Archive for November, 2014

Under the Overpass: Shine Muwasi

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentaryThe opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and not endorsed by or its owners.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, we believe in giving the drummer some. Respect and a fist bump to the hand playing the first instrument.

On most Sundays, I take my 2-year-old daughter to the Leimert Park Drum Circle in LA’s Crenshaw District. Leimert Park is the nexus of Black Los Angeles politics, culture and grassroots activism. If there is a protest rally, a political press conference, an annual African-centered cultural festival, it’s in Leimert Park. The Leimert Park Drum Circle is special because it brings together the diverse elements of the Black community. There are African immigrants, poets, politicians, children, homeless people, activists, celebrities, business owners, gangstas, hippies, Hebrew Israelites, Fruit of Islam, professors, college students, street vendors and me and my baby girl. All called by the hypnotic lure of the drum.

Typically, I bring one of my djembe drums and my daughter’s smaller version. We always start by stepping into the actual circle, with her on my shoulders, and immediately begin dancing. I like to close my eyes and sway to the ritualized music that our African ancestors infused with soul that slavery couldn’t kill. As I dance, I can feel my daughter dancing on my shoulders. Sometimes she’ll synchronize her rhythm with mine, at other times, true to her already established personality, she’ll find her own rhythm—forcing me to hold on to her legs tighter so she doesn’t fall right off my shoulders as I’m swaying deeply left.

During our initial dance, from time to time, I’ll open my eyes and see the eyes of others locked on us. Though there are approximately 40 drummers, the crowd of onlookers is always at least triple this number. I know their frequent stares are not because my groove skills are so impressive (though I have been known to bust a move when inspired). They are staring because clearly I’m not simply dancing, my free hand is raised skyward praising the most high—and so is my daughter. I know this because after our initial dance, as I’m chasing my infinitely curious daughter to and fro, people ALWAYS, stop me and say how hard my daughter is grooving. This past Sunday, a sister told me: “Your daughter was dancing so hard. She had one hand in the sky and one hand on rocking her braid.”

I want my daughter to fall in love with herself (trust me, she’s on her way). My strategy is to help her fall in love with Black people. Our soul, our humor, our style, our culture, our history and our music—including our drum. Society sends so many messages to Black children (like it sends to Black adults), that Black lives don’t matter. I’m here to make sure my daughter knows: #blacklivesmatter. As a young girl, it is especially important to me that she get this message.

Oftentimes, due to the intense anti-blackness under which Black men suffer, they turn their self-hatred in the direction of Black women. Doing the death-dealing work of institutional racism and individual racists who would love to see us destroy ourselves. The unfortunate and embarrassing truth is that waaaay too many Black men go about this work like its their damn day job. This death-dealing labor force includes some male ministers, some hip hop artists, some gangstas, some athletes, some professors, some drummers, and some brothers who claim to passionately love Black people. My response to them, mid-misogyny, is always the same: Black women are Black people too. And so is my little Black girl.

After our initial dance, we always join the drummers. A part of the beauty of being a long-time drummer is that I can hear the dominant rhythm being played in the Drum Circle and immediately add my own synchronized counter rhythm. It’s a very powerful way to demonstrate respect for the rhythms of communal life, while expressing my own individuality.

I am we, even as I am me.

I often catch my daughter watching me drum, when we first start to drum. She’ll watch me look and listen for a few moments, then launch into my counter rhythm. This is what she also does now when she starts to drum. She’ll take her eyes off me and start looking around the circle. Then she’ll tip her djembe on its side so she can sit on it. Then she’ll start to play. Usually, she’s just beating out random rhythms. Smiling and having fun hanging out with pops in the neighborhood. But every once in awhile, she’ll lock in and go on a little run. She’ll be feeling the pulsing rhythms so strong, she’ll catch a current and ride it for about 10 seconds. Then get up and start dancing—then running through Leimert Park, forcing me to stop drumming and chase after her little butt.

This our ritual.

Dance, drum, dance, run.

I know that as my daughter gets older, she’ll eventually become a very good drummer. I know because she has a great passion for it at this very early age. Even though there are few women, as models, who play in the Drum Circle. Which is why, I usually stop by The World Stage before we leave the park, because during the main Drum Circle, the all-women’s drum ensemble Shine Muwasi, hosts in indoor Drum Circle/jam session/rehearsal. When we walk in my daughter’s eyes light up seeing all the sisters drumming. The sisters eyes light up too. They are so welcoming to her. They place drums in front of her and encourage her to join in. Sometimes she does. Usually, she walks through the circle and goes right to the drum set on the stage, where she plays her own counter rhythm, here, under the overpass.

