white men traffic and enslave Blacks. I’d truly like to see public statues of say, the valiant General Lee, standing next to two or three statues of enslaved people, and a few statues of the white people charged with the quotidian physical labor of enslavement, e.g., driving labor (whip crackers), capturing and punishing escapees (slave catchers, the original law-enforcement force), breaking in new arrivals (torture), breeding ((gang)rape), and general humiliation throughout these duties (sadomasochism). Perhaps the museum just needs to add another exhibit with busts of them.

With stark population stats posted big and bold as visitors transition from room to room, the exhibits chronologically shift through significant eras. Today in the prison industrial complex there are 8 million incarcerated. 10 million were segregated under Jim and Jane Crow until the Civil Rights movement. 9 million terrorized by lynching, accelerating the erosion of Reconstruction. The nation was born and raised with 12 million kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Dear reader, right now I ask, what precisely has our nation done to upend caste?

No ways tired: Miss Lillie, arrested with Mrs. Parks.

12 September 2021

Visit to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

Near the end of the EJI’s newly expanded museum, there is a wall of slightly larger than life-size mugshots of folks arrested alongside Mrs. Rosa Parks in just another local act of civil disobedience. I’ve rarely seen a more earnest collection of everyday people, not unlike the folks around me as I get to know Montgomery today.

Mugshots.

Men in suits, ladies sporting pretty hats in their Sunday best.

Farmers in overalls and working women in neat dresses.

Learned-looking men with glasses, and fancy tiepins.

Young men in sleek fedoras and two or three older men in derbies.

Another man wears a skullcap.

Meaningful women and men of age, of reconstruction age, whom we imagine had by then seen every intimate and public side of Jim and Jane Crows’ wickedness.

They were representin’.

The only thing they seem to have in common is their determination.

(Sigh).

I found myself face-to-face and fixated with

Miss Lillie Bell Robinson.

She sat,

Framed,

With her arms,

Crossed.

Double-crossed.

With her head,

Tilted,

With her expression, tired, but

Also, a particular squint in her eye – or perhaps a gleam – that betrays her obvious fatigue,

As if saying: “No ways tired.”

I moan in tune, and

This somehow keeps my knees from buckling under the weight of it all, since

The preceding exhibits have already taken us along a long timeline where

Every glimpse of justice gets trampled upon –

Again, and again.

I sigh and see why they are tired.

On that day, did Miss Lillie know that much more violence, much more real intensified violence was yet to come?

This was the mid-50’s, and

Could Miss Lillie have imagined that:

Just 5-6 years later,

Freedom Riders from the north would arrive around the corner,

Riding federally desegregated, public coaches, and

The same local sheriffs would stand by, and

Let them get beaten, assaulted, brutally, and

Battered by white-hot mobs –

Only to arrest the so-called outside agitators?

Probably all of you, Miss Lillie, were battered by many of the same hands, and

Abandoned by many of the same actors of local justice.

I estimate Miss Lillie to be my grandparents’ age, and

By that day, they’d already fled and made their way to Kentucky.

I am wondering where Miss Lillie is now – right now?

(I take a deep sigh and realize that I’ve not yet reached the mass incarceration part of the museum, and ultimately just skimmed on by.

Graciously, the final exhibit is a “Recovery room,” a hall of walls of portraits,

which we might also call “mugshots,”

As each face had all, actively, over centuries,

Activated against oppression.

I recognized writers, musicians, poets, painters, politicians, preachers, teachers, activists of all flavors, and

After the weight of the truth shown in each timeframe, this left me feeling full of joy.

And, I moaned along with the tunes, there, too.

That day,

She’d had had enough, and

Though reluctant before,

Somehow now,

Miss Lillie could no longer stand by, and

Just wait for justice, and

Just go on about her own merry way, and

Pretend like this is ok, and

Adjust to the insanity of segregation, and

The very look on her face said this is “why we can’t wait.”

Her face calm, but

Twisted.

The mug shot ID, hanging around her neck like a shackle: #7010.

Business as usual, and for sure somebody’s gettin’ paid.

So, she not knowing.

She, not knowing if this all will work.

If getting arrested today mattered.

If any of this is worth it.

If this time change is coming,

having nothing left but Faith…

in herself, in others, and

Somehow faith in her nation… to do the right thing,

Despite this day, and

In spite of the many apparent setbacks, and

A million everyday,

Tiny little cuts.

We rise.

