Gatekeepers

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There have been a series of armed robberies in my district and in the city overall. In one effort to address the problem, our mayor, city council member, a BART representative and a police officer recently collaborated with residents and local business owners to hold a town hall meeting. Three of them are men of color and one is a woman of color, which is a first for the 23 plus years during which I’ve lived here.

 

Although I thought the effort was a good thing, I hesitated to attend due to the gate-keeping and profiling that are often expressed at neighborhood meetings. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that behavior on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I did not want to have to work that hard.

 

Despite the fact that I have lived in my current neighborhood for over 23 years, I encounter what I call gate-keeping and profiling far too often by some of my neighbors who think they are being vigilant, I guess, or something like that. The truth is, I don’t know what they think they are doing when they do or say these things that, to me, are ludicrous. I’ve come to the conclusion that they do not think at all. And after my most recent experience with the phenomena, I believe that the behavior is so ingrained in some psyches that it has become a knee jerk reaction.

 

If I hid out in my home and just drove to and from work, I wouldn’t be visible in the neighborhood streets and I might not think that this gate-keeping was strange. I would just consider it more of the same unpleasantness that I have encountered as a black person living in America. However, I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood on a regular basis and have been doing this for years. One would think that this would make me quite visible. A tall black woman with what is now a salt and pepper Afro, long legs and an energetic stride is someone to notice. I’m energetic and I move pretty fast. As the following lines from my poem How it Happens state,

 

What do they see when they look at me?

A dark, amorphous predator?

My pocketed hand grasping a gun?

 

My breasts want to walk

from block to block,

Iris to Eucalyptus,

welcome to rest my thoughts,

in a garden, on a corner.

 

At the end of the neighborhood town hall meeting I met a neighbor I’ll call “Sharon” (not her real name). As I was signing the sign in sheet that was being passed around, I sat down in an empty seat at a table. Sharon happened to be sitting at that table. She asked me whether I lived in the neighborhood. This is a good example of basic gatekeeper behavior. Ask a question of a perfect stranger that focuses on the concept of belonging. Sharon evidently felt that it was her job to question me because I might have wandered into a 2-hour neighborhood meeting on a sunny Saturday afternoon and boldly sat down at a table and written my contact information on a sign-in sheet when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Ask, even if that was what the city council person and mayor had announced and encouraged attendees to do if they wanted to be placed on a mailing list in order to receive information in the future. After all, I probably hadn’t heard them say those things, so she felt she needed to pull my sleeve and set me on the right path. That’s what gatekeepers do, make sure everyone, especially people of color, are on the right path.

 

I turned the interaction around quickly. I answered Sharon in the affirmative, made sure to mention and emphasize the longevity of my tenure in the neighborhood, and I then introduced myself by first name, and asked for her name. Next, I handed the “Do you live in the neighborhood?” question back to Sharon and stepped into the role of gatekeeper. Change in power differential through a double ward off to Sharon, whose excuse, once she awakened somewhat from her trance of privilege and entitlement, was that some of the people at the meeting were business owners and not residents. I didn’t quite get the significance of that distinction, as I guessed that business owners probably were as interested in not becoming victims of armed robberies to the same degree that residents were not interested in becoming victims.

 

I later realized the Sharon was making excuses as she became aware of how her question might have made her sound and/or look. That was interesting to me. Once I had led Sharon to conversational, neighborly civility by modeling it, she remembered that she knew how to appropriately address a stranger at a neighborhood town hall meeting. After all, until our conversation, I was a stranger who was signing a sign in sheet because she was concerned about the neighborhood she lived in and wanted to receive more information. Sharon then began to chat about her dog that she walked in the neighborhood quite often. She described her dog and called her a diva. I laughed and said that I would easily notice a little white dog that acted like a diva. The conversation had become civil because I had worked to ward off the bad mojo encoded in Sharon’s gate keeping.

 

I also had to redirect another attendee whose privilege and entitlement led him to stand next to me, and in a normal voice tone, despite glances from several other attendees, declare that the martial arts demonstration was “bullshit.” And I finally had to tell the martial arts critic that I could not hear, because he decided to start a conversation with another man and ignore our glances and some glares. Once I spoke up he apologized and eventually moved away to another spot in the room.

 

Despite these interactions with the privileged and entitled, the meeting ended up being not as bad as I’d expected it would be. At the end of the meeting, after my conversation with Sharon, I ran into a couple from my yoga class, and had a few minutes to chat with another neighbor who is one of the kindest people I know. What was hopeful about the meeting to me is that our mayor, who is Latinx was there, our city council member had organized the town hall and he is a man of African descent, the martial arts group was moderated by a male martial artist who was multilingual, one of the martial artists who demonstrated safety tactics was a woman, and the police representative was a man of African descent. So, despite Sharon’s gate keeping and the critic’s bad behavior, there were people at the meeting who looked like me and several of them were in leadership roles.

