I’ve only been in one fist fight in my life.
It was with a boy named Levelle - I think he was in 5th grade and I was in grade 3. Levelle and his younger sister rode the same school bus that my sister and I rode to a predominantly white elementary school 15.3 miles away from our poor and working class Black neighborhood in Houston, Texas. When my sister and I got on the bus in the dark at 6:10 am, Levelle and his sister were already on, fast asleep in the uncomfortably stiff seats and we would often quickly join them in slumber. As the bus rumbled around Houston picking up its miniature passengers, the light would rise outside and Levelle would come alive.
Levelle was a bully. When he awoke and more kids were on the bus, Levelle would ruthlessly (in my 8 year old eyes) taunt children, call them names, sit on them, fart in their face - it was disturbing and disgusting. I was frustrated at watching this boy, morning after morning cause havoc. Silently seething, I sat in my seat hoping not to be noticed and feeling at the same time completely powerless. I’d watch from the seat that I often took towards the front of the bus - the quiet child hoping to stay out of the fray - but also wanting to hopefully avoid Levelle’s rath. My sister, older - and I think bolder than me - sat towards the back of the bus and one day I saw her catch some of Levelle’s bullying. I don’t remember what he did, I just knew I didn’t like it. He might have even directed something at me - but I don’t remember that part - I just knew he did something to my sister and that was not ok. The seething became righteous anger and when Levelle stepped off that bus, when we arrived at school, I was right behind him wailing pounding fists upon his back. If you’ve ever seen the movie “A Christmas Story” and the scene where Ralphie lets the bully have it - turn Ralphie into a too tall for her age, dark skinned, Black girl with pigtails and (Scut Farkus) into a slightly pudgy, Black boy child, often disheveled and ashy. Before I knew what I was doing, I was letting my fury and rath out on this boy - who I now can reason was probably being bullied himself.…Levelle probably got the snickers, the ostracism, the othering as much, if not more than I did in our elementary school. But in my rage, that didn’t matter. I punched, kicked, and screamed my anger at him. I wanted him to stop. I wanted him to never do anything he was doing - particularly picking on my sister - again. I wanted to be rid of my feelings that were coursing though my body - the feelings of fear, anger, rage, disgust, powerlessness….I wanted them all out. And I let them all out on this boy who stood their crying - probably shocked that he experienced a surprise attack from this meek, quiet, nobody of a kid who sat in the front of the bus. Yes, he cried during that fight. Never throwing a punch. Never shoving me. Never pushing back. And somewhere in the midst of his tears, I found my own. There was no triumph in that fight for me, only more fear. I immediately became more afraid of being in trouble with my teacher. I cried because those feelings of fear, rage, disgust and powerlessness were still there. Tears well up in my eyes even now because I was raging on another human being.
To publish a piece like this right now in the midst of what our country is going through might have my motives feel unclear. And I actually don’t know what my motives are other than to share some thinking. I heard the word “rebellion” a couple of times during some zoom calls I had yesterday. It's a good word for what we are seeing on the news and experiencing in our cities. People are resisting and acting in defiance to an authority, control, or tradition. People are raging against the bully. The bully this time is white supremacy….always trailed by its minions racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia, religious oppression, sizism and their tools of destruction - militarism, colonialism, capitalism, misogny, and shame. Sometimes the minions get to be front and center - propped up by white supremacy, but the beliefs of supremacy are always at play.
White supremacy is the bully. And we each are being run/directed/ordered by this bully.
Much like I didn’t really understand or know Levelle, most of us don’t really understand or know white supremacy. Heck, most of us really don’t even know or understand racism. Yes. They are different. What we know is reaction. What we know is fear. What we know is shame. What we know is story. What we know is over-thinking. What we know is paralyzation at doing the wrong thing. What we know is being stunned into silence. What we know is powerlessness. What we know is the internalization of lies about ourselves and others that look like us. What we know is pain. We think we know white supremacy because we’ve experienced it or we know how to form the words on our lips. That’s not knowing something - that being in relationship to it. I’m in relationship to the tomatoes that I have growing in my windowsill, but I have no idea how their growth works, why the growth happens, why their leaves look one way when the seed first emerges from the ground, and another way two weeks later. I have no idea why the fruit of the seed blooms first as a flower, then turns into something edible. Your guess is as good as mine about why the stalks of a tomato bush are hairy. I am infinitely curious about where the origin of the seed that these plants are growing from started. To know something, you gotta get up all into its grill. To know something you’ve got to let it reveal itself to you. To know something you’ve got to dig deeply, get curious about it - let it wrestle you to the ground, then turn around and wrestle it to the ground. You’ve got to study it not by just reading about it from a distance, but by asking it to come visit and getting practiced at telling it when it is time to leave.