That day, Miss Lillie rose to the occasion.

She and all these others stepped up so we could step out, and

Step in here now,

Free to learn about each step along our legacy of peace.

I’m now in awe of Miss Lillie, and

Take a step back and

Smile at her, and

Take in the glory of this sensation.

Hats off to you, Miss Lillie.

Sculpture at EJI’s Lynching Memorial

Lines of soldiers snaked around the airport departure area…

In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.

They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.

“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.

I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.

Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.

Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.

“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)

In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence.  It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!

There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.

What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.

So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.

At The Mouth of ‘Bloody Sunday’ #Travel #Prose #History

At the Mouth of Bloody Sunday

I know the one thing we did right, was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on. Hold on.

Bloody Sunday in Selma only highlighted the bloody Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays that Black people in America have faced from the first time we laid eyes on these shores. It took people to gather and protest to change. In December ’64, the good Rev. Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this movement. That spring in Selma, people marched across a bridge in order to highlight the normal voter suppression practices still happening throughout the south – and still in 2021. 

“If you can’t vote, you ain’t free. If you ain’t free, well then you a slave.” –Intro interview to Eyes on the Prize part 6/8.

According to the National Park Service, who oversees the important civic monument now:

“On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma.” 

From my 7th grade social studies class circa ‘87, I would also add: The good white citizens of Selma gathered at the mouth of the bridge for the spectacle, to witness or probably participate in the oppression. We see them in the footage, films, pictures and media coverage of the events, and we know many are likely still alive. Black-n-white news footage of the days leading to Bloody Sunday show the sheriff and his angry henchmen prodding people with their clubs, plenty of ‘regular’ people watching in joy.

The people prodded? Well-dressed and behaved Black citizens of Selma and activists who’d come to support them. According to the footage, white citizens came out in droves for what they knew would be a bloody suppression of simple voting rights. As spectators, their presence made the massacre spectacular.

Selfie @ the Mouth of the Bridge, Sept ’21

I’ve visited the National Voter Rights Museum and Institute at the mouth of the bridge, and there they have an actual jar of jellybeans used to test Black people coming to sign up to vote at the local government office. Yes, sitting behind that booth was a white man who demanded that a black person – any citizen of the darker complexion – accurately guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to be allowed – in order for him to allow them – to register to vote. I feel like I have to repeat that, or say it in different ways because it is so unbelievable.

This September, I visited a museum at the edge of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the way to Montgomery, the state capital. This historical museum marks local efforts to contest voter restriction practices. These practices were heinous in tone and texture, yet creative and cringe-worthy in nurture and nature. For example, consider the ingenious of these jellybean-counting white men in DC who created the separate-n-unequal space to inspire a variety of voter suppression taxes, tests and clauses throughout the south. It is these sorts of mad men who make decisions that impact the entire world as we have come to know and understand it now. 

Yes, it is these sorts of men who send politicians to the state houses, and sent/send senators to Washington DC, to cajole politicians of every hue to compromise on their values. Now, we also know they send mobs to storm the capitol on the very day all the legislators gather to confirm the election results.

I know the one thing we did right, was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on. Hold on.

The jar of jellybeans at the National Voter Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Al. Sept ’21

Imagine yourself standing there in a museum, looking at a shelf, and there is a jar of jellybeans. There’s nothing spectacular about the jar, nor its contents. For any of us have seen something like this in virtually any kitchen, or supermarket. My granny grew, harvested and canned vegetables, so growing up I got to handle many mason jars first hand. 

In fact, I love jellybeans. I used to visit the gourmet jellybeans shop in the mall after school when I was a kid. You could pick out any flavour that you liked, and I always went for blueberry, and cherry. I loved the contrast between the royal blue and Corvette red. It is a childhood fascination that my dentists still adore me for to this day. Naturally, these gourmet jellybeans were a little more expensive than the ones you get in the supermarkets, but I liked to save my money and treat myself sometimes. Plus, it felt very special being able to pick out the ones you like, and not have to discard the disgusting ones – who ever thought licorice or cola belonged on a jelly bean!?! 

As a candy, jellybeans are so visually enticing. As you enter the shop, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with all sorts of bright neon colors. Every shade of the rainbow grabs your eyes, calls to you. Between stacks of plastic bags and scoops, you are awed by the massive jars of each individual jellybean color ready for you to pick-and-mix. There are also tables with stacks of both empty and pre-filled jars. There are jars of all sizes filled with colorful patterns of jellybeans with matching ribbons tied in bows around the lids. Of course, the entire shop smells like fruit, all kinds of fruits, sweet, succulent fruits that you cannot even imagine. You are the customer, you are king. By virtue of entering the fancy shop, this is your kingdom.

