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Sick and Tired: Ta Nehisi Coates, Public Policy and Routes to Liberation

How can we fix it? Make it better? Now that we’ve deconstructed everything surely we can get some answers, we can get some results, we can move forward, we can get to where we’ve always wanted to be. I write pretty strong on spirit but the last few weeks of confronting institutionalized racism in my work as a teaching artist and as an MFA graduate student has been overwhelming. And as is common, I’m not feeling too well as a result. My body is not fond of white supremacy and as Coates called it the “weight” of existing in a system that criminalizes your body, the historical weight of black criminality has manifested in a mild illness. I considered black criminality and black spirituality in my essay The Trap of the Secret when I was struck by the particularities of a young, black mother Shaquan Duley, and the lack of understanding of her body, her predicament, her illness.
As William Julius Wilson sat on the panel with Coates at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard today, I remember why I left academia, and social sciences, as Wilson’s required research sat in such a deeply unsettled place within myself. I knew the answers to these kinds of questions could never be found in methods or within the framework of the academy. I knew these deep sicknesses couldn’t be remedied by numbers and theories, I needed something more. My time away provided great context, and taking place at Harvard as one of few academic sites where I’ve shared my newest works as a scholar, allowed me to genuinely enjoy many of the points Wilson made. Now so many years later I could appreciate why I began to dread people pointing me to his work, who made him King of us I sarcastically retorted, as his work seemed outdated to me as a young woman. It reminded me of a more conservative black era and politic. Yet I gushed as Wilson, an elder and one of most important social scholars to contribute research on blackness and poverty, drew links between joblessness, poverty and lack of resources. He went on to re-frame Coates comments within the contemporary reality of “income segregation” or the reality that the African-American community has become more class stratified in the face of mass incarceration and sharp increases in poverty. There he had me.
As an member of the black educated elite, yet impoverished since I am an artist, I think about class stratification in our community often. This has to be one of the basic reasons black neighborhoods become gentrified so quickly and also one of the reasons we are having trouble, with the absence of middle and upper class blacks, fighting for historically black spaces whether they are residential, a school or a theater. As I see many Dominican friends return to the neighborhoods like the Heights after prestigious educational tracks, and many black and Latino peers return to places like Miami or Chicago, I see a different trend in the Northeast among African-Americans. Many black professionals rarely return “home” nor choose to live in black communities at all in urban America. We move into white neighborhoods, many of us, “escaping”our reality. I was glad to cling to Wilson’s recent research which proves this observation into fact, for the people that proof.
Today’s poor black families, research shows, differ as they do not enjoy middle class and upper/wealthy black families as neighbors. This increases the deprivation that motivated this topics explored by the panel, namely mass incarceration and the disproportionate number of African-Americans incarcerated. Coates latest book Between the World and Me frames contemporary #BlackLivesMatter activism, and why young black college students across the nation are deeply questioning institutionalized racism. In late night convos friends blame this on Desegregation which makes me cringe. I trust we fought against laws that didn’t have our best interest at hand, and hate the idea that we have to turn back the hands of time to seek liberation. No we don’t. We can move forward, we can get through this time. There is a deep trauma and of course newfound mobility across America that keeps young African-American professionals out of black communities. We need to dig deeper for the why. We can also recognize that young, middle class black folks moving into historically marginalized black neighborhoods they were not raised in, can agitate stratification. I think many are creating positive spaces so this doesn’t become the reality, and feel a real call as a community to work on displacement of black communities.
We needed Coates literature and Wilson’s statistics for a young 30-year old Duley in 2010. Perhaps the judge sentencing her could have heard these interventions to contextualize the soft spoken woman that grabbed my heart in her interview with Oprah Winfrey just a few years ago. (I have some serious questions for Oprah about that too and the capitalizing off of publicizing black pain and trauma in absence of what seems to be the right “tools” to create genuine healing. I mean can she ever go somewhere and not record?) After all, I understood why Duley had snapped and drove herself and children over a bridge after smothering them underneath water in her bathtub at home.
