The Painting of a Pointing Finger: For Lucretia Mott, Heather Heyer, and ‘Nem

Black men and women have been massacred or have put down their lives fighting for parity that never came in the cages built for them by the City of Charlottesville and their names were forgotten before the coroner eventually showed. Not a bench, a park, or corner stone was to be named after any of them to remind their family of their humanity.

I walked through something museum-like in Massachusetts, just outside of Medford, attempting to convince myself the photos and busts and writings all made sense. My fists were clenched the entire 23 minutes I could stand being there, wondering how many nods were needed to create an exhibit highlighting slavery to Reconstruction, showing almost only the white folks who honorably fought for the freedom and for the equality of Black folks. There was a painting of Crispus Attucks hanging high, reminding me of Kanye’s, “bet they show off their token Blackie.”

William Lloyd Garrison was written about in great detail on the walls adjacent to John Brown. I appreciate good, white freedom fighters and I work hard to convert white allies into such, but when the white men highlighted in the exhibit pointed to the stars, the artist of the exhibit looked only at the finger and put that finger on display, changing the narrative, erasing the stars.

Charlottesville City Council, after laughing in the face of those who were adamantly against renaming the street for good reason, unanimously decided to forge the painting of that finger. Heather Heyer, a white woman, died while fighting for the equality her Black neighbors have been shouting for, begging for, and dying for since the beginning of their story in this former and seemingly present slave cage. Heather, along with hundreds others, including Deandre Harris, pointed to the people and demanded protection for them by the city. The city looked at Heather and no further and said, “we will honor you.” The unprotected will, again, sit invisible and simultaneously vulnerable and wonder why cotton and corn is worth more than Black lives.

My fist clenched, I felt it best to watch the decision from just outside the meeting room, having absolutely no faith in the council members to see beyond the finger. 5 of 5 council members voted to rename 4th street after the white woman killed by a white supremacist while fighting for equality. Only 3 nods were necessary, however. Elizabeth Margaret Chandler and Lydia Maria Child would be so proud.

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Hard Days. Not Long Enough Nights.

I woke up one morning and every thing from that eye crack forward was beyond my reach. I threw my voice into a pillow to not wake the neighbors. That day I missed a flight. The next morning I missed another flight. I took it as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be in Budapest. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere truthfully. I hated everyone’s happiness. I felt guilty for hating everyone’s happiness. The sun was out too long and it doesn’t matter if you sleep for 20 minutes or for 12 hours, it still only feels like a blink. I missed another flight. I was only eating for fuel. I caught up on all the sleep I forwent over the past month and it wasn’t enough. For the first time ever, blackout curtains didn’t blackout properly.

I avoided mirrors except when it was time to tell myself to not get stuck in the feelings. I talked to my reflection like my Effective Listening 131 professor said I talked to other students; in a judgmental tone they probably didn’t deserve.

I hopped a train, flew 11 hours through two countries, bought cigarettes for one of my best friends, hugged his mother, played with his dog, hopped another train to sit in a hotel room alone for 12 hours and to hug my mother the following morning and see a face and faces that was happy to see me.

Hard days.

I didn’t protect my space well. I fell in love with my own light, and danced in it too long, forgetting moths do the same. Forgetting maggots fester in the warmth the light brings. That light dimmed to darkness over those days. In the dark, it was easier to clear space than it was to search for the light switch. I arm-swept it all into the bin to a Frank Ocean Blonde soundtrack, stuck on “Everybody needs you. I hope you doing well, bruh.” I didn’t want to be needed and it felt good to not provide. That pleasure is maybe what kept me. That pleasure and maybe the jerk chicken.

Then it stopped for a bit and I now question my returned happiness.

To Be Black & Happy & From Charlottesville Is Political.

My Black mother, a fairly consistent church-goer and wedding and funeral attendee, raised a Black and happy heathen in Charlottesville, Virginia through the 80’s and 90’s, not realizing just how political that was or she is.