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Under the Overpass: Anti-Blackness

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and not endorsed by or its owners.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, we’ve been thinking about blackness — not to be confused with black-ish — but they’re sorta related in that play-cousin kinda way.

Black people are everywhere. You would think that ubiquitous presence would remind others that we were the first people on the planet and cause them to give us the dap we deserve. It’s the infrequent Black sighting that begins with “Hey, my primordial sister, thanks for making the rest of us possible!” Instead, Black bodies are too often shot on sight. Reason be damned, weapon unfound, and jury decisions unfounded.

Being Black can be bad for your health.

The socio-economic and political externalities of walking around in a Black body require an extraordinary amount self-care. Or technologies of the self, as Michel Foucault would argue. The process of identifying and implementing strategies to undergird the thing inside us that makes us who we are. Technologies to enliven the spirit. Practices that can build our internal infrastructure in a world performing synchronized explosive demolitions on Black bodies like we’re vacant buildings. Stop me when I start lying.

Encountering blackness makes people lose their minds. Not long ago, I was entering the elevator in the university building where I teach English literature. I was wearing a blazer, carrying a satchel full of graded papers and rocking eyewear thick enough to suggest that I know my way around a book. A middle-aged white women literally moved deep into the corner of the elevator, brought her purse close to her bosom, angled her body to give me the Floyd Mayweather raised shoulder and looked at me like I was Lil Wayne on that syrup.

Her reaction sent my emotions swirling. I recall clearly that I had been having a good day. It was a sunny spring semester which has a way of putting you in a good mood because it’s a signifier that summer break is near. I was feeling good. Then I was not. First, I remember feeling embarrassed. I was embarrassed because my blackness had made this strange woman act so strangely. Her crazy was my fault. My skin had victimized her. Then I caught myself. And got mad. I almost said, “You have NOTHING I want.” But I didn’t. In part, I was silenced by the potential repercussions of exploding my rage on her. In part, I was silenced because I was hurt. I didn’t have my guard up, so her actions hit an emotional chord. A tender one. One that most of us keep well protected as we engage white folk at our jobs, talk to police officers with our hands in full view on the steering wheel, order from the waiter, raise our hands to answer the question in class and clear our throats to speak in meetings. When the white gaze is on us, we feel the weight, potential danger and stress that it brings. That’s why many of us don’t feel comfortable socializing with our white colleagues. Why some of us feel such a rage at any perceived slight. Why we medicate alone on Hennessy, Cognac, and Hendrix Kush. It hurts to have people judge us on sight. Worse when they start firing. It’s painful and tiring walking through the world with a black body when the world is drunk on anti-blackness.

Anti-blackness can be best understood within the framework forwarded by theorist Jared Sexton: In a world structured by the twin axioms of white superiority and black inferiority, of white existence and black non-existence, a world structured by a negative categorical imperative – “above all, don’t be black” [quoting Lewis Gordon] – in this world, the zero degree of transformation is the turn toward blackness, a turn toward the shame, as it were, that “resides in the idea that ‘I am thought of as less than human’” [quoting Tavia Nyong’o].

Although some of us may not use the term anti-blackness in our daily interactions, our daily interactions inform our perfect understanding of the term.

The irony of anti-blackness is that most of us would rather be black (according to my unscientific polling, involving unrepresentative sample sizes comprised of me and other cats over the years). Despite living in an anti-black world, we love us some us. The flavor of our nomenclature. The soul lineage from Al Green to Anthony Hamilton. The articulation of Barbara Christian’s intellect. The through line to Erica R. Edwards. Vorris L. Nunley on a dialectical roll. Allen Iverson’s crossover. It’s extension through Kyrie Irving. The courage of Barbara Lee. The fierceness of Maxine Waters. The hipness of my teenage daughter. The soul of my 2-year-old baby girl who calls Malcolm X, “Uncle X” because he feels so familiar to her on vinyl.

Anti-blackness can kiss our black asses.

The people who are pushing it on the world, and supporting its unsavory regime, aren’t really encountering Black people. They’re encountering the trope of Blackness. Theorist Vorris L. Nunley describes a trope as, “Distinctive concentrations and constellations of dense cultural and experiential energy. Such energy enables certain effects with certain audiences through visual, verbal, written, or gestural performativity. Tropes alter, heighten, and increase constellations of cultural signs.” The woman in the elevator didn’t encounter Michael Datcher, she encountered a constellation of cultural energy that included her stereotypes about Black men. That cultural energy created a heightened affect in her body when she was forced to share an elevator space with the trope of blackness —- in the form of a blazer wearing English professor.