Now take all of that and put it in a jar. To get to this jar, you have to enter an official government building in the town center. Next to the entrance stands an armed, uniformed white man who gives you a disgruntled look as you enter, signaling that he’s not there for your safety but aggravation. Now, as you approach, you see the jar, sitting on a counter, and behind it sits another white man. Try to imagine this white man, probably with a gun next to him or somewhere nearby, with nothing better to do than to threaten your life. Because the town is so small, he knows your last name, and may know of your family. 

Since this is a small town, he knows your employer, he knows where you live as you’ve just written this down. He may even know your family, as the local history is so insidious, his family may have even owned or overseen yours at one time. Or, at that very moment, you or a family member may work for him or his kin. Your kids might play together. You may have played with him as a kid when, for example, your mother was his nanny (read-and-said-in-the-south: Mammy). Yet now, here in a free democracy, it is his job to register citizens to vote. 

It is his prerogative, the birthright of this individual, plain (white) man on the other side of the glass to demand that you count the number of jellybeans in the goddamn jar. It is a privilege that no one anywhere near here has ever questioned. So, with a smile, he plops a big red “DENIED” stamp on your registration form. Of course yo’cain’t! A “killing rage” surges. Be glad you don’t have a gun with you.

My First Foreign Friend #ShortStory #BlackAsiaWithLove

I love school.

In the third grade, we had a foreign student named Graham. His parents had come over to our hometown from England with a job, and his family was to stay in our town for a year or two.

Other than Graham’s accent, at first he didn’t in anyway appear, or feel different.

The only time that Graham’s difference mattered , or that I knew Graham’s difference mattered, was on the spelling test. We had moved far away from three letter words, to larger words and sentences, and by fourth grade we were writing our own books.

But in the third grade, there was Graham on our first spelling test, and our teacher drilling words like color.

The teacher made it fun by using word association to aid in memory. Then, he paused to explain that Graham would be excused if he misspelled certain words because where he’s from, they spelt (spelled) things differently. Spell “color” differently, we all wondered? 

Our teacher explained that there are many words where they add the letter U, that are pronounced in the same way. Anyway we have different accents in our own country. Heck, we had different ways of saying the word “colour” in our own city. Where does the extra-U go? Then of course, the teacher spelled out the word. He could not write it on the chalkboard because we were sitting in a circle on the area rug, on the library side of the classroom. It is then that I also realized that I had a visual memory, even visualizing words audible words, both the letters and images representing the meaning. I wanted to know why people in England spelled things differently than in America. Despite Graham’s interesting accent, and easy nature which got him along fine with everyone, he was going to have to answer some questions.

Though our teacher did not write the letters, in hearing them I could see them in my mind moving around. I started imagining how moving the different letters shifted – or did not shift – differences in sound, across distances, borders, and cultures. I started imagining how the sounds moved with the people. Irish? Scottish? People in our city claimed these origins, and they talk funny on TV. Britain has many accents, our teacher explained. “I’m English,” blurted Graham. 

We didn’t know much, but we knew that except for our Jewish classmates, everyone in that room had a last name from the British Isles, which we took a few moments to discuss. Most our last names were English, like my maternal side. A few kids had heard family tales of Scottish or Irish backgrounds, German, too. One girl had relatives in Ireland. And wherever the McConnell’s are from, please come get Mitch. Hurry up! 

How did we Blacks get our Anglicized names? Ask Kunta Kinte! And how did this shape Black thought/conscience, or the way we talk? I wanted to know MORE. I thought Jewish people were lucky: At least they knew who they were, and they were spoken of with respect. Since my dad is Nigerian, (and my name identifiably African) I had a slight glimpse of this. I knew I had a history, tied to people and places beyond the plantation, and outside of any textbook I’ve ever had (until now where I get to pick the texts and select the books).

My family is full of migrants, both geographically and socially, so homelife was riddled with a variety of accents. Despite migrating north, my grandparents’ generation carried their melodic Alabama accents with them their whole lives. Their kids exceeded them in education, further distancing our kin from cotton farming, both in tone and texture. This meant that my generation was the first raised by city-folk, and all the more distant from our roots since we came of age in the early days of Hip-Hop. At home, there were so many different kinds of sounds, music, talk and accents. Fascinating we can understand done another.

