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Mourning the loss of a country i didn’t know I loved

Mourning the loss of a country i didn’t know I loved

I have never considered myself very patriotic. There have been times when I have been profoundly moved by the privilege of being an American citizen, but more often than not, I have been unable to overlook our country’s propensity for violence and racism, systems that we have (so far) been unable to banish to history. Even so, I know being American makes me luckier than some; I am granted rights and privileges that people in many parts of the world do not have. Our nation is not perfect, but we have the potential and resources to be so. Being a woman of color, an American woman of color, means I have had to vacillate between cautious optimism and utter despair as I live through each swing of the pendulum, the near constant back and forth between right and wrong, trying, but often failing, to get each and every one of us on the path to equality.

When the attacks on 9/11 happened, I, like every other American, was deeply horrified and completely unable to function because of the overwhelming sadness. It was impossible to witness such an event and not take it personally, no matter that I was 1500 miles away. It was one of the saddest periods I have ever witnessed, but also one of the most hopeful. Tragedy often has a way of shifting focus, giving us perspective, and boldly reminding us of both our humanity and mortality. The effect this time was that we came to genuinely believe we were in something together, that we would ultimately be OK because we were Americans. United. Something else shifted, though. Patriotism got redefined. Being a “real” American meant displaying a flag on your front porch, worshipping a Christian God, being a robust consumer, and supporting a war without hesitation. Before too long, patriotism was synonymous with conservatism. Truthfully, I didn’t care that much. I have never felt the need to make a demonstration of my love of country, which seems the appropriate stance since that love has never been steadfast.

I don’t presume this rebranding of patriotism was an entirely new phenomenon. I’m sure each generation must go through something like this when deep cultural changes are occurring. I was born just after the Vietnam War, a decade after the Civil Rights Movement. Those times, too, I understand, brought their own divisiveness, their own measure of what it meant to be a good patriot. What was brand new, however, is that my generation voted into office our country’s first black president.

I should go ahead and say here, as I have said many times before, growing up biracial in a predominately white world was hard.  It can still be hard. Perhaps it is not possible to convey this experience to the white, Christian, able-bodied, cisgender, hetero population, but to be an American in a marginalized group is to forever carry these questions: Am I safe here? Will I be treated respectfully? Can I be myself in this space? If you don’t live with this reality, then this assertion may come across as hyperbolic. You may be rolling your eyes, noting “It’s a free country,” but that is the difference between the promise and potential of America versus the actuality of it.

Last night I watched Obama’s farewell speech, crying through parts of it. His presidency, more than anything else in my lifetime, gave me hope that the America we want to believe in could actually come to fruition. That’s not to say I have always been in agreement with his ideas and policies; he’s far too moderate for my liking. In his eight years, though, he has been dignified and graceful; the living embodiment of the American dream. I have never once doubted his devotion to this country, or that he didn’t sincerely believe he was acting in the best interests of our nation. He was all of these things and a black man. That we elected him, twice, made me proud. In no way did I believe it meant the end of racism, or that we would quickly be healed of our histories, but his presidency was a legitimate sign that we were headed in the right direction; a powerful way to show that, yes, America belongs to each of us.

And now we have Trump. It’s a lot to try to grasp, to realize we were doing the hard, slow work of measuring up to our ideals but just handed it all over to someone who threatens to completely unravel it. I am, of course, terrified. I have spent hours in conversations with friends trying to make sense of this, speculating on what it means, both short and long term. What I find most curious, though, is how we, as a country, are the same people who voted for two men who could not be more at odds with one another. I can’t shake the feeling that Trump supporters have been conned, but I know this has often been said of Obama supporters, too.

