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The Revolutionary Act of Living

for the Indigo Children

just trying to live

and feel

in a world that has always been too much.

I have been hibernating. Incubating. Gestating. Growing a baby, and giving birth to a dissertation that feels long overdue.  My silence will not protect me, but sometimes it does preserve me. I have learned not to speak until I am sure of what to say… especially when it seems that every intelligent, political thing to be said about this moment has already been said or written by my own heroes. I have learned, through the murder of my little brother, that testimony is a powerful tool. Our own story is often the only one we are truly qualified to tell, and no one can tell it better than we can.

When I first tried to write about Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford, and John Crawford, and the countless others whose murders have recently been brought to our attention, I realized that I had already written about the devaluation of Black life, and a vigilante police state that protects private property over living beings. I realized that although the players change, the story is a continuing loop, and we need new narratives. So I decided to write something from the heart instead; something that may not change a soul besides my own… something for the Indigo Children, the introverts, and the highly sensitive people for whom it is often necessary to hide, and feel, and mourn in silence before we choose to speak.

The recurring questions in my life these days are, “What is my role in the movement? When and where and how do I enter? How do I sustain my community and myself when I don’t have the wherewithal to lie down in the streets, or even leave the house?” My short answer is to write. But what about the times when I can’t breathe? When I choke on my words? When my throat chakra collapses in on itself, trapping my eloquent prose before it can escape? In those moments, when I feel so small, and so tired, and so ineffective, I write words that only I will read. I have conversations with small groups of people, trusting the exponential river-like ripple that my influence will have. I sit with my sangha and we meditate, cultivating peace first within ourselves before sending it infinitely outward, like radio waves through quartz crystal. And I give deep thanks for my loved ones at the forefront of this movement. They carry the torch for all of us who feel immobilized by grief and beat down by the world.

In a moment when my entire Facebook timeline seems to be endlessly filled with bad news, disrespect, and cultural appropriation, it brings me joy that the unveiling of my baby brings joy to those I love. It makes me so happy that my mother, who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, can be excited about her first grandchild… and that my father, who lost a son and a brother this past year, can look forward to something new in this recurring nightmare.

And of course I worry, every day, about this little Black child growing inside of me. I worry about their physical health and development, but I worry more about how the physical world will affect them once they have left the safety of my womb. I worry, just like I worry about my baby’s big, beautiful Black father when he goes out into the world. I worry because I know that it doesn’t matter if I have a boy or a girl in a world that eats its young; where a little Black girl sleeping in her bed is as vulnerable as an unarmed Black man. I know that this militarized police state will snuff out the light of a Black child as quickly as it will choke the life from a grown Black man. I realize this. And yet, I am shepherding in a new life. I am the conscious conduit for a new light. And although I have worked in my own small way to make this world better for all of our children, I know that it is not yet enough. But I also know that every single one of my heroes inherited the troubles of a world that they did not create, so I trust that this child, every child who stands on the shoulders of the ancestors, will be their own link in the chain.

I can’t breathe, and yet I must, because my breath is not just for me anymore. The little life inside of me proves that life must go on. It has to. I’m not doing anyone any favors by not living my own Black life fully.  I am grateful for the chance to be a caretaker and guardian and teacher for someone other than myself… for the chance to carry, sustain, and nurture Black life, which certainly feels like a revolutionary act in these days and times.

I reclaim my health, life, and vitality in the name of the fallen ones: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Ikenna Uwakah. I bring new life into the world in honor of the lives you lost too soon.

When Hearts Break (Open): Losing (and finding) My Brother

ikennaIkenna Uwakah

On December 1st 2013, my youngest brother on my father’s side was murdered in broad daylight in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunter’s Point district.  He was trying to sell a Playstation 4 game console to a buyer he met online. He was trying to make some extra money for the holidays. He was trying. Ikenna was 22 years old.

All month, I have been trying to write about my brother, but the words just wouldn’t come through my frozen fingers and numbed out brain. I want to write about how the conditions of advanced consumer capitalism killed my brother by making his life less valuable than the piece of plastic in his hands.

I want to write about how my heart broke when I saw my own father’s face on TV and watched him holding back tears as he lamented the senseless death of his baby boy, and the anger I felt when the news station cut to endless commercials for low low prices and holiday deals.  “Shop here!” “Buy this!” “Deal ends Sunday!” “Run, don’t walk!” “You need this stuff!”

I want to write about how we have all been conditioned to show our love through material things, but since there are more guns than jobs and time in dispossessed Black neighborhoods, the holidays can become a violent race to the finish line.

