by Wanda Sabir
Los derechos se toman, no se piden; se arrancan, no se mendigan. (Rights are taken, not asked for. They are grabbed, not begged for.) – José Martí to Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz
Death came to the old revolutionary
put out what was left of his cigar
leaving him his military cap
so they would not place laurels
that would bother him.
It is no little thing to confront the empire
& survive its rage of a mad dog
from which a bone is taken.
Oh Cuba of the bitter history,
of palms, dances, songs,
of the drums of Alegba and Yamayá,
of the cane made sweet by blood and sweat
mourn and remember, sing, dance, work
for justice and never return to slavery.
© Rafael Jesús González 2016
This year has been a long one. It was amazing to have traveled to President Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana this summer and to England for the first time. In Ghana, it was the rainy season, yet I was able to get to many places of interest.
I was tracing the trade – slave trade – and traversed the country in trotros and by hired car and by chartered bus to see those places where African ancestors were traded like commodities. We saw pools where the captives had their last baths, hollowed trees where Africans hid and houses constructed to keep families safe and ensure a head start if they needed to evacuate.
Though I started my journey in the mountains a few miles outside Accra, it was the travel north toward Wa and Burkina Faso, where countryside opened up and the stories and hikes to sacred spaces in the mountains were shared. Familiar with the Ndebele woman from South Africa, it was interesting to meet women in Ghana in a rural community located between Bolgatanga and Navrongo, Sirigu, where the Sirigu Women’s Association of Pottery and Arts (SWOPA) continues a tradition begun by the grandmothers and great grandmothers. The patterns and designs are seen in the historic cathedral, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Minor Basilica, where angels and saints are painted in red, white and Black.
With yet another stolen election in Haiti last October – and yet another this Nov. 20 – Jean-Yvon Kernizan, a Fanmi Lavalas activist, said such blatant tampering with ballots, delayed counts from precincts under the eyes of skilled international voter efficacy teams – means the People are at War. Such can be said for questioned outcomes for the U.S. elections both local, state and national with Trump recently becoming this country’s president elect.
However, in California, housing initiatives to safeguard renters and neighborhood integrity passed in Oakland, yet did not pass in Alameda, where homelessness is becoming an issue. The state ballot initiative which speeds up death penalty cases vies with another initiative passed earlier which guarantees youth sentenced to life without the possibility of parole to a hearing and perhaps early release.
It is grave now for Black people, others too; however, Black people specifically need to get in better physical shape, mental and spiritual shape to tackle the battle which continues to rage against us. Immigrants are being targeted, so are Muslims; however, Black people are in all stated populations and, whether American born or immigrant, we all look the same in the eyes of white supremacists and racists who now control the federal system.
It is as if the North pulled out of the South, Obama representing the short-term presence of the Union during what was called Reconstruction, a farce if one looks at W.E.B Dubois’s classic, “The Souls of Black Folk,” the chapters which look at how it feels to be a problem. “The Nation has not yet found peace from its sins; the freedman has not yet found in freedom his promised land,” he wrote. Dubois critiques the Freedman’s Bureau, the Freedman’s Bank and “Negro suffrage.”
Even if Trump disavows his relationship to the Klan, it doesn’t matter, because his presence has allowed the anger and xenophobia public free reign. All of a sudden, people who are not Black feel what Black people have felt, Black women have felt, Black men have felt during what was supposed to be a time of celebration – emancipation in the guise of Abraham Barack no Lincoln Obama – 1863 and 2009.
Perhaps the laissez faire which greeted Obama’s reign dissipates in light of Trump; however, the pressure and absence of censure which greeted Obama’s term was misplaced, which is how a Trump could become president. People were voting for Trump because he represented a different view for America – a White Anglo Saxon Protestant view.
This Thanksgiving was a return to the Puritans, whose Thanksgiving feasts referenced the successful massacres of indigenous people. President Lincoln made these successive massacres Thanksgiving Day. The first day of the new national holiday was also the day Lincoln “ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota” (Susan Bates).
We should be mindful of the elders who do not want to be here when Donald Trump takes office. Let them know that we are getting stronger, forming coalitions, making plans, working smart. The 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was a brilliant philosophical synergy of multiple movements: UNIA, NOI, SNCC and the work of the Hon. Marcus Garvey, who was inspired by Booker T. Washington and Noble Drew Ali, who also inspired the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.
Garvey inspired the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. There is a Black star at the center of the Ghanaian flag. Of all the countries I have visited in Africa, Ghana and Zimbabwe were the most welcoming. Ghana has so many Black people living there from throughout the African Diaspora. Most are business persons who contribute to the economy, even though they cannot become citizens.
Interpretations of the BPP state that it was a multiracial movement, and that might be true. However, the way it played out was police brutality in Black communities – Black men killed, Black youth tracked, targeted and killed. And if we look at surveillance and intelligence in major cities across the nation, those targeted and profiled are majority Black. This is illustrated in Craig Atkinson’s film, “Do Not Resist” (2016).
