In small talk or first conversations, the question of “where are you from” is an easy one. Getting to know a person’s geographic point helps to give them a sense of place. My home is Corralitos, California, yet I respond with “Virginia.” Often follows is a bemused “well, what brought you all the way out here?” The seven of you reading know that story, no need to tell it, but otherwise I'm glad to speak about the beautiful Commonwealth. Her soft blue Appalachian mountains, rivers named for tribes of First Peoples, evening blooming gardenias, warm nights lit by fireflies and thick with history.
Deep, layered, complicated, painful history.
My parent’s home is on Taylor’s Pond, a small freshwater body created by a damn built before the Civil War, presumably by slaves of a nearby plantation. A short canoe float from the backyard takes you to the spillway, feeding a stream that leads to marsh that leads to the Pamunkey river that leads to the York that leads to the Chesapeake Bay. Surrounding the spillway are gentle hillocks and shallow depressions in the forest floor. Trenches, dug by the Confederate army as they were driven from Williamsburg. The country slashing and bleeding its way towards progress and Virginia, like many states south of the Mason Dixon, pushed into decades of destitution as the economy of the South was forever changed.
The town I grew up in has two stoplights and nothing to do if you’re between the ages of 12 and 20. My class of 71 people was a lower-to-middle class mix of white and black kids; some whose parents paid tuition to this accredited public school hoping to better route their child’s path to higher learning. In the surrounding districts, buses couldn’t pick kids up if it rained hard enough to turn the dirt roads cutting through fields of tobacco into mud. I can still remember Mr. *McClellan, gym teacher/driver’s ed instructor/weight-lifting coach/Sex-Ed (what a joke) proctor, giving a lecture on the hierarchical social structure of black teens at nearby King & Queen County High School. He used the term “Redbone” to denote those with lighter skin who had the most of amount of social clout, making those with the darkest of skin a pariah. The year was 2000.
When I left for university I met *Marc, possibly the most beautiful boy I had ever seen; incredibly intelligent, kind and saw me as my Own Person - rather than the fresh meat I was regulated to at frat parties. We would have lunch, go to the gym, spend time at my dorm, talking and laughing. Slowly I let the relationship cool when I realized I was afraid what friends from back home would think when I brought this graceful black man back with me.
I spent my early 20’s living in Richmond, which served as the capital of the Confederacy for nearly the whole of the Civil War until it’s fall into flames in 1865. My morning runs went down the wide, cobblestoned streets of Monument Avenue; so named for the intimidating bronze statutes of, primarily, Confederate war legends. The first erected was Robert E. Lee in 1890 to much fanfare, records showing nearly 100,000 of the genteel present at its unveiling. The most recent statue was Arthur Ashe in 1996 – smaller in size and far down the road from the slashing hooves and raised sabers rising from a street lined with gilded mansions from an era gone by, put into place despite angered, racially-charged outcry.
Last week, lying in a hard hotel bed, A/C whirring against the still night heat of Belize, I watched the Vice news coverage of the neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville (if you haven't watched yet, DO IT). Remembering my own former steps on the streets marched on. Hearing the southern cadence in the distressed, ragged voices of anti-protestors, their panicked faces floating in the camera after a Camaro plowed through the crowd. Recognizing the fervor in the neo-Nazi’s actions and words. Feeling my gut clench as they spoke – clearly, fully, expressively. Armed and defiantly informed in their doctrine, their eyes a sheen of excitement and a feeling of belonging. And their unknown faces that somehow seemed familiar - I knew those men. And so have you.
I am writing all of this so I can drag into the light that I've fucked up. I've averted my gaze, stayed quiet, gone the other way rather than stand fully in my power for others. I've chosen security and skirted conflict. I went along with what was already in place, because to sort through the mess or say otherwise seemed to difficult to bear.
There are many times in my life when I wish I could have been braver. Walked out of the room during McClellan's lecture. Fallen fully in love with Greg. Written letters of dissent and protest to Richmond city hall. Jumped on the next plane to Charlottesville to join the sun warriors of defiance. And in this moment of grave importance it would be a lie not to admit, like so often in the timidity of my life, I am frightened to say the wrong thing. To misstep in the deep expressions of my heart and come across as ignorant or worse - blind.
I’ve missed chances, ones I’ll always regret. But this moment – this is my moment. And I’d rather fumble my words or trip on the path than sit quietly on the wrong side of history.
I am in full alliance - body, heart, spirit and mind - with a new future. With my brothers and sisters of all color, creed and identity. I will fight for you. I stretch my arms out to you. With deep strength, I commit to your God Given Goddamn Right to a free and happy life.
Soon now, the new moon will move in front of the sun and bathe our planet in darkness during the bright of day. Our tattered country, ribs cracked wide and rattling with the death of old patterns, will raise its face to shadow, and for a brief, hallowed flash – be able to see deep into the cosmos. Deep into the past of oppression, segregation, displacement and indoctrinated thought. Please join me in holding space. Join me in releasing old ways, in generating from the deepest part of yourself a hope for a new world. Conjure compassion, for all that share in this wide experience, especially for those you cannot understand. Alchemize forgiveness, for yourself and your failings, and those that have failed you. Evoke commitment to being Present, fully seeing things for what they are, and not closing your eyes when it's something difficult to bear witness to. Weave the threads of healing into the threadbare cloth draped across all our shoulders. Brothers and sisters, together for a blink as we hurtle through space.
I am sending you love. I am sending you hope. I am sending you Grace. I am afraid, too, but I know that I am with you – and together we will light up the dark.