Resistance is Restless

I am one of the many women who went to work on March 8th. I could say that I was in turmoil over it, but that would be a lie. That’s what I do… work. Every day. No days off (Wale voice).

I knew what I signed up for in this career and I knew this day would come. There’d be a moment when I’d be toiling over minutiae while everyone else was out fighting a good fight that I felt should be mine. This happened last year for any number of Black Lives Matter protests. It happened years before many times over. But, alas, life is not made of newspaper headlines or twitter rants. It is not the meta-narratives of history books that one lives while history books are being written. Instead, it is the particular histories of daily life that all seem mundane individually, but are collectively more than the sum of their individual parts.

In light of this, I’m sharing my mundane Women’s History Month resistance routine. The month started off with making a donation to WNYC studios so that podcasts like 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys could continue to give me spurts of joyous laughter between monotonous policy drafts and email responses (#trypod). Luckily for me, there was an option to get Phoebe Robinson‘s (1 dope queen) new book “You can’t touch my hair..” I thoroughly enjoyed it and, as a result, snorted a few times. With that in my memory bank, I’ll be symbolically burning a bra all month long. Here’s how:

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The lady on left is looking how I’m feeling! (Today Show)

1 – Making my husband visit his mom!  – This trip is the gift that keeps on giving. My mother-in-law is the salt of the earth. She’s also very sane. Her physical presence in the life of her eldest son is very sobering for all who witness it. He, of all people, could use her grounding right now. I, on the other hand, could use some alone time, followed by girl time, followed by work like a dog time, followed by more girl time. Snowball effect accomplished.

2 – Reading Sonia Sotomayor’s biography – I’m going to read more about Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s life, because I hear she’s got a great journey to share. I also feel it will balance out Phoebe’s book in both heft and severity. I can’t just laugh and cuss all month long. I need to be inspired to do something positive with the platforms I have. I’m hoping the judge will remind me of  a time when public servants and leaders were actually admirable and inspiring; I wanted to be in that number. It wasn’t that long ago. It’s good to know that some of them are still around – kicking and screaming beneath very powerful robes (keep the cape). And, like me, she’s not an immigrant, so at least we have that in common.

3- Self care – Ask me why I have a physical, dental exam (w/ x-rays) and spa day booked before the end of the month ? My response is a direct quote from Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — A Burst of Light: Essays – I won’t be undone, disarmed, minimized or placated, so long as I am well fed, well rested, well loved and able bodied. My job is to stay that way!

4- Starting a business – My amateur meanderings have led me to two very stimulating entrepreneurial endeavors. And rather than pussyfoot around any longer, I’m finalizing the LLC for one of them this month and reserving the business name for the other. Not regularizing my business investments leaves me personally vulnerable and that’s not sustainable or growth minded. See, ya’ll, I’m speaking that business-lady talk. Bossy pants all month long! #queenboss

5 – Writing an article on women of the Diaspora – In the works, as I type, is a piece I’m co-authoring with my PhD advisor on 2013 research data I collected in India. It has taken a combination of guts, cajoling, and stagnation to get me to the point where I can finally write this long overdue academic article. Hallelujah! The day (or month) has finally come. My March 24th deadline for a draft is well timed, because I’m sure that my academic sisters, mothers, and friends will help me finally execute. “We can do it!”

Even if you don’t take on one of my 5 pillars of the month, you too can create your own mundane resistance routine. I’m sure you’re wondering how to make a difference within the parameters of your daily routine. My advice? Choose daily wins and small victories with big impacts. Deliberately support businesses and development efforts of women. Affirm their femininity and their excellence. Hug a woman you love, or a man who loves a woman you love. Stop, smell some roses, and then… get back to work! There is soooo much to be done.

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Every day is Juneteenth

We are not all immigrants. I learned this the hard way in seventh grade when all 30 of us were asked to create a poster about our ancestry, naming the first person in our families who came to America. I thought, “Trick question! Right?…right?” Wrong! Somehow, every student other than me actually had an immigrant story to tell. E-ver-y other student! Even the Black ones (And there were only three of us in the bunch). Can you believe it? It was Ellis and Angel Island all up and through that classroom. I was shocked.

