Earliest Memory

•March 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

My baby cousin fell asleep while watching 101 Dalmatians. I would sleep too but I already caught a glimpse of the large layered chocolate cake with rainbow sprinkles all over. It was prominently placed on the small round kitchen table on top of a long colorful plastic tablecloth with tropical flowers. It was December 31st.

SHE led me into the bedroom and ordered that I stay put and watch TV. They wanted me out of their way while they laughed, gossip and drank until the ball fell. I knew the cake wouldn’t be cut until the ball fell, so I was fighting sleep. All I could think about was how big my slice would be and the bliss I would experience as the icing melted on my tongue. I wanted that cake. The credits were moving up the screen and baby cousin was still sound asleep. I didn’t hear the bedroom door behind me open. He asked,

“Why are you hid away?”

“I have to stay here until the ball drops.” I said.

He asks what I had been watching. I tell him. He asks if I could come with him to the kitchen.

“I have to stay put.” I said.

He said he needed help cutting the cake. I told him that the cake wouldn’t be cut until the ball drops. Grabbing my hand, he said,

“Come, you will help me cut the cake.”

The rest of the grown ups were drunk and talking loud in the living room next to the kitchen. He sat me on his lap in front of the cake. My mouth watered.

“I will cut the cake only if you give me a kiss.”

He turned his head and points to his cheek. I reluctantly move to kiss him when he turns his face and meets my lips. He kisses me with his mouth open. His hand moved under the table and finds my thighs. He continues up to my underwear. He moves my panties aside and violates me with his fingers. My wide tear-filled eyes are still fixed on the chocolate cake. I am in pain but cannot scream because his tongue is in my mouth. His other hand squeezes my arm threateningly. Out of the corner of my eye I see HER turn the corner.

“Get you hands off her!” SHE screams as she grabs me. SHE is hysterical. I am thrusted into the corner. They all rush into the kitchen. He says,

“I just kissed her on the cheek!”

SHE screams, “I saw your tongue in her mouth!”

Amidst the yelling and HER screaming, HE says, “You didn’t see anything, you’re f***ing drunk!”

“I saw him with his tongue in her mouth!” SHE says.

SHE is crying. HE says to everyone, “Look, the ball is dropping!”

Everyone rushes back into the living room and counts back as the ball falls. Defeated, she grabs our coats and empty Tupperware.  It is 1984 and I am 5 years old. This experience is my single most indelible childhood memory.

As a teenager, I am unable to walk to the store without being grabbed, pinched or groped by my male peers.

I continue to be sexually violated by my older cousin, and high school boyfriends.

I am raped by the man I would be engaged to.

I still like chocolate cake.

It takes a long time to love me.

SHE was a caseworker supervisor and worked for Child Protective Services.

Mom often left her job worried about her clients.

I wondered if she worried about me.

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Meditations on Gratitude 0001

•March 3, 2010 • 1 Comment

health

strong mind

strong limbs

the desire to grow

the ablility to dream

Mother… Daughter.

•July 19, 2009 • 1 Comment

“He’s out you know, living with your aunt Leona. He’s in community college.” she says, eyes wide. She hopes her daughter feels encouraged by his accomplishment, his getting out of jail for the seventh or eighth time. This time it was for good behavior. He had been in intensive care most of the duration of this last incarceration, his head bashed in within an inch of his life by his  ” friends” while trying to rob somebody.

She sees her daughter is unimpressed, uninterested-annoyed even. Her lips curled looking as though teeth would be sucked.

Daughter is amazed, looking at her mother with glassy eyes with her dinner sitting in front of her. She had not taken a bite.  Seeing her daughter’s change of mood, Mother feels the possibility of an uncomfortable, familiar conversation; one filled with all those things this family has pushed under rugs. She quickly says,

“He has to wear a skull cap. If he gets into a fight or falls and gets hit on his head he could die, they beat him so bad. He has to wear that thing for the rest of his life. HUMPH,Humph,humph.”

She says this in a attempt to block off what she knows Daughter is thinking, what she will eventually ask.

“Why are you telling me anything about him? I’ve told you, I don’t want to hear anything about him, except the news that he’s dead!”

Then Mothers’ reflex would push her to make her daughter feel guilty with,

“You’re so hateful!” or,

“You have to learn to forgive.” or the killer,

“You’re too old to be holding on to that shit- when are you going to get over it?”

Get over it.

Instead, Mother talks about how fragile her nephew is and how aunt Leona sees how much he’s trying this time.  Mother talks on about  how aunt Leona is so excited about the cruise she and mother will be going on. Mother is planning it to “encourage and inspire her”, she says.