Our teacher also told us that Americans also used some of the same words differently. Now, I’ve lived here in the UK for a decade and I can’t be bothered to call my own car’s trunk a boot. Toilet or loo? Everybody here gets it. Unfortunately, Graham explained that he knew the British term for what we call ‘eraser’, which the teacher couldn’t gloss over because we each had one stashed in our desks, and he knew we’d have the giggles each time the word was mentioned.

I was still struck by the fact that in spite of all these differences and changes, meanings of words could shift or be retained, both in written and spoken forms. I wanted to know more about these words – which words had an extra U – and where had the British got their languages and accents. For me, Graham represented the right to know and experience different people, that this was what was meant by different cultures coming together.

“Here I am just drownin’ in the rain/With a ticket for a runaway train…” – Soul Asylum, 1992, senior year.

In retrospect it’s weird that Graham’s my first foreign friend. Both my father and godmother immigrated to America – initially to attend my hometown university. They’d come from Nigeria and China, respectively, and I’d always assumed that I’d eventually visit both places, which I have. Perhaps this particular friendship sticks with me because Graham’s the first foreign kid I got to know. 

Through knowing Graham, I could for the first time imagine myself, in my own shoes, living in another part of the world, not as a young adult like my folks, but in my 8-year-old body. What interested me more was that I could also see Graham was not invested in the macho culture into which we were slowly being indoctrinated (bludgeoned). For example, Graham had no interest in basketball, which is big as sh*t in Kentucky. Nor did I. “Soccer is more popular over there,” our teacher explained, deflecting from Graham’s oddness. “But they call it football.” Who cares! I’d also seen Graham sit with his legs crossed, which was fully emasculating as far as I knew back then. The teacher defended him, saying that this also was different where Graham came from. I definitely knew I wanted to go there, and sit anyway I wanted to sit.

The 7 shots of Isaiah Brown (April, post-George Floyd murder case) #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Isaiah Brown was shot by the policeman who’d given him a ride home less than an hour earlier, after his car had broken down at a gas station. He was shot 3 minutes into his 9-1-1 call. The cop mistook the cordless phone Isaiah was holding for a gun. This was the very phone he’d mentioned to the 9-11 dispatcher, using the very same cordless phone from his home. On the 9-1-1 call, Isaiah is explicitly asked, and confirms that he is unarmed, also that he was walking down the street on the phone, escaping a volatile situation. 

On the call, it’s clear that Isaiah was reaching out for a lifeline – calling out from hell in sheer crisis. It wasn’t that he was in danger, he had the emotional maturity to call for help when he felt himself at risk of endangering another. “I’m about to kill my brother,” he calmly tells the dispatcher, who by now can start to hear him panting from walking. 

“Do you understand that you just threatened to kill your brother on a recorded line on 9-1-1,” she asks calmly. “Mmm Hmm,” he confirms casually. He was calling her for help, and by now it’s clear that she’s attempting to keep him talking, i.e. redirect his attention from his crisis by having him describe the crisis.  She’s helping Isaiah to look at his situation objectively, and it’s working. This is a classic de-escalation tool that anyone who has ever taken care of a toddler knows. Isaiah calmly and rationally confirmed that he knew the implications of his words, and he kept pleading for help. 

This was a call about a domestic dispute and there was talk of a gun, which never materialized, neither did the caller nor his brother in the background suggest the actual presence of a gun. Isaiah can be heard twice ushering someone out with him, and by his tone it seemed that he was speaking to a child, using a Black girl’s name. None of Isaiah’s ushering is noted in the transcript. In hearing so many keystrokes, one wonders which parts of this is being taken down. Again, she asked him to confirm that he was unarmed. In fact, she seemed bewildered that he was using a house phone, yet still able to walk down the street, again, evidently attempting to de-escalate the situation. How many times have you told some to “take a walk!”

“How are you walking down the road with the house phone,” she asks. “because I can,” he says, and leaves it at that. 

In the background of the call, we hear police sirens approaching. “You need to hold your hands up,” she says. “Huh,” he asks. “Hold your hands up,” she says sharply, as if anticipating the coming agitation. It’s interesting to note here that we, too, know that despite the casual nature of this distress call, despite all clear and explicit confirmation that the gentleman was unarmed, and regardless of the fact that the dispatcher knew that Isaiah would be in the street when officers approached, the raising in alarm in her voice betrayed the fact that she knew the officer would escalate the situation. 

