Making the Count: Our Rights and Duties

Election season is upon us, again. It is a joyous time, one full of demanding intellectual rigor, requiring contemplation and discernment in order to ascertain which propositions to support and which presidential hopeful to embrace. With all the valid concerns Americans face, we must weigh the balance of a society enduring broad disparities in services, goods and care, based on income levels, gender and race. That’s why I love this country: even with our national foibles, rampant discrimination and numerous beneficiaries of unearned privileges, we each get the same opportunity to vote. Regardless of political leanings, no matter our party affiliation, voting is a duty that must be taken seriously. There’s too much apathy—too many people declining their responsibilities, not making time, and shirking the duties bestowed upon a liberated citizenry.

 

History teaches many lessons to those willing and able to observe them. Since the advent of human existence, there has been slavery and its lesser forms of abridged liberties, myriad forms of oppression: the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, the Romans subjugated any conquered person, the monarchs of Russia created serfs of countless legions of peasants; the early Americans enslaved boatloads of Africans shipped over like so many other tradable commodities. Less severe are the disenfranchised of the world, ruled by tyrants, people unable to decide their own fates, for example, in places like South Africa, where once only those born with the right skin color could vote or North Korea, where even dreams of liberty are taboo. The list of deprived world citizens, past and present, is endless. We must not forget this reality. We must honor these fleeting privileges. They are precious jewels in the shifting power structures of the tumultuous geopolitical landscape.

 

The privilege of suffrage is a profound responsibility, necessitating our distilled convictions to not let others decide for us. We must not defer our power for another day, else we may find the power lost forever. It is our duty to exercise our right to vote. It’s what many people have died for over the centuries—a right too many take for granted: the privilege, in this country at least, has worn dull with use. We have entered a time of ennui with disposable everything; this insatiable desire for quick consumption has us in a vice grip of boredom with our own democratic process. Now that we no longer need die for the right to vote, it has become nearly worthless.

If one were to search the centuries for a single reason for unrest, uprising and revolt, it would most likely result in the quest for agency—freedom. Humans, rightly so, want the right to choose their destiny. That yearning defines us as humans. We may even have too much choice, too much freedom. We are lulled into a stupor by our easy lives. We grow fat on the expectation of having our way. We forget that we are one of many, deciding a common fate in a power-sharing process based on the full participation of society’s members.

To abstain from the vote is to betray our own democracy, our own moral mandate to be agents of change. Were it a question of people subjugated under laws without the slightest possibility of mitigating outcomes, we’d die for liberty. And yet, we have the ability to impact our own governance, but easily abandon our duties as a form of stubborn foot stomping. We have the power to decide our fate and the direction of our nation, our states and our cities. We must use our power.

People make every imaginable excuse for not going to the polls. They attempt to justify their inaction—they seem to be waiting for a magic carpet to transport them to a mythical utopia in which voting is irrelevant and only the candidates they want will appear on the ballot. This complacency is akin to the child archetype, rendering citizens helplessly mute, overcome by indecision, protesting carelessly about their discomfort with their choices, eschewing their responsibility in obscene temper tantrums. The nation is not formed to serve individuals; we serve one another, the collective good decided by all, sharing both the burdens and the glories of our making. Relying on excuses while ignoring the past and the current political reality in our nation prevents progress, ingenuity and the pursuit of truth and justice. We must allow the past to inform us so that we may correct the mistakes of the past and leave a legacy of love for our children. We only put our own civil liberties at risk when we succumb to fantasy and refrain from exercising our personal power. Even if we don’t get our way this election, we still have an obligation to participate in the established democratic process in our nation.

The past is available to us as a powerful tool. Without the right to vote, we lose our democracy—one that many people have died to secure—early settlers who fought the British Crown, poor white men and later white women who gained suffrage under new systems, and most recently, African Americans, whose blood wrested the vote from those in power. Will we abstain from the duty of this obligation out of complacency and apathy? Don’t we have an obligation to our predecessors to cast a ballot? I believe we do.