Daughter wants to say, “Maybe while you’re on your cruise you could tell aunt Leona that her son is a piece of shit!”

She wants to explain to her mother that every time she mentions him without acknowledging what happened she feels disregarded, unprotected, unimportant, unloved,

small.

Daughter expresses none of this personal truth. Instead a rouge memory comes to her mind.

It is years ago. The families are on vacation. On the white sands of Aruba the  stars are bright . She faintly hears the waves crashing against the rocks and rolling off the sand back into the sea. Her heart pounds hard, so much so her body rocks back and forth to the beat of its rhythm.

He is sitting next to her. Her eyes follow the waves. Its movement temporary distracts her from what comes next, what she must do.

He fills the uncomfortable silence with small talk. She learns that he’s not getting along with his parents, of his decision to drop out of school and, of his dysfunctional, drama-filled relationship with his girlfriend whom he refers to as “this bitch” or “that bitch”.

She can only mutter the sporadic “really”, “oh yeah” or, “uhmmm…” as she watches the waves. She is transported to when she was just a few years younger, when he would punch, bit and beat her. She balls up her fist in the sand pushing the grains in the beds of her nails. The pressure stings the palms of her hands-her fists are balled so tight.

She already made up her mind that tonight, their last night in Aruba, would be the night she would confront him. Fight him, if she had to.

“Why you so quiet?” he asks.

She blurts out,

“You know, I’ve never forgotten what you did!”

“What do you mean?” He asks, looking puzzled.

She turns from the waves and faces him, “When you raped me!”

She almost doesn’t recognize her own voice. Her cheeks sting. She feels dizzy. Aruba’s cool breeze doesn’t quail the heat emulating from her nerves. She begins to shake.

What nerve of her to speak-the unspoken. That which she has tried to bury from the very first time his brutality became sexual- the very acts that caused her to accept continued violations of her body in the guise of consensual acts.

She breaths deeply, prepared for what has always come after her definance-no matter how small. A slap on the face, or punch, or bite or worse.

He rolls up his sleeves.

Here it comes, she thinks.

She scans the empty beach and wonders who will hear her if she screams. None of this matters. She had her plan. She would throw the sand stinging her fingers in his face. This would give her enough time  to strike  him and run back to her room.

And anyway, with all the anger damned up inside her, he would have no chance in a brawl with her, deserted beach or not, she was ready for… whatever.

This instance of certainty and boldness, her audacity to stand up for herself, after years of silence, would be one of the few times she actually surprises herself. This would be one of her proudest moments.

“Look at this.” he says with his fist tight and arm stretched out.  He pulls out at lighter from his pocket with his free hand. Through the orange glow from the flicker of light, she faintly sees small round hyperpigmented blemishes that formed a line up his arm.

“I’ve been on this shit for a year now…”

Small talk takes place as they walk back to her room. She feels relieved that no confrontation had to take place. As he shares his setbacks and hopes with her, she begins to feel silly for holding on to things that she’s now convinced herself were her imagination. Maybe it never really happened, she thinks as she nods trying to control her facial expressions.

They are in front of her door now. She takes out her key card and unlocks her door. As she says good night and turns to go inside he says,

“I thought you liked it!”

She turns to look at him.

“What?” She asks.

With a familiar smirk, he says,

“When I fucked you!”

He reaches out and grabs her breast. She pushes his hand away rushes into her room and slams the door. She locks it behind her.

The ring of the telephone and her mother’s voice pulls her from her memory.

“…Yeah child, I don’t know what I’m gonna do about that aunt of yours!” Mother says as she rushes to answer the phone.

Daughter’s eyes are fixated on a piece of salmon as she rolls it around in her plate.

Charles White’s Men.

•September 22, 2008 • 3 Comments

I am a Negro in America, I relate to images that are meaningful to me, images that are closest to me. I use that as a springboard to deal with the more board and the more all-encompassing.

-Charles White

Charles White, Lithograph

Charles White, The Prophet

For the past week or so, I have been grappling with my disillusionment with relationships in general, black men in particluar. Between nursing the wounds of friends, family, the young women I counsel and, trying to nurse my own; I pray to see light at the end of this tunnel.

I am just so sick of seeing relationships crumble around me. It discourages me, makes me think I will always be alone.