I am one of few peers who is not a mother in my 30s, I very much appreciate the kind of stress that Duley must have experienced not as a “single black mother”, but as an active, parenting black woman. Ta Nehisi’s book of letters to his son could have been an incredible resource for those sons she smothered, saving her eldest girl child. Just 5 years too late. How many more are we too late for?? Wait, this as deliberate as it was and heinous, is starting to make sense. How does one parent black boys in the face of mass incarceration? I understood the stress of Duley’s lengthy unemployment, as we black women face unemployment perhaps more than any other group, but I forget what the exact statistics are I hope this doesn’t make my “argument” less “credible”. Does it?
I know the slouch of depression that creeps after the first few job searches just don’t pan out. I know the questioning of self-worth, the darkness shed on America when one is a black woman applying for a job. Knowing when one is qualified but didn’t get hired. Was it my hair? Oh yes, when I was unemployed not too far from the time Duley was incarcerated I read the NYtimes article, after being completely worn, that stated that despite education levels, blacks in New York are less likely to be hired than any other racial group. But I know what the experience is, it is much worse than any statistics can convey and yes it always, always results in illness.
And I am very equipped to deal with illness, as an herbalist, as a Yoruba priestess, as an educated woman with access to medical help, albeit marginalized, as a black woman who knows how to be in community and to reach out when I am in need or hurting. While I never met Duley -- her story jumped at me through the miles of experience that separate us. In absence of family & peer support systems I have had, as a mother of 3, living unemployed I may not be immune to snapping and doing heinous things I thought never imaginable.
Through Duley’s young round face, a large woman encompassed literally by the crushing weight of black criminality I see myself. I felt that we have failed Duley, failed my sisters on the brink of insanity without refuge, without access. The incident made me more diligent about spreading my voice and my methods for self-care through a black girl lens, an African Diaspora lens. Duley took me to Harvard to present a paper born out of this in 2013. Duley in turn saved me, through a redirection of my work. Her story was the face to the theories of how dire our current reality is; it was the necessary affirmation of my deep seeded compassion for my people that drives me to the edges of society. There I imagine what healing for us black women looks like, our bodies and spirits in line, to dare to live beyond the confines of institutions that value my worth at just a little bit more than my great-great-great grandmothers, like Ma Margaret who was brought to Mississippi to work as an enslaved African for the rest of her life. I think about what she must have passed on to my great-great grandmother Reina, who was the best of healers, an African often dressed in all white, she read the sky and consulted both whites and blacks in her radical free space “up ‘dere on the Indian hill” as the older people would say, and I would hear through stories by my Father raised by her until he was about 5 years old. What did Margaret tell Reina that got her to freedom? Reina knew how to be free so good when so many of us withered in Reconstruction, in illness, in not enough to eat, or sleep or clothes to wear.
I know she taught her charity. Grandma Virginia always cooked more food than just for her 9 children opening her table to hungry children in the neighborhood. Some of them spoke as grownups in my Uncle Roscoe and Aunt Mae’s backyard on Chicago’s Westside for her 80th birthday. I didn’t think then she wouldn’t make it to 90 as tall as she stood that day. A true Queen. They rose and spoke about “Mother” who gave me cornbread and cussed me out when I was out here acting a fool. They thanked her they loved her as we did, they were a real part of our family. That value I learned and practice in my own home. My doors are never closed to my sisters and brothers, trans or homeless, who are in need as we have sacrificed at times to do. That is the Mississippi in dis here New Yorker.
And who were Duley’s peoples? I get along with some close girlfriends with peoples from South Carolina, we Mississippians a special people, we’s resilient but I like those South Carolina folks. South Carolina been talkin’ up a storm just like Mississippi did in those Civil Rights. Who was the girl’s great-great-great grandmomma? Surely, we got something in common, our people made it from up under on over, and now this baby is in an orange jumpsuit. I wish I could save her. I wish I could rise up like the white actors in all their white Hollywood movies when they give the monologue of a lifetime and it changes the judge’s mind and then everything is peace again. I wish I could just explain “Your honor, this is clearly a case of poverty meets underprivileged circumstances coupled with the historical weight of black criminality which manifests in illness, mental and physical, clearly exemplified in my client’s case and see the day she snapped all that was operating with postpartum blues. And if someone enslaved your people, then set them free, then created policies to keep them enslaved even though they’re technically free then a few generations after realizing this and doing the best you can it’s very understandable how someone would snap. In fact Your Honor it’s no wonder every black person in America hasn’t snapped the necks of more living beings in pure frustration and angst through the weight of black criminality over the past 250 years. Your honor please see here Ta Nehisi Coate’s theorizing on black criminality here in the Atlantic. What’s that? Yes, my client is free to go? Thank you Your Honor.”