When Obama began his rise to fame, when it became clear he was going to have a following, those against him acted as if we had been sold a bill of goods; we had somehow been tricked into believing the hype because of his impressive oratory skills, nothing more. We had- to use a phrase I loathe- drank the Kool-Aid. There is no way to ascertain the truth of such a subjective claim, but let’s say for a moment that it’s true. Let’s suppose I merely got caught up in the hype, that the truth is Obama is insubstantial as a leader and I only supported him out of blind loyalty. If that is the fact, though, then I have decided I am perfectly OK with that. I feel zero shame in potentially making the mistake of putting my trust in a decent man, a man full of integrity who managed to live out the entirety of his two presidential terms without any personal scandals. Say what you will about his policies, tally up his imperfections if you must. Attempts to discredit his character, though, will always fall short, and I suspect this, more than anything, is what his opponents find so infuriating.

I have given up trying to understand how Trump was able to garner the level of support he did. I believe there is a lot more to it than racism, phobias, economics, and misogyny, although, to be sure, those things are definitely part of it. I will never understand how millions of people found it within themselves to defend the indefensible, sometimes, appallingly, invoking Jesus’s name to do so. I have watched his behavior for months, heard his own words, and witnessed the bullying attacks. I have seen the lies and delusions, the middle of the night Twitter meltdowns. The behavior is absolutely outrageous, so much so, if he were one of my loved ones, I would stage an intervention and try to get him mental-health help. Or I would decide to cut ties because his level of toxicity is so high. Now, though, he has been given the biggest platform in the world; his lunacy has been legitimized and God only knows what the costs will be.

The cliché “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” has never felt so true for me as it has in the past two months. Not until faced with a real threat to our country’s democracy, did I realize its importance. I stand by my words that America has yet to live up to its promises, though; I am not sad for something I once had and lost, rather I grieve for what I thought we were becoming. I hope whatever we are in for is temporary and reparable. May we find our way back.

Goodbye, Prince

Goodbye, Prince

When I was four-years-old, I received as a gift a Show’n Tell record player.  This device was a marvel. Not only did it play records, but I could watch (in filmstrip fashion)  whatever story was coming from my 45s. In a perfectly animated still, I could see Bert’s furrowed brow as he vented his frustration over Ernie’s latest mishap; I could see the surprise on Baby Bear’s face when he found his chair was broken. Picture books were fantastic, yes, but my record player was totally intriguing. I realize my child would likely be thoroughly unimpressed by this contraption, its technology having become so antiquated, but I thought this toy was nothing short of magical.

Fortunately, I was born into a family of music lovers. Saturday mornings in our home were for cleaning, but more often than not, chores were replaced by dancing. My mom kept us going with her steady supply of The Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, Waylon Jennings, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Merle Haggard, and so on and so on. Although I don’t have memories of this, my dad was also a fan of music, and he and my mother would often decide to take a last minute road trip just to see a concert.

Because my mom was such a devotee, we had a large stash of albums in our home, many of which were from her youth. She once presented me with a milk crate full of 45s, and I would hide away in my room doing my best to commit every note of every album to memory.  I once brought The Standell’s  “Dirty Water” to record day at school and was completely baffled as to why my classmates did not seem to be as taken by the guitar riffs as I was. I don’t think I understood the song was too old to be cool, and I had no idea what it was even about. I just knew it grabbed me. (Thankfully, I now live in Boston where people actually appreciate this song.)

There was an evening, a few years after I first fell in love with music, that my Girl Scout troop gathered in my troop leader’s home. I can’t recall the reason. I do, however, remember “1999” being played. I don’t know if this was my first time to hear Prince, or if this was just the first time it felt meaningful. All I know is the entire room was enthralled. We were electric, we were giddy, and we were in it together. I was too young to make sense of what was happening in that moment, but it is obvious to me now this was the first time I witnessed the effect music can have on a group of people. I was instantly hooked on that feeling and it is something that has never left me.

I know in internet time the news of Prince’s death is practically ancient at this point. But when I first learned of it, I broke into tears, and to be honest they haven’t entirely stopped. I have felt like an idiot because why should I possibly be crying over someone I never even met? After all, there have been plenty of musicians I have loved who have passed, and that’s never left me with more than fleeting sadness. Prince was just different, though.