I was shocked that I could come up with photos going back at least six maternal generations of my family being in America. (And I was also shocked that I had no White ancestors in the mix on that side of the family) I asked about the family before those six generations and they all were still American though there were no surviving photos. These were people who survived the Jim Crow South, who survived the Great Migration, who survived the Newark riots. These people were my people and these people, my people, were and still are American. But, they/we are not immigrants.

So, my seventh grade assignment earned me short shrift. My poster board, I, my family, my family’s American story wasn’t that interesting. We just didn’t have that ‘immigrant’ swag. I had pictures, and I had actually met each and every one of those people in my pictures. In comparison to my classmates’ two generations of photos and heart wrenching anecdotes of someone’s relative’s ancestral remembrances, my family’s story was so complete and so full.

Even today, I remember despising going to my great, great grandmother’s nursing home because “it smells like old people.” Yes, I actually said those words and I remember saying them. Which is not to suggest that I was just a jackass 8-year-old, but it is to prove that my family was not, at the time, based in historical fiction. They were then, and remain today to be people who I know. I mean, know know. These photographs dating back to the early 1900s, of people who were born in the late 1800s, were of people of my present. I, in seventh grade, could discuss their flaws and features. Yet, somehow, I forgot to say… sorry, we’re not immigrants.

As I have grown more academically invested in languages, foreign cultures, Diasporas and dispersal, I realize fully how foundational that experience was in shaping my trajectory. I wonder if somehow I’ve been trying to overcompensate for the lack of global exposure in my ancestry by offering global exposure in my lifetime. I wonder if I felt compelled to show the world that the terms ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ are not always synonymous. (It’s like people say, ‘Every Sikh is a Singh, but not every Singh is a Sikh’ – or is it the other way around?) I wonder if I internalized a sense of shame about not having an immigrant story, so much so that I wanted to create my own. Maybe I grew a curiosity, intellectually asking myself “What’s so fascinating about immigrants anyway?” These are all possibilities of the inner workings of my subconscious mind.

I can’t identify what pushed this African-American girl to wander the world, but I’ll tell you one thing I’ve never actually looked for in my travels: a sense of belonging. I’ve never seen people from a foreign land and thought, “maybe they are my long-lost cousins.” Nope, all of my cousins are in New Jersey, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. Done.

I don’t go to West Africa hoping that they embrace me as if I were their own. I don’t read stories of ancient Ethiopian and Egyptian civilizations and use their accomplishments to bolster my self-worth today. I am proud of these people’s accomplishments because they are worthy of glory and awe, just as ancient Rome and Greece, just as Nubia and Benin. But, they do not inform my life, as in my own life story.

Mine is of African-Americans in the most classic sense of the term. And in every sense of pride I can muster, I am proud of their story (as my story) and I can only own their story (as my story) alone. I am proud of Africans brought to America in a condition of slavery. I am proud of what they’ve made of families broken, and how they formed adopted families out of necessity and conditioning. I am proud that their fictional homelands did not outlive their ability to cope with present realities – despite how distressing. In the classic sense, we – children of these people – are supposed to feel lost.

No connection to a space beyond the enslaved one, no history before that institution. And what of the history thereafter? Well, we, like the institution, were supposed to disappear. We were supposed to go to Liberia or be impoverished in an America that preferred World War II refugees to those Americans born of African origin. We were supposed to be as ashamed of our lack of an “America, the land of the free” narrative, as I was made to feel in seventh grade for not having an immigrant ancestor. In the classic sense, I am still supposed to feel lost.

But, I have never had the luxury of feeling or being lost. This very present family, in this very fixed space of America, in an expanse of time immemorial leaves me firmly rooted. Thankfully, firmly rooted. As I better understand diaspora formation, I am more clearly able to understand how distinct and unique my history is from other dispersal narratives.

Just because we all came by boat, except for Native Americans (Mexicans and Canadians), we didn’t all come with the same tale. And, for me, there’s something voluntary and knowing about identifying as an immigrant. For individuals there may be more push factors than pull factors, but immigration is still a choice. In that, I don’t share the immigrant narrative and I simply never will.

