The Room to Wait

Featured

The president-elect’s victory, and the tacit validation of his divisive and dangerous rhetoric and policy proposals, challenges those who call themselves liberals to be the values they espouse. Until 2 weeks ago, those values came at little cost. Aside from the news you read, the company you keep, and the places you buy produce, the daily politics of American life were, for many, comfortably cosmetic and consumer-oriented – simple public identities crafted by the items you purchase, relationships you explore, and content you share online. Then, Americans elected a xenophobic candidate who ran on an openly Islamophobic platform and has since designated overtly racist, nationalist, sexist, and homophobic advisors and federal appointees.

This. Is. The. Wake. Up. Call.

I fear we are missing it.

Despite eruptions of private emotions, public protests, and hashtags du jour, in the short 11 days since the election, some have returned to their daily lives, unscathed, and continue their daily work, unchanged. Perhaps seeking emotional refuge from their liberal outbursts, they hasten calls for stability rather than quicken the pace of resistance. They find room to wait while the marginalized among us live under the threat of violence, displacement, internment, and the insidious affront to their rights and their America that is hate speech and hate crimes that go unacknowledged and unatoned. This form of liberalism is privilege incarnate. It is the white tears that dry quickly, the fickle fetish of media sensationalism, the limited attention that only spans the interests and people that look and feel like “us” or “them,” and the normalization of public exclusion in the most powerful democracy in the world.

There is literally no time to waste. And every moment a “liberal” person, organization, or institution spends calling for caution in place of critique, pause instead of preparation, and waiting as opposed to imminent action are lost opportunities to defend the values and people liberals’ claim to hold dear.

This includes hospitals, and other public entities erected in service of community. “Carry on” attitudes that simply re-assert an existing mission without delineating concrete plans to defend or extend that mission should allied populations be endangered, are frankly not enough. And should employees fall victim to local or federal aggression, they offer no protection at all. If progress relies on accurate recognition of the problems, “carry on” stances silence the uncomfortable realities, conversations, and sacrifices required to look those problems in the face.

It is not alarmist to get prepared. And that preparation entails mobilizing the volume of resources necessary to support a diverse set of populations who now worry for their safety and security in this country. If the urgency of that need is somehow lost on you, don’t hide behind your liberal leanings and co-opt progress.

To Plan:

  • Place those most affected in positions to advise and lead how organizations respond to new needs or evolving threats facing the populations it serves.
  • Anticipate the needs of clients or patients with intersecting identities and consider forming coalitions with organizations best equipped to serve needs that may fall outside given expertise or capacity.
  • Vulnerable populations can be employed in positions that offer the least schedule flexibility. Consider adjusting those constraints as needs to care for family may rival needs to be present in the workplace.
  • Consider a buddy system or a phone tree between employees to increase the visibility of those worried about their ability to get to and from work safely.
  • Consider creating a safe space for affected employees to seek emotional or legal counsel should the need arise.
  • Consider supporting organizations that champion the needs of the marginalized with donations or service, and if possible, reflect their needs in joint legislative agendas.

The challenge liberals are facing is a kind of active democracy many have never known and it may be painstaking and overwhelming. It is also a burden people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and other marginalized groups have carried, often silently and alone, for years, centuries, as the spaces to publicly express, wear, and own their person-hood is narrowed.

Vigilance is too often inherited through wounds endured. For those who now find themselves unaffected or disaffected, it is time to ask, how many wounds must be sustained for you to move from the waiting room to hold space for action?

 

The Work

Featured

Every day since Tuesday feels like walking a plank. Stepping toward a jagged and uncertain future with hands bound by the votes of neighbors, friends even. How deep do these dark waters go? When no bridge spans the troubled reaches, where is the solace for what lies beyond the edge?

To those of you who are now, just 2 days later, shrugging your shoulders and saying, “It may not be that bad.” Or “Let’s wait and see what happens.”

Stop.

I get that perhaps you do not wake to the terror and nausea that I do. That you must not have felt personally accosted by the toxic insults that diminished your love, your color, your nationality, your body, your traditions, your abilities, your rights, your neighborhood, or your God. You must not have felt your physical safety threatened, trivialized, or commoditized for a political punchline. But the wounds I carry weren’t opened 2 days ago. These wounds predate the president-elect, but are pained all the more by his malicious campaign, growing crowd of supporters, and electoral win. That pain is inflicted on old scars, shared scars, some more vulnerable than others, and the process to heal them will require more than mere distance from Tuesday.

