Woke up this morning quite early, in a quiet mood as I prepared for my day as best I could. Shared a smoothie with the awesome high school student my apartment has adopted and talked about sexism. I explained to him the meaning of masculine and feminine energies and smiled as I watched his wheels turn with what I said. He has an Afro; I asked him if he put oil in it. Told me he doesn’t, so I got some of my oil and massaged it into his scalp and beautiful curls as I told him the importance of moisturizing. If nothing else happened today, this could have been the realest moment that would make me feel like I connected to another human being in a meaningful way.
He left to school and I was excited that I was going to be able to attend the entire conference and not get there late as I thought I would. There was an Afro-descendant elderly couple on the train sitting beneath the pole I hung onto. The iya (word for matriarch or a variation of that in Yoruba) was a bit delicate, and her partner so gently took her arm and got her off the train. I moved myself enough out of the way that I stepped on the womyn of color behind me. I apologized profusely but she waved it away because she saw why I stepped on her foot.
She sat down and somehow we engaged into conversation. She told me about her 4 children and grandchildren, and how her body was starting to hurt with age. I asked her questions, she told me she had her first child at 18 and got married because it was “the right thing to do”. She spoke, I listened. Then she told me about getting laid off and about her work with children who had varying levels of autism. I was curious about this, since I was recently made very aware of this dimension of human experience. She told me about how she did not have a college degree but was the head facilitator of a class. She explained how she would meet the children where they were, and how she was present enough to follow their patterns and notice ways to reach them in non-clinical ways. She told me about her favorite student and how she figured out how to achieve safe touch with him. He didn’t like to be touched nor liked touching anyone and would scream when it would happen against his wishes. She told me how she noticed that there were certain things he did like to touch and so, ingeniously, cut out or placed patches of the things he liked to touch on her and was able to interact this way with him.
She explained how her supervisors disliked her methods because she didn’t care much for medication and instead tried harder to meet the children where they were at, and believes she got fired for being so original and not clinical. I gave her my card, told her what I do and to please stay in touch so I could refer families to her instead of a social worker. This conversation was only possible because the train got stuck for 20 minutes before the stop I had to switch to the local train. Had I not made it to the conference and this was the end of my day, I’d say this too was the realest moment in which I made a meaningful connection to another human being.
Why did I take you through this? Because I didn’t feel this level of realness or connection to human beings at the panels today. A couple of points:
- I felt that the majority of the panels were composed of talented individuals who promoted themselves more than actually talking about the subject at hand. I remember walking out of the discussions unresolved, with more questions than answers. I was also annoyed because their entire bio was in the program pamphlet and it was repeated verbatim in various forms.
- I have always been an intellectual. I once had an intimate affair with academia. Then I realized that academia is a public ejaculation session in which academic people talk about their work and themselves until they get off and strive to walk out feeling like their research is comparable to none. That being said, academia is patriarchal in nature. It is a dry documentation of real life and quite individualistic in the pursuit to achieve this illusion of being well-educated. I appreciate my education but also believe the real teacher in this life is experience and the relationships you have with others.
- This need to “professionalize” the AfroLatin@ experience or any experience for that matter walks the thin line between absolutely necessary and appeasing the system. On one hand, it is important for our history to be documented in the canons of this world. On the other hand, who really benefits from the information we painstakingly research? Academics with PhDs? How does that information get to our neighborhoods effectively?
- Before we began talking about abstract things such as trans-nationalism, appropriation, assimilation and the like, we grew up in [insert urban community i.e The Bronx, Brooklyn, Chicago, etc]. Where is that story? Where is the very human experience of what that was like? And where is the non-academized version of that human story that will connect us on a basic level of interaction? It is my experience that the personal narrative is much more valuable when being in the real world (the one in which people are unemployed, on public assistance and hope not to be evicted tomorrow). How is our research translated to something digestible that does not alienate our real constituents? The conversation that is for the proletariat and not just the privileged individuals that were able to take the day off and discuss social constructs?
- Internalized oppression. I cannot say this enough. But this time in the context of, “master’s tools will never dismantle master’s house.” Meaning that we have a long way to go if we think that being academic and “professional” will somehow dismantle the racist system that has affected our communities and their self-esteem, mental, spiritual and emotional health, economic status and overall quality of life. Granted, we need the research but it is not the end all be all. We need real life solutions. We’ve done the research and have tried to apply it and the hood is still struggling. Clearly we need not sit in conferences all day and take action directly.
- I do however feel that we are in process. That this conference is important. But we must move out of individualism, self-promotion and strictly research and get to policy and action. Direct action. Action that reaches our families and communities in a very human way. The only panel I genuinely felt like I got something from was the one on youth and education. The panelists came with their experiences as educators and very practical ways of addressing teaching culture to our youth. They also had solutions and resources that could help anyone sitting in that room make their work effective and relevant. And real.