Coming Back to Black Life

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by Ratasha Elise

“Mother, loosen my tongue, or adorn me with a lighter burden.”
― Audre Lorde

In September of 2012 I resigned from my job as a Teaching Artist & Experiential Workshop Facilitator in a program for Boston Public High School students. It was meaningful and well paying work in which I had the task of guiding students through the conception, research and development of groundbreaking and “impossible” ideas, at the intersection of art and science. In addition to leaving my job, I also walked away from a scholarship for study at a popular music school in Boston. Having lived in various cities along the east coast, I was moving west for the first time in my life.I had come to see how even the most hope inspiring and non-mainstream institutions still managed to replicate the toxic norms of the corporate and industrial world. I was sick of it. 

I had come to see how even the most hope inspiring and non-mainstream institutions still managed to replicate the toxic norms of the corporate and industrial world.

I’d received an opportunity to continue my learning outside of institutional walls, and I accepted it. I was going to study an experiential process for personal and societal transformation known as The Work That Reconnects. This spoke to me deeply. I could not have been more excited. I’d already been very impacted by hearing Joanna Macy speak and had attended a 10 day intensive in The Work That Reconnects earlier that year. I’d concluded that both she and the process she’d spearheaded were beyond brilliant. My insistence on figuring out why so much suffering and toxicity in this society, coupled with my background in arts education and experiential group facilitation had primed me. I was very clear that this was the next step on my journey to giving everything I am, in service of healing and transformation. In sharing my desire to learn directly from Joanna, with her assistant Anne Symens-Bucher, I also found out that there were other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) activists already living in or near the Bay area, who shared the same desire. There was talk of pulling us together to be trained as WTR facilitators. After I attended an additional 10 day intensive on the west coast, I was asked to be one of the co-facilitators of the group alongside Joanna, and Adelaja Simon.

In those early days, I started out with the intention of learning what I could, in order to eventually facilitate WTR in my own community. At the same time, I felt that my African Ancestors who were subjected to unspeakable suffering and somehow managed to remain human, had much to teach the world about what it really means to be human. Let’s be clear. I do not wish to indulge in a spiritualized romanticization of their suffering. There is nothing beautiful or hopeful about the hell that they were dragged through. It was and remains abhorrent. Period. Full stop.

Also, I believe that their legacy includes lessons on how to access the place where humanity meets divinity, and how to surrender your whole being to the Spirit world. I shared some of these thoughts with Joanna and Anne before ever leaving the east coast. I felt that the WTR would be an incredibly transformative tool for healing, clarity, and empowerment.

Over time, it became clear to me that it wasn’t so much that BIPOC was missing the WTR, as it was that the WTR and the broader community surrounding it, was missing us, as well as the awarenesses and frameworks that would create space and safety for us.

Over time, it became clear to me that it wasn’t so much that BIPOC was missing the WTR, as it was that the WTR and the broader community surrounding it, was missing us, as well as the awarenesses and frameworks that would create space and safety for us. This realization takes nothing away from the WTR or those who shaped it. This realization was based in an acknowledgement of the value, brilliance, and richness still very much alive in BIPOC communities. It was also based in an understanding that the WTR pulls deeply from the wisdom of Indigenous peoples around the globe. BIPOC cultures in the U.S., while surviving ongoing genocides, enslavement, displacement, colonization, and forced assimilation, still retain major elements of their indigeneity within their cultures, including those who were force migrated away from the land they are indigenous to.