I have also been thinking about what made Mr. Moody so attractive to me. He is of a different generation, being more than twenty years older than I. I imagine him a willing partner in the struggle. He represents for me an responsible lover of black women.  He supports his family financially. He reads the newspaper and is concerned about his community. He asks himself, “what can I do to make this world a better place for our children.”  He is a present father, active in the lives of his children, attending PTA meetings and makes pop up visits at his children’s school. He tells his daughter how beautiful she is, teaches his son to respect women. He is a devoted husband, works an honest job and has never seen the inside of prison nor is he interested in spending time on corners outside bodegas. He is proud of this.  He wears his jeans on his waist. He is ready to fight if you call him a nigger or nigga- he hears no distinction.

It is this “Strong Black Man” we black women pray for, cry for, fight other women for, set our dreams aside for, have babies for, struggle by ourselves for…die for.

Maybe it was because Mr Moody looked in my eyes when he spoke to me. In that moment, I  didn’t feel like a piece of meat, or worse.

When a fellow co-worker who knows Mr. Moody offered to formally introduce me to him, I shyed.

’cause I turn people into deities…place people on high pedestals…when they fall, they stay fallen.

They always fall.

And I am left hopeless, and think negatively about everything.

I want him to stay beautiful.

Homage to Langston Hughes, 1971

…like Charles White’s men…forever immortal on canvas.

#183, Seydou Keita.

•September 19, 2008 • 3 Comments
#185, Seydou Keita

#185, Seydou Keita

A Moorish woman from Northern Mali lying on her elbow next to her companion on a prayer rug. She is wearing a traditional bright blue robe (koymeeti) and a large necklace with tassles around her neck. Her hair is arranged in he form of a helmet decorated with sliver ornament.

-description from catalogue

It was the spring of 1999 when I was first introduced to African photography.  The exhibition was called Revue Noire: Africa by Africans- A Photographic View. It was in conjunction with the publishing of Anthology of African & Indian Ocean Photography. As I walked the space, (Smithsonian Center for African History and Culture) I quickly became overwhelmed with the amount of work that lined the walls…it seemed in the tradition of the Salons, where every bit of wall space was taken by an image regardless of subject or order. I struggle through the show, with pen and pad in hand, taking superficial notes.

At the time, I attended Howard University, my professors gave me affirmation, and I found comfort in my friendships, intimate relationship, and a community where my reflection was constant. Good, bad and indifferent. In this comfortable state, it was easy for me to walk smugly through that space, hands behind back, wondering, if I would have enough time to meet so-in-so later. I didn’t think about the amazing amount of time it took to catalogue and showcase well over 100 artists spanning the entire continent of Africa…including artists from the Diaspora. At the time I didn’t have the knowledge to really understand the context of Africa by Africans…A Photographic View and what that really means. Of course I appreciated the work…but not really.

It wouldn’t be ’til years later, while sitting in a graduate photography critique course, the only Black person, with my work lining the walls, the Black faces of my subjects staring back at blank, white, privileged, uninformed and in denial of their own racism…viewers, their arms folded behind their backs, I was hit with my own arrogance…I was ashamed of myself. Each critique of my work (which was every week) brought me back to that day at the Smithsonian.

My choices were clear, if I made work that would allow them to sexualize me, or better yet, didn’t challenge their preconceived notions of what the Black community was, which is what ever they caught on BET, or MTV, in between their large consumption of wine and cheese, there would be no challenge. In fact I would be the Black darling of the department. The one they could use as a poster child to promote how Muti-Cultural,Diverse, Global and, Liberal their program was.  But, in the tradition of Chester Higgins, Elizabeth Cattlet, Tom Feelings, Charles White, Aaron Douglas… ( most of whom, these viewers have never heard of…yeah, really!) I make work that reflected my community, with the one objection and one objection only…UPLIFT!!!

Truly the days and hours in between these critiques, while waiting for my fiber based photographic paper to dry, or my movie to render ( praying my computer wouldn’t crash), I studied this work. It’s meaning, context and purpose became part of my arsenal used when I had to spit fire on folk who questioned, why I chose Black people and experience as my subject and the Black community as my audience.

So it is with a humble, full and sincere heart, that I reconsider the  work of one of the artist’s included in the Revue Noire: Africa by Africans exhibition.

The fiction I create when looking at art in general, photography in particular is just part of my process. It’s how I take in and examine a piece. I believe visual art and literature, parallel. I experience great art like great literature. The single photograph is a poem, the great mural, an epic novel.

