Friday, April 24, 2009

Keep Creating, Keep Looking Forward!

I'm reading Pema Chodron's The Places That Scare You. Much of it is about looking at fear in the face and resting on the belief that obstacles are merely illusions; that seeing our individual struggles as a natural, universal process actually helps us see ourselves in others, no matter the skin complexions and persuasions, and vice versa. There's something reassuring about that. Says you're never alone, even when it feels like you are.

I don't know for certain who I'm writing this for. Maybe it's for my own benefit. But it's not all about me. It's all for me--the lessons, the gifts, even the haters and the blessings they bring without intending to--But not about me. I'd pass it on to my students but Hip Hop doesn't require any self-reflecting anymore. Not when they're pushing overpaid brats who talk that nigga smack and walk like toddlers because their pants are so low...

Confess your hidden faults
Approach what you find repulsive
Help those you think you cannot help
Anything you are attached to, let it go
Go to places that scare you.
--Machik Labdron

Maybe it's just New Mexico calling again...

I'm also feelin' Jenny Clermont's art. When I first saw her work I told her she needed to share it with the rest of us, especially since she's that good...If writers are God's messengers, painters are the magicians!...

I might as well speak to the one who's in the process of crossing over from one season to another, from feeling stuck to realizing the very point of staying put, or ending a bad relationship to making way for the real deal. Because true love cannot be found until you know what it means to lose it. So keep creating. Keep looking forward. Use your pen, your paintbrush, music or lens to capture the complicated and translate it into simple but stunning discoveries...

Stand firmly to your truth. Because this is why you're here. To point out the discrepancies, and the wonderful details. Like how the tree branches are doing a sort of dance these days so summer can hurry up and rejuvinate their leaves!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What are you doing here? - A Conversation With a Former Rikers Island Student

I first met Paulo back in the days when I taught life skills to young male inmates at Rikers Island. He was merely 16 then. Years and experiences took each of us to our individual destinations until we crossed one another's path once again just recently when he felt a strong pull to go visit a campus staff member whose office happened to be opposite mine. He had just missed her, but then noticed all the africentric messages and introspective affirmations on my door, along with one of my poems, the same words I'd used to inspire the incarcerated--When you get out of there--with my name underneath. No doubt, he must've wondered if it was the same instructor who'd helped him think beyond metal bars. The following day, his attention having now been deverted from paying a friendly visit to matching a face, he tried to see if maybe I was in. I was, of course, as mysteriously perfect as the universe would have it! He stood at my dooway like a proper novice showing the usual respect one learns after their freshman year. "Hello," he said shyly, not knowing for sure if my seriousness was a sign that I was already having a busy day and therefore it be best to hurry with his question, or that he'd totally miscalucaluated.

It took me a minute for my memory tape to help me recollect how I knew this young man, because while I did sense a genuine connection I couldn't make out the details. Not until he mentioned Rikers, the specifics of the island, and how I once had locks and wore dashikis to work. Followed by, "It's me, Mr. K". The tag that the brothas had given me within the barbwires of their captured lives. The same tag that students 'til this day use when they want to show their love and admiration. "You don't remember me? It's Paulo!" He offered a few more clues-- Sneaking in books on mental slavery, discussions on inter-cultural prejudice and how the imprisonment of Black and Brown peoples is big bizness. There were many young kats who gave me wisdom right back, especially since their lives alone were testaments to surviving poverty and police brutality. But only one had actually made me ask the question that was practically taboo, if not unfair and maybe even biased-- What are you doing here? And then the picture became more focused; an incident when the boys cleared the classroom to head back to their pods and one Hispanic kid dragging his feet just so he could leave with one more piece of knowledge. I was wiping the blackboard, turned to him and said, "What are you doing here?"...

Paulo did his one-year year bid. But he's also a linguistics connoiseur, a veteran of the Iraq war; got mad knowledge on Hispanic politics, and is now a college student studying international relations and public affairs. The following is a transcript from a conversation we had about the then, now, and the bling generation--

How was your transition from prison back to the general population?
Nervous, glad. Thankful. I was 17, and I wanted to be better. That night when I got caught with them drugs on me, my cousin had told she had a bad feeling and asked me to stay home. But I didn't listen. I was ready to listen, now.

I think I was so busy asking why you were on the Island that I forgot to ask how you were doing? What was it like for you at Rikers?
All kinds of people telling you to join their crew. Cos you don't wanna be isolated. So I chose the Nietas. You could leave if you wanted to. Plus, they were more organized. I was on their six-month probation.

Did you get to wear the beads?
Nah, by the time my probation was up I had entered a youth program. It was either that or more jail time. I could've easily joined the Blacks but my complexion was too much of an issue. Not that they treated me unfairly, but because the Browns resented me vibing with them. I never understood why we were always fighting each other. Dominicans, especially, hated the Blacks and yet they practically looked like them. One D.R. used to tell me to stop talking to them. I had more beef with Hispanics than anyone else. Whenever they'd bring up Latino pride I'd remind them of where they got their congas from and how the word 'Latino' meant european. They didn't wanna hear that mess, though.