I vocalized the need to tell a deeper truth about the relevance of racial history and cultural differences multiple times, in multiple ways. I also expressed the need to create better safety for people of all marginalized identities along the lines of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability. I spent many hours thinking, speaking, and brainstorming with a few friends and even convened a fledgling small group to find a creative way to add anti-oppression and power equity into our WTR work and community lives. Chief among them were Adelaja, and WTR community member Jo Bauen. Then, when I heard Patricia St. Onge speak about racial awareness and the culture of whiteness in early 2013 at an International Women’s Day Event, waves of grief and relief moved through me. Inwardly, I thought “She is the missing link.” Also because she was an older woman with white skin, I thought that maybe she would be heard and received, in a way I had not been. I asked her to meet with me. When we met, I learned more about the work she did in the area of justice for Indigenous Peoples. I learned that she had actually published a book on cultural competency. I also learned about the extreme lack of financial support, and economic injustice she was navigating as a Indigenous woman doing absolutely essential work in the world. To be candid, this last thing completely pissed me off to hear. It was at that point that I decided to introduce her to Joanna. I already felt that her work in cultural awareness was much of what was missing from the lens and framing of the WTR. I held a quiet hope that she would gain more access to material resources and networks that would support her life and her work. Admittedly, I wasn’t explicit about this. Back then, my tongue often got hijacked by white fragility, a term coined in the work of Robin DiAngelo. Today I am vocal and unapologetic in my assertion that “solidarity” with communities of color must also take tangible, material forms. This is not to be confused with charity or white saviourism. It is about restoration and reparations.

Today I am vocal and unapologetic in my assertion that “solidarity” with communities of color must also take tangible, material forms. This is not to be confused with charity or white saviourism. It is about restoration and reparations.  

Ultimately, it was decided that Patricia would spend some time facilitating the POC cohort on the topic of Deep Culture, in the Fall of 2013. Multiple times during this period she told us that our respective cultures already had a lot of elements of the WTR embedded within them. I heard her each time. Yet, at that point I had only begun to glimpse what she meant. A few months prior, I’d returned home to North Carolina for replenishment and repair. I reached out to the beautiful community of artists, cultural educators, and healers I had been a part of. I told them that I desperately needed a Sista Circle to happen while I was home. A Sista Circle is an informal gathering of Black Women to share time, energy, food, laughter, and affirmation. They quickly obliged. This is one of many times the love of Black Women figuratively and literally saved my life.

…there is no way to overstate the energetic difference of being in a space where there is no need for the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual labor of constantly explaining things so fundamental to your life experience, and doing cultural translation work for people who never have to.

I must take a moment here to note that there is no way to overstate the energetic difference of being in a space where there is no need for the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual labor of constantly explaining things so fundamental to your life experience, and doing cultural translation work for people who never have to. People who consequently rarely realize the depth, value, and right to be compensated for this labor.People who usually haven’t done enough work on their own to meet us anywhere in the middle, thus positioning us to have to constantly do their labor on top of our own. Their labor on top of our own. Their labor on top of our own.

Damn. White people still feel entitled to our labor. This is a continuance of slavery era dynamics that have yet to be disrupted, and far too often is unseen by those who are privileged enough to be on the receiving end. This too is a manifestation of white supremacy that can take a steady toll on the minds, hearts, bodies, and souls of BIPOC. This is one of the reasons that having access to, and increasing the availability of exclusively Black healing spaces is so direly important to me and many others in the Black Liberation Movement.

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” ― Arundhati Roy

During the aforementioned Sista Circle in North Carolina, I’d considered sharing some elements of the WTR with the women who were gathered. I was listening for inner guidance on how and when to proceed. Folks were talking and connecting organically, and I was led to just let it be. Eventually I began to share a song, an old Spiritual with some new lyrics of my own. Spontaneously, without planning, preparation, or instruction, we all began to form a circle and hold hands. To be clear, this isn’t an automatic part of every event of this nature. Everyone joined in the singing of the song. And after a few rounds, people began to take turns speaking about what they were grateful for. Again, spontaneously and unprepped, we went around the circle until every voice had been heard. Yes, we went into spontaneous ritual and the first stage of the WTR spiral.

“Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside   
Take my word for jewel in your open light.”
― Audre Lorde

The preparation for this occurrence and countless others like it, is embedded deep in the soil of our culture. A culture that has suffered endless attempts at dismemberment, disrememberment, and annihilation. Yet, we still have a fresher memory of how to be present and in our bodies enough to connect and move as an intelligent organism, operating from a place beyond our intellects that intimately knows and honors the flow of Life through every living thing. Yes, people who were, and continue to be labeled and treated as “uncivilized savages” in order to justify dragging them across an ocean and locking them into perpetual and still ongoing systems of unpaid and underpaid labor, have a fresher and more recent cultural memory of what it truly means to be human. So too do the myriad of indigenous peoples around the globe, and immigrant (forced and free) communities that managed to hold onto and/or reclaim pieces of their indigeneity, and therefore the foundations of their humanity.