August 12, 2017, just before the terrorist drove his car through the wall of people, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many, a white girl wrote on Facebook, “My father is a Charlottesville resident, and what those racists are doing in that town is not what Charlottesville is about. It’s a beautiful place, full of diversity and love.” I imagine her face while she typed those half-lies, her lips curling up at the ends, waiting on likes like she spoke the most obvious truths. I image her hands moving swiftly across the keyboard as to not lose much more time because there was a brunch to which she was already 3 minutes late. Her father, undoubtedly out of earshot of the clinking of the poles burying themselves into Deandre Harris’ skull just outside of the police station, sipping on an old fashioned, not realizing he never told the whole truth to the daughter who only spent her summers in Charlottesville. I told her, “my Black father is a Charlottesville resident, too, and has fallen victim to almost every part of Charlottesville’s racist system, including education and justice, and now the city has developed plans to oust him and thousands of others from their homes to ensure the photos look good when another magazine or the Washington Post comes to town to write another “greatest city” article. Thanks for reminding me to once again watch Chimamanda’s “The Danger of a Single Story” Ted Talk.

Truth: Charlottesville is beautiful.

My sister’s new, white neighbors called the police on my sister last week because there was “too much noise coming from her house.” My sister lives in a house that once existed in a neighborhood where Black folk rejoiced loudly no matter rain, sleet, or police patrolling. The house has not moved, but it now sits in a neighborhood that brings memories of cancer wards in the nearby UVA hospital; so sterile, so quiet, so white. The only rejoicing Black voices in that old neighborhood comes from my sister’s house.

My mother calls me, sometimes too often because she’s a mother, and we talk for a few minutes because she needs to make sure I’m safe wherever I am in the world. Isn’t that the politics of it? Isn’t it important to check on your Black son often when he’s run far from the plantation Thomas Jefferson built, quite literally? When she calls, we laugh. Like me, she was born in Charlottesville, too, and still finds reasons to laugh. As kids in different eras, me and my mother ran through the streets the city hides from the papers that write nonsense like, “Most Beautiful Place to Live,” and “Number One Place to Raise Children.” We know the one good cop in the city by first and last name because he’s fed us and played cards at my grandma’s house. We know the hundreds of other bad cops by last name, and we know where we aren’t wanted. We show up in those spaces anyway, and we’re loud on entry and exit. My mother calls me and I’m happy. I’m happy she called, I’m happy I made it out of Charlottesville, and I’m happy to be free and Black, then simultaneously sad that my happiness is political. The truth is none of my white friends in Charlottesville believe me when I tell them how the city has attempted to kill Blackness since long before we’ve come, and if it weren’t for their need to feel superior to someone, they’d be a little more intentional about it. “They” being Charlottesville City Council, Charlottesville Police, Charlottesville School Teachers and Administrators, and White Women in Yoga Pants. Like Lucille Clifton, I celebrate “that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”

White children in my neighborhood played in the street until well after dark on weekdays, but Black parents who grew up far away from those kids’ parents made their children came in just before the streetlight because “these white folks are crazy,” the old folks said. Strange though, because every time I was stopped by white cops was while I was playing in sunlight near a park, near what used to be a plantation, near my grandmother’s home. It was in Charlottesville that I learned white folks would not protect me, no matter their job description; no matter how close our friendship is. I remember my mother ending her vacation early to come home and find out why my fourth grade teacher called me a liar. My Black friend, Chris, was adopted by a white woman who watched in horror as her son was tormented by white classmates and white administrators, but did nothing to protect him. Charlottesville’s Black neighborhoods, whatever is left of them, are zoned to one day be white. Charlottesville has never protected its Black citizens.

In the name of “Urban Renewal,” Vinegar Hill, a Black safe space in a time when Black folks in Charlottesville and everywhere else weren’t safe, was destroyed by the city and left to fester until the cancerous, gentrifying folk came along. McDonalds now sits on the land my great grandmother’s house once sat and there’s an underdeveloped structure in Rose Hill that symbolizes the end of Black safe spaces in the city forever, and we’re pretending to be surprised that it took them this long to push us out. When I go home now, I can’t find my friends, or their parents. What used to be their homes are now filled with yoga mats, string bean casseroles, and tanning salon receipts. I try to call them, but their area codes have changed. They’ve been pushed out into the counties in which we said we’d never live.