We haven’t all shared in the belief of America as an idea. And we don’t all share it equally now. We all have our different stories, none my valid than others, but certainly the immigrant protagonist is more valorized than say my forefathers. Despite what I may share with my peers of immigrant origin in the tale of downtrodden ancestors making something upon which we now stand, I feel a sense of relief in my ability to be American – with no caveats, no undue deference, and no remorse.

I am thankful for my ability to own my Blackness in this American space, without thought of justification or apology. I owe this place nothing, yet it is my everything. I believe this sense of rootedness, despite its original formation, has empowered me to roam the rest of the earth undoubtedly confident of who I am and what I am made of. My family is not mythical. My sense of entitlement (no matter how hard-earned and at times unwarranted) to my identity and my place in my country, past and present, is unwavering.

I am the daughter of a African-American billing agent and an African-American techie nerd, who were the first-college degreed children of an African-American military photographer & an African-American amateur model, and an African-American AT&T/ Bell South factory worker and an African-American Bear Sterns maintenance worker. They being children of African-American sharecroppers, and an Irish man and an African-American woman with epilepsy. (Hey! Nobody told me about this paternal great-grandfather in seventh grade, because he supposedly raped said Floridian great-grandmother.  And, were it true, it would be just as true to the African-American narrative as chitterlings and the Baptist church.)

I could go on, but I fear it would all be redundant and self-glorifying. It’s safe to say that I am not of Garveyists or Germans, not of French Creoles or Holocaust victims. We are not all immigrants (or descendants of immigrants), and we don’t have to be – to be American.

Hey, You. Yea, YOU! Aap ka swagat ho! (Did he just call me a ho?)

A word of caution: If you do not like Indians, do not (I repeat: DO NOT) come to India.

You must talk to your inner xenophobe before you board that plane.  Are you kinda annoyed that every liquor store in your neighborhood is owned by an Indian; and yet you haven’t seen a liquor store of any kind in an Indian neighborhood? Do you get upset when you pay the Indian cashier and she puts your change on the counter, not in your hand?  Does a tinge of jealousy well up when you want human hair extensions and the most expensive pack reads ‘100% Indian’?  I could go on and on… you call Citibank in the middle of the day and you reach Ritu instead of Rita.  That little person inside of you that harbors these negative thoughts needs to have a frank conversation with your educated self before arriving in India.  Why?

…because all of India is not the Taj Mahal.  It is not those pictures in the Incredible India! ads that show empty forts in Jaipur at dusk.  It is not a country-wide ashram where only well intentioned, professionally misguided, singles struggling with relationship demons go to fine tune their Om and to realign their Chi.  Trust me, Elizabeth Gilbert should rot in a special chamber of literary hell for all the non-glamorous parts of India that are mysteriously missing from her novel “Eat, Pray, Love.”  I’d like to make sure that you, tourist, are made aware that you are not that special and Indians don’t really care about you.

Do you really think they have made a special place in their hearts and minds just for you, tourist, who is on your search to ‘find yourself’?  Let’s be clear, you are one of many in a long line of generations who come believing that there is wisdom and enlightenment in poverty and destitution (self proclaimed or imposed).  You will pay 10 times the local price to get into tourist sites that someone told you should be on your bucket list – but really, be prepared to get touched in private parts to see the dusty, hazy, pollution filled view.  You will, most likely, not know the difference between a Swami and a Sardar-ji.  You will assume that Sikhism is a different religion from Hinduism.  You will want to take pictures in places that you really shouldn’t even be allowed to enter.  You will fear street food like you were trained by Pavlov’s dog to eat cyanide laced ice cream sandwiches at the sound of every car honk.

You will quickly realize that all the things your inner xenophobe fumed over back home are simply par for the course – but multiply it by 1,205,073,612 and there you have your tourist reality.  Be frank with yourself.  You’re only here because you think these Indians (yes, the ones living in India) are like your weed smoking second-generation American college roommate.  Maybe you think you’ll meet Apu from the Simpsons. Even better, you’ll be able to do camel pose with Bikram Choudhury.  If Indians in the U.S. are more than what stands between your stereotypes and their prototypes, then snap out of it stupid and get real about what India must have in store.

Let me explain, xenophobe. I mean, tourist.  India is full of people. Over one billion of them. (It is mathematically impossible to take a picture at any historical site without getting a Nagalakshmi or a Balaskandan’s head in your picture!) While you may think, “if I’ve spent years mingling amongst the 2,843,391 Indians in America, how different could India be?” I’m here to tell you that India is, rightfully, a gazillion times different.

