Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Don't Have to Do Nothing: Be Free (and still) Be Loved

Y'all. Don't get sick of Lucille Clifton on my account but I swear she just don't run out of brilliant life-saving gifts. So here is another one. In 1985 in the special 15th anniversary issue of Essence Magazine coordinated by Cheryll Y. Greene, Clifton wrote about the true freedom that women can give to each other: "to fail and not be a failure."

When Lucille Clifton, who stunned audiences with the stark clarity of her poetry from countless stages during her lifetime, was a little girl assigned to recite a poem for the Christmas program at her church, she choked. It was not foreshadowing, it was formative. As she stood unable to remember the poem in front of all the church mothers encouraging her and expecting her to perform her mother stood up for her. She felt pressured. She said "I don't wanna." And her mother stood up in front of God and everybody and smiled at her child and she said one small sentence that changes the meaning of life for black girls growing up in patriarchy and capitalism: "She don't have to do nothing she don't want to do."

Can you imagine? Decades later when we were celebrating Lucille Clifton's birthday with her (we didn't know it would be her last) at the Furious Flower poetry center all of us black feminist poets, teachers, daughters gushed with open jealousy at the power and freedom of that statement. Imagine! She don't have to do nothing she don't want to do. So many negatives adding up to the positive clarity that black girls are inherently valuable, love-able, period. When had someone ever stood up and said that for us? When in a world of forced labor, coerced sex, billions of expectations? When had anyone even dared to suggest that we were not valuable because of what we produced, what we created, who we entertained, how well we pretended to be happy? When had we said it for ourselves? don't have to do nothing.

Now I was raised to know that I only have to do two things: stay black, and live. But my interpretation of "stay black and live" has been contorted by internalized capitalism and a system that still judges me based on what my being produces for the market. The refrain that I thought was my heartbeat said "do something do something do something do something" interrupting any stillness with the imperative to produce, to prove, to perform. But here comes Lucille Clifton's mother: she don't have to do nothing.

And how much do we crave that freedom... in the eyes of black people we love who want us to perform blackness in a way that they can more easily consume, in the eyes of non-black people who want the same thing, in the faces of well meaning would be mentors who think we will only be happy with ourselves if we do it their way, in reflections we catch of ourselves in windows thinking we look lost because there is no name for where we are going.

And so today. I need Lucille Clifton's mother, audacious and willing to stand up in front of anyone and say you do not need to stand on a stage to honor God. You do not need to say or do anything in order to be a reflection of divine love. You already are. Even in a puddle at the foot of your bed you are already supreme beautiful unlikely priceless example of the abundance of life. And you know what? Life if so abundant that it places refractions of that same brilliance in all of us, and so there is no need to do it all, there is no need to own brilliance, there is no need to prove and show and compete because life is so abundant that it happens in our honor even when we don't wake up and make it happen.

Who knew Lucille Clifton's mama circa 1940 was an anti-capitalist? Because capitalism would have us believe that we only deserve to be here because of what we produce, and even in our counter-cultures, even in our movements we reproduce the same idea. We only deserve to be here because of what we can produce that other people will buy with their money, time or attention. Our experience of our own lives is secondary, it is only the means of production, it is the products that matter, and unless we make ourselves into both factories and widgets we are not valuable. We believe that. I know I push myself past that belief about every hour on the hour. One of the major lessons of the Mobile Homecoming Experiential Archive Project has been that because of the steep lean (and lien) of capitalism on even our visionary hearts the tendency is to emphasize the documentary film, the photographs, the podcasts, the archived interviews, the presentations...the products over the experience, the priceless opportunity to be present with each other, which is not for sale. Which documents can only gesture towards. Which cannot be sold.

But luckily Lucille Clifton listened to her momma and told us what she said. We can be free and still be loved. We can be still and still be a movement. We are not failures even when we fail. We are life. Miraculous irregardless.

Maybe we can institute Lucille Clifton's mama moments for ourselves and for each other. Maybe we can step in and affirm each other just because. Maybe we can stand up for each other when even our own communities say to us how dare you not be superwoman every second of the day. Maybe we can save the day in our own way in our own language. Nuh-uh. She don't have to do nothing she don't want to do. She don't have to do nothing. And she is still fierce fly and worth of all praise. All of it.