To grow up Black in Charlottesville and smile often is an act of revolution. To grow up Black in Charlottesville and be surprised by the Alt-Right and Ku Klux Klan Rallies is to have slept through your own existence; to be surrounded by bliss. The heathen I am, uncivilized and all, never cared to abide by what seemed normal. I played in all the housing projects and laughed loud when “they,” the white folks who did all they could to keep my friends and their parents in these communities, thought they killed my laughter. I refused to let the police look at the serial number on my bike when I rode through the University of Virginia, because they weren’t going to take the joy the sun and the breeze brought while I rode down that hill fast, my feet in the air, not knowing they were following me. The smile on my face when I told them “no” was rebellious. When I called the one good cop and told him what happened, he made them call me and apologize. Their voices were monotone and their apologies were empty, but they called a 12-year-old Black boy to apologize for attempting to kill his joy. The rarity.

“I have a message to all the white supremacists and the Nazis who came into Charlottesville today,” Governor Terry McAuliffe said at his press conference. Our message is plain and simple. Go home. You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you. You pretend that you’re patriots, but you are anything but a patriot. You want to talk about patriots, talk about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who brought our country together.” I listened as his voice did that American thing that voices do when they condemn racism and supremacy using a racist and a supremacist as shining examples of how folks should conduct themselves. I listened at what sounded like an attempt to put Jefferson and Washington above the racists who carried out the plans Washington and Jefferson helped design. We can’t condemn the builders and not the architects, can we? Like the Black Charlottesville officer who put his life on the line to protect the racists and their system of oppression, they were doing what they’ve been taught.

The white educators of Charlottesville have grown accustomed to rewriting history to make figures look like them; to make them fit a mold that serves their narrative. In an early town hall meeting about whether or not to remove the statues, an educator told me Queen Charlotte, for whom Charlottesville was named, was a white woman despite what PBS and all other historians have taught us. He reminded me of the tours they currently give of Thomas Jefferson’s home, telling visitors Jefferson abhorred slavery, but kept his slaves because he knew they’d be safe on his plantation. It was these same educators who told my friends college wasn’t an option for them because of their performance, instead of telling them the truth. The truth is they weren’t taught properly. The truth is the education system in Charlottesville was never on their side. I imagine these educators told these things to my fiends with a grin on their face, using a standard set by the practically newly integrated University of Virginia, failing to mention Virginia State University, Virginia Union University, and Hampton University, schools that would have gladly welcomed them all with open arms. “Learn a trade,” is all they said, dismissing my friends to the cafeteria for lunch where I told them about the Honors English teacher who asked if I was sure I was in the right class.

I live in South Africa now. I’m witnessing the almost immediate after effects of Apartheid, realizing what the 50’s and 60’s must have been like in Charlottesville. I remember my grandmother’s integration stories and how white folks ran my uncle out of Charlottesville because of his dealings with a white woman. My ancestors told me stories of invisible lines they couldn’t cross and animosity toward the families whose houses they cleaned and whose clothes they ironed. On a flight home, a middle-aged white man told me Johannesburg was one of the greatest places on earth to him, and I remember Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer saying the same thing about Charlottesville, both men surely not bothering to take into account the pain their favorite cities have caused those existing on the other side of a line no one bothered to actually draw. Invisible lines holding back invisible people. Ralph Ellison spoke about such things.

The heathen I wasn’t quite raised to be, but have successfully maintained, wants to return home and knock on the doors of the homes that were stolen from our Black grandparents and aunts and uncles and ask the sympathetic owners if they care enough about equality and morality to give back the stolen property. I want to ask the city if they have plans to look at how zoning could save Black laughter and maintain joy. I want to ask the Black residents who remain to join me.

I miss the laughter. I miss congregating on porches, merry-go-rounds, and in intersections and storefronts and parks. We will have it all again and we will laugh a loud, deep, Black laugh.