Most White Hispanics* take advantage of their skin color, mainly out of social status and economic competition. Why didn't you?
I got people in my own family who get mad at me for that. My father's French. My grandmother's from Spain. I got an Irish Great-grandfather. My mother's P.R. I even got Lakota running through me. But my spirit has always been African, even if I look gringo!

I remember now. You were into your culture and history. You even read on your own. Where did you get that value from?
I don't know. As a kid, I'd get bored and use history books as my escape. I wasn't always a good student, but I was a good scholar.

Is that why you didn't need much convincing when it came to doing your classwork? To escape?
You had the usual prison bs; having to watch your back. I only had one fight. That's why I chose to take classes. It was like academic cardio, for me. I needed to stay out of trouble and learn to control my temper. And yea, to escape.

Are there any advantages to looking one way but feeling another?
That's a great question cos I always focused on the negatives. I guess being able to relate to different cultures and having serious debates. I guess that's why I was so respected at the youth program 'cause I was very good at political debates. I had joined the FIve Percenters by that time and was dropping wisdom on the younger ones.

So you were a Godbody, huh?
For a min. My complexion again became an issue. But I think it was more about me intimidating the older Gods 'cause I wasn't talking White man this and white devil that. I was calling them out on their contradictions, like sexing underage girls.

What made you join them, anyway?
I was hungry for more knowledge. Plus, I was learning about Afican science and philosophy. It helped me stay disciplined. But by the time I turned 21 I got tired of the double talking and left it altogether. Now it's all about spirit, even though I still put up with Hispanics who dis me for feeling more brotherhood with Blacks than with them.

Black and Brown tensions came up during the Presidential elections. Do you think our unity is just a myth?
D.R.'s and Blacks are mixing more, thanks to teenagers. But the old mindset is still there. You see it when they don't even want to be informed. Hispanic girls be trying to talk to me cos of my white skin; saying things like 'Our babies will have good hair and light eyes.' Dumb stuff like that. And then getting mad at me for rejecting them and their racism.

I can think of a few Black sistas who have that same mindset.
True that. But I still think it's more prevalent in my culture. So to me, this whole notion of Black and Hispanic unity is bogus. Not when you hear the kind of language Hispanics use about Black people when y'all ain't around.

I know what you mean. When I was in high school I was friends with my Equadorian neighbors. I wasn't a nigger 'til their daughter liked me!...What's your take on Obama, especially since he's bi-racial?"
I'm conflicted. One the one hand, I'm proud like everyone else. But he's still a politician, so I know he's got to play the game to not upset too many people.

Are there any decisions he's made so far that you don't agree with?
I'm not sure about the stem cell research thing. I'm always leary when we try to play God. Some might call it science, but what if down the line we realize we made a mistake? Like the AIDS cells. No mater what progress we make, they keep replicating themselves. We might think we're making progress by using science, but what if we end up abusing it then causing even more damage? And legalizing abortion might make sense in rape and sickness cases, but there're young females who might use it as contraception.

How did Iraq come in?
I believe everyone should serve. Part-time, if you can.

You voluneered?
Initially I wanted to join the Coast Guard but I only had a GED, so the National Guard recruited me. Then I got shipped to Iraq right after the invasion. First to Kuwait, then we drove 500 miles to Baghdad. I was already diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel. It affects hand and wrist movement, so I had to learn how to fire a gun with my left hand. There's a whole other way of relating, in the military. Like what you and I would would call racist language, they call it normal soldier lingo. There was also this po-po mentality that the ones in charge had. They were retired White cops who were used to racial profiling, so they looked out for their own. But my three buddies made up for it. DJ, Yanko and Akintade. A Nigerian. He was mad diesel, but always depressed. We were closest, out of the four of us.

He didn't make it back.
Nah. I wear his bracelet to honor him. See? Specialist Segun Frederick Akintade, October 28, 2004.


Tell me about the other two.
DJ and I still stay in contact. One of the smartest kats I know; graduated from Berkeley. And Yanko's Dominican but into Metal and tatoos. He'd be running his mouth in the middle of shots being fired at us and we'd have to remind him it was the real thing! He got his own band now...I really believe I should've died on September 10, 2004 cos a missle had dropped right by me but didn't explode. The bones in my back would've been shattered. That's for sure.

The day before 9/11.
Exactly! It stuck out from the ground. And I just prayed.

How long were you in Iraq?
I completed my six-year contract. They tried to reactivate my duties but I wasn't having it! I mean, I support the military but not the war.

You know what I'm getting ready to ask, right?
PTSD, I know.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. Is it safe to say it's practically expected after so much time?
When you serve together and come out of it alive it's better to talk to each other than to counselors, because we understand each other's emotional struggles better. Sometimes I'll jump when I hear a big truck roll by cos it reminds me of a bomb. But I shrug it off as normal. Attending school helps.

What are you studying?
International relations and public affairs. It's got all the fields of study I enjoy-- languages, policy making, diplomacy, trade. I started off with Mandarin Chinese and after Iraq I got interested in Arabic which I think is an important language to learn right now, besides Chinese.