As I started trying to answer the question of just what made Prince so worthy of crying over, I realized he and his music had always been there. My friend Candy and I used to spend our fifth grade Friday nights taking turns doing the opening of “Let’s Go Crazy.” We had a robe we would wear, and looking as seriously as we possibly could, we would stand on a little table in her room and begin, “Dearly Beloved…” only to throw ourselves from the table and dance around like maniacs the second the music kicked in. At twelve, I remember laughing myself silly as a friend and I tried making up naughty lyrics to “Raspberry Beret.” I spent hours during the summer between 8th and 9th grade watching MTV in hopes that they would show “Alphabet Street.”  In my early twenties one of my friends and I tried to explain to another friend, yes, we thought that little, androgynous guy was hot. As recently as a year ago I sat around with a group of friends as we wrote acrostic poems using Prince’s name and describing the various ways he was (ahem) “sexy.” I have so many Prince memories, I can’t even share them all.

Aside from Prince being irrefutably the most talented musician of our generation, he was simply other-worldly. He somehow managed to be everything at once, and I can’t stop thinking of that part of him that was mysteriously quiet while simultaneously completely commanding. This is the part of him I see so clearly now. Somehow, without my being aware, he managed to quietly slip into so many parts of my life, making his music part of my story. And I know I am one of millions for whom this is true.

A few days ago my best friend and I made a trip to see our favorite band perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. We have a history of going to pretty extreme lengths in order to see musicians we love, behavior we frequently label as “crazy.” On this night, though, we were with friends who we met through a shared love of this band. We sat in the front row with some people we had met at other shows, all of us having traveled from different places to be there. We sang loudly together, got on our feet when the music demanded it, and cried as we listened to a slow, acoustic version of “Purple Rain.”  The feeling was not unlike how I felt as a child listening to “1999” in my friend’s living room all those years ago. Nothing at all seemed crazy about it. It felt necessary, almost, a needed moment of togetherness and connection because really, connection is how we get through this thing called life. And, as Prince taught me, there’s no better way than through music.

 

If you have Prince memories to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

I met a Trump supporter and I liked him

I met a Trump supporter and I liked him

Recently, the BFF and I were at a concert. We are always giddy when we get to see our favorite band live, but this night we were even more excited because a friend of ours (whom we met a year ago at another show) was going to be proposing to his girlfriend on stage, during the band’s set. (It was beautiful, she said yes.) Being in such good moods, we struck up a conversation with the man standing next to us. He was there with his sister and they were both lovely people. At some point, a couple of vodka & tonics later, our conversation turned to politics. Dangerous territory, I know. I don’t know how, exactly, we got on the topic- I think we were comparing our kids to Republicans- but our new friend (we’ll call him “S”) admitted to being a Donald Trump supporter. His sister (we’ll call her “D”) shook her head in disapproval and joked about not knowing how S turned out this way because the rest of their family did not share this affinity for Trump.

I love when this sort of thing happens, when my assumptions are proven incorrect. It’s not that I enjoy the taste of humble pie, but I have written before about living in a bubble and how I am not always sure that is a good thing. And maybe it’s because I live in that bubble that I find myself so often in need of reminding that people are incredibly complex; nobody is just one thing. I suppose even Donald Trump is more than a misogynistic and racist narcissist.

Here’s where things get complicated for me, though. If you had asked me two weeks ago if I could be friends with a Trump supporter I would have given you a very emphatic, “Absolutely not.” Obviously, it was a real “Holy shit!” moment to admit I actually could envision being friends with such a person. Yes, it was one evening, but I consider myself to be a good judge of character and S & D most definitely registered as “good people,” and I genuinely hope we have the good fortune of being among each other’s company again. (And the BFF agrees.)