George Zimmerman didn’t encounter Trayvon Martin, a teenage boy with a high-grade point average who was his father’s best friend and had a weakness for Skittles, Zimmerman encountered the trope of blackness.

Officer Darren Wilson didn’t encounter a college-bound teenager with dreams named Michael Brown. He encountered the trope of blackness.

The trope of blackness can kiss our black asses, too. We’re keeping it one-hundred, here, here under overpass.

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Under the Overpass: Activist Burnout

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and not endorsed by or its owners.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, some of the sickest healers, are the sickest healers. Some who do the most work, are the most unwell, most worn out.

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, the stimulating mix of brilliant intellectualism and concrete activism spoke to me. Brainy idealism meets pragmatic organizing. This was something I could feel. Be a part of. Believe in.

The campaigns, the rallies, the Big Brother programs, the activist art gave me an arena to put my heart into action. Make love a verb. I learned this from my mentors.

The older activists in our circle were both larger than life and the people who sent me on Blue Mountain Jamaican rum runs to lubricate talk of life and politics. They saw me as a sincere younger colleague. I saw them as a roadmap. They were slowly creating a new life arc for me. Without really trying. They were just living their lives by their convictions. I just happened to be there to watch. My two main mentors were the great poet and activist June Jordan and the legendary literary critic and activist Barbara Christian. Theirs souls are light now as they were when their bodies were alive. It’s emotional to even type their names now. They lived their love for justice out-loud and I listened very closely. Learned. Then began to recite chapter and verse through my own activism.

I can still recall the day that I called my mother after class to inform her that her baby wasn’t gonna have that corner office in the sky. No Brooks Brothers auction block for me. The expletives that left her mouth were a new experience. This Southern woman, of Southern manners, put some Miles Davis in her MFs.

I could not be swayed. I was smitten. Learning about myself and the world had made me want to think for myself about the world and my place in it. I was rolling with the people who wanted to leave the planet better than when they arrived. Folk who wanted to do something to help people help themselves. Activists down for the get down.

It wasn’t just professors Jordan and Christian. Berkeley’s bench went deep. I still have not encountered another squad of committed activists with as many numbers as Berkeley. Although I would stack my undergraduate education against anyone, I actually learned more out of class than I did in class. One cautionary teaching: heal yourself as you help others heal themselves.

It would take more than the digits on my fingers and toes to name the people I personally saw burn out in the beautiful struggle. Good people who got tired of engaging the bad that the world can put out. People exhausted from giving to causes and people who were often indifferent. Or simply didn’t want a bleeding heart cramping their dysfunction. Underpaid activist who were worn down by the crises in their own lives, as they dove head-first into global crises. Organizers who got sick of the misogyny and post-rally booty calls. Community leaders who medicated on alcohol and the praise of others. So many gone when we needed them most.

My college experience convinced me that activists have to work as hard at building our internal infrastructure as we do at building external infrastructures on the planet. We have to make the time to do what Michel Foucault would call engaging in technologies of the self. Find ways to undergird the spirits that place these worker-bee bodies into action. I agree with Foucault that art, culture and the sensorium are edifying technologies, but I would add a heavy dose of some type of consistent spiritual practice (art, culture and sensorium can certainly play a role in spirituality). Spiritual practice in the broadest possible sense: some practice that uplifts the spirit. Daily. Life happens every day, so it behooves activists to have a daily practice. We give so much of ourselves that not to give to ourselves is foolish and irresponsible. For Black activists in particular.

In my life time, this era marks the most challenging time for the African American community. From self-inflicted urban violence to cop propelled bullets to the roll back of civil rights to the prison industrial complex to HIV-infection rates to crack’s stubborn refusal to disappear to failing schools to the rise in suicide rates to Clarence Thomas, Black people are catching major hell. We need all hands on deck. When activists don’t take care of themselves, we let our communities down when they need us most. Like so many before us, we will fall if we don’t build our internal infrastructures daily.

Maybe you need to go back to Jesus. If Jesus is working for you, don’t let your Marxist homies negative-dialectical you out of a healing.

Others need to find something new. Something that wasn’t passed down from their families. The work is in figuring out what it is. Yoga, running, meditation, Tai Chi, Tantric sex, ocean-swimming, art making. Do something. But we first we have to figure out what that something is. And do it. Daily. A beautiful ritual but it doesn’t have to be a beautiful struggle. It can simply be a beautiful healing, here, under the overpass.

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