the words are too small (reflections on southern africa travels)

i keep thinking, i have to write about this. and in the next breath, i have no words for it.

first of all, there is something about the impact of so much physical space and beauty on my system. in my adult life i have moved from new york to california to detroit. when i saw the sky over south africa, swaziland and mozambique i realized that in some way i have been always in search of a bigger sky. and am feeling, in ways i can scarcely put breath to yet, the impact of this found vastness on my perspective.

i don’t know how to enter this writing about it…i have been driving around southern africa with my sweetheart for a couple of weeks now, in wonder. for context, before i flew into joburg i started reading nelson mandela’s autobiography, and i will admit that most of what i knew about this place was that apartheid happened here, was ended through popular resistance, and that mandela, winnie mandela, walter sisulu, steve biko and others were the kind of people who created change that had global impacts. i studied south africa one semester in college with someone who had been active in the anti-apartheid movement and who was present when mandela was released. i was moved by the spirit of mandela, understanding that he was also a charismatic politician, human, complex, flawed. so overall i came here with a limited lens, a brief history, and a lot of curiosity.

what i immediately experienced was the proximity and presence of apartheid. the service industry here is black, the management is white. wealth is white, behind gates with security fences and with black hired watchmen, black drivers and cooks and gardeners and tech support and waiters and and and…with an outsider eye there is such a stark economic apartheid still in place, and i am beginning to grasp some of the critiques of mandela’s economic choices post-apartheid.

this economic question emerges in all revolutionary and social transformation work: if the material conditions do not change, isn’t it just symbolism? and can symbolism feed anything other than our spirits?…and even that sating is so brief.

and then i wonder if the ongoing racism of the u.s. looks so black and white to outsiders.

the disease of white supremacy is active here in south africa. an older white man started speaking to us at one stop on our journey. he was cordial, spoke first about his grandkids. then said he knew of our president, obama, ‘your first black president. but he’s not really black, hehe.’ i responded that obama is black like i am black, mixed race. he moved on to talk to some germans nearby where he expounded on the virtues of hitler’s intentions, vision, planes and lugers. he then explained to the germans that they had had apartheid here, and that their first president after that was ‘whats-his-name, he died recently, a black.’ i felt something i often feel with white racists down south in the u.s., which is the disgusted relief of knowing exactly who i am in the presence of, politically, morally.

the racial construct here feels both familiar and utterly alien. i recognize in some of the whites i have interacted with the racism, hatred, superiority, and resentment of black success and freedom. but i also see how i am marked as something else by many of the black africans i am meeting here. i would venture to say there is an intelligent suspicion of me. we don’t forget our tormentors, we learn to see any traces of them, for our survival.

it is disorganizing to my system to be in so many spaces where i am the lightest person in sight. i feel in the eyes that follow me down streets and sand the awareness of something other than black in my system: portugese, white, coloured, american, what is she? the question has come both explicitly and silently. standing in myself here requires deeper roots and a stronger spine. i am so grateful for the way i am reshaped by placing myself in the context of this narrative, knowing that my indigenous african story is one of displacement, forced forgetting, and disconnection. and then working for black liberation. and coming ‘home?’ to majority black spaces equal parts stranger and daughter. and i don’t want another mother, or need approval from this motherland – it is just going to be a much more complex relationship than that for me.

but i do long for the full history, of how i thread back to this continent, with no pauses and no mysteries, and i know it is a life’s worth of longing. the only envy i ever feel is of those who know more about the place/s on earth they started from, and the languages and stories that burst forth in that place.

my idea of myself, blackness, resilience, afrofuturism…really everything is changing in this place.

the other formative experience i have had here, in large part because my sweetheart focuses a lot of her work on the migration of house music between the u.s. and southern africa, is witnessing anew the creative joy and resilience of the black diaspora. at every turn, in every country, from what feels like every taxi, van, and club, there is house music blasting and bodies in celebratory motion. on new year’s day i saw the indian ocean packed shoulder to shoulder with people dancing and singing together into the coming waves. on a saturday in st lucia i witnessed a beach scene that felt like a house-ified belle isle weekend day. in so many spaces on this journey there has been the pulsing soundtrack, the smell of braai cooking, women slinging corn, liquor, mangoes, bananas, eggs, lychee and pineapple drumsticks, intergenerational dancing – intimacy through sound and shared space.