George Edward Walker, Jr.: My Grandfather’s Eulogy

The funniest thing happened yesterday when I read my granddad’s obituary in the Washington Post. Anytime, without fail, I mentioned Chinese food, he’d make the joke, “you better be careful when you order Chinese food that has meat in it.” And every time, I’d ask “why?” He’d reply, “I aint never seen a Chinese man in the obituary. What are they doing with the body?” Well yesterday, right next to George E. Walker, Jr. was James Tsung-Wu Han. So Joke’s on George E. Walker, Jr.

My grandfather was a storyteller. His stories are what drew us to him, made us laugh, brought back memories, filled in gaps, and kept so many alive. His stories are what kept generations going. It was because of these stories that I know at least half the people in attendance today probably still owes him money. He told me to tell you that you can give it to me.

I’ve learned in my own life that great lives happen to those who are able to tell the stories, and if that is true, George Walker lived a great life.

I was going to ask him why he wanted me to speak to you all about his life, because if we’re being honest, until a few months ago, I didn’t feel like I knew much about him. Growing up, he was this giant figure in my life who came with just a few dollars to give me because he was cheap and would let me sit in the room and listen to him entertain grown folks with the same 15 stories I’d have to determine were made up or not. Before I could ask him why he wanted me to speak, he said, “you know we’re the only ones in the family with some sense.” “Yeah, I know,” I told him.

There was this moment near the end when we just sat for hours and compared our stories of the world, how things were then and how they are now, and mid laugh he said in a surprising voice, “Damn boy, you’re just like me.” This was the moment we both realized someone made the mistake of creating another George Walker and laughed at the universe for messing up in such a major way.

Two things happened in this moment for me:

1. As funny as it sounds, it was the first time I realized that I’m actually going to die one day, and me watching my granddad take this journey was surreal, much like watching myself. He did all the things I think I’d do in the situation: eat all the foods I’ve loved in my life and even some I hated just to make sure I still hate them. And get on everyone’s nerves just so they’d have stories to tell when I was no longer around to do so.

2. I pieced together every story I’ve sat in on and every story he’s told me directly and every story I’ve heard from others and realized I knew my grandfather as well as I know myself.

He knew I was a storyteller, and perhaps he needed me to share things as only a storyteller could. It’s the story teller who tells you about the two lives you will live. The first is the life that comes with your birth. The second is the life that comes after you’ve stared death in the face the first time or when you’ve fallen madly in love. And now it’s the storyteller who will tell you that there are two deaths to be endured: the first is the one that can’t be avoided. It’s the one that brought us here. The other is the death that happens when there are no more stories to be told about us. I imagine we will never see a day when there are no more stories to be told about George E. Walker, Jr.

It’s the storyteller who validates a life, isn’t it? Someone has to tell it all. They will be the ones to determine if the story is worth telling. They will be the ones who will show up to your funeral and say just three words. When you’ve done good in the world, and when you’ve walked your own path and left it all on the field, and when all that good has been collected in memories, and all the warmth you’ve given off can still be felt, we will simply say, “he did it.” Or, when you didn’t live at all. And the story is not worth mentioning, in a low tone, it’s the storyteller who will say only, “thanks for coming” and guide you out.

He did it, didn’t he? He lived life. He suited up early and he fought in the streets, he made a million mistakes and eventually laughed through them all, he loved hard, and he stood tall like a tree. When it was time to go, he fought on and was no longer the tree, but a stump, showing us he gave it all he had. He did it. And it was proper. One of the last things he said to me was “You’re not supposed to see me like this.” But wasn’t I? Aren’t I the proof that he railed against his dying day? That he fought? And in the end, he’s proof, for me at least, that even superman dies.

Perhaps I’m here because it’s important that I tell you death only ends the life, not the memories, not the laughs or the smiles, and not the relationship. In the stories I tell me friends, he will still be my grandfather, just as he will be your husband, your father, your brother, your uncle. And when you tell these stories, you tell them with the same tone he used, laughing in the same places he would have laughed, and you tell them like you’re telling them to him.