 

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A Death

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As I was waking up, I was thinking that he was dead. He had died before Christmas, and he had died alone in Queens, in a home. I wondered why there had been no funeral, why I had no memory of one. I thought of his friends and wondered why I couldn’t remember any of their familiar faces and see them dressed up in their dark suits for him.

 

I wondered where our family things that he had placed in storage, were. I wondered whether his landlord had had to clear out his apartment. I knew I hadn’t done it; I’d never seen his apartment.

 

I lay there for a few minutes, turned on my side toward the windows and looked at the growing light through the blinds. I blinked several times. I thought about the winter holidays and I didn’t remember anything about his presence during them.

 

And after a few minutes, I realized that he was not dead. He was still alive and whatever dream I’d had was so powerful that my reality had shifted to a time after his death that had not even happened.

 

I’ve been reflecting on this dream off and on today and I’ve come to the conclusion that the dream was not about my brother, but about a system that persists in making him disappear, and from making me disappear as well. This system perpetuates dismissal, disrespect, silencing, demonization, and marginalization. It makes repeated attempts to make people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and the disabled small and insignificant. It has at its roots the desire to make people disappear through repeated attempts to limit their lives and to silence them.

 

I have lived in this system for six decades, and I have come to learn and understand that its survival has depended on my beliefs that I am not worthy and I will never have an opportunity to rest until I am dead. Its survival depends upon the belief that I will always have to push against the downward pressure of this system that was not designed with my living freely and breathing fully in mind. Three fifths of a white man did not include the descendants of enslaved men and women.

 

It is difficult to live within a system that exists because it regularly satisfies its urges to oppress. Those who are oppressed have to work consistently hard to free their minds, bodies and souls. As Bob Marley wrote “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but our self can free our minds/ Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?/Cause all I ever had/ Redemption songs ” (Redemption Song). Singing is breathing; it is inspiration, and expiration. One of the Freedom Singers said that even if people working during the civil rights movement couldn’t talk together, they could breathe together through singing together. We need to keep singing together and we need to keep writing together.

 

An intuitive and gifted massage therapist, with whom I have worked for several years, recently told me that I haven’t been getting enough oxygen. She encouraged me to pay attention to my breathing and make sure that I exhale completely.

 

I have witnessed my mother’s death, the result of a long illness, over the past year. I cared for my mom for nearly a decade and her decline and death have been enough to take my breath away. Being a caregiver and care manager altered my breathing, I’m sure.

 

I’m also sure that the high profile deaths and videos of so many Black people, such as Rolando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and the many other children, women and men killed in connection with law enforcement haven’t helped me to breathe fully, either. Systematic killing and incarceration of Black bodies is an American practice that is not new. What is new is the technology that allows us to view what is disturbing, needs to be brought to light, and historic.

I have witnessed the 2016 U. S. presidential election and its aftermath, which continues to and beyond this moment. The events of the past 48 hours have been breathtaking, to say the least. Oppression is relentless, sometimes subtle, at other times blatant and always pervasive. Many individuals persist with their work toward freedom despite this. Many writers persist in their work toward freedom despite this. Every idea birthed and every word written is an act of resistance, an act of freedom, an act of bravery, and an act of uncovering something valuable for emancipation from an oppressive system.

 

Lately, I have been listening to the soundtrack from the play “Hamilton.” I hear layers of meaning in the lyrics that go a lot deeper for me than I originally thought. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time, why do you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time,” sing sisters Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler and other characters throughout the play.

 

Apparently the founding father who had been born a bastard, who became a penniless orphan, an immigrant, and who was a driven man who feverishly and fervently worked toward the revolution that eventually birthed what is now called America. He was a white man who created the roots of the financial system we now live with and he married into wealth in order to secure his status as he had a low status as a poor immigrant bastard. He had a keen mind and writing skills that were sharp. And he was driven I am most interested in his tendency to write like he was running out of time. I feel as if I am running out of time, like we are all running out of time.

 

My brother is not dead and I am not dead, but the systems that have been constructed to diminish, marginalize and extinguish our humanity have been unearthed and are in full view and the entire world is watching. Every breath I take and every word I write pushes back against this hurtful, hateful, corrupt and bankrupt system and leads to its dissolution. I must get on with it.

 

But I can’t do this alone. I need my allies to work with me. We must all get on with the work of singing the chains off and singing freedom into being.