I want to write about premature Black death, and the façade of justice in this country, and how even as I mourn the loss of my brother’s life I also mourn for the 21 year old Black man who shot him, as he will now become part of a Prison Industrial Complex that eats Black bodies and souls.

I want to write about the unimaginable trauma Ikenna’s girlfriend must be suffering after witnessing his murder. I want to tell her that everything she did or tried to do was enough, and thank her for being there with him at all.

Instead, because I am trying to remember how to write to save my own life, I’ve decided to write about what the loss of my brother has meant for me.  Especially since I know Ikenna better in death than I ever did in life.

I am my father’s eldest child. I wasn’t part of his plan, and yet I am here.  I’ve seen him twice in 30 years. When I was 6 he told me that he had three other children, and since then I’ve wondered about my siblings; daydreaming about how I would someday come to meet them. In my most popular fantasy, I would show up at their house, dramatically announcing myself like a soap opera character. Then we would all hug and cry, and I would fill in the missing pieces of my story while gently caressing old photographs of faces that looked like my own.

But unlike my fantasy self, I’m not really a soap opera dramatic person. I play the background. Out of respect for my father’s choices and internalized rejection, I stayed away. For 30 years.

I call my father twice a year –on his birthday and on Father’s Day, and every time we speak I ask about his children. I even planned to try to meet them, through him, next time I was home. In the weeks leading up to Ikenna’s murder my siblings had been so heavy on my heart. I knew it was time to do what fear had prevented for so long. I told my origin story to my friends.  I could feel my big moment on the horizon, with no way of knowing that it would come through such a piercing tragedy.

On the morning of Monday December 2nd, 2013, after a long and intense night of nightmares, I saw my brother’s face in my Facebook feed. A friend had posted his picture under the ominous bold letters R.I.P.  I recognized him. Saw my face in his. Struggled to wake up enough to figure out what was going on. This can’t be right… “no, no, no, no…” my fingers scrambled to google his name, to verify what had to be a cruel joke. He couldn’t be dead. I never even got my chance…

I spent the next week in shock and pain and so much regret. I called my father. He never called back. I wrote a letter to Ikenna and lit candles for him. I accepted people’s hugs and calls, and let them hold space for me –not an easy thing, but so immensely healing. I even dreamed with Ikenna, and in my dreams we painted love messages to each other on smooth rocks by the seashore.  He was glad to finally know me.  One week after his death, I wrote a letter to my two surviving siblings, and I sent it.

“This was not the way I planned to contact you, and these were definitely not the circumstances I imagined as I played this moment over and over in my mind. I’ve been waiting my whole life for the right time to come out of the shadows and make myself known to you… I’ve waited too long already.  I’ve been afraid, plagued by indecision and hesitation, but now that Ikenna is gone and I’ll never get to hold his hands or see his smile, I don’t want to miss my chance to know you two. Life is too short. I have to step out on faith…”

After reading my letter at least 50 times, and with India Arie’s “Strength, Courage and Wisdom” on repeat in the background, I hit send. And the profound lightness that came over me in that moment is almost indescribable.  It was like my broken heart had broken open even further and golden light was pouring out of it. Through all of the fear, I had stepped out on faith and showed my face, and all there was left to do was wait. The divine timing of the universe had finally kicked me off the edge of the cliff I had been teetering on for three decades, and I flew.  Had Ikenna not passed, I may have second-guessed and procrastinated for another hundred years. After all, there’s always something else to do, a dissertation to write…

Sending that letter was one of the most liberating moments of my life. Whether they responded or not, my siblings now knew that I am here, and I am here for them.  I told them that I loved them, had always loved them, and that I was sorry for waiting so long. I hoped that in this time of grief their hearts had broken open enough to make room for me. I heard from my little sister the next day. She said she had a clairvoyant sense that someone was out there, somewhere.  Since then I’ve been in touch with her, sending her love and strength as she supports her family through this unbearably difficult time. When she texted me on December 25th “Merry Christmas sis”, all my old fears seemed silly.  My only regret is waiting as long as I did.

My brother was buried on Monday, December 23rd, the same day that the 49ers played their last game at Candlestick Park. It was an epic day to be a San Franciscan.  A bittersweet celebration of what once was, but is no more. I wasn’t there. True to my non-soap opera self, I wanted to let my father mourn his son in peace, knowing that circumventing him and reaching out to my siblings was enough for this moment. But both Ikenna and I were there in spirit that day, smiling at the city’s outpouring of love as we sang and danced him home to the beat of African drums.