The 2016 election is personal. While we can await the policies and procedures that empower the president-elect and embolden the unveiled hatred of some unhooded supporters, the toll the weeks and months of unfettered attacks on American values, American people, and American diplomatic relations, has already begun.

It is here that I depart from calls for insta-unity.

To quiet the disquiet that illuminates the darkest recesses of America and Americans is to turn away from our problems at the moment they fully surface. No, the lines have been drawn. They are stark. They are real. And they must be confronted. While the unrepentant divisiveness of the republican nominee’s rhetoric and thin political strategies may have stoked an old fire of racial, patriarchal, gendered, economic insecurities – make no mistake about it, what is set aflame is the roof that covered existing, widening, engrossing tensions that divide America down the middle. And to reconcile those tensions we, you and I, must look them in the face and make some decisions. One decision was made on Tuesday. But more decisions are coming.

White people who call themselves allies, now is the time to do the work. And that work does not mean organizing black and brown people. It means talking to other white people. Go home, go to class, go to work, and have difficult conversations about what Tuesday means for many Americans. Look honestly at the rationalizations of “small government” idealism and “anti-establishment” deviance and explore what it means to prioritize those values above the safety and inclusion of people of color, homosexuals, transgender individuals, people with disabilities, women and particularly those who have suffered sexual harassment or assault, Muslims, immigrants and the wealth of diversity that calls America home. Examine how the freedom to vote on ideals when the rights of fellow and marginalized Americans are at stake, is a privilege that comes with responsibilities, the least of which is identifying as a liberal, or a conservative.

To republicans, especially those who depart from the president-elect’s divisive words and claims, your congressional and local power and proximity to constituents may be all that stands between some and their future. While Obamacare may be a contentious policy, its repeal without swift and comprehensive replacement of a structure to insure and assure Americans affordable access to baseline health services, will almost certainly result in rising ranks of uninsured, increased health disparities, and more untimely deaths. This is avoidable and should be prevented. Also, as immigration reform is likely to be an early priority of the incumbent administration, please deeply consider what the separation of American families, children from parents and siblings from caregivers, means for those who remain. Immigration is the foundation of this country. When the vote arises, we will call on you, republicans, to honor that value for all of us. More decisions will certainly come, but let us start there.

And lastly, to black women. To the black female voters, more than 90% of whom voted for Hillary Clinton. Thank you. I see you. You are the cornerstone of this democracy. You who labor and serve and nurture and endure, who have given from the depths of your womb and through the pain of your wounds. Thank you. You who stood in line without hearing a candidate utter the intersections of your lives, elevate your contributions to community, or value your consistent, historic presence at the polls as both patriot and rebel – ever challenging your nation to rise to its values. Thank you. This nation owes you great thanks.

And to all of us. We do this work for the children and youth who must live under the fruits or failures of our efforts. We do it so we can say and show what already made America great.

Now is the time for organizing.

The fight is not yet won.

The night is the time for organizing.

The fight begins at dawn.

Until dawn, will you do the work?

Tribute & Truth: Experiencing the National Museum of African American History

Featured

2 weeks ago, my family and I visited the National Museum of African American History.

It is said the museum was a century in the making.

When you walk in the doors, you know exactly what that means.

We happened to enter behind a black family of four. Two parents, who appeared in their mid-late 30s, and two young boys, both of whom could not have been more than 5. It was raining that day and they were all bundled up – hats, vests, scarfs, boots. Despite the aggressive gear, as soon as we got inside, off those boys ran, like they were in their own playground. While a lot of kids run everywhere they go, to see these little black boys, brothers, running free and unencumbered in this building, their building, on the National Mall, erected to honor their ancestors, standing in honor of them, was the perfect prelude to what lay before us.

The whole day, we saw babies and watched children, crawling, running, sitting, climbing. Like the little one, maybe 3, who walked up, alone, and sat next to me on a bench. Together, in silence, we watched a short video about the contributions of African American athletes. Shortly afterwards, his father and brother arrived, obviously happy to have found him. But there he was, drawn to the images, sitting still and watching intently, as people who look like him did great things. I can’t imagine what the moment felt like to him. Perhaps it was simply another age-appropriate act of independence and environmental curiosity. But sitting next to him, the moment felt full and hopeful.

But it wasn’t just the young who captured the moment, it was also the elderly. Those who entered the museum with canes and walkers, who moved with the support of their family or church or neighbors. Those draped in t-shirts commemorating their visit, who traveled across states just to be there.

I think of one woman in particular.