It is a Black thang, so to act as if organizing within communities most affected leaves unspoken the privilege attached to other communities is a waste of precious time, because as Kernizan stated on Flashpoints, “We are at war.”
So while I count my blessings and thank the creator in all his and her illumination, which my comprehension barely touches for this year and this moment and perhaps other days to come to do necessary work for Black liberation, I know we will not be successful in the battle unless we organize. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. Start with friends, get together regularly and pour libations, share a meal, develop a project, complete it and then start another one. Be active, because the opposite is certain death.
Alex Haley’s “Roots” is 40 years old in 2017. Bounce TV aired the series in November. Sankofa, the turn back to fetch a legacy within reach, is a powerful move. Sankofa teaches us to remember the ancestors; this is where our strength lies. This is where the answers are found; this is where the spirit of the yet to be born gather to meditate.
Don’t forget to breathe through the journey. Black people have been here since the beginning; we will be here when this episode passes. Stay the course and do not give up or think a few victories mean the war is over. In 1948 a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by most members of the United Nations. At that time, Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia and Haiti were among the 48 countries in favor of the UDHR. South Africa voted against it. Noticeably absent were the voices of the colonized African nations and those still economically shackled in the Global South, so this declaration omits the voices of the majority population on the Planet Earth.
Marcus Garvey became aware of this as a union organizer when he petitioned the Queen of England on behalf of the workers in Costa Rica and Panama. Later, in 1928, after losing his case and having to leave the United States, Garvey travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to present the Petition of the Negro Race to the League of Nations (from George G. Johnson’s “Profiles in Hue”).
“This statement outlined the abuse of Africans around the world. In September 1929, he founded the People’s Political Party (PPP), Jamaica’s first modern political party, centered primarily upon workers’ rights, education and aid to the poor. However, prior to all of this at the first National Convention for African Peoples of the World in 1920, Garvey crafted and ratified the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World.
There is a preamble, 12 complaints and 54 declarations. This document was signed by 122 delegates from the convention, including Garvey, who was nominated the provisional president of a United States of Africa. It was also signed by Henrietta Vinton Davis, Arnold Josiah Ford, and Garvey’s two secretaries, Janie Jenkins and Mary E. Johnson (from “Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey” (1925)).
Not specific to the rights of Black people, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nonetheless states every human being has a right to freedom of person and mobility, housing, health care, education, economic justice, safety, the right to representation in a court of law – and the presumption of innocence as well. Human Rights Day was established Dec. 10, 1948, at that same meeting in Paris. Not all countries agreed to all 30 declarations, and so abstained. In the past 60 years there have been attempts to revise the document; however, no revisions have amended the original document despite its Eurocentric or Western orientation.
‘The Last Tiger in Haiti’ at Berkeley Rep through Dec. 4
So human rights abuses continue, none more prevalent than the illegal institution of slavery, especially the sexual enslavement of children. In a play at Berkeley Rep this fall season, “The Last Tiger in Haiti,” the characters look at the power of story in self-actualization. How does story revive or find within what has been crushed?
Jeff Augustin, playwright, looks at the Haitian tradition of indentured servitude, that involves children sent to live and work for more wealthy or elite Haitians. The youth, Max, 18, Emmanuel, 15, Joseph, 17, and the treatment of Laurie, 17, is as unsteady as their drunken master searching for home in a darkened ally. We meet his daughter, Rose, 11, who hangs out with the servants and pretends to be one of them. The term restavek (“staying with”) is how the practice is innocently described.
However, “Tiger” exposes the underside of such beast. I first learned of this child servitude or enslavement from a pamphlet published by Mildred Trouillot-Aristide, former first lady of Haiti. Set in Port-au-Prince in 2008, two years before the earthquake, “Last Tiger” is a story of exploitation and abuse. The abuse is subtle, not solely what one would expect from a system of economic enslavement that causes rupture between a parent and child.
No, the true violence is interpersonal; it lives between the hearts, gets into the sinew and bone where trust and love lie. It is the betrayal Max feels when his little sister, Rose, whom he cares about and loves, first steals then pawns his soul.
She thinks she has gotten away when 16 years later Max shows up on her figurative doorstep. He has read her book and wants his story returned. The fact that “The Last Tiger” is told from the perspective of this privileged child, Rose (actress Brittany Bellizeare), is disturbing. Rose, 11, is like a virus which undermines Max’s ascension. Seemingly innocent, Rose steals the older youth’s savings to keep him from leaving. She turns the money over to her father, whom she pretends to hate.
Max (Andy Lucien) is trapped and eventually runs away. Rose also steals from Laurie (actress Jasmine St. Clair) who befriends and protects Rose from the other boys, Emmanuel and Joseph, who are suspicious of this rich child. The two boys question her presence and the trust Max and Laurie give her. Then Rose steals something precious – a doll Laurie’s mother gave her; it is all that Laurie had left from her mother.
