Category Archives: Assimilation

Don’t touch my hair

I’ve had to say this in church, at a so- called multicultural, we are the example of inclusion and God’s kingdom come to earth one.  “Don’t touch my hair.”  After compliments, hands uninvited reached forward to finger my tresses.  “It’s so soft,” she said.  Her response revealing much and undoing more of a potential relationship than she could ever imagine.  Her ten digits reached forward and created a boundary.

She would never get that close to me again.  We would never see eye- to- eye.  Because she was inspecting me now, examining my hair as if it was completely strange and foreign and intriguing.  It’s not.

It’s just hair, same as hers though a different texture.  And it is hair seen for four hundred years in America.  So, why the surprise, the intrigue?  It is no mystery.  And why does she still not feel the need to ask, “May I touch your hair?”

Because her tilted head is bewildering to me.   She doesn’t really see me as a human being.  Because in America, there is a history of inspecting African bodies during American slavery on auction blocks.  Because her touch in this way triggers that ancestral, deep in my bone, drilled into my head memory.  “Don’t touch my hair.”

It is a necessary declaration, a reminder of the change in my position, that sadly needs to be stated again and again.  It is a portion of my Emancipation Proclamation.  My body belongs to me.  I am and will remain free.  These attempts to touch my hair are more than finger pricks but little deaths, small entanglements, bondages, links fo chains.

It is habits like this one that have yet to be unlearned by so- called white people who are not really free of their strange desire to oppress, to lay claim to other human bodies.  Some are able to hide it in their speech, but the body memory of oppression and dominance lives on.  It is acted upon when they reach out without thought for repercussion to touch hair that doesn’t belong to them, to violate personal boundary.   It is not merely a bad habit but the strange character of whiteness.

And this would not have come to mind if not for the pictures of Executive Director Sally Hazelgrove of Crusher’s Club touching the hair of two African American young men.   It is made worse because the organization is funded by the National Football League, which has recently come under fire for its partnership with Shawn Carter as persons believe it circumvents the social justice work of Colin Kaepernick.  With school scissors in hand, she is cutting off their hair, their locs.   Hazelgrove shared the pictures online and one was captioned, “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”

The pictures have since been deleted but when asked by The Washington Post about cutting the men’s hair off, she responded, “I did not think about the ramifications.”  And therein lies the problem.   African American hair has long been viewed as problematic, difficult and unattractive– by European Americans.  In fact, it is only a problem because these beauty inspectors say so.  The natural hair that grows out of African American heads has been used to determine academic performance, gainful employment and other social success rates, which is why so many women chemically straighten their hair or wear wigs.  Still, the leader of an organization that serves African American youth, picked up a pair of scissors and touched a nerve.

Hazelgrove shouldn’t have touched his hair because it implies that she defines beauty, that her kind of beauty determines a “better life,” that this “better life” is based on appearance, that his mere appearance is troubling and starts on top of his head, that goodness and beauty go hand in hand.  The scissors in her hand represent a total disconnect from African American culture, its heritage and the history of defiance against socially colored white hands.  That’s what she is touching.  Hair and habits are not synonymous.

That’s why race is all wrong– because it would have you and I to believe that hair, threadlike strands growing from our head and face, arms and their pits, legs and toes, hair that we pluck from our noses– determines who we are.  Seriously?  My hair doesn’t speak for me and if you touch it, you will never really or truly or fully hear from me.  So don’t touch my hair.

1619

 

“About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. … He brought not any thing but 20 and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuall[s].”

| John Rolfe

Four hundred years ago this month, the first Africans were brought to what is now America’s shores and we are still feeling the ripple affects of their bodies stolen, bodies chained, bodies renamed.  So, we can’t say their names.

“20 and odd Negroes.”

I write to count them among us.  1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…11…12…13…14…15…16… 17…18…19…20.  These bodies count.  Add them to the body count.  America likes to pile on and today, persons continue the debate about stock piling weapons as a right.  Mass murderers, Americans are the king of the hill.

I write to acknowledge their presence because we are them.  We are what we have done to them.  In the same boat, we sink or swim, float or fall to the bottom, never to rise to the full expression of our human being.  If we cannot see them and frankly every human being as our sister and brother, then we are the real other.

Because they are what is foundational to America– bodies capitalized on, cultures undone, histories shunned, lands seized upon in the name of religion and then race.  But, it was and is always about power.  The others are just nicknames.  The Africans enslaved and those indigenous to what is now the United States of America know the country’s real name.  They know who America really is, which is why their voices were discounted and drowned out right from the start.