Or something like that. I know now my contribution won’t be just more statistics, won’t be trying to convince any institutions that these are real historical problems that manifest and have everything to do with today. Except the DOE, okay, well a few. I was burnt out by that weight and academia through the violence of white, elite institutions by 24. I needed us, I needed blackness, I needed spirituality -- which is not God for my black atheists. Coates is an atheist like my Aunt, who was the first black atheist I met -- but sitting in holy, err I mean revitalizing black spaces whether it be a concert or dinner-- is to be born again and face another day in strength and love. I turned heavily like many to orishas and a deep Afro-Cuban spirituality that my grandmother brought, followed by my mother in this here America. So I sit in the questions around healing for us, our families in the face of poverty, in the face of police brutality, broken educational and other resources that have become worst in the past 40 years, which is the entire span of my life thus far, and I come back to culture. I’ve always come back to culture and healing as how we may survive the systemic violence.
In Lukumi there’s lots of promise, despite the petty rifts in the practitioner community on style, authenticity and protocols. I think about the ways people are divorcing our practices from race, (ha!) and the ways it was a real healing system for Afro-Cubans; the result of medicinal, psychological, and cultural resistance in Cuba just like the Black Church in America. I think about the medicinal herbal components as well as the cosmological concepts that can be communicated across religious beliefs and atheists in our generation seriously invested in black liberation, a holistic liberation and not just a superficial political one. I guess I am a political atheist, I don’t believe politics is always the strongest frame for black liberation. Spirit is huge. I believe in us. I think about the power of using natural plants to heal the body and bring it into balance, and how we’ve moved away from traditional cultural knowledge which we readily change for books. Books may contain the most western and Eurocentric coded methods for sharing our ideas about black political projects and liberation.
The irony of it all. When did we start replacing what we’ve traditionally, culturally known as black people, West African descendants, with Eurocentric forms of knowledge? There is no one determinate moment when this happens it’s a process of acculturation, syncretism, molding, of course even Anthropologists recognize that, but did we always give more weight to other forms of knowledge before our own?? If my grandmother knew how to plant medicinal things with a third grade education how is it that just 2 generations later I didn’t learn this skill set? Why didn’t I? I spent massive amounts of time with her in her gardens. She loved plants, planted all over the Westside of Chicago, I mean where my grandmother was there was living, green life, luscious as the fields she must’ve picked cotton in as a young sharecropper. When did getting into Yale become more important than our gardens?
I say this, recognizing I was raised by some old time religion folks as young as I am, to also recognize the dangerous departures from traditional black cultural knowledge. Integration, legal and political changes most definitely have effected our generations being cut off from more traditional black cultural knowledge, cultivated in the South or as my Puerto Rican grad school Professor Agnes Lugo Ortiz called it, “El circumcaribe.” That Deep South, Caribbean, Central American & South American coastal routes of trade, and cultural connections that are the true heartbeat of our hemisphere, and perhaps even of contemporary Afro-Atlantic black consciousness.
How could people be as so ignorant to think of places like Cuba or Haiti as isolated? As if deep medicinal knowledge is not an Africanism also embodied in a Mississippi or South Carolina blackness, because folks weren’t playing bata or involved in mass processionals like the rest of the Hemisphere. As if our American blackness is isolated from the rest of the hemisphere and thus less African. I confront this notion almost daily, and it alone is exhausting. In fact living here in New York for most of my life what I can say is that the invention of the black American experience as less African, ‘specially here up North, is that there is a growing disconnect with our historical cultural experience in the South. Chicago’s West Side and even Baltimore seem more African to me in that sense. Although our language and consciousness may not reflect it, the community experience of blackness is more rooted in the traditional ways of the South and the cultural pride from that experience.