“Why would you want to do something like that,” she calmly asks, he calmly answers. She engages him in this topic for a while, and we can hear the background become quieter. His explanations are patchy and make little sense, yet he remains calm. By now, it’s clear that the caller is of danger to no one else but his brother, and that he’d managed to create some physical distance between the two. So far, nothing suggests anyone is about to die. Yet, the officer arrives, and within 30 seconds, 7 shots are fired, Isaiah is down.

After the 7 shots are fired, you can hear someone moaning in pain, and you can’t exactly tell if it’s Isaiah or the dispatcher; the dispatcher’s recording continues.  After the shots are fired, and it’s clear from the audio that the victim is moaning in pain, the cop continues to bark out orders: “Drop the gun” and so forth. He’s just 7 times, we hear a fallen man, and the cop is still barking in anger and anguish. Is he saying “drop the gun” to Isaiah, or performing for the record, as Black twitter has suggested? Confusingly, moments later the officer is heard playing Florence Nightingale, complete with gentle bedside manner. We hope Isaiah survives; issuing aid at this moment is life-saving.

“He just shot ‘em, the dispatcher says to someone off call, who can now be heard on another dispatch call regarding the incident.  “I got you man” the policeman says to Isaiah moments after shooting him, then mercifully: “I’m here for you, ok.”

Now, in the distance, we hear the familiar voice of Isaiah’s brother calling out, “Hey, what’s going on, bro?” “It’s ok” the officer calls out quickly. He never says what’s just happened. Then, “Go to my car, grab the medical kit,” he calls out to the brother.  “You shot ‘em,” the brother asks.  The cop says nothing.

The previous news report on the network nightly news was about Merrick Garland launching a civil rights investigation into my hometown’s police force, just over a year after the police murdered Breonna Taylor on my mother’s birthday. “It’s necessary because, police reform quite honestly, is needed, in nearly every agency across the country” says Louisville Metro Police Chief, Erika Shields. On that area’s local news website reporting this story, the next news story bleeds reads: “ Black gun ownership on the rise,” on no one should wonder why. But, this is America, so the headline finishes with: “But Black gun store owners are rare.” The all-American solution – more peace-makers!

Please stop ignoring our distress, or minimizing our pain with your calls to “go slow.” How slow did Isaiah have to move to avoid getting shot 7 times by a cop who’d just shown him an act of kindness and mercy!?! #BLM #BlackLivesMatter #Seriously #Nokidding

Chauvin’s Guilty Charges #BlackAsiaWithLove

Charge 1: Killing unintentionally while committing a felony.

Charge 2: Perpetrating an imminently dangerous act with no regard for human life.

Charge 3: Negligent and culpable of creating an unreasonable risk.

Guilty on all three charges.

Today, there’s some hope to speak of. If we go by the book, all the prosecution’s witnesses were correct. Former police officer Chauvin’s actions killed George Floyd. By extension, the other two officers/overseers are guilty, too, of negligence and gross disregard for life. They taunted and threatened onlookers when they weren’t helping Chauvin kneel on Floyd. Kneeling on a person’s neck and shoulders until they die is nowhere written in any police training manual. The jury agreed, and swiftly took Chauvin into custody . Yet, contrary to the testimonials of the police trainers who testified against Chauvin’s actions, this is exactly what policing has been and continues to be for Black people in America.

They approached Floyd as guilty and acted as if they were there to deliver justice. No officer rendered aid. Although several prosecution witnesses detailed how they are all trained in such due diligence, yet witnesses and videos confirm not a bit of aid was rendered. In fact, the overseers hindered a few passing-by off-duty professionals from intervening to save Floyd’s life, despite their persistent pleas. They acted as arbiters of death, like a cult. The officers all acted in character.

Still many more rows to hoe. Keep your hand on the plow.

Teenager Darnella Frazier wept on the witness stand as she explained how she was drowning in guilt sinceshe’d recorded the video of Chauvin murdering Mr. Floyd. She couldn’t sleep because she deeply regrated not having done more to save him, and further worried for the lives many of her relatives – Black men like George Floyd, whom she felt were just as vulnerable. When recording the video, Ms. Frazier had her nine-year-old niece with her. “The ambulance had to push him off of him,” the child recounts on the witness stand. No one can un-see this incident.