Their mouths were covered and their continued silence is evidence of the worst coverup.  Yes, they shout but have these persons really spoken up?  Because we don’t really want to know the cost of this so- called American identity.  We don’t want to know what it truly means to be an American.  How many names have been changed, cultures sacrificed, languages lost, allegiances sworn to America, forsaking all others.

Assimilation in America is assassination.  Who we were, could be, would be and should have the right to be falls to the bottom if we are to rise to the top.  Citizenship in America is the death of self.  No matter how many of your family members came together, whatever your number, we are no more and no less than those “20 and odd Negroes.”  No country of origin, only a color and human beings don’t find that odd.

What year is it?

Words we cannot send back

Today, Donald Trump sent another divisive message to his followers via his official Twitter account regarding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.  For those who would make excuses or who are praying that his racist comments will just blow over, they won’t.  Telling people not socially colored white to “go back home” or to “go back to where they came from” is not a new directive and deserves a response.

But we don’t need a history or geography lesson to point out his failings or flawed argument.  While the media struggled to label his words racist, we don’t have to wait for them to use the adjective.  It was racist.  Because this is not really about one’s place of birth or even country of origin.  Not simply telling someone to leave the country but believing it is within your right to do so is the problem.

Where does this confidence come from?  It is colonial in origin.  It is proof of America’s continued possession by the spirit of conquest.  It is the belief that socially engineered white people have the power to determine the belonging or dis-belonging of another group not given the privileged label.  It is the assertion that said persons have the power to move bodies anywhere around the world as they so choose, for their pleasure and to maintain their comfort.  It is a historical habit, never changed or challenged.

Colonizers went to ancestral homes and relocated African bodies for labor and exploitation during the Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade and destroyed indigenous bodies, belonging to what is now the United States of America, that received them on their shores, is what needs to be named.  Neither group told European settlers to “go back” or to get back or to keep off their land.  The locals were hospitable; these strangers were hostile.

Still, in the crowd of thousands, persons chanted, “Send her back” at Trump’s recent North Carolina rally.  But send Congresswoman Omar back where exactly?  What address do they have on file?  They talk as if she is a package to be returned due their dissatisfaction.  She is not what they want in American society.

It is their choice to make, their right to refuse her though she, too, is an American citizen.  Is she is not American enough and where does she need to go to get more American?  Because there are levels, grades, rungs to this identity.  And Congresswoman Omar has apparently been outranked.

That rally was like a committee meeting and all Americans got to watch persons reject other Americans not socially colored white on live television.  The chant lasted seconds but long enough to echo back centuries.  We’ve heard this all before.  This is not a new request.  When formerly enslaved Africans were freed and stood as a visible reminder of the barbarity of their enslavers, they wanted to send them back to.

No longer reflecting the relationship of oppressor and oppressed, the mirror that African faces became was more than their enslavers could stand.  And today it is tempting to look away, to change the channel or the conversation.  But, it won’t change what Trump and thousands of his supporters said.  We can’t send those words back.

They are fully present; now we must account for them.

Sending word

See the source imageLife is filled with false starts, abrupt stops, detours and wrong turns. We didn’t know it would take this long to come to ourselves, that there were so many copies to choose from, that being original is harder than it looks, that it is easier to repeat, to nod in agreement with the majority, that in going along to get along, we never find ourselves. We wake up one day and question aloud, “How did I get here?”

“Stop this ride; I want to get off.” I told Jesus to take the wheel so why do I feel like I want throw up? Hands in the air, we sing, “I surrender all.” But today, I worry about what I will have left.

When will things go right? When will all things come together to work for my good? When will this all make sense and come into focus? Because I can’t see what’s up ahead; I’m just tired of these raindrops falling on my head.

Tearstained faces, life is not a commissioned pretty picture and we don’t hold the paintbrush. We receive the brush strokes like everyone else—sickness and death, depression and debt, heartbreak and pain. In the course of our days, life can get ugly. And what we say in those moments can make or break us.

Henry David Thoreau said, “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate in us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”

We are a collection of words. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Language is a form of life.” Whether we know it or not, we are a spoken word, words that both define us and diminish us, question and answer us, love and hate us, attack and defend us. We are who we say we are. This is why we must choose our words carefully.

Because words can make you or break you. Because one wrong word can cause you to lose your place. Because one word can set us back and set us up for failure. Because the world capitalizes on us forgetting ourselves, on losing ourselves around here somewhere. They squeeze out our voice so that we can’t get a word in edgewise. Oscar Wilde said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

Because “life and death are in the power of our tongue.”[1] Because I learned a long time ago, good words are hard to come by. So, I carry my own. I call them journey words.

