(Unedited) At the end of April, I spent a weekend at “Awaken Chicago,” dubbed as: a pivotal weekend event within a movement to change the conditions causing violence, isolation and inequality in Chicago through connection, learning and action. Over the years, I’ve attended events and have meditated at the centers of the host partner, of this particular Buddhist lineage.
Buddhism is not my primary spiritual foundation, however, I believe that there is one Source, one God, but many paths to her. I’ve been open to being curious and deepening my relationship with the Source by exploring various paths, Buddhist traditions, being one. I’ve been grounded in this journey though, being able to tap into what I needed and leaving the rest, IF it didn’t resonate with my God-self/core of me.
That Friday morning, when I arrived at “Awaken Chicago,” I posted on Facebook: “Tha devil is a liar. Lol lol. So I’m supposed to be on my zen tip, right? *screechhhhhhhhh* I roll up to the spot, ev’rybody overly bubbly (and tryna help = too many volunteers in one spot), get my folder and name tag and I notice my zip code on the name tag. I’m triggered. Zip codes segregate. Zip codes zone and determine access and resources. Zip codes put up walls, not tear them down. Zip codes are race and class based. Tha fugg? Um, so my mind goes straight to what in the heck, this is super racist, classist…insensitive. Tha fugg, you grouping folk by zip codes? So, I ask one of the very few sistas present, Why come? She didn’t have an answer, but was committed to finding out…”
I posted this prior to leaning into discomfort, or before I settled into the curiosity of the weekend. I went from 0 – 100 with a familiar narrative of: “Here we go with white folk ish and messiness, again…they stay being extra and doing the most.” Pause!!!!!! A. I didn’t have to do anything in that moment, perse, I could have chosen stillness and to see how things would play out. B. I was assuming ill-intent. (rightfully so, or not, it was still an assumption of ill-intent.) C. Just damnit!
By 11:20am I’d posted: “And then God stepped in. Showed up and showed out. There are some things that I can ONLY receive from other Black folk, and in some cases only from sistas. A white person or man saying certain ish to me, especially around liberation and being free, doesn’t fly. But a sista can hit the nail on the head! This sista, rev angel Kyodo williams, Sensei, just did it! Yaaaaas! Get Free!”
rev. angel, a zen Buddhist high-level teacher, was all in the nooks and crannies of my brain. She was saying many of the same things that I have conceived, thought, said, mulled over…written. And she delivered it all in the softest of tones and strongest of presence. I couldn’t type fast enough in my ipad to capture what she was saying in words, but that mattered not, cos my core captured it. Her message affirmed blacks lives mattering.
Later that day, after what felt like youth being put on display and not fully integrated in this gathering, but limited to being entertainment and performances, I saw rev angel standing in the hall—she was eating dinner and checking out the signage and displays on the wall. I chose this moment to engage her. We had a soulful moment as I chose to bump elbows and not extend my hand to shake it, cos she was eating. We both had a soul grin, as this is something that commonly happens with Black folks we have this thing about clean hands and eating. By the end of our exchange, she told me to make sure I see her the next morning so she can give me an advanced reading copy/excerpts from her forthcoming book, Radical Dharma (http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/547708/radical-dharma-by-rev-angel-kyodo-williams-lama-rod-owens-and-jasmine-syedullah/9781623170981) to be released juntheenth (http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm).
(SN: I think the main person supporting youth involved in this gathering is doing an amazing job, I just don’t think it translated well to the whole body. Nor do I believe the whole body is interested in engaging these particular youth, in a meaningful way. We have to be mindful with how youth and persons of color are integrated into things. Neither can we/they simply be “the entertainment” or only asked to present their creative selves.)
That night the primary organizer’s spiritual leader gave his talk. I diligently took notes on his suggested four-stage approach to addressing “violence.” At this point in my life, addressing Chicago violence is exploring and engaging in various ways to disrupt oppression and inequities while, staying sane myself, and promoting/supporting the mental and emotional health of Black communities. I listened to him, but my soul wasn’t at ease with his words, I kept feeling like something was missing. I didn’t need for it to be deep, just needed to speak to my truth. I felt a tinge of survivor/victim blaming, though I do not think this was a conscious or intentional way of conveying his message. But it felt like he was blaming violence on Black and Brown people in Chicago like, if only we were disciplined and more zen and more mindful. In my spirit I’m like, “shyd, but what about oppressors?” I further self-talk, “Gawd, puhleeze, clear this up for me…what am I supposed to get from this?” For me, such a focus on “the self,” ignores both “the collective” and “the root,” systems and oppression. When it was time for the Q & A, I made my way to the mic asking him if his proposed four-stages included “naming oppression,” addressing the root cause and disrupting oppression. I was sincere with my question, not just trying to prove a point.
My question set the tone of the weekend and I became the target, that’s how I felt. Some were quite uncomfortable with my presence, while others exoticized me and those who were genuine, I didn’t have the mental/emotional capacity to figure out if they were being authentic. Attendees wanted to pick my brain or ask for details, and my first mental response was: “I am not your “genie negro.” You will not be rubbing my tummy and I speak on demand.”