History shows that her video is the most vital piece of evidence. We know there would not have even been a trial given the official blue line (lie). There would not have been such global outcry if Corona hadn’t given the world the time to watch. Plus, the pandemic itself is a dramatic reminder that “what was over there, is over here.” Indeed, we are all interconnected.

Nine minutes and twenty seconds of praying for time.

Since her video went viral last May, we’d seen footage of 8 minutes and 46 seconds of Chauvin shoving himself on top of ‘the suspect’. Now: During the trial, we got to see additional footage from police body-cameras and nearby surveillance, showing Chauvin on top of Mr. Floyd for nine minutes and twenty seconds. Through this, Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonary critical care physician, was able to walk the jury through each exact moment that Floyd uttered his last words, took his last breath, and pumped his last heartbeat. Using freeze-frames from Chauvin’s own body cam, Dr. Tobin showed when Mr. Floyd was “literally trying to breathe with his fingers and knuckles.” This was Mr. Floyd’s only way to try to free his remaining, functioning lung, he explained.

Nine minutes and twenty seconds. Could you breathe with three big, angry grown men kneeling on top of you, wrangling to restrain you, shouting and demeaning you, pressing all of their weight down against you? 

Even after Mr. Floyd begged for his momma, even after the man was unresponsive, and even still minutes after Floyd had lost a pulse, officer Chauvin knelt on his neck and shoulders. Chauvin knelt on the man’s neck even after paramedics had arrived and requested he make way. They had to pull the officer off of Floyd’s neck. The police initially called Mr. Floyd’s death “a medical incident during police interaction.” Yes, dear George, “it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate.” Today, at least, there’s some hope to speak of.

One in a million!

I Wish We Had Twitter Back in the Day. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I wish we had Twitter back in the day. When I was a kid, I would sometimes spend playtime alone in my room, singing to the radio. Between the pop station and WLOU – the Black station which cut off around five or six in the evening – I could’ve tweeted the mix-tapes I made. I’d take momma or my grandparents’ radio alarm-clock, and put it face-to-face with my tape recorder to record songs from the radio. I even got pretty good at cutting the recording off before the radio DJ started talking over the end of the song. That’s why the Black station was better for recording because they always played the adlibbed outro/coda, the sweetest part of the song where the story and storyteller reached a resolution. The songs were always resolved, despite the dilemma at the start, especially love songs – either falling in or out of love. I had to play the record to listen to the full song.

Even though no singer sang about the love I knew I had inside of me, I could identify with others feelings – human feelings. My aunt Shirley still laments about the times we’d be riding in her car, listening to the radio, and “your song would come on.” She says I loved Dionne Warwick’s I’ll Never Love This Way Again, such adult themes, too, she adds. Or: “Reunited… and it feels so good.” Shirley says I sang as if this were my love affair. “And you was still small’nough to stand up in the back seat of the car.” Billboard ranks that Peaches and Herb’s jam as fifth out of the hundred hottest songs of ’79 – amid all the Disco greats I loved. I must have been four. Shirley often tells me about my precocious empathy as a child. I kept a diary from an early age, but by the time I was a teen, I was ready to share with the world the things I knew needed to change.

I’d tweet about all the singers and songs that meant so much to me – how their lyrics and artistry changed me. I’d make videos of me practicing combinations we’d learned in dance class, or choreographing my own music videos. “Video killed the radio star,” had no good dance moves yet was the very first video to play on MTV when the channel debuted in ’81. That that format quickly came to dominate how music was consumed and promoted. Otherwise, I was just alone in my artistic world, thinking I was the only boy who danced like a girl. 

Dance, I said!

At home, it wasn’t ever taboo to talk about Jim Crow. Prince and Michael Jackson had to dress a bit femme to disarm the wider/whiter masses; as did Jackie Wilson back in the day. I could see Motown was a white-washed version of the hymns my grandaddy sang from his book at home. This is what these artists did to crossover to the pop ‘genre’ and earn consequent pop radio circulation, pop sales, pop accolades and pop cash! Even now, Beyonce still gets over-nominated only in the Black categories.  People tweet about that sort of stuff now, but I didn’t even have those words at that age; still I sensed something was off about cultural appropriation and its economic consequences for all involved. I also knew that I was doing was taboo. Back in the day, I’d suppress any femme in me in order to crossover. I’d have tweeted about that.

Tweeting ole dirty work. 

