Archives for category: displacement

I have been writing about ways I learned who I am, trying to write moments in the moment, without framing. I was hoping this way I would approach questions of race,  gender, and class. These moments must be placed in context: the grid and grids of power within which I exist. An end question is: how can I in the moments of my life affect the force of that grid.

 

 

HOW DO WE KNOW WHO WE ARE?

I.

It was 1949 or so. We were going on a big adventure. We were going to live in Haiti for a year: my mother by birth, my mother by affection, my four year old sister, and I. It was Greenwich Village. Charity was the beloved music teacher at my elementary school. I was six. I had no idea what a big adventure it was. My mother, post-divorce from my father, taking her two little girls on an airplane to live in the West Indies. Two women, taking two little girls. Not a man in sight. A Jewish mother and her Jewish daughters. An African American woman, a music teacher with a degree from Juilliard. In 1949.

My mother took my little sister and me aside.

“Our plane with have to stop in Miami, on the way to Haiti,” she said. We stared back at her. We knew her. We knew there would be more. “Miami is in the south,” she said. We waited.  She said, “In the south, Negroes are treated differently.” We did know about this category and that some people thought it important. Some people had egged our stoop and slashed the hood of our car because of Ethiopia. My sister and I knew about these things. “In Miami,” my mother went on, “when a Negro is walking down the street and a white person comes walking in the opposite direction, the Negro has to step down into the street.”

“Will Charity have to do that?”

“Yes. It’s wrong, but.”

“Couldn’t she just….” we wondered.

“No.”

“And what would we do?”

“We would walk in the street, too,” my mother said.

 

II.

Three of us in a women’s cell on the white side of the jail, Albany, Georgia, 1963.

A white man whose nickname was Mad Dog, was placed in the cell next to ours. “Freedom riding bitches,” he screamed, reaching his hand  through his bars and angling it around and into our cell, so he could grope and grab.

The cop, white as they all were — one of the ones who had groped me when I was booked — came back and grinned. “Mad Dog is crazy. He don’t care about some —“ and he used the white southern expression for white people who don’t hate Black people —“Justice Department. He killed a man. Got off cause he’s mental.”

“Stupid bitches,” Mad Dog screamed, adding the epithet for white people who don’t hate Black people and he shook the bars. “Stupid freedom loving bitches. Oh, God, I hate you.” He vomited, thick and sweet, into the corridor. “Stupid, stupid, stupid bitches.” He shook the bars, his passion rocking the metal partition between him and us.

“I can’t take it,” he sobbed and threw his metal cup of water at the corridor’s single light bulb. It exploded and left us in darkness. I lay down as far from his side of the cell as I could.

Before dawn, to avoid a draft from the corridor, I switched to the bunk on his side. On my belly, I felt him shift on the other side of the wall. I couldn’t feel him breathe, but I could hear his breath catch in the back of his throat before he released it into the dark. He must be a big man, to crush his breath like that before it escaped. I slept,  rocked when he shifted in his sleep.

 

III.

In 1988,  I lived in West Virginia. Through my long-time friend Anne Braden, I’d become involved in the Rainbow Coalition and was doing advance work for Jesse Jackson’s visit to the Kentucky coal fields as a presidential hopeful. I was driving long days from Huntington on the Western edge of WV, crossing over the Ohio river and driving down the eastern edge of Kentucky to the coalfields, with their long, honorable, and bloody labor history. One dawn as I drove south in Kentucky beside a rock face, I passed a deer, running its heart out beside the road. As I kept up with traffic,  it kept up with us, its black eyes bulging. Finally the deer dropped behind.

If you don’t know, I should tell you my friends Carl and Anne Braden had been attacked by HUAC* in the 1950s. The Bradens’ crime was that they, a white couple had, by pre-arrangement with a Black couple who were the Bradens’ friends, bought a house in a new “white” development and sold it to the Wades, the Black couple. Through the anti-Communist lenses of the time, this, obviously , revealed the Bradens alleged Communist sympathies. The 1950s visit to Kentucky by HUAC had been a riotous and hysterical circus. The Bradens, journalists, were fired by the Louisville newspaper, run by the so-called liberal Bingham family. Their name became infamous, particularly among Kentucky white people, and it also became synonymous with political bravery in certain circles.