Not all of us have so deeply forgotten that we are connected to something larger and greater than our individual ego identities. For many marginalized communities, that is all that has actually kept us alive. Many of us remember how to dance upon the Earth in sacred communion with Her and each other, and have constructed unique and culturally specific ways to fan the embers of this remembrance. Not all of us are so deeply shriveled into culturally socialized patterns of pathological narcissism that have turned basic human gratitude and generosity into things one must effort at. For many BIPOC communities, it’s embedded in the culture. Cultural history and differences are real. This bears repeating. Cultural history and differences are real. It’s not enough to simply know we’re all connected. It’s important to be mindfully aware of the history of how we’re connected as well as how our norms and worldview differ. Every culture caught up in the settler-colony called the U.S., is not in the same boat. Nor do we come from the same starting place. Nor do we all require the same medicine. Every assumption otherwise, is a manifestation of white normativity, white supremacy, and white domination.

It’s not enough to simply know we’re all connected. It’s important to be mindfully aware of the history of how we’re connected as well as how our norms and worldview differ. Every culture caught up in the settler-colony called the U.S., is not in the same boat. Nor do we come from the same starting place. Nor do we all require the same medicine. Every assumption otherwise, is a manifestation of white normativity, white supremacy, and white domination.

Not the kind that hides behind white sheets and burning crosses, but the kind that is so sophisticated it hides in plain sight. In the minds, hearts, and on the tongues of “well intentioned” white folks. I have walked a road paved with such intentions.

Recently the sheets have come off, and burning crosses have been augmented by tiki torches. It is easy to be offended by such overt displays of white supremacy. It is another thing altogether to make the connection between the physical tiki torches used in Charlottesville, VA and the psychological, emotional, and spiritual tiki torches “good white folks” in every region wield on a daily basis. Please hear me when I say, the latter has enabled the continued existence of the former. One of these proverbial “tiki torches” is the prioritization of the feelings and comfort of white people over the humanity and safety of BIPOC. One of the many things I learned during my time in California is that those who are used to having both comfort and safety, often have a hard time differentiating between the two. White people’s hurt feelings and bruised ego identity get equivocated with the actual humanity and dignity of BIPOC, and we are generally expected to respond with patience, calmness, politeness, and gentleness. We are then met with surprise, confusion, and dismay, when we stop showing up in spaces where we know we are likely to be re-traumatized by this behavior.

When we share space together, we do not have the same things at risk. I’ll say it again. We do not have the same things at risk. Feelings, comfort, and ego identity are constantly conflated with humanity, dignity, and actual safety. This false equivalency and the failure/refusal to recognize it, becomes the graveyard of countless relationships and group convenings. And yes, it is a form of white supremacy, domination, and psycho-emotional terrorism.

This society is full of structures that violently displace white folks portion of the shared pain of humanity onto the shoulders, backs, and necks of communities that have been chronically gasping for air for centuries. Centuries! Prioritizing the work of dismantling these structures, is not optional. It is just as dire as any environmental crisis one can name, because it is the original environmental crisis. Furthermore, the underlying root cause of them all, is one in the same. Whiteness is a culture that does not know itself. Because it does not know itself, it cannot truly know others. It certainly cannot know what medicine(s) other cultures need. The people whose Ancestors traded their indigeneity in for collusion into a racialized patriarchal system of economic oppression, must quickly and boldly learn to tell the whole truth about what was given up, the grief and insatiable spiritual hunger that took its place, and the massive harm disproportionately sustained by BIPOC. Furthermore it is direly necessary to take responsibility and make amends for harm caused, and to engage the specific individual, family, and cultural work of reclaiming one’s Ancestral inheritance. Actively learning to build a norm of full and deep truth telling, at the very least to one’s own Self, is also not optional. It is not something we have the luxury of getting around to … eventually. It is part of our Sacred contract with Life itself. It is one of the primary ways Life moves through us, and is therefore fundamental to the dance of being human in a body.