I’m on a first name basis with white supremacy. And not just because I have a lot of white people in my life. I’m on a first name basis because it freaking snuck into my existence early, early…probably even during the first breath of my life and it refuses to leave. I’m on a first name basis with white supremacy because I’ve noticed it in myself - yes, even as a Black person and work constantly at seeing how it tries to use me. I’m on a first name basis with white supremacy because I stared it down and said “you’re unwelcome here”, but I know its my responsibility to get up and get it out. Daily. Moment by moment. Conversation by conversation. Policy by policy. Thought by thought.
Rebellion is absolutely necessary. And the rebellion against an energy outside of yourself is only a part of the truth of change. The rebellion has to occur inside as well. What are the ways that I allowed myself to be used by white supremacy? What are the conversations that I have failed or were too afraid to have? What are the thoughts that I think that I just shove down rather than get out and examine for fear that it will be too painful to heal? What are the ways that white supremacy has hijacked my thoughts? My time? My feelings? My perspective on what is beautiful? My opinions? My energy? My opinions about my body? What I choose to watch on a screen? It has hijacked ALL of that (and so much more) and because we’re too afraid to look and really know it - we throw our hands up and instead choose to know fear, pain, powerlessness and hopelessness.
You’ll notice that I haven’t at all talked about who my audience for this piece is. Because it's for all of us. Because it’s for me. Find your place in it. What are the questions you need to ask? What are the conversations you need to start? If you know me, you know the exploration and emergence is a constant and it’s because I want my liberation more than I want anything in the world. And it's not a liberation from any one thing - and not liberation to any one thing. I want liberation. I want to think for myself. I want to feel for myself. I want to act for myself. I want a connection to the All That Is that is not gunked up by systems and struggles that actually have nothing to do with my true nature. White supremacy confuses people about my true nature. And it confuses me about my own and others’ true nature, also. I want free. I desire to be free. I can be free. I will be free. I am free. Even if for a moment.
I don’t know what became of Levelle and his sister. I don’t even remember what happened the next day - whether he continued his torment or his bullying continued on, but I know I somehow went about seeking my peace and my power in other ways. And I’ve been seeking it ever since.
I don’t know if you felt it today, but the world shifted. While I wrote social justice curriculum from my bed (there are many ways to be an activist!), while nursing a cold and watching the livestream of Women’s March, the air became thicker with the model of coalition building, collaboration, courage, strength and purpose. The earth shifted on its axis with the weight of togetherness, clarity of our collective power of a need for change. As we feel the joy of our successes, and our abundance of numbers – we have to recognize that there were millions that were not present with us.
It is the millions that don’t understand and don’t grasp why we marched. It’s the millions that still felt the exclusion of one of the most inclusive movements I’ve noticed in my lifetime. They too felt the shift, and are afraid. We cannot leave them behind. Some of them supported DJT. Some of them were so disenfranchised that they went about their lives watching football, binge watching tv, or even worse, they spent the time alone. Many have said all of our liberation is tied to each of our liberation. If that is true, which I know it is, we cannot leave them behind. Inclusion requires that we practice a few things in this shifted world for it to actually be permanent and get stronger.
The maintenance of this shifted world requires a SECOND BY SECOND PRACTICE of love. Yes, I said practice. Every single thing we do - is a practice. The breath I just took was a practice for my next breath to be deeper and more present. My staying home today was a practice of doing self-care in a more present way the next time I am worn down and sick. If we hold our love as a practice, we know that we are always growing, getting better, and moving towards excellence rather than perfection. We know that sometimes we won’t be able to love as deeply as we want or show compassion at every turn. But we’ll know we have another chance at practice. Excellence doesn’t have an end, perfection does. Excellence is a practice. Therefore let our love for those inside our communities, that marched with us AND those that we didn’t see today or that outright ignored or challenged us, also be a practice of love.