So here is a spare one for each one of you in the time when no one is there to say it, remember that I already said it: you don't have to do nothing to earn my love. nothing to earn all the blessings of the universe. nothing to earn a symphony in ever pore of your skin playing the song of you. nothing to deserve my deepest gratitude for your existence. nothing to earn a place in my heart that you can always come home to. nothing. you already have it. all praise. you have everything.

love always and already,

P.S. Get ready for a summer filled with opportunities to see the faces of those of us who will scream at the sight of you and open our arms:

*TONIGHT: Young Black Gift: A Birthday Toast to Lorraine Hansberry (@ the Inspiration Station in Durham)!/event.php?eid=145740925499014

*Sunday May 22nd 5pm (@ the Inspiration Station in Durham) Rainbow Reclamations: (Blue) Once I Was Pregnant: Abortion, Miscarriage and Rebirth

*Friday, May 27th (@ the Rush Center in Atlanta) THE GEMINI JAM/FIST PUMP FRIDAY featuring a performance by the LOST BOIS, gemini juice and dancing all night long!!/event.php?eid=215303695165893

*June 9-15 INDIGO DAYS in Durham, NC

*June 23-26 ALLIED MEDIA CONFERENCE in Detroit (featuring the Shawty got Skillshare, the Generations of Brilliance Track and the Visionary Sci-Fi Track)

*Thursdays in June 6pm (@ the Eleanor on Rigsbee in Durham) Lucille Clifton Shapeshifter Sessions:

*August 15-19th Juneteenth Freedom Academy Week-long Intensive: Rituals for Educators

*September 1-4th Queerky Black Girls, Mobile Homecoming and ZAMI NOBLA Black Gay Pride Healing and Connection Retreat!!!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Musings on Parenting and Protest: Then and Now

Taking New Clear Vision editor Randall Amster up on his challenge to dig up and dust off an old piece of writing, I recently found this essay that I wrote a month before the Republican National Convention was due to hit town in 2004.

I had been feeling paralyzed by the news, by the draconian security measures promised by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, by the added fears as the mother of a small child. I had also been invited to read at a political cabaret in Baltimore that summer. Putting pen to paper reminded me of the importance of struggling to transform the world, especially as the mother of a child who will inherit and live under the policies made (and left unchallenged) now. It also inspired me to push past my fear and, with my daughter in tow (or rather, in stroller), join the week of protests once the Republicans came to town.

* * *

(August 2004, New York City): I have been listening to the news all day. That, in itself, is an unusual occurrence. I have a three-year-old daughter who does not allow me to ignore her for any stretch of time longer than a minute and a half. And I have a dislike for the news. I don’t buy newspapers, I don’t own a TV, I rarely listen to the radio, and I don’t look for it online. But today, my ear has been glued to the radio. All afternoon, I listened for reports from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on NPR.

I imagine vast cages of cyclone fences and razor wires — conveniently located out of sight so as to maximize the futility of protest. The newscaster confirms this: “The protesters are literally caged behind cyclone fences…. You can’t see them when you walk in or out of the convention at all.” I imagine bag searches, ID checks, police with machine guns and snipers on rooftops.

These images fill me with fear.

What will happen here in the coming month? What can we expect from a police force that feels a wallet is justification for pumping 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man simply trying to go home? Now add in the hype and the hysteria over terrorism and the Office of Homeland Security, the cyclone fences and razor wire and machine guns. Is it any surprise that my nerves freeze? That it seems safer to stay inside with my baby than to be out there risking this terrifying reality?

Four years ago, I felt no such fear.

Tear gas and rubber bullets? Not a deterrent.

Possibility of a two-week detainment? I ain’t a-feared.

Then I became a mother.

And it suddenly became more important for me to build the things I want to see in this world, to raise my voice and protest and tear down the things that I don’t want my daughter to grow up with.

And it also becomes more frightening. The stakes are higher. What if my baby gets tear gassed? What if she sees her mama shoved and hit and then taken away from her? Years ago, during the funeral of Patrick Dorismond — another unarmed black man shot to death by the NYPD — the police clubbed and arrested mourners. A mother was handcuffed and taken away. Her little boy — maybe only seven or eight — was left crying on the sidewalk, along amongst a panicked crowd. No one paused to help him.