“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black; it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect.” ― June Jordan

After my time studying the WTR and aspects of Deep Culture, I immersed myself in African & African American Studies. After spending so much time submerged in whiteness, I knew this was the way to begin to put the fractured pieces of my psyche back together, as well as the next step on the journey of clarifying my life’s work. The wisdom and insight that was waiting for me was beyond extraordinary. In their brilliance, creativity, and commitment to Life, I found that my Ancestors had hidden fragments of a roadmap deep inside the recesses of our culture. Hidden far from the invasive eyes and awarenesses of those who told them, and continue to tell their descendants to “Assimilate or Die.” This roadmap illuminates our way back home, to ourselves, to our sanity, and to the non-negotiable reclamation of our Human Rights. Some of these map fragments were hidden so deep, their protection required a great amount of pretending. In efforts to protect them, and our very lives, we pretended at assimilation to appease white rage, violence and sheer savagery. Behind the veil of double consciousness described by W.E.B. DuBois, we learned to weigh the risks of not meeting the white demand for deference and ego coddling. We were forced to pretend for so long, at some point many of us forgot we were pretending.

Like a mad insomniac scientist, I have spent the last 3.5 years excavating and gathering as many of these roadmap pieces as I could find. I have spent many a midnight hour, communing, singing, and dancing with my Ancestors. I beseeched them to take hold of the life force within this vessel, use my voice, guide my hands, order my steps, and illuminate my path to completing the work they have asked of me.       

There is much talk about Diversity & Inclusion in liberal/”progressive” white spaces. I am currently of the belief that the inclusion of BIPOC in white spaces is more of a gift for white people, who stand to benefit immensely from being exposed to the realities that imbalances of socio-political power and dominance shield them from. Inclusion is not true justice or equity. As a process oriented thinker, I think a lot about the steps needed to get from where we are to where we need to be. There are so many things that need to happen on the preliminary side of racial justice that get recklessly skipped over in the rush to “come together” and achieve “unity.” We are adults. This vital work is not about the warm fuzzies or any kind of superficial emotional affect. There is too much at stake. If an individual is violently kidnapped and brutalized, for any length of time, the immediate priority once they’re physically freed should be an enormous amount of care and concern for their physical, psycho-emotional, and spiritual well-being. It would be assumed that they need time and space away from their attacker(s) and other triggers to learn to feel safe again, and to figure out exactly what kind of support they need to return to wholeness. I happen to believe this is just as true for groups of people. To me, culturally specific healing spaces that center the culture of the marginalized, rather than adding it as an aside, are essential. They support us in reclaiming our whole selves, and preparing to have the conversation about what true liberation, justice, and equity can really look like.

To me, culturally specific healing spaces that center the culture of the marginalized, rather than adding it as an aside, are essential. They support us in reclaiming our whole selves, and preparing to have the conversation about what true liberation, justice, and equity can really look like.

 

“Finally I was able to see that if I had a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong.” ― Wangari Maathai

I remain inspired by Joanna Macy, and those who worked alongside her in integrating and systematizing much of what many indigenous and BIPOC communities often know and do naturally. I have been tasked with developing a work that is heavily influenced by the WTR, and that centers the indigenous West African spirituality that has always been at the core of Black American spirituality. I formed and am in collaboration with a cohort whose identities currently include Black cis-women, femmes, queer, low income, and disabled people. We are actively seeking independent funders for this work. We’re in the process of creating an independent fellowship program that will support deeper research, study, and synthesis of the two aforementioned areas along with music medicine, somatic healing, and Joy DeGruy Leary’s work on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The Voices and Lives of those multiply marginalized at the intersections of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and ability will be centered and fully held in this work. It is from a place of Embodied Liberation, having excavated our whole selves, that I believe we will be best positioned to engage with white folks who have also been committed to doing both their own and their Ancestors’ unfinished work.


Ratasha Elise is a Black Love & Liberation Singer, Voice Doula, Healing Justice Facilitator/Consultant and Racial Justice Consultant. Paypal contributions may be sent via http://paypal.me/Ratasha. Her Venmo ID is: @Ratasha-Elise. Offers of other material support for her work, and larger tax deductible donations administered by her 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor can be made via email to [email protected].

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