Some people collect rare stamps and coins, dolls and cars. I carry a deck of 3×5 cards that remind me of who I am, what I believe, what my work is and where I am going. When I cannot find the words or my way, they take me to where I belong. They are words of commission and calling. They are words of clarity and certainty. They are words of direction, pointing me back to the track I sometimes I get off of. Tripping on the tongue of others, they have picked me up on more than one occasion.

They are my conversation partners, my guides. They are words from the living and the dead. They are words past, present and future, words outside of me, that call me inwardly, words behind me that propel me forward, words that I desperately wanted to hear as a child, words that I listen out for as an adult.

They are words that sound like me, the woman I have heard of but have yet to meet.   They are words like:

“Voyager, there are no bridges; one builds as one walks” (Gloria Anzaldua).

And—

“I must see my understandings produce results in human experience. Productivity is my first value. I must make and mold and build life. As an artist, I must shape human relationships. To me, life itself is the greatest material. I would far rather build a man than form a book. My whole being is devoted to making my small area of existence a work of art. I am building a world” (Jean Toomer).

And—

“The time is always right to do what is right” (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).

And—

“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world” (Archimedes).

And—

“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul” (Mark Twain).

And—

“Treat people as if they are what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

And—

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28, NRSV).

And—

“Do the work your soul must have” (Katie Geneva Cannon).

Zora Neale Hurston coaches me, struts alongside me saying, “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.” Frederick Douglas is with her and chimes in, saying, “I prefer to be my true self, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and incur my own abhorrence.” Thomas Merton nods in agreement, adding, “To be a saint means to be myself.” Less I be tempted to lose myself in the crowd, James Baldwin tugs on me, saying, “The effort not to know what one knows is the most corrupting effort one can make.”

Because it is easier to walk away, to take what is offered and leave ourselves on the table, on the cutting board, to erase the image emerging on the drawing board. Because we have reached our word limit and “if they say one more word…” This is why we need words like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s who declared, “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. … To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Because what you say will determine what you see. Because in the words of Mary Anne Evans, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” Jesus’s words are a journey in themselves. We cannot read them and not be moved. And if we carry them, they will carry us home to our true selves, our new selves in him.

____________________

End notes|

[1] Proverb 18.21

 

What’s in the melting pot?

Recently, journalist Tom Brokaw was called out on comments he made on Meet the Press where he suggested that Hispanics were not doing enough to assimilate.  He has since apologized but the conversations continue online, on buses and in taxis, at barbershops and salons, in breakrooms and over dinner as to what he meant and more specifically, what it means to be American.  To be sure, I am glad that he said it out loud.  Rather than pretend or tolerate persons from other cultures, give voice to your fears and the secret checklist that you only take out in with friends and family.

Because you can’t exactly take back that some persons are struggling with whether or not they  “want brown grandbabies.”  As ignorant as it is insulting, it is a racist belief that human beings who are not socially colored white should be treated as unwelcomed and rejected upon sight, that we know all there is to know about the baby boy or girl based on the social coloring of skin.  Most people are descent enough not to call a baby unattractive but to outright reject the possibility of the child, to abort the idea of a little one because they are a member of a culture that others have deemed inferior is heartless.  Persons who espouse this belief are pre-hating, pre- stereotyping, pre- segregating their families.  Before it even happens, they are drawing lines around their hearts and their homes with their tongues.

This is who my family is and who we always will be.  All others: Do not enter.  Keep off the grass.

***

We want persons to become American, to become one of us but how much of themselves must they give up?  Deny?  Reject?  Why can’t they keep their heritage, their culture, their language, their name?  Why do they have to lose themselves altogether?  Who has the recipe?  The measuring cups?  Are we eyeing the amount or is it exact?

When I was a child, I was told that America was a melting pot.  If this were the case, then how is it that the flavors of all the cultures that have entered are not reflected?  That persons after jumping into the pot are still being told to “go back to where you came from”?  This makes me wonder who is in charge of the ingredients?  Who is the taste tester and who is this dish being served to?

Who are we becoming as Americans and who says that we are what our founders and fellow Americans intended?  Who has the right to say that someone is “un-American” and where do these meanings come from?  Frankly, I would like to see the checklist.  I want persons to come to the table and say how they really feel about “brown grandbabies”– because they are not coming but already here.  They are in the so- called melting pot, whether or not you want them to touch you, to rub off on you, to be associated or affiliated or closer still, related to you or not.

I am convinced that we are making a myth, that what is in the pot is a false hero narrative of the founding of this country and of a people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps versus those who choked the life and culture out of people who are indigenous to what is now the United States (Sadly, the names of the people have been snuffed out.) and who tied a rope around Africans to enslave them, to lynch them and then to limit them through segregation and the Black Codes that continue even today.

We have to talk about it; if not, comments like Brokaw’s will merely stir the pot.