The survival of this shifted axis requires that we all become teachers and learners. That we understand a conversation with everyone has a value, and is a place of education…and patience. As I wrote these words today for the curriculum I am soon to turn in,
“Very simply, diversity is about difference, inclusion is about voice, equity is about understanding differing needs and supplying differing resources in ways that are equitable and that get people to what they need to succeed. Social justice is about so much more. It is about the creation of a society where all feel safe, supported, heard, and seen. It is about rights, resources, the elimination of structural and cultural barriers, physical and psychological safety. And the process of getting to that society, must be done in safe, supported, equitable, physically, verbally and visually inclusive ways. That is why each of these terms and concepts must be understood separately and together…”
I realized that there are SO MANY that have no comprehension of what any of that means. They wouldn’t understand psychological safety because it’s not in a reality that they live. They don’t understand diversity, because it does not exist in a human form around them (I say human because the natural world gives us diversity every day. Our consciousness is often closed off to it.) It’s not that they don’t care, they just haven’t had the conversation(s) that helps them understand. But too often, we give up. We’re not curious to what someone who might not think like us will be able to offer us. We have not trained ourselves to practice patience, then body awareness (to note when we are triggered and when it’s time for us to walk away from the conversation), and then to hand the conversation to the next educator they will run into. I do not suggest that each of us give ourselves away to ignorance or listen to abuse, but rather I suggest that we realize engagement – listening, learning, and educating (in that order) – requires patience and presence.
The new breathable air will require the release of fear. Know that I speak to myself as much as I speak to anyone as I type these words. Every word about fear that I speak at any workshop or keynote is as much for my own ears, as it is for yours. Yesterday, as sat waiting to fly to Creating Change in Philly to facilitate a workshop, I was in Chicago O’Hare Airport listening to and watching people cheer as DJT delivered his inauguration address. Fear snuck up right beside me and started to envelope me in its dangerous gaze. For a second, it felt comfortable – like an old friend that I had sat with many times in my life. A familiar embrace. And then I remembered that this new breathable air is not about familiar. It is not about the strange, and lulled lullaby of fear. It’s about our hearts beating faster. It’s about feeling the blood moving through our body in a different way. And it is about Life. Not about the survival of the status quo, which survives on fear and oppression, but it is about our living and breathing and staring down fear in the many forms that it chooses to show up. To practice staring it down mentally and physically every day. I think that’s what Eleanor Roosevelt (and many others) were trying to instruct us on when they said, “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” She was helping us to practice staring fear in its face and remind to remind it who is boss.
I commit to not leaving my sisters, brothers, and others who were not conscious to the reason for this global change today behind. I will not leave them to be confused about why their lives feel different. Because their lives will most definitely feel different. I know the shift shook some people awake. The movement ignited some flames in the spirits of warriors that are ready to erupt. Some people who were even present to the shift don’t even know that yet that they were awoken in a different way. They won’t realize it until they get to work on Monday and they don’t respond to the status quo in a spirit of fear. Or they show up differently asking for respect and honor in their relationships when they arrive back home. But I ask us…all of us… to bring those that were not present, not aware, not conscious, and even not ready…I ask that we bring them gently along with grace and courage. They are not our enemies.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All (people) are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...
This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Every time I finish a LeaderShape Institute session, as part of my closing remarks, I share the above quote. I share the quote with the students that I am working with because it has been a guiding beacon for my life since I read it over 20 years ago when preparing for a civil rights tour across the Southern U.S. as a graduate student. It reminds me on a daily basis that I am both connected to everyone and everything else and also responsible for my own being and doing. I share this today because I think sometimes we get so overtaken with our doing, that we forget about our being.
Yesterday, while attending Heart and Soul Center of Light, a church that my partner and I attend when I am in the Bay, we learned about the map of consciousness that (from my very baseline understanding) says that our expression of being vibrates on different energy levels. The higher level of vibration that we all exist at, the better for all of us and for each of us individually. (Again, this is my very simplistic read on a much deeper concept that I will do a much deeper dive on soon.) For example, when we are in a shame space or expressing shame, our energy or being is vibrating at a 20, where if we are expressing love or feeling love, we are vibrating at a level of 500. I was surprised to learn that from the perspective of this theory that courage vibrates at a very neutral level. Courage is what we profess and encourage in our fights for Justice. It is what we ask of ourselves as we stand up against injustice and the everyday acts that support the systems of oppression that keep the status quo in place. What struck me even deeper was that in our struggles for social justice, Joy, which exists at a higher vibration, is so rarely talked about or embraced.
When thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many photos that we see of him, we see him courageously standing in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the March on Washington or leading a march across Edmund Pettus Bridge. I think those images sometimes distances us from what is possible from each of us in the fight for justice. We see a man with a powerful voice and think, “that could never be me”, so we think our small thing that we are able to do to create change or that interruption of a racist or ableist policy or ageist or transphobic practice will never be enough.
