Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Revelation

"I had a thought that I could change a thing that was not real. I shared with it my space and my time, but oh how sad it made me feel...."
(A Revelation by Doug and Jean Carne)
For years I have lamented having been spat out of Liberia, West Africa, a country that I had planned to make my home. I just couldn’t understand why we had been unable to live in Sweet Liberia, in peace and replant our generational seeds on African soil. It was a pain that I bore silently for eighteen years, the way one bears the burden of crushed dreams. I suffered in silence while I raised my five children into adulthood and rationalized that our flight from wartime Liberia had been best for them. They needed to be safe, to be educated, to be with our family here in America, no matter if I didn't feel they were totally free and equal citizens of the United States. Silently I felt cheated, felt that I had been denied my dream of leaving America with its bitter sting of racism and the limits it placed on the souls of myself and my ancestors.

In 1979, when I immigrated from the United States of America, I left behind a country where I could never hope to have my children ascend to the unrestricted heights that every parent wants to know are possible for their offspring. I left America with the hope that in Africa my children could be accepted at full value and be finally, really free. I prayed that their dreams could come true in Sweet Liberia. And yet the Liberian Civil War had changed all that, tainted my dreams in a terrible way and left me with a fractured heart. In August of 1990 when we returned to America, my new struggle was to teach my children how to survive in this ragged and racist culture and "it was, what it was."

And yet, somehow, somewhere, deeply planted inside my soul was the faint memory of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream. A dream that foretold that "One day a man would be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin."

The years passed quickly, my children became adults, and I vaguely recall watching a young man they called Barack Obama, deliver the Dr. Martin Luther King message at a downtown bank where I worked during the 80's. At the time I remember thinking, "Wow, he's kinda different, interesting, where did he come from?" In the coming years I watched this young, big-eared man rise slowly in stature; he rose quietly, undergirded by a substance and a groundswell that almost appeared mystical. I watched him become a Senator and I watched him wearing an awkward, overstarched black bandana, cheerfully squeezing mustard on hotdogs, laughing and serving attendees at a Chicago Father's Day celebration. I watched as he moved politically as an unblemished blur. And amidst rumors, I recall the day that he announced that he would run for the office of President of the United States. That's when I heard it. The voice, the still, small one. It said very clearly, "honey, when he runs, he's gonna win, support him!"

I recall the day that he announced that he would enter the presidential race and it struck me that there was a quality about him that said he was different from all other politicians, and again I heard the still small voice cry out absurdly, “support him, he is the one, he will win.”

And yet I have come to trust this voice, because it has never, ever, steered me wrong. It was the same voice that has foretold the sex of each of my children before their births. It was the same small voice that spoke to me and told me to flee Liberia a day before our area was overrun by rebel soldiers, it was the voice that told me on the 4th of July 1993 that I was going to win a brand new Ford Probe!

I said to anyone who would listen, “support him, he will win. Forget the polls, forget the trends. He is our next president!" At first even my closest friends, former Black Nationalists, civil righters, militants, were hesitant, but I just always knew.

My ultimate revelation would come on Tuesday, November 4th when Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States of America! Yet it took a few additional weeks before I had this revelation. Before it dawned on me that although my family had been forced to flee Liberia; forced to abandon my dream of setting down roots for future generations in Liberia, the Universe knew that my soul needed to be in America, sitting on my living room sofa with my grand daughter, when Americans of many ethnic backgrounds, rose up in consciousness and elected the first man of color, as the President of the United States.

Each day that I live, I am awed by the fact that as human beings we think we know so much. We think we can predict the outcome of situations with our logic and with numerical formulas, but in reality, we don’t know anything at all. Who could have predicted, except Dr. King, that the landscape of America could change so dramatically between 1979 and 2008 that it would be possible to have a man of color elected the leader of the free world.