Yes New York has a longer history of earlier migrations and yes an abolitionist narrative about freedom and the North as a space more “removed” from the institution of slavery than the South. Oh yes a deep study of the black American contemporary experience across urban, black communities seems needed. Anybody working on that? While New York superficially feels like a center for blackness, its diversity and heavy Caribbean immigration create a unique narrative that puts us closer to our Circumcaribe sisters and brothers, yet distances us from traditional and Southern African-American history and culture through erasure.
This erasure has been exacerbated by appropriating Afro-Caribbean culture and religion and privileging international modes of blackness (which are so very important) over African-American ones in a way that devalues the black American experience. This painful truth is one that once we set the field right with Afro-Latino and Afro-Atlantic studies, then we must circle back. The fact is that a 3rd generation Puerto Rican or Jamaican has more cultural pride than our 12th generation African-American young people. How can we re-instill cultural pride that would be necessary to support collective healing from mass incarceration and massive inequalities facing black and Latinos of African descent in America. If we can’t count our black population outside of jail correctly, we probably don’t have the stats we need on Afro-Latinos identifying and not, who are imprisoned. African-Americans and Latinos need to rally with one another if we want to funnel our cultural healing into political, structural changes.
What is African-American cultural pride? What are the traditional African-American rituals, knowledge, cosmology that we want to pass on? What tools have we created in the South but have gotten away from? Our desires to forget a painful Southern existence for many black migrants, including family “left behind,” can reel traumas forward several generations just like immigration. This geographic movement, coupled with a diverse cultural real life experience steeped in sophistication and nuance, is what connects the African-American experience to Latinos (of color), and to the world. Without our indigenous cultural knowledge, which is just as valid as other cultures, no less African even if our clave is riffing in electronic hip-hop beats; we have no key to the world, no key to the doors from which we came and thus no way out of this mess.
It may not be the entire answer, but is surely a significant part of our current work. How can we and young people understand blackness without real African cultural knowledge? We focus on this in terms of language, dress, yet not with plants or foods where the connections stare us smack in the face. In the absence of ethnic cultural African identities, we in the Diaspora have re-created cultural traditions majestically and brilliantly, yet have been made to feel ashamed and less than. We are not proud of Georgia and the Carolinas in newer generations like others rep flags, and we mistakenly only interrogate this through the lens of nationality. There we lose unlike any other African descended group, African Americans cannot access the patria, the nation home state which is always romanticized from abroad through space and time, and thus the Deep South is seen as still inextricably tied to the America many of us reject because we have never had liberation on this soil. Yet this is deeper than nation-states and languages, geography in the African Diaspora and the routes we’ve taken have never been confined by colonialist borders imagined by violent European conquest.
They are the cultural borders, the safe spaces and gardens, the ring shouts and nighttime juju or palo rituals that defines and connects us. This recognition is a form of liberation in and of itself in the African-American context, and one that also causes us to redefine black America as we have generations of Afro-Cubans, Afro-Puerto Ricans, West Indians and Africans, indigenous and Europeans deeply rooted in our cultural experience. We tend to focus on the most recently immigrating populations, rather than stretch our historical imaginations to the days of slave codes and staggering “emancipation” dates. These history changing events that scared slave owners throughout the Hemisphere and caused us to run, to move, to shift, to hide between nation-state borders, which also has not yet been recognized in our collective narratives and celebrations.
Hell! Assata ain’t new, she went to Cuba like Eldridge and them went to Algeria and Mario Bauza came to Harlem from Havana, all searching for the same thing, seeing familiar faces as we go along. Hell! We is an international people before we even knowed it and like everything good they done took it away. We done let it fade hoping the hurt might be less for the new babies taking up the charge, but they don’t know who they is, they ain’t never seen a popular tree only seen strange fruit in a book. Most black chiren today ain’t neva growed up swimming in a lake or a river, so how could they know an Yoruba vision of God so deeply tied to the natural world black urbanity often looks down upon. Where will we plant new gardens and food? Come swim to liberation with me young Afroatlanticites. I love you like I love myself, and when I close my eyes to die alls I gonna wish is that we be free.
~Ashe Jadele McPherson

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    The public policy and liberation and making the effective supremacy institutionalized academic topics for great services. The contemporary reality of taking the income questions and research papers.

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