I want to offer a different view of Dr. King this year – one that also sought out the higher vibration of joy, in addition to the courage that he showed. There are not enough images in circulation – like these of him playing pool, laughing with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Harry Belafonte, or just being a dad – that remind us that his joy seeking, his higher vibration probably fueled those moments of courage. Where we might wonder if we can muster our courage, joy seeking actually might be a way to find it. On this MLK Day 2017, I ask us to tap into the joy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and to tap into our own joy as a way of lifting up his memory. Seek joy, not in the absence of analysis, action, or courage, but right alongside those three ways of being in a fight for justice. My joy can fuel your joy, and vice versa. And it might just fuel the destruction of the status quo.
there used 2 be a time when music was a spiritual healing 4 the body, soul, & mind…
Grief is a funny thing. The last two days I have learned a lot about its surprising, weird, loving, and uncontrollable nature. Prince’s death has let me grieve parts of my experience I didn’t even know I still needed to grieve. The tears come surprisingly – standing in front of the sink washing dishes and hearing a song that spoke to my being in a different way – watching a news report and seeing the death dash completed - dancing full out in my apartment hallway to “Lovesexy” and needing to dance my way to the box of tissues because I discover that tears are running down my face – and they are all welcome. It feels like a small price, and maybe even a reward that I don’t deserve. Heck, he did all the work. I get the gift of feeling my humanness deeper. I cry, I think, because I didn’t get to say thank you.
Prince’s death on Thursday has opened up a well of grief in me that is as much about me as it is him. It has been fascinating to observe and yet, difficult to experience. The baton passes between sadness at the absence of the memories that were yet to be made at his concerts and the immense gratitude for the blessing of his life - breathing words, sounds, and thoughts out into the world - to the very harsh grief of hard moments in my life that he accompanied me on – I feel like I lost a friend.
I never met him. I didn’t have to. That’s exactly what art is about. That’s what liberation is about. We are supposed to express what is in us because we have no other choice but to do so. The problem is most of us think we do have another choice. We choose “safety” and “comfort” – not realizing that we’ve chosen the harder, less colorful, dreary path. In liberation, others are supposed to observe our living and feel the breeze of the opening of a window or a door letting us know that there is more life to be lived, to be faced, to be embraced. He did that SO beautifully, with such grace, with such humor, with such panache, such boldness, such sexiness and with such love. He did it so well – he LIVED liberation so well – that it felt like he was here with me trying to instruct and open doors for my own liberation.
Sometimes it was with a gentle hand – a breathy, deep or falsetto, compassionate voice and sometimes with a rougher hand in the form of that full-bodied, rich scream like in the song “Temptation” that I heard yell, “Let Go, Tanya!” He has been right here with me for these last 38 years creating and holding space for a little Black lesbian girl woman raised in a working class, Baptist household – wrestling with internalized racism, sexism, classism and homophobia. He held space for me – when I couldn’t inhabit it myself. He did it through
his moving between worlds with such fluidity
his ability to fill as space
and his ability to handle a guitar preciseness and rawness that it felt like it was an extension of his soul – I felt a kindredness with him…maybe because I wanted to be him.
My own fears, internalized hate, limiting voices…he seemed like he had none of it, so it gave me the opportunity to see that I could live outside of all that. I didn’t know how, but he had figured out how to – he lived it so clearly – it must be possible for me, too.
I feel like my Teacher died. As if with his death, my Teacher had pushed me out of the nest, out of the classroom - telling me that he had no more activities to offer. But it feels like he left in the middle of a lesson. I wasn’t finished learning from his example, his words, his clarity – his example was so beautiful and powerful – maybe he knew that I had gotten lazy and comfortable and that I would have sat hanging on his every word for the rest of my life and never actually walked out of the classroom myself.
There he is teaching me even in death.
I have enough songs, videos, photos, memories…and I hope, the long talked about Vault that I pray gets released with care and presence when access is gained…to last me a lifetime. His physical being will now forever be absent but the kindness of genius is that it always leaves something beautiful behind. And I know his teaching presence will always be near.