She walked slowly, with her weight heavily upon a cane, her white hair curled, her lips peach with pigment. A women who seemed like her daughter walked at her side, supporting her, and a young woman, maybe age 20 or so, walked in front of them guiding them towards an exhibit on Greenwood in Tulsa, OK. The walls were flanked with images of a town that looked ravaged by a natural disaster. The air in the small exhibit felt thin and heavy. You stood, surrounded, by a town decimated in ash. Only the actor was not an unruly Mother Nature, but rather the destructive, unpredictable, and irrepressible swell of White Supremacy that leveled, literally burned, an entire neighborhood, notably one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the country at that time, to the ground. As I stood, solemnly confronting the wall-sized photos and recovered personal items, next to what appeared to be a family of women, I watched as the elder asked the youngest to read the inscriptions to her. I don’t know if it was the photos, the women, or the collective recognition of what black people have endured, suffered, and lost in this country they have called home – but I cried openly there. Left my tears, my heart, my gratitude, to those women, to that place, to the grit that rose from those ashes to trouble and inspire me.

My experience of the newest Smithosonian museum was captured in small moments and big. Moments when I stood shoulder to shoulder with history and watched as the future crawled along the floor, with a certain mix of joy and pride I can only remember having felt so vividly the morning after Barack Hussein Obama became President of the United States. There was a palpable shift in the world as this black girl turned black woman saw and was seen. Standing with my family only added to the consequence of the moment.

As science, history, literature, the arts, and public consciousness inch towards full acknowledgement, engagement, inclusion, and elevation of our presence, our personhood, our importance, and our centrality in the American experiment, this building will stand in tribute and truth. The gift is our ability to return to it, in reverence and expectation, to share that truth with our future generations.

Oh, sweet Maya

Featured

Dr. Maya Angelou’s words decorate the walls of our classrooms, fete the ceremonies of presidents, and illuminate the conscience of a nation. By formal account, she was a poet, playwright, memoirist, dancer, singer, stage actress, streetcar conductor, single mother, college professor, civil rights activist, and cultural humanitarian. But, perhaps most importantly, she was ours.

With the rare clarity that comes from lived experience, Maya Angelou captured the curious reality of the American black girl; the girl who awakens to a home she is told, is not hers. The paradox of being born black and female in America is that although you are as quintessential to the American story as the slave trade that brought your ancestors, by virtue of your existence, you are displaced. Despite birthing the generations whose unpaid labor sustained the American economy for more than a century, it is the black woman who lives as a foreigner in her own home. As the social construction of race animates and personifies blackness, the color of her skin eclipses the content of her character. Thus historically, it is the African-American woman’s blackness that shrouds her femininity and obscures her nativity. It renders both her beauty and her personhood, foreign. She is the acquired taste. And as she awaits her palatability, she remains in the shadows.

But as Maya showed us, the shadow is not just a vacuous darkness left in the background. It is the evidence that you exist, that you were here, and that the sun shone down on you. By embracing the lived experience of our blackness, Maya helped us embrace the light in which black women were cast into existence. We were aching to be seen and see us, she did.

The lens with which Dr. Maya Angelou captured the African American experience was transcendent. She humanized us. As she recounted the lives of her mother, brother, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, she gave living testimony to the pain, humor, love, and tension that pulses beneath the surface of American life. She made survival a virtue and cast black girls as repositories of the national wisdom held in the seemingly insignificant happenings that pepper everyday life. She refused to trivialize the lives of children, the poor, or African-Americans, despite the fact that they so often go unnoticed or uncelebrated. Revealing our inner truths like nursery rhymes, exclaiming our bountiful beauty with exacting wit and unwavering reverence, she told us of a woman, who was once a girl, who was once a black girl in the south, who was once invisible (and mute). Rendering us visible with the audacity of her authenticity, she offered us voice and if you are like me, you took it.

Truly good prose looks into the deepest crannies of human experience, and reveals you, to yourself. By bravely telling her story, Maya told our story. Standing in a line of Sojourner Truth’s, Phillis Wheatley’s, Gwendolyn Brook’s, Rita Dove’s, Audre Lorde’s, Nikki Giovanni’s, Alice Walker’s, and scores of other black female poets, playwrights, and authors, she shone a light onto the very soul of us. I know why the caged bird sings. It sings because Maya lifted its very existence, that it might know it was made to soar.

Maya once said that the greatest thing you can say to another person is thank you because thank you is what you say to God. Where words fail to capture the depth of my sorrow for her loss and the extent of my gratitude for the life she lived and the words she left us to live by, I say, Maya, oh sweet Maya, thank you. You will be missed because you were always ours.