Too many people in our country are ready to take up arms, assemble bombs and shed innocent blood to be heard when there is a viable, peaceful option in place and accessible to us right now. My hope is that our hunger for liberty and justice, democracy and activism is peaked by injustice, cruelty and tyranny, and that our needs will be slaked by performing our civic duties, especially our right to vote—for we need that hunger to stay engaged, awake and empowered. And, we must do our duty to nourish our souls and pacify our spirits.

Vote!

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The Missing Word in the Black Lives Matter Movement

Like many of us, I’m deeply wounded by the regular enactments of violence in the United States, no matter the color of the victim or the perpetrator. In the days before the Dallas police officers’ shootings, I had passed along a post on Facebook that read “Stop Killing Black People.” Those simple, powerful words captured my feelings of compassion, hurt, outrage, indignation and sorrow at all once, and I shared it with my Friends. For me, the senseless killing of black men—fathers, brothers, sons, nephews, lovers, husbands, teachers, friends—needs to be addressed. Sharing that simple post was a gesture of my solidarity with some 40 million black families in the U.S. who fear their loved ones may not make it home at the end of the day.

As is often the case, social media is an unpredictable medium; my message had an unexpected impact. To my dismay, a white male from my church rebutted my post with the comment, “Stop Killing Cops.”

Rendered temporarily aphasic by my hurt, outrage and indignation to his accusatory retort, I’ve finally found my voice, again, and have come to see this an opportunity to speak to the rampant apathy I witness daily. Owing in part to the diverse circles in which I am fortunate to move by virtue of my identity as a Latina immigrant with “black skin,” my status as a well-educated professional and representing half of an interracial couple with numerous white in-laws. In short, I mix with lots of different people, who mostly don’t share my ethnic, political or educational experiences. From this unique intersectionality, a liminal reality of sorts, I observe, hear and receive explicit and implicit messages. This access is a great privilege, which I value. It gives me contact with people like the elder in my church, who happens to be in my social network and responds to my ideas.

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This exchange of seven words has weighed incongruously on my mind and disproportionately on my heart. In the weeks of quiet contemplation since the exchange, polarized by emotional extremes, vacillating between a desire to lash out at a perceived attack or to turn the other cheek, I saw an opportunity for transformation—not, a simple solution, to un-Friend, defend or ostracize, but to embrace, engage and accept the pain on the surface, to unlock the heart of this matter that touches every American of every color, religion and class. We are one coin, locked together in a struggle that neither side can win without destroying the other. When perceived threats make hate acceptable, masked emotions allow us to escape the compassion we all desperately need.

A brief glance at our history reveals that when early European emigrants settled the continent, later brought Africans to the U.S. as free laborers, and followed that up with by rebellion against the Crown, they created a legacy of freedom and justice for all of us. Many of our Founding Fathers, who had themselves trafficked in black lives, had not foreseen the benefits of their quest for freedom, their brazen Declaration of Independence, on present generations. In the Declaration of Independence lies the keys to our contemporary worldview: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration further asserts the rights of citizens to speak and act out against tyranny, in any form: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it… organizing its powers in such form, as to… effect their Safety and Happiness.” This clue shows very clearly how our eloquent Founding Fathers based their progressive ideology on the notion that “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object… is [our] right, is [our] duty … to provide new Guards for [our] future security.”

It’s safe to say that our Founding Fathers valued happiness, liberty and security enough to fight for it. And, as we live and mature with this creed, a new, modern-day iteration of those values is born: the anthem of “Black Lives Matter,” a challenge to the unspoken, yet oft demonstrated, idea that black people are here to be exterminated, under-educated, incarcerated, experimented upon, discriminated against and stereotyped. The Black Lives Matter Movement asserts as definitively as the Declaration of Independence that black people matter, to ourselves, and to the collective well-being of our nation. A pervasive, knee-jerk response by many white Americans to the mere utterance of the statement “Black Lives Matter,” exudes the entitlement engendered by centuries of unchallenged, unnamed and un-owned privileges. (With a full pantry, it’s easier to scoff at beggars.) The perspective that only certain lives are valuable is in direct opposition to the founding values of our nation. We all have an inalienable right to life, justice and the pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution suggest, however subtly, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, black people are not disposable. Black Lives Matter, too.