In my nightmares the night Ikenna was killed, I was trying to get free.  I was with lots of loved ones on a vacation in a place that had gone from a safe refuge to a veritable hell. We realized too late that we were in grave danger, and we were all being held hostage.  There were shootings and poisonings and rapes and rebellions. I jumped out of tall windows, scaled down high walls, and dodged surveillance cameras to get free from our gun wielding sociopathic captors. I even carjacked a woman (without hurting her) and drove her car up the banks of a muddy river with the goons on my heels. But I kept coming back. What good was my freedom if everyone I loved was still in captivity? At one point I even woke up, thanked the universe emphatically that it was only a dream, and fell right back asleep into the chaos and terror. I was helping someone to get free that night: someone who I loved very much, and who was very, very afraid. May there be no more fear where you are now, Ikenna. Only joy and ease.

The main thing that brings me peace and thaws the cold numbness of my grieving heart is the budding new relationship I am beginning to have with the other half of my family for the first time in my life.  I took a chance and threw a wrench into the lives of my siblings, hoping for the best and changing all of us forever.

Octavia Butler writes,

“All that you touch

You Change. 

All that you Change

Changes you. 

The only lasting truth is Change.  

God is Change.”

I embrace change, and I trust the divine timing of the universe. My brother transmuted from his mortal coil into a force that I can now feel all around me, all day everyday.  Even the most painful tragedy can be composted into new possibility. As the sun sets on 2013, I have a reinvigorated excitement and enthusiasm about what is to come, and a new acceptance of all the unknown forms it will take. I can feel a new life chapter opening, and I am still blessed beyond belief to be the protagonist in this book.

Resisting the Devaluation of Our Lives and Our Stories

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” ~Audre Lorde

We are halfway through the first week following the devastating verdict in what could be described as the trial of Trayvon Martin: the innocent Black boy who basically stood trial for his own murder, and lost.  Since Saturday, there have been a number of peaceful rallies throughout the country, insightful articles by our brightest Black thinkers, petitions to the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, celebrity vows to boycott the state of Florida, and the resurrection of quotables about this country’s skewed version of justice from Black geniuses like Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Frederick Douglass, and Audre Lorde to name but a few.

The verdict broke my heart, but the thought of what it means for the future state-sanctioned devaluation of Black life made me sick to my stomach. Even a “guilty on all counts” verdict would not be sufficient justice, because there is no amount of prison time that can restore the innocent young life that has been brutally extinguished. And those of us who understand the Prison Industrial Complex know that prison is not a mechanism for justice anyway.  In many ways, there is value in this verdict because it demonstrates yet again just how disposable Black life is and always has been.  Had Zimmerman been found guilty, it may have simply pacified many of us enough to go stumbling back to our slow death in the form of business as usual. Those of us who have been angry all of our lives about the murder of Black babies and the disdain for Black life are not surprised by a not-guilty verdict, because we remember that the men who tortured Emmett Till were exonerated. We watched the celebration and wicked smiles of the officers who beat Rodney King nearly to death as they were acquitted. But there are those of us who are surprised, and who are new to this grief and rage, and it is moments like this—when there is no place to comfortably hide from the exposed underbelly of America and its racialized distribution of injustice—that serve to politicize new factions of the population who may have believed until now that there is some semblance of justice in this country.

“Post-racial America” is one in which the same Stand Your Ground Laws that validated the murder of Trayvon Martin do not apply to Marissa Alexander, who received a 20-year prison sentence for firing warning shots and killing no one in the same state that absolved Zimmerman; nor do they apply to Trevor Dooley who claimed self-defense in the 2010 shooting death of his neighbor. Post-racial America is one in which Zimmerman trial jurors are prohibited from considering race in a clearly racially-motivated hate crime against a Black child, but when 100 young Black activists from the Black Youth Project create a brilliant video response to the verdict, the comments section is bombarded with hate-filled racist and homophobic remarks. Sadly, moments like this galvanize not only new and old activists for social justice and anti-racism, but also every paranoid, racist bigot hiding behind a screen name and avatar. And the ignorant, poorly-written venom that they spew onto our heartfelt blogs and videos prove that, if nothing else, the American institution of education is failing us all:

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We document our own truth through social media, blogs and other outlets because the mainstream media de-legitimizes our movements. If we let them tell our stories, they would have us believe that all we are doing is waiting for a reason to storm Walmart, when in fact, the protests in LA have all been peaceful until police showed up, their fear hardly masked by their riot gear, and started shooting rubber bullets into the faces of the mourners. I was in Leimert Park on Monday night and can attest that the eight helicopters, four fire trucks, six ambulances, and more police cars than I could count was way too much for the small non-violent assembly of Black people listening to Sam Cooke and sharing their collective grief.  Not to mention the five eye-witness news vans that were lined up with idle reporters reapplying their makeup in the rearview mirrors, waiting to capture a story about belligerent Black rage… or create one.