I spent that day that I had overtaken the running deer at Jesse Jackson’s thrown-together headquarters. At the end of that day, as was often the case, I attended a night meeting in a coal-mining community. People sat in a circle on metal folding chairs, discussing the campaign and Jackson’s upcoming and unprecedented visit to Hazard, KY. At the end of the meeting, as I prepared for the long night drive home, a Black man in his 50s or 60s stopped me. He was heavy set, with the marked hands of a man who worked hard for his living. He wore a plaid wool jacket. We spoke about Rev. Jackson for a few minutes.

As he turned to go, he told me in weighted, low-voiced tones, “I been knowing the Bradens a long time.”

In those words, “I been knowing the Bradens…” I felt the coded message: that he was a man of a particular politics, that the Bradens’ infamy had not scared but had rather drawn him, and, to my flattered though exhausted mind, that he had recognized in me, a forty-something worn out remnant of the Civil Rights Movement, he had recognized that I was one of them, the people who had “.. been knowing the Bradens a long time.”

 

II. WHERE ARE WE IN THE MACHINERY OF THE WORLD?

 

June 2014

On my way into the Harm Free Zone meeting, I pass three young people playing Monopoly.

Inside, on one wall hang charts for Durham in 1937: the green zone where there are no “negroes” and no infiltration by “negroes,” where the white people who live there are prosperous professionals. The yellow and blue zones represent gradations on the way to the Red Zone, where “negroes” lived and whites did not. These are official government documents.

Standing there, looking at the charts, I feel naked. The house where I live with my partner falls squarely in the old Green (all “white”) zone. When house-hunting we had seen a couple of African American people entering and leaving houses on our block; as it turned out they were renters and within a year or two had moved out, laying bare the all-“white” nature of our neighborhood.  If we had waited another year or two, we might have understood better where we were buying. If we had not just used our dollars,  to settle like colonialists into our new territory, if we had learned our new community, we would have done things differently. What should we do differently, going forward?

In the meeting, we watch a film from California Newsreel, Race, the Power of an Illusion.  It describes the U.S. government’s explicit and intentional use of government fiscal policies to maintain segregated and inferior housing for Black people. That the U.S. government and the U.S. banking industry,  through the granting of loans to white people and the withholding of loans to Black people,  were knowingly and intentionally complicit in maintaining racial oppression.

At the end of the film, two audience members joined the Monopoly game in the corridor. Later when they and the players joined us, all five described how, although the two late players were given the same size stake as the original three,  by the time the two late comers joined the game, the early three had bought all the desirable properties. The early three described how, knowing the others would join them, they had conspired to lock out the newcomers. The late two described how they could barely scramble to stay off the properties belonging to the first three and lost their money paying fines.

 

I am the gradual accumulation of my personal identity — race, gender, class — but that exists within the grid of power. The film makes clear and as Michelle Alexander details in The New Jim Crow, how power has been used to willfully oppress and cause harm.

 

I believe a harm free world is possible, but it is only possible if we can force the grid to change.
* HUAC: House UnAmerican Activities Committee,  primary agent of the U.S. government’s McCarthy era red-baiting and fear-mongering

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Kai Lumumba Barrow

Gallery of the Streets installation. Because of the art, Kai is being evicted. Because of who she is — insurgent, intransigent, irreverent, principled, warrior — her art has become her house, filling every room with a shifting floor of mulch and sand and pebbles, making each doorway a difficult gateway, lowering the ceilings with ropes and wires from which images hang by clothes pins (“I don’t want my art stuck ON THE WALL”), propping books against the walls in stacks, placing books strategically, bringing in pansies (yes) and other growing plants, banners and scrolls of quotations. Even the closets have not escaped.

All quotes are from Kai Barrow, Swan Song Manifesto http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/modules-menu/community-organizing/item/57-kai-barrow

 

1. kai in magnolia

3B. kai lumumba

3A. kai outdoors smile

Picture it: A multiracial, multi-gendered, intergenerational group of about 250 people are marching down the middle of the street in a neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The people are a loud bunch, carrying signs that read “Free Mumia Now!” and “Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”  Community members come out on their porch to wave at the group or raise a fist in solidarity.  There is a pick-up truck with a loud speaker rigged to a megaphone. People are reciting chants that rhyme and have each phrase and pause dedicated to memory. This performance has become ritualized.