What if that mother becomes me? What if I get arrested and my three-year-old is left standing on the curb, crying for her mama whom she cannot follow? What if I get arrested and Child Welfare takes her away? What if she ends up in the foster care system indefinitely because, suddenly, my life is under a microscope and the things that I never thought I needed and never thought to obtain are now used against me?

But then I remember — I have a daughter.

One whose world, whose options in life in life will grow or shrink depending on whether the Mad Hatter or the March Hare is dictating policy.

I have a daughter who may become a mother at sixteen because no birth control is available to her. Because her body is in the hands of nine wizened men and women who have decided that she has no right to control what she will do with it. And then, if she is a mother at sixteen, she will inherit a world in which she will be shamed on street corners and held up as a scapegoat for every societal ill and tax increase while the safety net that should be catching her and her baby will have long been cut into shreds and taken away to Bangladesh for girls her age to sew into Nike sweatpants.

I have a daughter whose world might include daily disappearances, who might grow up knowing that if she says what she thinks and it is not what her teachers and her bosses and her news broadcaster and her politicians think she should think, she too may be buried behind high walls topped with razor wire and electric fences.

I have a daughter who will inherit the world I leave her.

I have a daughter. That makes it all the more crucial for me to push aside the fear, to shake off the paralysis that freezes between my shoulder blades, to raise my voice in protest, to begin building a world that I will want her to inherit.

I have a daughter who will have her own fears and doubts and reactions to the world around her. I need to show her that she can feel anxious or scared and still push past those feelings to do what is important to her.

* * *

Almost seven years later, so much has changed yet so much seems to remain the same.

My daughter is now ten. I feel less uneasy about taking her with me to protests and demonstrations, although I still would hesitate to take her to an anti-police brutality rally or an action likely to bring in the riot squad (not that it takes much these days). As a mother who has remained politically active (although sometimes on the margins), I have built a support system that I can ask to hang with my daughter when she doesn’t want to go (or when I deem it unwise to bring her). We can have conversations about the issues and I can explain why I feel strongly, passionately, about something. Raising a child to be a critical thinker, she often questions me, forcing me to explain, articulate, and defend my point-of-view. If anyone ever wishes to sharpen their debate skills, they should engage a ten-year-old raised in a social justice movement.

On the political front, it seems that, while things have changed (and wasn’t the last election won on the promise of “Change”?), many things have remained the same, if not worse.

While Lady Gaga encourages people to respect and honor themselves and all others (including transgendered people) with her song “Born This Way,” a transgendered woman was brutally beaten in a McDonald’s. The outcry about the attack focused on harsher punishment against her attackers, a fourteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old. But where is the outcry around the lack of education about gender, gender identity and sexuality that would have prevented this attack — and future attacks — in the first place? Are such conversations even on the public radar or are we (once again) falling into the trap that safety equals harsher prison sentences?

On the politics-as-usual front, attacks on reproductive rights have not stopped or even slowed, as demonstrated by the attacks on Planned Parenthood. Police executed Oscar Grant in Oakland; New York police fired 50 shots and killed the unarmed Sean Bell. Fahad Hashmi, a Pakistani-American charged with providing material support to terrorists after allowing an acquaintance to spend the night and store socks and ponchos at his apartment, spent three years in extreme solitary confinement under the Special Administrative Measures (SAMS), and is facing another fifteen years of never having human contact. Days before his trial was to start, the judge ordered an anonymous jury, using the call for people to attend and witness the court proceedings to bolster the fear that Fahad was, indeed, a terrorist.

Sometimes it’s hard not to become overwhelmed by all these injustices. I still have days like that day in 2004 when I wanted to bury my head in the sand (or at least under a bunch of pillows) and pretend that nothing was wrong in the world or, if there were, I could do nothing to change it. But I also have days when I realize how important it is to find the strength to keep fighting (and, these days, to remember that transforming the world is a long-term struggle and that we need to take the time to revitalize and replenish our energy as well).

And so, seven years later (and probably seventeen and seventy years later), I stand by those words I penned one fearful afternoon:

I have a daughter who will inherit the world I leave her.

I have a daughter. That makes it all the more crucial for me to push aside the fear, to shake off the paralysis that freezes between my shoulder blades, to raise my voice in protest, to begin building a world that I will want her to inherit.

I have a daughter who will have her own fears and doubts and reactions to the world around her. I need to show her that she can feel anxious or scared and still push past those feelings to do what is important to her.

Originally posted on New Clear Vision