Because of how the global market is looking?
And where it's heading. Blacks and Browns are sleeping on this, but studying languages and having a more international mindset is the way to go.

So how do you see the generation coming up right behind you?
The bling generation? Cos that's what they are. They're also children of children, so no one's taught them how to be considerate of others, what social skills look like, and having pride for your culture and history. They don't wanna hear that. And you see it in the way they act in public.

I just don't get wearing your pants low enough so your draws can show. We went from jheri curls to dumber!
I did that when I was a teen, but my reason was cos I had hand-me-downs so my jeans were always baggy on me. And then at Rikers it was cos we weren't allowed to use belts. But young bloods these days are taking it to a whole other place. A more sexual level where they actually enjoy the attention. I don't mean to come off disrespectful, but you see a lot of homothugs now. I don't think people realize just how sexual things have gotten. It's in your face wherever you go.

You think maybe we're just witnessing a new sexual revolution?
I guess. But it's a little out of control, if that's the case.

What's your take on the whole Rihanna/Chris Brown thing?
First, there's the possibility that he could've been provoked which is why she felt she had to go back, out of her own guilt maybe. Then there's that machismo nonsense that allows males to get away with abusing females. And then you got the fans who care more about the music and flash than having an actual dialogue about domestic violence. It's like I was saying about this generation. The focus is on material things, so there's no serious reflecting. Hip Hop music is no longer about art but about pimps and ho's. There's no self-identity anymore. Everybody's a follower. Both africentricity and the Younglords had a purpose. They were movements. Icons stood for something. Now it seems like the dumber you are, the cooler you are! Remember how you had to convince the c.o's to let us learn about ourselves? Well now that same informaion is right at our fingertips yet we don't want it. Talkin' about, 'Niggaz use text messaging.' But niggaz ain't got sht to say!

You think my generation messed up?
Maybe. I mean, c'mon. You're 40yrsld and you wanna look and act 20. It's over. Grow da fuk up and raise your kid!

And the N word?
I don't use it. No matter how they try to justify it, nigga is still nigger!

I think it's harder to say brotha, because maybe we just don't see one another as brothas.
Word! But lemme ask you. What thought came to your mind when you realized it was me?

Your hanging around as if you wanted the lesson to go on. I wasn't used to that. In a place like prison where depression and ignorance often rule, a kid who's hungry to change his life around is a refreshing sign. So I remembered that. I knew you weren't White, since they usually got bailed out or were moved to other detention centers where White inmates were placed. And Arabic kats hadn't yet become part of the stats. And anyway, you looked like Tony Matola but when you opened your mouth Al Green came out. How can you forget that?!!

How's educating for you today?
I definitely agree with you on young people not doing any serious reflecting. I also see a lot of laziness and procrastinating, while the accessories are bight and shiny. As you can see from my walls, I'm still dropping knowledge whether they appreciate it or not. You just never know when one will look up and at least ask a question; show some interest as a way of enlightening their minds instead of simply looking good. If trendy is good. When we met, gangsta mentality was just starting to take over. Now it's in full swing, replacing Shango and Boriqua with rims and tims. So that's the challenging part. Trying to convince them to go within when everything else is telling them otherwise. Even our educational system focuses on appearance and not reality, so I can't put all the blame on them or Hip Hop and Rap, even. I just do my part in supplying them with the kind of life skills they're not getting elsewhere and hope they become productive, socially conscious and centered human beings.

And what's your overall impression of me now?
Well, you still sound like Al Green! But it's nice to see that you've used a bad situation to restart your life; that you're still into your Pan African studies, besides your major. You even seem to have gotten better in your delivery.

It's this philosophy class I'm taking. The professor is constantly on me about staying focused and being specific.
Sounds like good advice.

I still can't get over how I ended up picking the same college you advise at. That's just crazy!
There are no accidents!!!

*Hispanic vs Latino is still debatable among the experts and plain folk. But the term 'Hispanic', as in the island of Hispaniola that both Ayiti (Haiti) and the Dominican Republic share, is generally used to descibe those of Afri-Spaniard heritage while 'Latino' represents Euro American-Spaniard heritage. And to make things more complicated, Mulatto is the combination of Euro-African union; Mestizo, Spaniard-Western Native American; Genesaro, Spaniard-West Native American and Mexican; and Maroon, African and Carib Native American mix of which my spirit answers to the most. Back in colonial times, the lighter the person's skin complexion the higher their social standing was. This explains why 'til this day some Spanish-speaking people prefer to call themselves Latino versus Hispanic. Latino being more closely related to the Latins and Romans, a/k/a Anglo.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Images III - Spring and Rebirth

It's not the cam but the eye; noticing what others miss. Like Alice Walker wrote, "I think God gets pissed off when we walk by a field of purple flowers and don't even notice..." Pretty much like life, in general. Seeing something (or someone) in the process of rebirth...

but not noticing their brilliance until it reaches full bloom...


Old and new leaves

New grass


Tree buds

Tree buds too

Tree buds by lightpole

White green


Yellow 2

Yellow 3


Blue too

Blue 3



Almost there


Ducks by willow


New ivy

Entangled tree branches

Entangled tree branches by window

Water falls