Prince, thanks to you, there is still a time when music is a spiritual healing for the body, soul, and mind. And that time is now. As I listen to your catalog in its completion, it’s like re-reading a book and finding a new meaning in its pages – seeing the ways that I have shifted that allow your lessons to go in deeper. I have gathered new keys that will help me continue to open doors and windows - my own and others. People have spoken of your quiet generosity – your philanthropy for causes, for people, for organizations – it wasn’t so quiet if we had listened closely. You left us with a treasure trove of music, you brought numerous artists both contemporary and elder on your vast stage and through your music room, and you offered an every day example of liberation to aspire to and fight for. And for that lesson, Teacher, I thank you.
Is anyone getting psychological assistance for that young 15 year-old girl who was literally (white) man handled in the video from the pool party in McKinney, TX over the weekend? Is anyone wondering what generational and psychic trauma that brought up in her young black girl body? And the trauma that it brings up in black girls and women across the world? I know that watching the video – which I finally made myself do today – hit a pain in me that was not physically my own, but pain of my ancestors and a generational memory of assault and rape of slavery.
As a social justice educator and researcher about internalized oppression, specifically racism, I work to stay aware of what is happening in the nation regarding race, justice, identity and power – but I also recognize that what I take in visually and aurally on a daily basis affects me emotionally and intellectually. And while we have continued to recognize the way the Black body is being physically assaulted and murdered century after century, I worry that we have not had such a good watch on the Black mind. Particularly, the pummeling that the Black Mind (and spirit) takes on a regular basis at the hands of media images, day to day racial macro and microaggressions and sometimes at the insidiousness of the racism that lives within after generations and generations of swallowing the hate in order to survive.
The young Black girl’s physical body indubitably will have sore muscles and bruises to heal, but what is the healing that has to take place in her soul and mind? Do we as a nation even know how to begin scratching the surface of that impact of that moment – and the constant reliving that occurs now that it has become a viral assault? I think sometimes as a nation of video watchers, we sometimes get caught up with the sensational - wanting to make sure the person who commits the atrocious action pay for what they did. Sometimes we forget that the emotional and spiritual impact on an individual, community or a people won’t necessarily be healed by the suspension or indictment of an officer, though the accountability for an action is important. I worry about our lack of ability to hold the psychological impact of these moments that are broadcast far, wide and often.
One of my favorite movies, The Matrix, says it best, “The body cannot live without the mind.” As we remember that Black lives matter – those lives consist of both body and mind. Emotional selves, intellectual selves and spiritual selves are being hurt in this racialized world that we’ve created, as well. And as we work to create a world that exists without racism, if we have not cared for and protected our emotional selves and the Black Mind, we will struggle to step into the power that has been rightfully ours this whole time.
I can remember while writing my dissertation, I would go to my favorite coffee house, Northampton Coffee every Sunday morning at 8 am and sit in the large glass window facing the early morning quiet street. I would order a chai tea latte, iced or steamed, depending on the season, and treat myself to a reading of the Sunday Styles in the New York Times before diving into the work of unearthing new knowledge and facing the inevitable struggles of writing a dissertation about internalized racism.
Sitting in that window, week after week, month after month, I pushed against old internalized patterns of fear, inadequacy, not being "black" enough, believing that so many others had much more, and wiser things to say than I did. I kept coming back, believing and telling myself that each movement, each intention that I set - just by even showing up some days - would get me closer to that goal of crossing that graduation stage.
Such has been the same with the accomplishing of this website and blog - surely the intention and showing up and writing has been there, but so have the old internalized fears, frustrations, inadequacies, and beliefs that so many others have much more and wiser things to say than I do. And a voice keeps pushing me to show up, anyway.
In fact it woke me up this morning at 4:30 am telling me to get up and write. Telling me to share the piece of information that was implanted in my soul to share with the world. Telling me to unselfishly offer the contribution that I was assigned - to take it and offer it the world. To forget the stories in my head, to forget my fear - and need for sleep - to forget those internalized thoughts, frustrations, and inadequacies.
And so here I am.
And that feels like authenticity to me. Recognizing that risk is not the balance to reward, but it is actually just the precursor to it. Our willingness to share ourselves, our gifts, our secret worries that we think no one cares about or has ever faced what we face will almost always be met with welcome by someone else. We just have to keep risking to show up authentically. Someone will come along and prove to us that we are not alone - and that connection, that building of community, will be the reward that we've been waiting for. The even greater reward will be the recognition that we are living into our full being - fear and all.
What is the contribution - not monetary, not material, not even time - but rather what is the contribution that lives in our very being that we are withholding and what's holding us back from offering it?
And so here I am - offering my contribution - willing to take the risk and believing in the reward - and knowing that the greater reward is already here.