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In this moment, perhaps more than ever, it is critical that we remain clear about the nature of the beast that we are up against. It has morphed and changed shape many times –sometimes, like now, visibly rearing its head, and other times cloaked and obscured by doublespeak and propaganda– but the underpinnings of murderous anti-Black racism remain the same. We must also remember that even as we mourn the premature deaths of our children and fight to survive in this nation that eats its young and reserves its rights for a selected few, we still deserve joy and peace of mind. That is what I would have wished for Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant, and Jordan Davis, and Darius Simmons, and Kimani Gray, and Kenneth Harding Jr., and Rekia Boyd, and Hadiya Pendleton, and countless others on a too long list: I would have wished for them more time on Earth to enjoy good food, big hugs, deep laughter… things that I work hard to keep at the forefront of my own life, to balance myself against so much struggle and bad news.  In trying times like these we need an intentional self-care practice, remembering that we, too, deserve to thrive and be well. It is not necessary to martyr ourselves in the process of liberation.  Our desire for health and survival in our communities begins with a recognition of our own intrinsic right to live happily, healthfully, and joyfully in the present moment.

Each of us only has at our disposal a 24 hour day and a limited supply of energy. I choose to spend mine building alternatives to the world I am critiquing. I stand with those who are working to explain this tragic, distorted moment to their children and their students. I am in solidarity with the Black Youth Project, Dignity and Power Now, and the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence. I stand with Black Lives Matter and the Catalyst Project who have declared that we will not tolerate open season on Black bodies.  Stand with us, in whatever capacity you can, against legacies of racism and genocide. Remember that “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ~Frederick Douglass

For 2013 and Beyond…

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Deer Park Valley, 12/31/2012

If good intentions pave the road to hell, then what paves the gilded road to heaven? Perhaps the bricks in that road are cemented with discipline, and a mindful practice. 

On this first day of the fresh new year, as many of us call forth our aspirations and name our goals, I also reflect on 2012 and the powerful transformations and liberations that it brought me. I journal to curate the touchstones of my own life—and not just the sweet, beautiful moments either. The sad, scary, embarrassing stuff is part of the story too, and I think those are the elements that actually make me fully human.  Looking back through the archives of my life, it’s clear that 2012 broke me. Broke me down, open and through in so many ways.  The self I thought I knew shattered into a million pieces, and the dust resettled in such a way that things couldn’t go back to how they were before, because those old grooves and spaces no longer existed. The only option was newness: new fits, new ways to be. I was forced to put myself back together differently, and in so doing I was transformed, emerging with a heightened knowledge of self.  

Autumn of 2012 was filled with hard lessons and many blessings. It was a season of “yoga moments”, where deep breaths and the courage to cry, sleep, eat, sing, dance and laugh when I needed to was all that kept me from the potential depths of my lows.  It was also a season of major milestones, achievements, and a new level of discipline that I didn’t even realize I was capable of. I’ve been grinding to get to this place, and I’m still grinding, so who knows where I’ll end up—but I’m certain that I’ll still be blessed. In the last couple of months I have created my own ceremonies and rituals.  I have called upon community when I needed to, cherishing genuine laughter and new friendships, but also rejoicing in my solitude, feeling loved and held even when I was alone.

Today I’m back in LA after spending the last 5 days at the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, where I breathed deeply, ate slowly, listened with an open heart to myself and to those around me, and smiled to my joy and to my suffering alike.  Celebrating the arrival of the New Year in this way/ in this place was so powerful. My dreams were filled with clear messages and ancestral transmissions, and each mindful moment affirmed that I am right where I need to be—right on time, imperfect yet perfectly aligned. And on the last night of the old year, just when I began to think she may not appear at all, the moon came soaring fast and strong and bright from behind the mountain peaks, ascending to her place in the sky and eclipsing every constellation with the largest halo crown I’ve ever seen her wear.