My initial reaction to the thoughtless rebuttal of my church-elder FB Friend was anger, followed by a deep grief for the implications of such a reply—to “Stop killing Cops.” His response implies that because I don’t want to see black men shot down on the street with impunity, I am necessarily in favor of killing police officers. No. No. No. To be clear, Cops Lives Matter. And, Black Lives Matter, too.

Another possible interpretation embedded in his response is the odd notion that all police officers are white (a likely holdover from slavery, when they would have been) and, therefore, by design, to forebear black lives could not or would not extend to protecting police officers. This harmful inference puts white officers’ lives above all black persons because, quid pro quo, there are no black police officers and black need not be spared. For me, wanting to preserve black lives does not require someone else—anyone else—to die.

I’m no champion of violence, regardless to whether the perpetrator wears a uniform or not.

After the brutal violence against Dallas police, and having processed my own personal pain, disbelief and grief, I witnessed a nation surround the slain officers’ families and friends, raising money, paying respect, and rightly so, coming together around the communities that have been injured. People of all ranks, colors, religion and class gathered together to pay tribute to the lives of the fallen officers—their lives mourned for all the world to see. It was evident in the public outpouring of support and the displays of genuine affection that “blue lives” matter. And, Black Lives Matter, too.

Each time we, as a society and people, incur violence, I marvel at the balance of public sympathies. Why don’t we feel the same for the many innocent black victims of violence? Who is weeping for them? Who is paying their funeral costs? Why isn’t the response to these deaths always compassion? To me the lines should be softer—blurred and intertwined around the common loss of fathers, sons, children and contributing members of society. Who is grieving with the parents, spouses and children of black people?

We are one nation. And, Black Lives Matter, too.

After two centuries of enforced slavery of millions of black people, making the U.S. one of the wealthiest superpowers on the planet, we’re at a new apex of blatant disregard for and indifference to black people, their utility seemingly exhausted in contemporary society. Even with Jim Crow publicly challenged and ousted in two decades of Civil Rights activism, practices associated with slavery and Jim Crow persist in altered and insidious forms; to ignore them is to betray the values of free speech and unflinching truth that I see as a citizen’s duty and service to community, country and God.

Black people, at least, can no longer look away from the bloodshed. We, as a nation, should not be able to turn the compassion on for white victims of violence and shut compassion off for black victims, not without recognizing a deeply ingrained prejudice against black people, a legacy rooted in slavery and oppression. I find strength in the foresight of the Founding Fathers, whose Preamble necessitates moral agitation in the face of injustice: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It is for these many reasons that the time has come to drop the clever platitudes that many believe will absolve them of the responsibility to stand for what is right—for “justice,” for “domestic tranquility,” for “the general welfare,” and “the blessings of liberty” we all deserve. That is why when I hear, “Black Lives Matter,” I automatically add a silent, “Too.” Because it is now time that the lives of black people should matter to all of us, who have benefited from the sacrifices of a people whose blood, sweat and tears made this country what it is—for all of us.

In this light, the Black Lives Matter Movement does not seek to diminish the value of any human being, but to my eyes, only strives to assert the humanity and validity of a people, who endure daily enactments of discrimination and oppression in their own country. They demand the elusive dignity and inclusion in the American Dream that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled to obtain a century after Emancipation. This movement is a rallying summons for the inalienable right to happiness, a happiness, which cannot take root with the torrents of grief heaped upon the community for this long. That is why this particular lament is so poignant and disruptive to all Americans. The power of the Black Lives Matter Movement is rooted in an undeniable truth, one that niggles the conscience of ordinary people, who would rather dismiss the validity and urgency of the matter and carry on with the status quo. I suspect that all the people unified around the Black Lives Matter Movement, this moment in history, are as eager to claim the birthright of human dignity, as they are to share in the spontaneous appeal of the collective heart represented by the words,

“Black Lives Matter, Too.”