Oh, but Donald Trump. I can’t write about Trump with as much eloquence as other writers who have perfectly articulated the many problems associated with this vile man. And I think the argument that he shouldn’t be given any attention is valid. I’m just a little speck on the Internet, though, and I doubt that my words are far-reaching enough to make any real difference one way or another. But after the latest black-person-attacked-at-a-Trump-rally story, I’m left feeling helpless and the only thing I know to do is write.

Let me go back to my new friend S for a moment. S told us that he didn’t feel like it was his place to comment on what it’s like to be black because he, himself, is a white man. That whites should not claim to know what it is like to be black might sound obvious, it should be obvious, but of course, it’s not. It is, without a doubt, quite an exercise in white privilege to know you can choose to ignore racism, but in this case, S has my utmost respect for not making any crazy claims about whether or not racism exists, or that it would go away if black people would just…I feel like there is no shortage of whites claiming to have the solution to racism, none of which involve any action on their part, so hearing someone acknowledge they may experience the world differently because of their whiteness felt like a revelation.

It is exchanges like the one I had with S that leave me feeling confused. Similarly, I have family members who I think are some of the kindest people I’ve met, but they will espouse some of the same rhetoric I hear from Trump supporters. And that is to say nothing of the endorsement Trump recently received from Charles Evers. As much as I would like to declare Trump’s followers a bunch of crazy a-holes, it can’t be as simple as that. People are incredibly complex; nobody is just one thing.

Last week Vox.com ran an article, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” which does an impressive job of explaining Trump’s appeal. Excuse me while I butcher that excellent piece of journalism, but apparently the fear of change is responsible. (That’s an awful and incomplete summary so take some time to read the article.) I think I understand being motivated by fear on some level, but I can’t quite grasp it completely. It looks more like fear mixed with cruelty, obscenity, and a staggering level of ignorance. Besides, I can’t help but be amazed by the fact that people seem to be afraid of all the wrong things.

Personally, I am very afraid of a Trump presidential victory. I have been saying I was scared of him for a long time; he has frightened me ever since he called for a ban on Muslims. Not until last week, though, when Shiya Nwanguma was physically attacked at a Trump rally, did it start to feel deeply personal. And that feeling has only grown since video surfaced this morning of the attack on Rakeem Jones. I am literally afraid for my child and myself because this person has a legitimate chance of becoming POTUS. That seems like such a preposterous thing to say, but time and again Trump has done everything shy of throwing the punches himself. How am I or any persons of color and/or Muslims supposed to feel remotely safe? Who will be the next group to go on his list of the hated? And how is it that seemingly decent people can support this?

I feel, perhaps, our country is on the brink of something big. Maybe we are slowly laying the foundation for a long overdue revolution. Clearly, we are desperate for it. Of course, it could also be that we are about to implode, that we cannot sustain this level of fear and disdain for one another. I want to be optimistic; I like to remind myself that progress is slow. But I haven’t felt so personally threatened by a presidential candidate before so optimism doesn’t quite sit well right now. Even if Trump does not become POTUS, his supporters will still be here. Then what?

I don’t know what to make of the fact that I befriended a Trump supporter. Maybe that’s my comeuppance for being so judgmental in the first place. I refuse to believe Trump is anything short of a real danger, but I guess maybe I am slightly comforted by the fact that not all of his followers are deranged lunatics. There’s probably a bigger lesson here somewhere about not getting wrapped up in all the divisiveness. Right now, though, I’m just going to focus on being grateful for my bubble.

 

 

Her Name Was Corean

Her Name Was Corean

Her name was Corean. This is what I know of my paternal ancestry. While my maternal grandmother left her “memoir” for each of us after her death- an incredible and hilarious account that makes me forever grateful for her life- I know very little about my dad’s side of the family. This is, of course, the story of African Americans. Except for a lucky few, there are no records of our family beginnings. For me personally, this gap of history is even more profound because my dad so seldom makes an appearance in my life.

