“No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem – well, like you.” – James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
I’ve wanted to share my feelings about my spiritual journey towards Buddhism for some time now. I consider matters of faith and religion deeply private, and as someone who is forever pushing against labels that oversimplify our complex and ever-changing identities, I have been reluctant to claim this belief system as my own. Black and Buddhist? Seriously? Sounds about as crazy as a Black President! (Heh.)
I’ve been banning books from my daughter’s library since before she was born.
I always encourage family and friends to fill our bookshelves with preschool favorites, and yet I can make certain books disappear in a moment, sometimes to Goodwill, sometimes to the dumpster. Baby Bibles with pink cherub-cheeked Eves and button-nose Noahs. Fairy tales featuring Disney princesses who always need saving. When I’m in a bind, I’ve learned how to redact the troubling scenes of death and loss from bedtime stories so that my 3 year old can sleep better at night.
I’ve always considered myself a champion of creative freedoms. (I still remember how hurt I was in high school when my Stephen King and Anne Rice books began to sprout legs and walk because my mother believed that I was “dabbling in the occult.”) I celebrate Banned Books Week and I often include these controversial texts in my university courses. As my daughter grows, I want to teach her how to become responsible for her own reading choices and ultimately, no book will be off-limits. So, perhaps then, the books I’ve donated to Goodwill aren’t really banned books, they’re not now books.
For the past four years I have worked the Night Shift – better known as law school evening classes, while working a full-time job during the day. Next month, it finally comes to an end. I will receive my Juris Doctor degree and will officially enter the legal profession.
Sure there are some “minor” details to attend to such as the bar exam in February and completing my final exams over the next two weeks. But for now, I am celebrating the “No mores.” No more evening classes. No more dashing off to school at 5:15p.m. at the end of a long workday. No more guilt trips about not visiting family on the holidays because of study obligations. No more!!!!!!
I applied to law school five years ago because I wanted to join the ranks of legal giants that have used the law as a weapon of social justice. Charles Hamilton Houston, a great civil rights attorney and former Dean of Howard Law School once said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Each day, I strive to work towards a career that builds upon this principle. My heroes are Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall and all of the countless advocates that have come before our nation’s justice system for relief against inequality and oppression.
Constance Baker Motley
Like them, I can understand how the road to success is often lined with unexpected obstacles. In the fall of my second year, a force known as Hurricane Katrina, displaced me from New Orleans and threatened to disrupt the flow of my law school career. But I pressed on. I relocated to Georgia and began working full time while continuing my studies at night.
That semester was a blur for me. I was dealing with the shock and uncertainty of being displaced from my new home and the government’s unconscionable treatment of people pleading for help on their rooftops. During the day, I worked at a non-profit law office helping Katrina victims to secure disaster benefits and assistance. But most importantly, I met with and counseled men and women traumatized by the flood waters and their experiences during those dreadful days after the storm. Their stories inspired me to return to New Orleans months later to continue my legal studies and help the city in its recovery. And when Hurricane Gustav threatened the city again this past year, I was a much wiser evacuee.
Rethinking the politics of identity is more than just an intellectual exercise when you become a parent. These days, my anxieties about raising a black child with a healthy, well-rounded sense of self has lead me to unusual places and unexpected insights. Take, for instance, The Backyardigans:
Virtually every American preschooler knows about Nick Jr.’s animated show, The Backyardigans. My toddler is no exception. The show’s five friends share a suburban backyard and an adventurous imagination.
The music initially caught my daughter’s attention. The impressive mix of musical genres are inventive, fun, and provide the show with a rare kind of cultural diversity. In one episode, Pablo the Penguin imitates James Brown’s soul music. Tyrone the Moose often croons country-western songs, and in space, the Backyardigans sing contemporary African pop music with a Martian mom (voiced by Alicia Keys). Click here to open the Nick Jr. video player and search for Backyardigans clips.
But for me, Uniqua is the show’s main attraction. She is the pink, plump, and perceptive polka-dotted creature who inspires others with thoughtfulness and bravery. And while Tasha the Hippo is often cast as the princess or the diva, Uniqua is not bound by traditional gender roles. She is the brave knight, the graceful Egyptian Sphinx, and the chest-thumping Viking. Her positive energy and assertiveness are qualities that I have been trying to instill in my daughter since she was a blip on the ultrasound screen! So it also matters, you see, that Uniqua’s voice and mannerisms are that of an African-American child.
Murphy as Prince Akeem
Lately I’ve been wondering how much of my fascination with Senator Barack Obama has been shaped by Eddie Murphy’s 1988 comedy, Coming to America.
Make no mistake, my reasons for supporting the Illinois senator’s candidacy for president are substantive. Education and health care reform are two of the issues that matter most to me. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and intellect that he brings to solving these problems, not to mention his prescient take on foreign relations. Even the way he runs his campaign is impressive.
I won’t pretend, however, that I don’t also have an emotional investment in an Obama administration. I’m hardly a generation removed from Jim Crow segregation. (And I live in a state that still displays the Confederate flag outside the Capitol.)
All of this is part of the network of experiences that constitute my worldview, my “cultural compass” – to borrow a term I heard Michele Norris use recently in a terrific NPR series on race and politics.
But when it comes to visions of Africa, and of black love, leadership, and royal blood in America, my cultural compass often points to, of all places, the imaginary Kingdom of Zamunda. Prince Akeem’s hilarious journey to New York takes a romanticized narrative generally reserved for “whites only” and recreates it as a modern black fairytale, rich with pop cultural parody and historical allusions, bawdy satire, and an all-star cast.
When I showed up at my sister’s doorstep at 2:00 AM on August 30, she was surprised by how light I had packed. Just a day earlier, I was in New Orleans staring at the inside of my closet and rummaging through my dresser drawers and bookshelves. I had to decide what mattered the most to me. Or as I told a good friend, “What I did not want to see flooded, molded, and mangled when I returned home to a city devastated by yet another hurricane.”
When I fled New Orleans almost exactly 3 years ago to this date, I anticipated an extended holiday. More time to study and read, I thought. So I packed 4 days worth of clothing and my law school books. Just a week earlier, I’d stored personal items in a rented, public storage unit. “Does this area flood much?” I’d asked the sales agent, once I saw that only bottom units were available. “Not at all,” she reassured me. “We’ve never had a flood in this area.”