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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.
What must September 30th have felt like?
“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.
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.
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
A life-till-death of cruel and brutal servitude, and
Somehow, miraculously, here you are.
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.
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.
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.
Call their names.
Knowledge further fertilizes freedom.
Know better. Do better.
Rise, like a breath of fresh air.
A lone gunman killed numerous people at a public place in America.
Another lone gunman shot up a school, another a nightclub, and
Another killed a kid walking down the street.
A few years ago,
Another lone gunman shot up a movie premier, dressed as one of the film’s villains.
Another – armed with a badge-
Took a woman’s life after a routine traffic stop.
Plenty of his comrades routinely did the same.
Another lone gunman in blue, killed a kid playing in the park, and
Another shot a man who was reaching for his wallet as he’d demanded.
Another shot a man with his kid in the backseat, while his girlfriend live-streamed it, and
Another took 8 minutes and 46 seconds to kill again.
Another watched while it happened, while
Another kept the crowd at bay.
Another. And another, and
Last week, in another American city, another lone gunman murdered more.
The lone gunman in blue responsible for safely apprehending this latest lone gunman said: This poor lone gunman just had “a bad day.”
We bide our time till next week’s breaking news.
On Sundays, the slaves played music, sang, and folks danced.
Ev’rybody could see their spirits were lifted.
Human spirits need to be lifted in order for folks to live.
HUMAN ENSLAVERS must constantly stamp out the spirits in order to maintain slavery.
The masters’ arsenal included weapons for splitting their hearts from their righteous minds.
Slavery is a godless institution, so
They made a holy art from preaching and practicing duplicity – like Capoeira, only deadly.
So, slaves dancing and singing was restricted to Sundays.
All other days were reserved for the masters to sharpen their hooves.
White pastors reserved Sundays to forgive white sins.
Such sweet Sundays on plantations was all depicted in the 2016 remake of Roots.
The Sunday after the birth of Kunta Kinte’s first child,
The Fiddler and Kunta were out at night to perform the naming ceremony –
A tradition repeated across every generation in the series,
Which opened with Kunta’s own ceremony in Africa, presumably near modern-day Banjul.
3 slave catchers caught them out in a storm.
Fiddler gave his life so that the 3 slave catchers wouldn’t take Kunta’s “tar baby” as
“Nigger tax” for being caught out at night, without papers,
Not as if they’d asked. An escape was quickly plotted.
Fiddler caused a distraction,
Kunta started running, cuddling his newborn,
His gait hindered by the limp he got when catchers cut off his foot the 2nd time he’d escaped.
During this altercation,
Fiddler knocked one of the catchers off his horse, then
Wrangled the sword away from another, and
Stabbed him to death, only to be killed moments later by the 3rd catcher’s blade.
Meanwhile, Kunta had stashed the baby beneath a tree.
He waited for the third catcher to chase him down on his horse.
Kunta knocked him down, grabbed the catcher’s axe and swiftly cut his throat wide open.
He picked up his first-born child, and
Stumbled back to check on Fiddler’s corpse before making his way safely home.
That Sunday, Kunta resolved to train his daughter to resist slavery.
As did their descendants – resist.