The truth is, my dad cannot stay out of prison for more than a few years at a time. Also true, is that he grew up in poverty, in a state that was not, still is not, progressive in any way. He spent the first 13 years of his life knowing that as far as the law and society were concerned, he was inferior. He was told both explicitly and indirectly that he didn’t really matter, didn’t really have a place in this world. I can’t help but think that all of that, all of those years of knowing your life was worthless, led him down the path he eventually ended up on. Yes, it is easy to just say he made bad choices. He did, no doubt. Yet I think about the times when I have been down in my life, the times where maybe I felt out of place and unloved, and yes, those were times that I made bad choices, too.

The last time my dad and I were in touch with one another I hounded him for details. I’m not sure why, I guess knowing that each time we’re in touch may be the last, but I just felt like I needed information from him. This is how I learned about Corean, my great-great grandmother. She was half white, my dad said. I wanted to know so much more about her. How did she end up with a white parent? Surely, that was a story, most likely a sad one. How long did she live? Where was she from? My dad had some information and it felt like such a gift. But my questions were not answered because my dad was released from prison shortly after telling me about her, and when he is free, he forgets about me.

I tried to do my own research. I found a digitalized portrait of a Corean online and I really want to be able to claim her as mine. I’m not sure if the date of her birth matches up, though. And I don’t even know if she would have the same last name. I did stumble upon a piece about the Fannin-Mims plantation in South Texas and I think possibly this is where we begin. It’s all speculation, of course, and I keep asking myself, “Why does this even matter?”

I don’t know why it matters, but I think, aside from general curiosity, it’s connection that I am seeking. I want to know that there is something that ties me to the past, bonds me to people from generations before. It’s an odd feeling not knowing exactly where you come from. It feels like there are too many holes in my story and I want a more complete picture. I know having this information won’t be life-changing, but I would love to be able to say with certainty, “These are my people.”

 

Gratitude

Gratitude

November does something to me. I love the anticipation that comes with this month: the waiting for the holidays, the attempts to savor every bit of sun before winter hits, leaving us cranky, and stiff, and needing an escape from the darkness. November is the month that my grandmother, my mom, and my daughter were all born, so it feels special for that reason, too. And of course, I love witnessing people so freely share all of the things that they are thankful for. I have been in the daily habit of making note of what I am grateful for- either in writing or just mentally- for a few years now. I know this list-making of gratitudes can easily be dismissed as pop-psychology, but it happens to be a tremendous help to me, almost a tool for survival.

This year, these last few weeks, though, the “thanks” are not coming so easily. Personal issues aside, I am feeling sad and overwhelmed by all of the recent news in the world. More terrorists attacks. More black men killed by police, under questionable circumstances. A racist narcissist could be our next president. So many of us don’t want to help Syrian refugees. People are calling for another war. Protesters are shot for being black. It’s all too much. Yes, I could turn off NPR. I could stay off of Facebook where I am exposed to so much vitriol. And sometimes I do. But being able to “tune out” is such a flagrant exercise of privilege. I can’t help but be aware of how many people don’t have that option.

I think, perhaps, I am struggling because I am searching for gratitude while also feeling completely helpless. I don’t know if I can hold onto both of those feelings at the same time. Of course, I am thankful that none of the aforementioned events have had any personal effect on me, but that provides little solace. At the end of the day, I am still stuck in this world that feels like it is going to shit.

This Thanksgiving I will sit around the table with my closest friends, my handpicked family. We are going to eat, and laugh, and complain about all of the ways people are messing up the world, and it is going to feel so, so good. I am going to tell them how grateful I am for their friendship (this year, especially). I will give thanks for my child, my home, my neighborhood, the musicians and writers of the world, and all of the people who enrich my life in countless ways. This year, too, I will offer up a silent prayer to the universe, to God, to whatever, asking that the victims of all the recent madness, our fellow humans who are unwillingly the recipients of our hatred, may also find something to be grateful for. That hope for them, the belief that maybe they can see beyond tragedy and still give thanks for something, just might keep me going forward.