At home, India gets this exotic wrap.  It’s being played up as this country on the verge of some modernity meets traditional bastard child called the future.  And I assure you, it is on the verge of something alright.  But, whereas at home you get to choose Indian-ness as a taste of an ethnic ‘other’ (Read: “Honey, I’m so tired of pizza. Let’s try something different and not so boring. C’mon be adventurous. Why not, Indian?”) there is no alternative when in the motherland. (Read: “Paneer? Again?!”)

Honestly speaking, you will find some people in India to be just as genuinely unpleasant as you found some Indian Americans.  But what do you expect?  By virtue of there being so many damned people in India, you will come to love and loathe individuals much more poignantly.  You will notice the difference between a Gujarati and a Punjabi. Why? Because Indians in India differentiate amongst themselves and you will soon learn these complexities in ways that the united Indian front in the U.S. will not allow foreign penetration.

Tourist, you will pay attention to rich Indians, because the things that are unpleasant to you tend to be unpleasant to them too – and wow have they learned to un-see all the negatives around them.  Who needs to build a wall to keep out undesirables?! I have seen rich Delhites pass by hungry children in the streets and not bat an eye while ignoring the poor girl screaming really loudly (really actually annoying as all hell) “Hellllooooooo! Hello didi!” while she bangs on the car door. But because you’re in a mood to question your Western standards, the xenophobe in you may forgive rudeness in India, but be less forgiving of your half and first generation Indo-American compatriots.

I’m here to say that before you board that way too expensive, very long, and very cramped flight with soon to be (very, very) drunk uncles and some Frida Kahlo-esque Sardarnis, you have to forgive your fellow (Indo-) Americans.  Forgive. Forgive with all your soul.  You will soon find out that some of what you mistook as rudeness, directed specifically at you, is learned behavior that has nothing to do with you at all.  Sure, the acts remain unpleasant and you have the right to be offended.  You probably have every right to be offended.

Yet, some things that you assumed to be a general disdain for Black culture, for example, you will come to see are really part of a caste system carry over that not only divides North and South Indians, but also fuels a whitening cream industry that is very vibrant in Indian households all over the world.  What you thought was just a generally horrendous disposition towards women may actually be a generally horrendous disposition towards women.  More than just that though, it reads into these South Asian and conservative religious narratives of the faithful wife (Sita) – who really is valued when she quietly, but visibly martyrs herself – and these bhakti motifs that posit male-male friendships as foundations for pious communities (see Manas Ray’s Nation, Nostalgia and Bollywood).

Your inner xenophobe has to be ready to let it all hang out, because you’ll need to check your assumptions and pick your battles.  For there will be many, but some more worthy than others.  Maybe it’s not because you’re White – maybe it’s because you’re not Jain.  Maybe it’s not because you’re not Indian, maybe it’s because you come off as a young upstart with no respect for hierarchy.  Maybe it’s not because you have a foreign passport, maybe it’s because the military guard at IGI airport has been standing outside in a military uniform, in 115F degree heat for the last 7 hours holding an M-16 made on the first day of the Cold War.  Maybe it’s just because it’s not an auspicious day.  Or, of course, there’s the option that it is you…

But, you’ll never, ever, ever know for sure.  If you spend all your time worried about the dingbats you meet, perhaps you’ll lose sight of the really brilliant Marathi tour guide of the Elephanta Caves and how she saved you from being pickpocketed.  You might miss out on the opportunity to learn from a Malayali how you can take a house boat from Cochin to Thiruvananthapuram – rather than wading out to sea for days heading nowhere except to a malaria clinic if the right mosquito picks you to be her tall drink of water.  The road from Delhi to the Taj is 4 hours filled with people, on the roadside, in the village, in the dhaba and in your damned pictures!  There’s no way around it, so you should get really friendly with some people who will forgive your inner xenophone just as much as you forgive yourself for thinking those xenophobic thoughts in the first place.  Be prepared to confront, head on, every ill thought, assumption or misunderstanding you’ve ever had about India or Indians.

It’s either that… or, I hear Thailand is great this time of year.