I have so much gratitude for 2012. I surprised myself last year with my own capacity to forgive, to evolve and to surrender.  In 2013 I aspire to embody what I wish the year would bring to me –compassion, acceptance, vulnerability, honesty, authenticity, kindness, love without fear and affection without assumption.  I recognize how far I’ve come, how far yet there is to go, and how much joy is to be had in every step of this journey.  There are decisions to be made, but more importantly, there are intuitions to trust and listen to.  I’ll practice being still, breathing slow and deep, reaching out to the people on my heart, and smiling when I feel the sun on my face (and even when I don’t).

Each new moment is a new chance to get present and get free. In 2013 and beyond, I hope you all find balance, and the necessary courage and discipline to actualize the life you want to live.  May you all learn from your suffering, and release that which does not serve you to make space for joy and new blessings.

Happy New Year!

Can I Live?

I’m honored to be part of The Feminist Wire‘s brilliant forum on Black academic women’s health. While this essay is specifically concerned with the health of Black women in the academy, I hope that the principles of self-care and healing resonate with people of various races, genders, academic affiliations or lack thereof.  Here is my essay on wellness: Can I Live?

thanks for reading!

Whitney Houston, Public Scrutiny and Prescription Medications

The tears came for the first time today, as I watched what must be at least a decade-old video of Whitney Houston performing “my love is your love” with a tiny Bobbi Kristina swaying by her side.  Looking at them, mother (now deceased) and child (now almost fully grown and in the throes of an emotional breakdown), it hit me: that baby lost her mother and her best friend.  And the world just watched. We watched (and laughed at) Whitney’s erratic behavior for the past 10+ years.  We judged her when her voice deteriorated, blaming her for her own self-destruction, as though we ourselves had no demons… as though Whitney somehow created the conditions for her tormented life and devastating death in a vacuum.  All at once I realized what a mess we are in, collectively.  There are no official autopsy results yet (which in and of itself is puzzling to me), but early reports suggest a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs like Xanax: a psychoactive drug used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, whose side effects include depression and suicidal ideations.  Granted, the correlation between Whitney Houston and drug abuse is not new to the global public imaginary.  However, this is different… these substances are “legal”, and this should be a serious and jarring wake-up call for all of us.  How many of us and our loved-ones are taking prescription drugs for everything from preventable stress and food-related illnesses to mood disorders?  A better question perhaps is how many people ARE NOT taking prescription medications for one reason or another?  There is no “Just Say No” campaign against prescription meds, although some would argue that there should be.  Instead there seems to be a “Just Take More” approach, as increasing numbers of new illnesses are constructed to justify our extensive and expensive medication regimes.  Everyone is talking about Whitney’s history of cocaine and crack use, but where is the critique of the prescription meds that arguably took her life?

As we remember Whitney Houston, we resurrect young, pretty Whitney circa 1985-1992: America’s sweetheart, Clive Davis’ star with the golden voice.  Maybe it’s too painful to remember her in her most recent form: as a haunted global icon, agitated, stressed out and understandably medicating just to find some peace. And make no mistake: there was no peace for Whitney. Not anywhere. Not even in her own home, where paparazzi (of the same caliber that drove Princess Diana off the road, then made money off the story of her death) would hide in the trees surrounding her house, stealing photos of private moments and circulating them (often with false headlines) to an unforgiving public who thrived on Whitney’s pain.  Who among us could handle that level of surveillance? That level of scrutiny and pressure? That level of hateful print and speech spewed round the clock, coming even from the people we thought were our friends, relentlessly attacking us, our integrity, our artistry, our spouse, our child??  And as we mourn her, we thank whatever divine power we believe in that her life was not our own, but we are all still implicated because we are all connected in this life, regardless of how far removed we may feel.  Moreover, every time we eat up a story about a struggling star exhibiting self-destructive behavior, we are helping to create a market for more stories like this.  Whitney herself has wondered on more than one occasion in her songs and interviews why people don’t seem to want to see her thrive; why they are only interested in seeing her stumble and fall.

So we dredge up old memories of the Whitney we once loved, but what of the one we gave up on?  To my mind, Whitney’s tale is similar to that of Michael Jackson, also a victim of prescription drug overdose, whose difficult life had been a public spectacle and a running joke since the 90s, and only his disturbing death could get the world to once again celebrate the magnitude of his talent.  Too bad neither Whitney nor Michael (or Don Cornelius, for that matter) got to witness their own tributes after all of their life’s work.

The hotel room where Whitney’s body was found is allegedly already occupied and booked up solidly for the unforeseeable future.  I am reminded that fame is a curse I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

Video: Whitney sings with Bobbi Kristina