 

 

 

 

Sense Delay

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Here is this week’s essay for the #52Essays2017 Challenge started by Vanessa Martir . Happy to be alive and writing this week!

I often don’t know when I am afraid. What I mean is that the fear doesn’t register consciously or at least in any thinking that becomes conscious in my awareness.

This might make me dangerous if I were to handle a gun. Right now I am writing on a computer. Before that, I was writing on a pad with a pencil.

This essay is not about guns, shootings, people who have been shot in the back as they were running away; it is not about dead children, or children who are now motherless, grandmother-less, grandfather-less, or fatherless. It is not about runaway slaves who got caught and what was done to them when they were caught. It is not about lynching. It is not about slave revolts. It is not about blankets infected with smallpox. It is not about assault rifles, tanks, riot gear, tanks, batons, tear gas canisters, sawed off shotguns, handguns, AK-47’s, M-15’s, rocks, bottles, car bombs, cars aflame, smashed windows, looting, marches, rallies, reporters, cameras, videos. It is not about any of these things.

Fear can paralyze. Fear can fan the flames of anger. Fear can make anxiety a constant companion. Fear can provoke numbness. Fear can help the brain to create a cloak that goes over the skin and coats it with touch repellant. Once the cloak is on and someone touches me I don’t feel a thing. Fear can extend that cloak to my sense of hearing.

Sometimes I can hear a compliment or an acknowledgement and it sounds muted or as if the person saying it is speaking from a distance. There is a delay until I can really hear the voice and the words being spoken. I sense that they are positive words and then recognize that the words are those of praise or acknowledgment. The voice and the words awaken me from a meaning and felt sense slumber and surprise me. Sometimes the same thing happens when someone is speaking mean and hateful words to me. I ask myself whether I’m really hearing them correctly; once I can discern my answer, I know. And then I can become present once again to pleasure, warmth, confusion, pain, anger, or hurt.

If I can’t feel someone’s touch on my skin and the words that are spoken to me don’t register at times, then those are the times that I am numb. Those are the instances when my senses have been dampened in some way, but I don’t know that the dampening is in effect immediately. I don’t really know it on a conscious level. It can take awhile for me to ride out the muted reception, process the touch or the words, allow an internal response to arise. Then I can become present once again.

I often can’t tell when I am afraid, but I have learned that sometimes when I am afraid, touch feels as if it coming from far away. And a voice can seem as if it is speaking to me from far away. A cloak covers me. And for a little while, I am safe in not knowing whether the touch or the voice is friendly.

 

Winter

This evening, the melody to “Winter in America” by Gil Scott-Heron began to play in my head. I found a version on YouTube and I’ve been playing it and listening more intently than I ever have to the lyrics, some of which follow:

“Yeah, and the people know, people know it’s Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting cause nobody knows what to save,

Save your soul, Lord knows

From Winter in America”

I’ve been working on a poem about the “elephant in the room,” those things that are large and almost engulfing us, and yet we avoid acknowledging them, talking about them, sharing with one another that we see, feel and hear them. And something about it being “winter in America” and “nobody knows what to save” are anything but an elephant in the room for many of us these days. One of my mentors has encouraged me to keep going, to write the poem. And it’s not an easy poem to write. And this evening, I am once again putting one foot in front of the other, listening to Gil Scott-Heron and writing about that elephant.

Gil Scott-Heron begins the song with these lyrics:

“From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffalo who once ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain
Looking for the rain”

 

 

 

Not a new poem for not entirely new situations

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Lizard

Lizard said, “It pays to use camouflage and observe carefully.” His tongue glittered in the light as he spoke and eyed me from the other side of the boulder. He teaches me that stillness pays and moving quickly when necessary is crucial, but the best thing to do in the city or in the country, is to blend in with your surroundings.

Sometimes, men and women in dark uniforms eye me suspiciously. My height, skin color and unisex, loose-fitting clothing are often identical to the description of the person they’re looking for, except that I have breasts. It is dark outside, so they say it is hard for them to tell that I’m not the perpetrator they’re looking for.

 My tongue shoots out in flames, quickly licking the air before the blue uniform in the patrol car sees it. I fold into the brick building on the corner of Alcatraz and Telegraph. My skin turns crumbly reddish brown and I freeze.

My poem “Lizard” appears in the anthology, New Poets of the American West, Many Voices Press, 2010. I thought it appropriate to post it on my blog at this time.

Far too many have not and are not able to blend into their surroundings or do whatever it is that would ensure their  safety and survival as they are hunted, ignored, devalued and stereotyped. This is my offering to them and to all.