It is one thing to have an equal exchange, it is another to be expected to be “on” all the time and looked to for answers. It starts with reading a book, Yo people, read a book! And, acknowledge your own privilege, stop ignoring or avoiding what’s happening in the city though it does not immediately or directly “touch” you or your family, and instead of attempting to be the “white hope” for Black/Brown people, actively speaking out against inequities among white people, in spaces of power, in spaces where you have a voice and receptive ears. That’s a start and that ain’t everybody’s start, I know. But I am so over the expectation for us to tell them what they can do when the one simple question of, “Are you ready to deal with you—yo privilege?” is never answered. And by the way, read “New Jim Crow,” that’s a good starter read.
We argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism. We say “not all white people!” and “all lives matter” and totally miss the point. We ask people of color to educate us, and to be “nice” about it. We talk about our good intentions. We bring up the times we were also treated badly. Why? Because we can. As white people living in white supremacy we have the power to take that focus because society values our words more than those of people of color.
I also recognized something that I’ve noticed before in these settings where privilege oozes. Folk willingly engage when they think you’re broken or that they got something to bestow upon you. I am always amused by individuals who want to school me about “my approach.” Those that want me to make it more palatable because me, Black gyrl in this body, with this headwrap, is tooooo much. Ha!
Thing is, I came to the event whole, looking to have whole exchanges with whole people, as I don’t walk around assuming folk broke. I was offered the unsolicited fuq’d up statement by a conference attendee, “You’re question was so articulate and I’m really appreciating your presence at this event.” Boo-bye, in 2016, you still using the “you so articulate statement”????? I didn’t entertain this, I offered a blank stare and the person scrambled for more words—I walked away.
Day 2: Next morning, I arrived on time because rev. angel and Dr. Gaylon Ferguson were leading the morning session again. Big props to Dr. Gaylon and elder-brotha who, what I perceived as him yielding the floor to her, so that he could be a student as much as a teacher in that moment. In the words of Prince Rogers Nelson, “to be a good leader, you also have to follow….” Yaaaaaaas!
She brought the truth again. She read from her forthcoming book.
“Radical dharma is insurgence rooted in love, and all that love of self and others implies. It takes self-liberation to its necessary end by moving beyond personal transformation ot transcend dominant social norms and deliver us into collective freedom.”
She ended her reading with a sound manifesto. Okay, I’m being dramatic, but it was a manifesto to me. She stated that though non-Black persons were invited to read and engage in the conversation of the book, it was written in Black voice and for Black people. And the crowd in my head, my inner-people, erupted in cheers and was dabbin’ and milly rockin’. To use the words of someone else who was writing about Prince Rogers Nelson, rev. angel, was Blackity black black with her declaration. I have nicknamed her Radical Dharma Gangsta.
Day 3, Pema Chodron lecturing. Not in a sit at my feet I’m the all knowing guru or the rote memorization way, but it was more along the lines of activation, active engagement and popular education. She welcomed a dialogue and was not quick to make the words of those who pushed back a diatribe. But on the real, though I heart this womon’s books I was not feeling her. At the heart of me not feeling her is this thing I deal with all the time, the “I” and the “WE”!!!! I am a humon being on a spiritual journey. At my core I know we all one people, kumbiya yadda yadda yadda, but check it, THAT AINT THE REAL WORLD. At my core, I think all babies are beautiful, I love to hug trees, nature makes me weep, and we are all basically good, BUT THAT AINT THE REAL WORLD. In the real world there are –ism racism, sexism, classism, abelism etc. and humons have done some fugged up stuff to one another.
Therefore, on the “I” personal level I can find peace and comfort in the constructs of mindfulness and tending to my mind yadda yadda yadda and the knowingness in the depths of my soul that I matter and Black people matter. But on the WE level and the historical and socio-cultural/political level where there are SYSTEMS of OPPRESSION, I cannot rock with it. I cannot accept the telling of oppressed people to sit with our minds etc while we’re being systemically destroyed. I cannot accept victim blaming that says “don’t riot or loot” and asks, “well how’s your mindfulness going?” Especially, when the same questions are not being asked of the oppressors or the systems who are trying to eradicate us. There is an expectation for us to be gung ho about “basic goodness,” but not others.
Tangent over: Back to rev angel. This whole weekend she was able to be the voice of reason and not do the crazy and her passion was not misconstrued as the angry Black womon. Also, because she’s a sensei in the Zen Buddhist tradition, she was well received. She spoke their language and in a tone that was familiar. Let me tell ya how glad I was to hear the booming Black cherch voice of Harold Washington’s pastor. He was loud and I was there for ALL of That!
Do not get me twisted. There is a lot of “I” work for us to do as a people. We got personal, collective, cultural, his/herstorical trauma for us to deal with up the wazzoo. But, in a space that was predominately white, that was not the space to do self or collective Black work.
It’s not about calling out or calling in, but speaking the complexity of my truth in that moment. This moment, it may be different.
In the midst of all of this I did connect with a few wonderful souls who I felt “got it.” Got where I was coming from and I didn’t have to explain and we could exist as whole persons with one another. So, in my own introverted extrovert fashion, I exchanged info with them.