I imagine Mali, mid 1950’s. It is still under French occupation, but there are whispers, and rumors of change coming. A beautiful Muslim couple is planning to have their photograph taken. They live humbly and are proud. They don’t want their picture taken by just anyone. They want the self-taught accomplished, sought-after , seasoned Seydou Keita. His work is known throughout the city of Bamako. People flock to him because of his carefully composed, sensitive portraits. He takes care with his subjects, making sure the props and poses are just so.

This couple is not interested in choosing any of the European clothes Keita has available to those who want to be photographed like the French. Nor are they interested in the vibrant, boldly patterned back drops he images are known for. A simple piece of fabric will do. They want this image to capture the authenticity of who they are. A Muslim couple, in love.

They take off their shoes to protect the sanctity of this image, the sacred space Keita helps them create. They don’t just have their shoes put off the side…they want them in the frame and they are carefully placed, her and his. They want this recorded. They lay on the prayer rug, him behind her. He is dressed in bright white, she in blue.

It is not too long ago, when images taken of people who look like them by outsiders, involved the promotion of eugenics, the ideas that Africans as savages…and not human.

This couple knows who they are, and so does the photographer, whose work would become a major Malian treasure.

He smells her sweet oils through her koymeeti.  His is suppose to be looking at the camera, but the aroma pulls him…he is lost in it. His hands brush hers, he moves closer to feel her and whispers,

I love you.

She watches Seydou as he disappears behind the camera’s eye.

A State of Numbness (Third Period)

•September 16, 2008 • 1 Comment

It is third period at the middle school (or, job #1). My ninth grader…the one who revealed that she was raped over the summer comes rushing into my office…

“Miss T, you gotta help me, I’m supposed to be getting jumped after-school!” Why I asked, what happened… and where were you yesterday?” Since she revealed to me what has happened, I have been seeing her everyday.

“Well two days ago, I was hanging out with my friends, and …”

She goes into this long story that ends up with her giving one of the boys, ( whom I also counsel) “head”, her ex-boyfriend ( another one of my students) fighting the guy ( who also happens to be his best friend) and everyone in school calling her a “POP”. Another one of the guys who was there when she gave the guy head is mad at her for letting the two fight. He has threatened to to bring his older sister to beat her up after school.

This is my girl…I know she knows better. She is one of my few who knows better. We discuss articles that I copy, and relate them to her life and life that her family, friends and peers face. This is the kind of counselor I am…I always try to push my kids to question every decision they make. The last article we discussed was the latest issue of Essence. Monique is on the cover and she speaks about being molested my her older brother. She talks about telling her mother what happened, and that her mother did nothing. The inaction of Monique’s mother caused the sexual assault of someone else, which lead to her bother being put in jail. But even now Monique’s mother won’t acknowledge what happened.

My girl isn’t some naive wide eye wonder saying What, that really happens?” She connected Monique’s experience with her own saying,

“Ms. T, my family is real fucked up, I love my mom and aunt because they believed me and we went to the cops and everything, but the all my male cousins act like that.”

Act like what?, I said.

“I remember, when I was younger, I had a crush on my older cousin, but I never took it there with him because he is my cousin…but he would act like he was going out with my other girl cousin who is his age. All the guys act like they go out with all the girl cousins and that’s not normal, I don’t feel comfortable around them. In the summer we would go to the pool and the guys would sit behind us as if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They would rub themselves against us so we could feel them. They would want to kiss us and feel us up. Everytime I go over there ( to visit her extended family) I had to deal with that. All that shit is weird…it’s always been that way.”

“Where are the grown ups, when this is happening?” I ask.

“They’re all right there either drunk or ignoring us. That’s why I sometimes feel sorry for my cousin (they one who raped her) ’cause he grew up seeing the same shit. maybe he thought it was what he was supposed to do..you know…like he learned it.”

We talked about those secrets families keep and how it effect the victim because they feel forced to keep these secrets too.

“See, you shouldn’t be involved with any of that mess with this one or that one, because you know better…No matter how may dicks you suck, it will not erase what happened to you…, but you know that.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So why-” she cuts me off- yelling-

“I JUST DON’T WANNA FEEL ANYMORE!”

Our eyes meet, she is no longer fidgeting or tying and untying her sneakers.

I want to hold her and tell her that this will all pass. I want to tell her that her body is sacred, no matter what happened. I want to tell her, I ‘ve been there, I’m still there…

A long stare between us.

Wiping tears away, she smiles and says…

“I don’t know Ms. T, I was bored.”