i realized when i saw the explosive joy that i wasn’t expecting it…and that i should have been, i should know by now that it is how black brilliance sustains itself against all the odds, through love.

and there is something percolating for me around afrofuturism as a way of speaking about black resilience. i am learning this even as i begin to write about it. the western perspective, still today in 2014, sees black people as bodies for labor, as a service or slave class, and/or as a danger. and i will say here that that western view, the terror of the other and need to dominate and own everything to create safety, has intentional and unintentional roots but, as in most trauma, the intentions start to not matter as the pain and social impact increases and sustains.

counter to that perspective, the things we do which create other pathways for ourselves, other ways of seeing and feeling about ourselves, are radical and, i am thinking, afrofuturist in that we are envisioning and creating a future as black people beyond the prescribed western box for us. so, we forge these other pathways in our art, yes, but also in our growing of food, our educating of our children, our management of community conflict, our interdependent economies, our daily choices to engage in loving black people and eradicating trained fears, supremacies and insecurities from our behaviors and systems. we do this work in detroit, dc, houston, oakland, la, baltimore, atlanta, soweto, pretoria, durban, maputo.

it doesn’t feel appropriate to attempt to coherently present what i am experiencing here. throughout all of this witnessing i have also been face to face with the grandest geographies i have witnessed in my lifetime, and elephants and baboons and giraffes and zebras and rhinos, a new ocean, and a lot of personal transformation and growth.

this feels like a first visit of many. it feels like another home. and that feels like a healing.

afrofuturism and detroit

what an exciting morning in detroit.

started off with the always elegant ingrid lafleur speaking on afrofuturism and detroit in a talk oriented towards creatives.

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here are some twitter highlights, mostly quotes from ingrid:

“An apocalypse doesn’t end in something destroyed, it’s opportunity for transformation. For example, look at @octaviabutler’s parables.”

images from wild seed, pictures of sun ra and imani uzuri, art from bodys isek kingalez were flipping through as she spoke.

“#Afrotopia (the gorgeous logo/imagery from brilliant wesley taylor) is creating radical futuristic art in a majority black city to generate positive social change. Includes magical daily practice.”

“I like #afrofuturism because u have to know ancient history, cosmology, quantum physics, beyond school, broaden black identity.”

sun ra, who was from saturn and was helping us journey through music.

“I enjoy that #Detroit is 82% black & that informs the culture & art…I believe I live in a magical reality all the time.”

“I don’t think you need disposable income to go beyond your current reality. It’s about getting out beyond assumptions.”

“A lot of these ideas are tradition, are within us, they don’t come from going to school.” (beautiful particular as an offering to the mostly art student audience who were genuinely perplexed as to how to engage)

“#afrofuturism is about black being at center – diversity can come, but it’s about the liberation we, in a majority black city, still don’t have.” (in response to the ever brilliant and fearless dream hampton, who questioned the need to constantly move to diversity instead of learning to be in a black space, where black is the center of the work)

“Within our gritty, our bones are beautiful, we have great housing stock, our city is already beautiful & quite vibrant.”

“I need me to exist, even when I die.” – George Henry, at #afrofuturism talk.

after the talk, a few circles of blackness pooled together in the room, vibrating to be in each other’s presence. we talked about octavia butler salons. we talked about how as black people it isn’t about demanding entree into white spaces, especially white spaces in this black city. it’s about creating work so undeniable that being centered is not a question. it was thrilling to meet folks in the arts, design and performance world also bubbling about octavia and black brilliance.

as we were leaving, one of the lovely black men i’d met at the event backed his car into another’s. we all looked at the damage and instead of anyone getting mad, they decided it was an opportunity to sit down for dinner and get to know each other better. it felt like afrofuturism in practice, leaning into each other, creating more possibility, because we need each other, rather than indulging in potential conflict.

then i took some of my broccoli/cauliflower/leek/manchego soup over to grace lee boggs. on the way i had an exciting scifi idea about self-governance in detroit. i shared it with grace and we giggled our way through updating each other on the opportunities we are seeing now. she’s always been ahead of her time, which is saying a lot as she approaches 98 years on the planet this summer.

i’m nearing the end of a beautiful month at home and spring is everywhere. detroit love, black love, that is all.