Video: Walking With Our Parents (A Tribute to the Survivors of Slavery)

 

Walking With Our Ancestors is a collaborative film, created as a tribute to the survivors of slavery and to all of our ancestors. Walking With Our Ancestors contains video and still photographs from the 2016 Roots Retreat to New Orleans and features a reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Walking With Our Parents,” performed by Jaydon Galindo Lovell.

Walking With Our Ancestors is dedicated to our parents and the children of tomorrow.

Enjoy!

Plus, here’s the URL, just in case! https://youtu.be/nKUXc0pXwek

Centuries in the Making: The Legacies of New Orleans, A Retrospective

Skirting the mighty Mississippi River, a formidable body of water that enabled the trafficking of millions of Africans to her rich fertile soils, New Orleans is a city of traumatic memory, iconic history and idyllic diversity. A treasure trove of American Culture, rooted in Spanish, French, African and Native American traditions, the city compresses a rich diversity of language, food and identity demarcations into its communities. New Orleans is the ultimate Jambalaya, which over the centuries has had vast and consequential shifts of political power on a geographic territory of 350 square miles. From a large enclave of German settlers who farmed the land, and early generations of British and Irish settlers to the numerous enslaved African men and women, who generated the greatest wealth the New World has ever seen, NOLA is cosmopolitan to the core.

Sanctioned by the Catholic Church’s Pope Nicholas V, slavery gave license to white men to enslave any so-called pagans, and the ensuing trade proved prosperous to the entire world, but especially America, who continues to be a global economic leader; the slave trade gave birth to the most historically damaging and painful episode of dehumanization civilization has ever known. Like any birth, our nation’s is bloody, ugly and beautiful, simultaneously.

In the Treme, a jewel of African-American heritage and culture, and the pride of many local inhabitants, the many sides of the conflict have played out in the lives of the people impacted by the slave trade. With Spanish and French Colonial heritage, the large number of Catholics in the area, people of every color, is explained. St. Augustine, a popular tourist destination because the congregation of free blacks sponsored pews so that enslaved blacks could sit and worship, and where forgotten souls of Africans who perished under slavery’s iron fists have a memorial resting place in the courtyard aptly named, The Tomb of the Unknown Slave, made it one of the most integrated congregations in the city, but today seems haunted by the weight of years.

Around the corner from the shrine is Sister Delille Street, a street named after a black, creole woman famous for purchasing her own freedom and working tirelessly to help the sick and infirm, and who also just happened to own slaves. A short distance from the church, to the elation of thousands, is Louis Armstrong Park, which celebrates the immeasurable contributions of African Americans to the creation of a myriad of musical legacies and wherein sits the legendary Congo Square. New Orleans is not to be taken lightly. Its history is seeped into every corner if one has the eyes to see it.

From the shameful inheritance of slavery, a fierce resistance and tenacity is steeped in the people. Long-suffering under torture and from fractured psyches, the descendants Africans have birthed a relentless ingenuity, musical elation, spiritual triumph and American Culture at its best. Yet, the roots of slavery extend far into the Deep South and deeper still into the hearts of Americans today, 150 after the Civil War and over 60 years since the start of the Civil Rights Movements with its modern day manifestation in the Black Lives Matter Movement; we are a nation profoundly conflicted over our own history, grappling with a conscience that cannot rest easy, that is too effortlessly transmuted into hatred and violence. Over the loss and memory of chattel slavery, too many speak too softly or not at all. None of this is as readily felt as in places like New Orleans, where the legacy of slavery manifests as its closest descendant: Institutionalized Systemic Racism. Insidious, overt and entrenched, the legacy of slavery can best be witnessed in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Historically populated by a 98% black community, the Ninth Ward is still in a state of devastation 11 years after Hurricane Katrina. As the swamp and river reclaim the land, it’s our duty to remember that many of the displaced inhabitants wish to return to their homes. As witness to our collective amnesia, I dedicate this post to the residents of the Ninth Ward.