Women in Yellow…

•September 15, 2008 • 1 Comment

Two women are walking in a rural Georgia field of purple flowers in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prize winning novel. One is strong willed, spirited, independent and had mastered the skill of negotiation needed for her survival, the other is quite, resilient and meek. Her ability to bounce back from trauma, this resiliency, is her power. The strong Shug declares,

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

When the resilient Celie asks what god does in response to this obliviousness, Shug replies that he creates something else people will see, because God just wants to be loved.

The implication being, regardless of what struggles, and obstacles one may hurdle, whatever lot we are handed…there is something beautiful we can lose ourselves in. We can marvel, and in this we find hope and  faith.  Shug sees and feels the presence of God in the color purple. Her representation of God through the color purple gives her hope, strengthens her faith and she wants Celie to feel this too. Like when a child sees something new, something mundane, it could be the colors of the rainbow in a puddle of oil and grit in the street the day after it rains, what we with “mature” eyes have seen over and over. The child tugs at the hand pleading, “See… See?”. Their eyes are wide open. The difference is, that special something, will never be mundane to the marveler. Faith and hope will always be refreshed with that “something or somethings” that we see God in.

The color yellow is seen everyday. Of Course the first thing our minds thinks of is the sun and it’s rays. Yellow is present in various species of plant life. It is one of the colors that are found in the coats of countless animals and in the feathers of birds. It is a color that many people would consider mundane, including, up into relatively recently, me.  But it is with the same reverence Walker expresses her love of purple in her novel, I experience the color yellow rendered by two artists whose work I greatly admire.

Tom Feelings, is a young man when he travels to Africa to paint. Before he would walk up and down the streets of Brooklyn drawing the beautiful black faces he saw. It was in those faces he saw God. When he traveled to Africa, he was struck by the vivid textiles, the rich colors and the women, who were,

proud and show it in the way they walk-their chin up, looking you straight in the eye-moving gracefully, with the elegance of women who knew who they are.

Tom Feelings, 1972; From Black Pilgrimage

Tom Feelings, 1972; From Black Pilgrimage

None of the three women look at us. They each face a different subject not present in the piece  and maybe we ask ourselves, What do they see? Are they dancing? Are they at the market?  Do they just pose for Feelings for the sake of this rendering? Each appears to have they hands on their hips. Do they talk to someone? Are they talking to each other?

The uniformity of their dress implies that there is some festivities taking place, maybe a wedding or a sacred ceremony. But one can’t help but notice what is most prominent in the painting…Feeling’s masterful rendering of that beautiful golden yellow fabric against the women’s brown skin. His sweeping lined forms of these women transports me. Calls me to reach for greater things, makes what I think is unaccomplishable in my own life a small feat. This is what great art does…uplifts you.

While there is not much written about Eldzier Cortor, he is credited for being one of the first African American Artists to make Black women a dominate theme throughout his work. Known for his meticulous detail, this woman in yellow holds a branch from a magnolia tree. Cortor revels to us less than half of her torso. Behind her is a decaying wall depicting a setting sun and equestrian figure. We see that she wears lipstick and her low cut yellow dress reveals she is bra less. The single magnolia flower is very suggestive in placement and shape.

Magnolia. Eldizier Cortor, 1947

Magnolia. Eldizier Cortor, 1947

When looking at this piece the intellectual in me can’t help but point to the implied meaning of the equestrian figure on the pestle, iconographic of the American South…possibly, slavery.  Though out downtown Washington D.C.  one could find a number of this figures. Most of which are statues of generals from the Civil War. This decaying wall symbolizing the historical past where “Massa” rules, or is at least a fallen hero. The juxtaposition of what the wall implies and what she represents, An empowered Black woman on the lose , is fascinating.

But what does she think about? Is she waiting for someone? Is this wall outside of a club or pool hall or some other place men and women gather?  And really though…where can I get that dress! See, I don’t need to see her shoes..she can be bear foot. That yellow dress and her coco brown skin is flawless! Fabulous! Godly! Let the wall behind her decay! Let her nipple poke out any eye who can’t see the beauty of this Black woman in yellow.

See, that’s great art. It’s why I’m an artist. I want my viewer to be transported, uplifted, struck with purpose…see God in my work.

My running buddies, some who have reclaimed ancient African spiritual beliefs and culture, speak about yellow signifying the wisdom of god. It is the color of the third Chakra the Manipura, the Solar Plexus that sits below the ribs but above the navel. The color yellow instills wisdom, intellect, enthusiasm, joy and optimism. Yellow helps you feel expressive, curious, and experimental. It is also believed that yellow encourages creativity, makes us expansive and free to do and be all that we can.

Maybe.