Without shame, Rose puts her version of the truth in her bestselling memoir. Max tracks the author down to reclaim his tattered life, to bury the dead. The monster she portrays him as in the memoir is Rose, not him. He wants her to recant and admit she fabricated the tale. Max says how he worried that she had been killed after the earthquake; however, she survived, adopted by an Irish missionary family.
Max knows the potential for betrayal in his adoption of Rose, the master’s daughter, yet in the Diaspora now, Rose is clueless as to her crime. Max asks her: “Did you think we were volunteers?”
Rose responds, “All the kids at school had ‘restaveks,’ I thought it was a part of life. But once I understood – I snuck you all food, clothes, hugged you. Made you human. And Joseph didn’t say [he hated me]. He said it about my father. I was there.” She says she embellishes his life to “make it better.”
She projects the evil of enslavement on the youth her family owns as if Max, Joseph, Emmanuel and Laurie benefit from the masked artifice. She ignores her father’s sexual perversions and Joseph’s repeated rapes. She makes Max into a murderer though she is the killer; she kills their dreams, appropriates their stories and then does nothing to find the four youth (even now) who allowed her into their world.
Her published words destroy Max. How could she forget the power of story to manifest what is hidden? How could she forget the power of story to transform? How could she forget the power of story to imagine something greater than what one is given? Max says, “You have taken my life and made it into a fable.”
Max says with resolve to Rose when he sees how tainted she is by her circumstances, empathy a gift absent from the worldview of exploiters: “I was born a slave, I could never have a story. A narrative. We spent all that time in that tent telling other people’s stories, a country’s stories cause we – Laurie, Joseph, Emmanuel – we never had choices. Our stories were already written, by your parents, by you, by people like you.”
Ghosts? Yet nonetheless, Max, Laurie, Joseph and Emmanuel exist. How do we make the lives of those erased from history real when the bodies cannot be located, their stories cloaked in silence? This is the challenge faced by those outside the dominant narrative structure. Rose is published. Imagine all the stories she missed once the well ran dry.
She tells Max he is the best storyteller she knows, there is a market for his stories, that she can help him publish. However, Max is not interested in opening new wounds to other wolves or insatiably hungry tigers.
An alternative ending perhaps lies in our ability to trust, let go and keep moving. Max is disappointed in Rose, but not surprised. She is a product of her people, of what author Edward P. Jones calls her known world. How could he have expected her to walk straight when her shoes were designed by crooks?
To help with the recent hurricane and the continuing Cholera pandemic, visit Haiti Emergency Relief Fund. One hundred percent of the funds goes to grassroots organizations in Haiti.
Keith Josef Adkins’s ‘Safe House’ continues at the Aurora Theatre through Dec. 4
When Keith Josef Adkins, playwright, Cincinnati native, was growing up he recalls his grandmother saying that their people in antebellum Kentucky were not enslaved. He didn’t pay her words any mind while a youth; after all, weren’t all Black people’s ancestors former slaves? Well not really.
In his family’s case, a white women ancestor named Elizabeth Banks had a Black husband and despite the whippings she received when bearing the three Black children, the children were born free because their mother was free. This is how free Black people were born and stayed free as they married other free Black people or purchased enslaved Black people, married and then freed them.
The family we meet in “Safe House,” two brothers and their aunt, are one of two Black families in this fictional town. The other free Blacks are run out of town when the family that remains is caught trying to help an enslaved Black person escape. The escapee is caught and the family is put on a curfew for two years.
When we meet the family, the two years are almost up and the younger brother is excited about being free again. It is hot and humid and he wants to take a dip in the river, off limits to Black people. His more conservative brother is a cobbler and is making big plans to expand business and open a shop in his family’s home when something happens which ruins his hopes and dreams and shatters the already shaky relationship between brothers.
Free Black people have to carry passes and, though they have rights, the law does not have to respect them and, in this town, does not.
“Safe House” looks at Black people with privilege and the relationship between this family and the other Black people who live on the plantations nearby. Whenever something happens, because they are Black, the sheriff (whom we never see) assumes this family knows about it, even when denial is on the tip of their tongues.
Addison (David Everett Moore) wants his younger brother to act right, do right; but Frank (Lance Gardner) is his own man and feels a sense of obligation to his people who are not free. His Aunt Dorcas (Dawn L. Troupe) supports him but is not willing to risk her freedom again.
Another character is the deputy (Bracken), who is an ally. His role (portrayed by actor Cassidy Brown) in the story shows how infectious the disease of white supremacy is and how crippling it is to everyone without power. Just as one gets used to the idea of free Black people, Adkins hits his audience with a jaw breaker, whole mouth full in the person of spunky Roxie (actress Jamella Cross), an escaped slave looking for sanctuary and freed woman Clarissa (Dezi Soléy).
Clarissa bakes cakes and loves one of the brothers enough to slip a rod into the batter. Adkins further tangles a web America has yet to unravel in the excellent production of “Safe House,” directed by L. Peter Callender at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St. in Berkeley through Sunday, Dec. 4. For tickets, call 510-843-4822 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at email@example.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.