I wish we had Twitter back in the day. Imagine Nat Turner proselytizing and organizing through Black Twitter. They’d still have had to use coded language, just like they used Negro Spirituals to encode messages of freedom: ‘Follow the drinking gourde’ would probably still fool folks now, just as much as today a murderous police officer’s defense attorney can claim that bodycam shows George Floyd saying, “I ate too many drugs,” when he actually said “I ain’t do no drugs.” Who eats drugs? Not in any Black English I know, and thanks to Black twitter, there’s an ivy-league sociolinguist who’s published a research paper on this very matter while we watch the overseer’s trial like we used to watch Video Soul. Ole uncle Nat would’ve gotten pretty far on his rebellion had he had Twitter back in the day.  Tweet tweet, MF! We’ve got Twitter today, so: “Let’s get in-formation.”

The First Day of Freedom -#SpOkenWoRd #BlackenAsiaWithLove

What must September 30th have felt like?

On a season seven episode of historian Prof. Skip Gates’ public broadcast show, Finding Your Roots, Queen Latifah read aloud the document that freed her first recorded ancestor: 

“Being conscious of the injustice and impropriety of holding my fellow creature in state of slavery, I do hereby emancipate and set free one Negro woman named Jug, who is about 28 years old, to be immediate free after this day, October 1st, 1792. -Mary Old” (slave-owner).

“No way,” Latifah sighs, and repeats this twice after she recites the words “set free.”

“OMG, I’m tingling right now,” she whispers.

‘The Queen L-A-T-I-F-A-H in command’ spent her entire rap career rapping about freedom.

And: U-N-I-T-Y!

Now she asks: “What must that have been like…to know that you are free?”

Indeed, what did it feel like to hold your own emancipation piece of paper for the first time?

Or, to receive this piece of paper in your (embondaged) hands? 

Or, pen a document liberating another who you believe to be a fellow human being?

What must September 30th have felt like for this slave…

The day before one’s own manumission, the eve of one’s freedom? 

What ever did Ms. Jug do?

How can I…

How can I claim any linkages to, or even feign knowing anything about –

Let alone understand – anyone who’s lived in bondage?

However, I can see that

We’re all disconnected from each other today, without seeking to know all our own pasts.

Or, consider:

The 1870 Federal census was the first time Africans in America were identified by name, Meaning: 

Most of us can never know our direct lineage …no paper trail back to Africa. 

So, what must it feel like to find the first record of your ancestors – from the first census – 

Only to discover a record of your earliest ancestor’s birthplace: Africa!?!

Though rare, it’s written before you that they’d survived capture and permanent separation, 

The drudgery of trans-Atlantic transport, and 

life-till-death of cruel and brutal servitude, and

Somehow, miraculously, here you are.

“The dream and the hope of the slave.”

Slavery shattered Black families.

This was designed to cut us off at the roots, stunt our growth – explicit daily degradation:

You’z just a slave! No more no less.

For whites hearing this, it may evoke images of their ancestors who committed such acts. How exactly did they become capable of such every day cruelty…and live with it?

All must understand our roots in order to grow.

For slave descendants, we see survivors of a tremendously horrible system. 

This includes both white and Black people.

Those who perpetrated, witnessed, resisted or fell victim to slavery’s atrocities. 

We’re all descended from ‘slavery survivors’ too – our shared culture its remnants. 

Of the myriad of emotions one feels in learning such facts, one is certainly pride.

Another is compassion.

We survived. And we now know better.

We rise. 

We rise.

We rise.

[sigh]

Suggesting that we forget about slavery,

Or saying “Oh, but slavery was so long ago,” 

Demands that we ignore our own people’s resilience, and will to live.

It’s akin to encouraging mass suicide. 

For, to forget is to sever your own roots.

“Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.”

And like any tree without roots, we’d wither and die, be crushed under our own weight.

Or, get chopped up and made useful.

Or, just left “for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop.”

Erasing history, turning away because of its discomfort, is a cult of death.

It moralizes its interest in decay.

To remember is to live, and celebrate life.

We must reckon with how our lives got here, to this day, to this very point.

Therefore, to learn is to know and continue to grow, for 

A tree that’s not busy growing is busy dying.

The quest for roots is incredibly, powerfully, life-giving.

Find yours.

Call their names.

Knowledge further fertilizes freedom.

Know better. Do better.

Rise, like a breath of fresh air.

Images from pbs.org
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