My favorite symbol is GNAME, a Ghanian Adinkira Symbol that means "no one knows the beginning or ending of anything, except God." Indeed!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Alone is a Lonely Sea

I believe that one of the most profound lessons I took away from my 11 years in Liberia, was how one can be affected by loneliness and cultural isolation. I'd love to hear from other expatriates or foreign workers, that lived in Liberia, or any other country, for a prolonged period of time, whether or not loneliness affected them. I could just be an odd bird…or not!

There is alone and then there is ALONE! There were times while I lived in Liberia that I experienced a soul-searing loneliness that I have not encountered before or since. Loneliness inspired me to write the poem, “Alone is a Lonely Sea,” at the end of this post. I began to really experience cultural isolation after I’d moved away from the Hebrew Israelite group that I'd come from Chicago to Liberia with initially. Now I was deeply embedded in the Liberian culture. Ninety-nine percent of my time was spent with Liberians; there were no African-Americans, in fact, no Americans in my life.

I'm very contemplative by nature, and I really crave time alone when I can become lost in my own thoughts. However being in a room alone, listening to your own philosophical musings, when you know there are people that care about you within “holla” distance, is a far, far cry from being alone in another country, another culture, among people who speak other languages and who understand and experience the world and their environment differently from you. And for all the amazing similarities we possess as humans and as people of African descent, there are many very important distinctions.

Kocava and her family were among my few African American friends. She was down-to-earth, creative and brilliant, my oasis in Liberia. Whenever we got together we would talk endlessly, drink cold Orange Fanta and listen to “our” music; flitting from Sun Ra and Coltrane back to Stevie Wonder and Sade, and then a quick trist with Smokey Robinson before floating on to “Lutha,” no explanations necessary! If we disagreed about any little thing, I felt free to cuss her out in that special way that sista’s can talk to one another, and she wouldn’t feel “abused.” We could be nostalgic about things that my Liberian friends didn’t even know existed.

And did I have issues to discuss! I was fed up with government bureaucracy in Liberia, tired of rogues trying to break into my room, sick of my neighbors leaving our communal bathroom a mess, and so on this hot Sunday afternoon I left my children with their older sister and hailed a taxi to Sinkor to visit Kocava. As I rode I felt pressed down by the unanticipated weight of making a living for me and my children, I felt beat down from teaching them to appreciate Liberian culture while struggling to distance them from the raw and violent behavior that was a part of living on Lynch Street. I was culturally desperate that Sunday.

Finally, I arrived at Kocava’s apartment, bounded quickly up the steps to the second floor, and knocked on the door, and knocked on the door, and knocked on the door, and knocked on the door. A Mandingo woman on the porch next door, hearing my repeated knocking, glanced up and said “Hey Ma, da peepo gone to the beach ‘O’!"

Suddenly pain ripped through me and I crumpled onto the bench outside their door and wept shamelessly until I couldn’t cry anymore, until I could walk back down the steps and hail a taxi back to Lynch Street and my children.


The Lonely Sea
Aching alone
…to be apart of another’s breath and thoughts, longing for tenderness
Missing a warm smile and laughing eyes, the familiarity of friends
and family absent in happy and sad times
Alone is a lonely sea, passing through me.

Alone is feeling self-conscious because there is only my-self,
eating too fast, to avoid the fact that no one is sitting…
smiling and sharing this meal with me
Alone is a lonely sea, passing through me.

A new and chilling experience to struggle against and pass through.
The knowledge that loneliness can create shame
As urgency and need causes the unattractive to shimmer and sparkle in the dark
And the decadent to appear darling; as Saints too will sin,
Alone is a lonely sea passing through me

No more mother’s glowing aura to envelope sorrow or redirect pain
No father’s strength to steel away blue hours;
No brother’s laughter, nor sisterly advice.
Aunts and uncles vacant, grand-folks none,
I’m awful lonely with not a one
Alone is a lonely sea passing through me.

However long the sea will rage, the currents how torrential
and tortuously swift
I will master myself in this pain—at last
It cannot continue always, nothing does, or has or will, and so
I weep my tears and also wipe them—so that my soul will not see that
Alone is a sea, a lonely sea, passing through me