There is a lull.  The speaker/chant leader is tired and needs a break.  He hands the megaphone to me. I am known for my energy. I hold the dubious title of “Cheerleader for the Movement.” Holding the megaphone, I wanted to see if we could transform our ritual. Could we inspire spontaneity and surprise within ourselves and each other? Could we share with this Black, working-class community whose neighborhood we entered, an expansive vision—one where Mumia’s freedom was tied in with their own liberation? I placed the megaphone to my lips and faced the crowd.

 Me: What do we want?

Chanters: Free Mumia!

Me: When do we want it?

Chanters: Now!

[reprise.]

Me: What else do we want?

Chanters: [silence.]

Me: No really. What else do we want? Shout it out. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to be scripted. Let’s make a cacophony of sound, shouting out our visions of what we want. [pleading] We don’t even have to do it for more than 60 seconds.

Chanters: [silence.]

Actually, there wasn’t complete silence. 

 

 

6. kai I would rediscover

 

5. kai hanging red lavender

 

4. kai waiting room

 

7. kai yellow african

 

 

A culture of resistance, protest politics and institution-building by people of color, feminists, queer people, and poor people in the 1960s and ’70s filled me with pleasure and purpose.  It was a period of design and imagination—a period where people re-envisioned and re-structured their lives. Even as a kid, I knew that things were changing. I saw and felt the electricity of change. Nothing was static.  It seemed to me that everything was in question: from diet to living arrangements; interpersonal relationships to altered identities, from the ways that people asserted and responded to power to a new articulation of labor and production.  During this period, people reached beyond national boundaries and re-defined themselves as members of a global community (and in some cases, interplanetary community—see Sun Ra). And though these shifts were taking place on different scales and at a different pace, corresponding to class, race, gender, age, geographic location and sexual orientation, everyone was influenced by this cultural, social, political and economic re-imagining. This was a transformative moment, one that unleashed our imaginations and spurred our actions. We saw what we could be….

 

 

8. kai asylum surgery

 

9. kai black white alter

 

10. kai alley

11. kai sassafras

 

 

We were unprepared for the brutality of the State. As beautiful as this period was, we were also powerful enough to pose a threat so significant to the functioning of the State, that it systematically set out to squash our burgeoning revolution. Individual leaders were discredited, driven into exile, imprisoned, and murdered. Intra-and inter-organizational conflict resulted in a weakened movement that we are still recovering.  Culture was depoliticized and exploited….

 

 

13. kai wolverine hanging

14. kai jade alter

15. zogi indoors 2

My fifth grade school year was also the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As is the tradition, many young people from throughout the country arrived in Chicago to protest the War and other repressive policies and my family and other residents of the co-op apartment we lived in, agreed to house several of these protestors, among them David Dellinger.  After Mayor Richard J. Daley gave the order for the Chicago Police Department to “shoot first, ask questions later,” my new out of town “friends” arrived back at our house broken, bloodied, and angry at the police, the mayor, and a system that shoots and kills its children.  I was heartbroken to see people in pain and I too became angry. Later that night, I was awakened by gunshots as the police surrounded our apartment and forced Dellinger out of the building. That day I experienced grief, anger and terror—all directly linked to the violence and abuse of power by the State….

 

 

16. zogi outdoors

 

17. kai libertad

18. kai bricktop

19. kai ayanna red

20. kai femm cave quilt

22. kai hoop in tree

21. kai malcolm x

 

This contradiction creates a “raw opposition” that is explosive.  It can change the terms of a space.  As organizers, our challenge is to identify the nature of our raw opposition and build/create within the space between oppression and freedom. We are charged with entering the space of raw opposition with clarity, precision, and analysis, passion, energy, and generosity. In Black tradition, this is known as the “Cool.” Think Miles Davis.

 

23A. kai shirlette

 

23B. kai pam kagele?

 

24. kai erin

 

25. kai erin cath

 

 

 

 

26. kai Jess

 

23C. kai Nia painted

Video trailer by film-maker and organizer Jazz Franklin, a preview of Kai Barrow’s “visual opera,” entitled “Gallery of the Streets,” installed in Durham, NC April 3-6, 2014.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YA0CKj2cncg