“A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him, and in that way he becomes immortal.” – Big Fish

You become the story and you live forever. They talk about like about all the greats you’ve ever loved by all the people who have ever loved you, and in this, you live on.

When storytellers die, it’s almost like a good book has been banned or a library has been burned.

Our storyteller is gone and it feels like a library has burned to the ground. We must now stitch together the pages we find laying around and rebuild. You show up with 4 stories and I’ll show up with 3.

So today and until further notice, we must tell stories of George Edward Walker, Jr.

I’m Just Not Made For Relationships.

 

I’m just not made for relationships. I’m made for those undefined and strange things that happen when neither of us is paying attention. It’s what happens in those hours when we’re not worried about titles, only how many tacos we can stuff into our stomachs and who’s going to fall asleep first on the film we both chose, that make sense to me. I’m made for that strange thing we’re doing when everyone else is wondering why I’m in so many of your photos and what’s made me pick up the pen again.

I don’t know how to need. As a minimalist, I look at life’s needs a bit differently than most. Hence why I’m always broke, all my clothes fit into a small bag, and I’m always happy. As the descendent of folks who did most things on their own and allowed me to sit in the room while it all happened, I am well skilled in self-reliance. I will probably never need you. I will want you. It will always be my choice to be with you, and to me, that’s so much better. Don’t need me.

I will never chase after you. The soles on my shoes are almost completely worn, my knees are cracking, and my feet hurt sometimes because I walk too much. Relationships in the past have failed because I didn’t show up on the other side of the closed door, where they waited for me to stop them. Don’t tell me to leave when you mean “stay.” If I say leave, I mean leave. I only know how to get up when I’m done, but not before. I learned that at my best friend’s dinner table when I was 8. When you’re done, I expect you to get up as well. Don’t keep me company for the hell of it.

I’m a believer in opportunities, but not so sure “opportunities” is the word I want to use here. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop and a man enters and strikes up a random conversation about field mice and you laugh while the ice melts in your chai latte, and 45 minutes later you find yourself wondering if he’s your “person,” I will encourage you to find out. I will be hurt, but I will tell you to be sure. I have this foolish notion that we should always be sure we’re supposed to do this and with each other.

If you’re happier with titles, I will take a title. You can call me “boyfriend,” “lover,” or “him.” I can be him. I could also live out our relationship having never called you anything and having never been called something in return and I’d be just as happy. Any title you want, I will give you. It will mean more to you than it does to me, and that’s fine. We don’t belong to each other, we’re merely two people keeping each other company for a very long time.

I’m selfish and while I don’t require you to be, I will not allow you to make me feel bad about it. I will never sacrifice my inner freedoms for you and I won’t let you play a martyr. Whether I enter your space or you enter mine, you are here to share me with me, and I look forward to sharing all of you with you without compromise.  Humanly, naturally, we will evolve if we are meant to, but we can’t sit idle, waiting for that evolution.

I’ve been told it’s unrealistic to always want to feel springtime. I see couples eating dinner in public, each wishing they were alone or with whoever’s making them smile through the phone they can’t seem to ignore. It makes me think of the old women in dry marriages who make toasts at weddings, saying things like, “there will come a time when it’s not easy and may hate each other, but you will get through it together,” knowing it’s not always true. Some of them will grow in those dark places, but they will never bloom again. Undoubtedly, we will always grow, but I want to always bloom. I want us to always be new.

Relationships require realism and what I think is real seemed impossible to them. All of them.  I live in a world where I think we could be happy always and grow like Bloody Geraniums, with a little shade, very little water, and plenty of sunshine.

 

 

 

The Fraternity as Therapy

17457518_10100541843019875_1040004132940352411_nThe fraternity as a self-care tool

We showed up to one of the greatest weddings we’ll ever attend, celebrated our brother and new sister, and we laughed, telling stories and jokes, recalling each time in college and after when we all connected over foolishness, drinks, and women. We leaned hard on the Coat of Arms.

The wedding ended and my brothers and I spent all the following hours and days recharging, updating, and loving each other; the heaviest conversations over plates and glasses and on beaches and rooftops. It was therapy. It was brothers being brothers.